Interview: Actor Alex Shaffer ('Win Win')

New Jersey resident Alex Shaffer shines in his first big screen role Photo: Fox Searchlight

DENVER, April 1, 2011 — This time last year, high school wrestler Alex Shaffer was probably wondering what college he might attend after his senior year.

Today, the 17-year-old has another option on the table. Ditch college and become a full-time actor.

Alex Shaffer stars in the film Win Win

Alex Shaffer stars in the film Win Win

Shaffer’s screen debut as a conflicted wrestling star in “Win Win” is earning raves. Shaffer, whose hair is shorter and far less blonde in person, “plays the reserved and withdrawn Kyle to perfection,” says film critic Brandon Fibbs.

“Win Win” follows a down-on-his-luck attorney and part-time wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) who becomes the guardian for one of his elderly clients. The move introduces Giamatti’s character to Kyle (Shaffer), the old man’s grandson, who happens to be a wrestling prodigy.

Shaffer, whose off-screen wrestling career may have ended when he broke the L-5 in his back, endured a grueling audition process to land the role.

“Win Win” writer/director Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) saw Shaffer more than six times to make sure he was the right person to play Kyle. Once on set, the neophyte actor got to watch some of the best in the business ply their trade.

“You’re working with ridiculously talented people,” Shaffer tells Movies in Toto. But his co-stars let Shaffer find his own way.

“The only person I ever got advice from was the acting coach Tom,” he says. “The relationship I formed with the other actors … I’d almost feel uncomfortable if Paul sat me down and said, ‘now, here kid …’ They always made me feel really comfortable. And they could have done the whole, ‘this kid’s never been in a movie before, we’re gonna treat him like [expletive].’”

“Just watching Paul act made it a lot easier,” he explains about the process.

Shaffer visited Denver earlier this month along with McCarthy to promote the film. McCarthy exhibited an avuncular feel for his young star, gently correcting his English at one point and directing him through a recreation of what he sounded like after hearing he won the role of Kyle.

“You’re only as obnoxious as any 16 or 17 year old,” McCarthy teased at one point.

Shaffer never considered the underpinnings of an actor’s performance before joining the cast of “Win Win.” He wasn’t even sure he wanted to audition for the role initially. It simply didn’t occur to him. But once he landed the part,he watched Timothy Hutton’s work in the 1980 film “Ordinary People,” at McCarthy’s suggestion, to help shape his character.

“Any time his [dead] brother was brought up, or anything about the accident was brought up, he’d freak out and get so upset,“ he says. “That’s what I tried to do with Kyle. Any time his mother was brought up or his past, his demeanor changed.”

Shaffer may have been reticent about that first audition, but the acting bug quickly took over.

Alex Shaffer

Alex Shaffer

“I’m gonna treat acting just like I treat wrestling, that I want to be the best. I’m gonna have to work at it, gonna have to take acting classes and have an acting coach. I may even go to an acting college,” he says.

It turns out acting isn’t so different than his wrestling days.

“I like to show off,“ he says. “I love people watching my matches and saying, how did that kid do that? I want people to look at me on screen and say, wow that kid’s a good actor, I can’t believe he got into character like that. I wanna be enjoyed.”

He still had the same sense of self criticism most actors, even veterans, bring to the set.

“I remember still thinking after the movie, ‘Oh God, I hope I wasn’t awful. I hope they like me,” he says.

Christian Toto is a veteran journalist and film critic whose work appears in The Denver Post, The Washington Times and His movie reviews are heard on WTOP radio and “The Dennis Miller Show,” and he blogs on film at What Would Toto Watch? Read more of Christian’s work at Movies in Toto in the Communities at the Washington Times.
-cl- 4/1/11

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Christian Toto

Christian Toto is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic with more than a decade of experience in daily newspapers, magazines and the Web. He currently reports for The Washington Times,, The Denver Post, Denver Magazine, MovieMaker Magazine,, and Big Hollywood. His radio commentaries can be heard on WTOP in Washington, D.C. and 94.5 Country in Topeka, Kansas. He is the official film critic for “The Dennis Miller Show" heard nationwide on Westwood One stations. He regularly blogs about film at What Would Toto Watch? and the Denver Film Community Examiner site. He is a member of both the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association and the Denver Film Critics Society. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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