Interview: American Wrestler’s William Fichtner and Ali Afshar

Posted on May 3, 2017 at 8:00 am

Tonight only! A special event from Fathom: “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” a stirring sports story based on real events. William Fichtner, who plays the coach, and Ali Afshar, who produced the film and plays a character in the film, spoke to me about why these stories are so important and meaningful.

What makes somebody a good wrestler?

AA: Fight, fight, fight and more fight. If you have that burning desire in you, if you’re just one of those guys that does not like losing and you fight and you fight and you fight, that’s what makes you a good wrestler.

I’ve always wondered about wrestling — you are so intensely involved with your opponent more really than any other sport. Are you able to really kind of feel what the opponent’s strategy is while you’re in the middle of it?

AA: Yes. When he is kicking you in the butt, has you in a headlock, his elbow in your face? Yes, you definitely feel it but yes, you are right, it’s very intense. Any sport that lasts six minutes, that’s it, you can just imagine how intense it is, only six minutes long. So, it’s a full on, we used to call it legal fighting, this is before MMA and all the stuff you see now. So for us it was literally like — you are young, you’ve got all this energy, you’re male, you just want to fight. So it was the way to get out all our aggression but learn lessons, learn strategies, kind of like in life. If you try something, if you try a move, if you take a single leg takedown and it doesn’t work, you don’t give up. You go for a double leg. You don’t give up, you go for a switch. You don’t give up, you do a fireman’s carry. I think that’s the story for life where life will knock you down, life will not accept your first try, you’re going to have to try and fight and try and fight again and again and again. You don’t give up; you will succeed. I think it’s very parallel with the stuff that you have to do in the real world.

What makes somebody a good coach?

WF: I think great teachers, which coaches are, are the ones that you hear. You know the best teacher that I ever had, the best acting coach that I ever had wasn’t the person I was trying to see in the studio, he had too long of a waiting list so I went to the fallback guy. But the best was the one that I heard when I was a kid, the one whose voice speaks to you, that you understand. It’s communication. If you have that, than anything is possible. And I think that’s true in just about every facet of life. So to me those are the ones that made the difference, those are the ones you never forgot. I wasn’t a math wiz when I was a kid but one of my security questions that we all have to do these days is, “Who’s your favorite teacher?” And I still remember my seventh grade math teacher, that is my security question and he was the one, he was the one that I heard his voice, I heard what he was telling me and he was a great guy so I think that makes a great coach.

I just talked to for the first time in 20 years, I spoke to him a few months ago because word got to me that he wasn’t feeling well and I reconnected and had a whole hour on the phone with him, it was great.

This movie is set in the past and yet with its focus on suspicion of immigrants it seems to be very relevant to what’s going on today.

I experienced it and even though it’s 30-40 years ago it’s still a lot of the same stuff today especially with all this immigration stuff and the ban and the wall and all this tough stuff that’s going on right now. It’s really like not much has changed in certain ways and people need to realize people are people regardless of where you’re from. Yes, there’s going to be government and politics that aren’t representative of everyone. So, we have to really take it by a person by person basis, we can’t just say, “hey, this guy looks like this,” or “he’s that religion” or “he wears this kind of clothes,” “your skin tone is this way.”

Clearly I still think that’s an issue. I don’t think; I know it’s an issue. They might not come out and say it much but it is still there, it’s still underlying, it’s still boils up there. Being from a country like Iran which unfortunately right now is like the worst country to be from in America, you still want to be an American. When you actually sit down and talk to people, you just realize people are people, you just make friendships. So, I think that acceptance and anti-prejudice is really what I’d love to have people feel when they watch this movie.

What advice did Mr. Fichtner give you about acting?

AA: He used this word “rhythm.” Do you still use it?

WF: Every day of my life, brother.

AA: He has a certain rhythm and he elevates the game just by who he is in his craft and his talent to what he brings to it. George Kosturos, our lead in this movie did a fantastic job. This is pretty much his first real big acting job and being under the wing of Bill, being under the wing of Jon Voight in certain scenes, working with myself — you’re present and you’re connected.

Mr. Fichtner, what was it that brought to that role?

WF: I was living in Prague at the time, two years ago and my wife was over there with my younger son, I came back like a week before spring break because I had a meeting and I came back here. I got a call from my manager. I read the script on this Tuesday had a conversation with Ali on a Wednesday traveled on a Thursday and started shooting on a Friday. It was not a story that I needed to read over and over to be talked into, that’s for sure. It only took one read. I knew Jon Voight was involved with it and I read it and I just absolutely loved it on a first read. I just trusted everything about it, just one of those, you go with your gut feeling. Two days later we were shooting in Petaluma,in his hometown on a very limited budget, on a 18 days schedule and it definitely was 5 pounds of bologna in a 2 pound bag but three weeks later the film was wrapped and here we are two years later.

And I’m so proud because a lot of times little films like this, they may not see the light of day. The folks at Warner Brothers really got the film, we do have a limited release and so on May 3rd we get a single day release in scattered theater throughout US. So, I can tell you one thing, I know I always said from the beginning please have it playing in a theater in Buffalo, New York, my hometown because I’m going to pack that theater and I’m hoping that some people see it because it could make a difference on the future like being in theaters after that depending on how we do on that day. But no matter what happens with the film, I love this movie as much as any film I could have ever worked on and I don’t say that lightly, I think it’s a very special story, I think it’s an incredible period piece.

I’ve seen a half of dozen screenings of it over the last year. I’ve taken friends and representatives to this film and I’ve yet to have anybody have a reaction that is different from anybody else. People walk out of this movie and go, “What an amazing story, what a timeless thing, what an important film for people to see right now.” It’s truly inspiring. I just love sitting back — I don’t say anything, I just let them all say it and I just say “Yes.” It’s kind of a great feeling. I think that was the intention and it does not fail to deliver.

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