Three of the best performances in American film this year – by Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum – are all in the same movie. That movie is Foxcatcher (which opened Friday), the latest from Bennett Miller, director of Capote (2005), about writer Truman Capote, and Moneyball (2011), about baseball manager Billy Beane.
Foxcatcher is another movie biography about a different kind of American outsider, John Eleuthère du Pont (played by Carell), a multimillionaire heir to the du Pont chemical fortune who set up a wrestling camp at his family farm and sponsored the sibling Olympic gold-medalists Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his older brother, Dave (Ruffalo). That relationship ended in the tragic death of Dave Schultz, an event Bennett Miller describes as "horrible and absurd," but symptomatic of a deep social malaise.
In unusually detailed preparation for the roles, actors Tatum and Ruffalo trained with wrestlers for seven months and spent time with the Schultz family and friends. As Ruffalo told reporters at Cannes, where Foxcatcher premiered in May: "Our lives were wrestling, eating and sleeping and finding out who these people are."
The Globe sat down with the three actors at this year's Toronto International Film Festival to talk about Foxcatcher and the roles that represent some of the best work of their careers.
The first thing that strikes me is that this is a story that relates to being an actor. Like these wrestlers, you have talent and years of training, and then these people, who have deep pockets, tell you they know what's best. Did it strike a chord?
Carell: Hmm. Well, I think that's true of almost any business you can think of. There's always power and influence and different levels of stature, which pertains to acting or almost anywhere we turn.
Ruffalo: Also, with John du Pont's money and power and stature – he's an heir. It wasn't something he earned. In our business, when you walk in and meet a producer or director, they're also people with talent. Once we go off and do our thing, we're working with a director, we're one step removed from all that.
Tatum: I always feel these guys are way more experienced than I am and I want to trade for some of their experience. It wasn't like Bennett Miller bought his ability to make a movie.
Ruffalo: Or Megan Ellison even. [Ellison, the 28-year-old daughter of billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison, is the producer behind Zero Dark Thirty, Her and American Hustle]. Who else could make this movie except a Megan Ellison? Also, it's hard to talk about these characters because we have to live with these people. And as actors, you have to love and honour them. It's hard for me to talk about John du Pont in an abstract way with Steve sitting right here. …
[To Carell]: John du Pont is a singular character but he's typical in the sense that, when people have great privilege, they tend to believe they deserve it on some level, don't you think?
Carell: What's typical about him was a need to be loved. And respected and honoured. Those things are pervasive with everyone, I think, which was what he had in common with the human condition.
[To Ruffalo and Tatum]: You play siblings with a lifelong intimate relationship, and you spent about seven months working on this film. How much of that time were you actually together?
Ruffalo: We started working together at the beginning, then we had to go work on other movies. It was so intense at the start, meeting with Mark [Schultz] and practising wrestling and working out. And then we went our separate ways, but the relationship was growing even when we were apart.
Tatum: I don't know that I've ever had an experience like it. We would spend some very intense time and let that germinate and then come back, and even just study together who these people are, and then go away again to let it grow. I remember after one of those breaks I saw Mark [Ruffalo] at the gym and I didn't know I was going to see him. He was there with his son. I was just so excited. I felt like Mark [Schultz] for a second – because you were doing something with your family and I was on my own and it was weirdly close to the story. It was just a really fortuitous moment.
[To Tatum]: When you first go to the du Pont mansion, your character provides the audience's eyes in the story, entering into this almost fairy-tale strange world. Did you and Steve find it better to interact as strangers, or as collaborative actors on what you were going to do together?
Carell: We kind of worked it out as strangers. These press junkets are actually the first social interaction I think we've had. They both seem like quite nice people.
Ruffalo: And you're not frightening at all.
Tatum:You're still frightening because I know it's in there. It's inside but you're so good at hiding it.
Carell: That's who I really am. … But it wasn't premeditated in any way. We just naturally drifted apart and it stayed that way during the shoot. Except for one commiserating evening, when we commiserated until we passed out. …
Ruffalo: After a long day soaked in blood and salty tears. …
Carell: We had to reach out to each other as human beings. …
Tatum: Just to survive.
The Schultz brothers were celebrities. You can see them in YouTube videos and you can see how well you have captured them, both physically and in their different spirits. But I could find no publicly available video of John du Pont, apart from a news clip of when he was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, when he looks like a latter-day Howard Hughes. Did you have much access to his personal materials?
Carell: Bennett and the producers supplied me with quite a bit. Du Pont commissioned a documentary on himself. The most valuable aspect of that was the raw footage. There were long takes of him talking to his crew, and instructing the documentarian as to what kind of questions he wanted to be asked and when he wanted to change his answer. That gave me a glimpse behind what he wanted to represent as a public persona. And there's lots that he had recorded and I listened to audio tapes of him.
I guess you know that everyone's talking about the nose. How extensive was the prosthetic preparation?
Carell: For about six months before shooting, [makeup artist] Bill Corso and I worked on that together and did many, many versions of it. It wasn't just makeup. He's such an artist, a partner and a sculptor who aided in creating the character. It had to strike just the right balance and not go too far. He probably went as deep into examining the character as anyone else involved in the film.
In an early scene, Mark and Dave are wrestling in an empty gym and you instantly understand that it's a sport that's quick, powerful and violent, and you see how easily these two people can hurt each other badly.
Tatum: We did, accidentally.
You look so physically familiar with each other. Was it shot near the end of the film?
Ruffalo: You should know that, basically, Bennett cut the first 30 pages of the movie out and started with page 30. That's what you saw. …
Tatum: There were four or five long scenes of me and Mark talking, setting up our relationship. When I saw this cut, I started panicking, completely freaking out. How does anyone know who we are? There was some great stuff that got thrown out. And then you see the scene and you realize it's all you need to see.
Ruffalo: It's cinema at its most exquisite: You know who they are, what the relationship is, where they've probably been, where they're probably headed, the whole quality of their existence, with almost no dialogue. It's all there. Bennett talked about those Zen meditation gardens, where there's a rock sticking out, with the sand around it like water. The stone is just a representation of the hidden mass beneath the surface. What we did in that scene, by cutting the first 30 pages of dialogue, is just a representation of everything that's beneath the surface.
Tatum: Yes – we shot that right near the end.
This interview has been condensed and edited.