Last year Alex Shaffer was a high school wrestler living in New Jersey. In January, his first feature film, “Win Win,” in which he stars alongside Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, made its world premiere at Sundance. And this Friday, it opens nationally.
It also marks the first time Shaffer has acted since a 6th grade production of "Pirates of Penzance."
“Win Win,” written and directed by Sundance veteran Tom McCarthy, stars Shaffer as a runaway ex-wrestler who ends up staying with Giamatti and Ryan after he discovers that his grandfather, with whom he was hoping to stay, is now in an old folks’ home. Shaffer gives an outstanding turn as a mopey, monosyllabic, headphone-wearing teen.
“I tried to act in 8th grade, but I didn’t get any roles in the play,” Shaffer tells PopcornBiz. “I don’t know what happened—I never really got along with that teacher so well anyway. I don’t know, I really like acting, now at least.”
Watching the film, it was tempting to think that maybe Shaffer was just being his grunting, mopey self. But after just five minutes of talking to the kid, it's clear he's upbeat and ready to go. If his career continues apace, the story of how he was discovered could become the stuff of legend.
“There was an ad in the paper for a casting for wrestling, and I went for an audition. (McCarthy was) casting… specific wrestlers. I went to the audition, came in seven or eight more times and then I finally got the role. He came and watched one of my matches, actually, too.”
Shaffer’s wrestling career was officially ended when he broke the L-5 in his back, so at 17 he’s got a manager and an agent and is taking high school classes online so he can move out to LA and focus on acting. Though he’s definitely got the acting bug, it wasn’t until he was headed for Park City that things really begin to sink in for Shaffer.
“I’ve seen (Giamatti, Ryan and McCarthy) in movies, of course, I’ve known about them. I was very, very star struck at first. But I never realized how big of a deal it was to act with them, to be in a movie with them. Now, I’m at Sundance, and I’m thinking, “Holy S***!” You know? Like, I’m in a movie with Amy Ryan, Paul Giamatti, the whole cast is just fantastic. Burt Young? That’s such a great thing to be in a movie with Burt Young—I love Burt.”
In addition to Giamatti, Ryan and Young, the cast included Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor-- Shaffer essentially got paid to attend a master's class in film acting.
“What I did a lot was watch Paul. Paul was such a fantastic actor, and tom even told me a couple times, ‘Watch Paul.’ And so I did. I learned a lot from them. And Tom especially—he gave me two movies to watch, don’t remember the names…I’m bad, I know,” he say with a shrug.
“One was about this kid who was sailing with his brother and his brother died”—(“Ordinary People”?)--“Ahhh, thank you. And the other one I forget most of it… But they kind of got me into the mode of acting. And also, I listened to a lot of Eminem, a lot of screamo music, and Tom set me up with one of his friends, Jacquie Brogan, she’s a really, really, really good acting coach, and she’s helped me so much. Jacquie with a ‘Q,’ by the way.”
So how are your parents dealing with all this?
“I’m really happy with how they’re treating me and how they’re treating, like, this whole situation. They’re not acting like show parents. There not even here, they’re out doing their own thing. And I really like that.”
But as happy and supportive as they appear to be, they do have their limits.
“I don’t think they’re moving with me. This is a one-man show--hopefully, at least. Gonna get on a bus and go to LA—sounds like a plan.”