To say that Jackie Kallen has broken boundaries for women in sports would be a pretty big understatement. In a sport dominated by testosterone, Kallen broke through with a tough attitude and complete determination. Kallen was around the sport from a young age, with a family full of boxers. These days, she is still fighting her fight, trying to get kids off the streets and into boxing programs, as well as doing her part to make women's boxing an Olympic sport. She also still makes room to manage boxers, eager to tell press about some of the exciting new boxing prospects she is working with.
In Against the Ropes, Meg Ryan portrays Kallen during her rise to the forefront of the boxing world. Though Ryan was somewhat of a boxing novice before taking the role, Kallen was more than eager to give her a detailed "intro to boxing" course. Ryan found herself transfixed, a converted fan of the sport, discovering a poetry in the gritty sweet science. The role is a departure for Ryan who, after last year's erotic thriller In the Cut seems to be doing her part to broaden her own acting horizons beyond the cutesy romantic comedy roles she is most associated with.
In bringing Kallen's tale to the screen, many dramatic licenses were taken in order to fit the story into an hour-and-a-half-long film. Oman Epps plays a sort of amalgam of the various boxers Kallen worked with. Charles S. Dutton, a boxing enthusiast himself, directed and acts in the film as Felix Reynolds, the trainer to Omar Epps' boxing character, Luther.
At the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, press were able to get both sides of the story as Ryan and Kallen spoke together about how the film came together and what they learned from one another.
Ryan first needed to get the essence of Jackie down, from the way she says her name to the deeper voice. More importantly, Kallen needed to show Ryan what it is she loves so much about the sport. "She passed Boxing 101 with flying colors," Kallen says.
"We spent a good amount of time together," Ryan says of her preparation for the film with Kallen. "Jackie took me to fights and we had lunch and dinner and she came to my house and we watched tapes of boxing matches... I've become [a boxing fan]. Listen, I'm surprised that I like it. I really didn't think that I was going to become a fan. ... I had a great tutor and Roc (Dutton) too has an outrageous passion for it. It turns out, as soon as you know the stories, as soon as you sort of understand the technique, you start to get sort of emotionally involved with the people who are up there. Beyond that, there's just something about how pure it is, there's something about how honest it is and there's something about how it's surrounded by [and] the immediate periphery of what's going on in the ring is the absolute antithesis of that. ... At first it was very hard to watch. Once I had it framed in a poetic way, once I read Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Howser, I went, 'Okay, I understand.' There's something honest about saying this kind of aggression and violence is part of human nature and here it is very simply and purely expressed in this sport. There's no pads, there's no goal, there's no ball. It's just, 'Here we are in pure competition.'"
Meg Ryan's amateur photography also gave her a window into the poetic world of boxing. "I think that's what helped [Meg] enjoy it and appreciate it also is that Meg's a great photographer, that's one of her hobbies," Kallen says. "And she would go to the fights and shoot them and she got, through her eyes, some amazing images. And I think that she saw a kind of beauty in the sport, in the physicality of it, in the faces, you know, the expressions and the anger in the eyes. She was able to capture a lot through her camera."
Meg Ryan smiles, "They are some of the best pictures I've ever taken..."
Jackie's love for the sport derives from a family tradition. While most girls were playing Barbie, Jackie was watching muscle-bound brutes pound it out in sweaty gyms. "My father and my uncle both fought Golden Gloves and they were amateur fighters, so by the time I was born, they were pretty much not doing it, but I've always grown up knowing about and loving boxing. My mother was an actress, an amateur actress in Detroit, and she played a boxing manager in a stage version of The Main Event when I was little, way before the Streisand movie, way before. And here I am, this little girl, and my mother's playing a boxing manager. Who ever heard of such a thing? Thirty years later, I became one... I guess boxing's always been my destiny."
Although boxing is clearly a brutal sport, Kallen has always seen something much deeper. "When you get to really know the sport there's so much more to it than just two guys, or two women, punching each other. There's so much timing and discipline and when it's done right, [there's] a rhythm to it. One's throwing, one's blocking. The pure physicality of it. These are two people that each want to take each other's head off if they can, so it's very raw. It's like watching the gladiators, modern day."
More than just working out, the life of a boxer is an incredibly dedicated and devoted one, in more places than just the gym. This surprised Ryan: "That was one of the things I was astounded at, what it takes to be a good boxer. What it really takes is something I have no [concept of]. There is not one thing you put in your mouth for years that doesn't matter. Twenty-four-seven, talking about the discipline and the sacrifices. It's just unbelievable. So, you know, also I tried... I started hitting the heavy bag around..."
In the film, Ryan's Kallen wears some pretty sexy and revealing outfits, using her body along with her mind to get ahead. Though the real-life Kallen was known as quite a head-turner in her day, she admits that, when she started managing boxers, her outfits were a little more dignified. "I wish I could have worn all the clothes [Meg Ryan wears in the film]. Actually, in real life, because I was married and had two sons, they wouldn't have let me out of the house in those clothes. It would have been, 'Mom, where do you think you're going?'"
Although the story is different in many ways from Kallen's true story, she feels that the film gets the important part right, the spirit of her character. "This is not a documentary," says Kallen. "If anybody would like to do my real life, if anybody would like to do that, it's gonna be about a ten-hour film. But, in order to do it, you have to shape the story in three acts and make it make some sense. So I thought they did a great job because most of the whole essence of the story is me. The character totally is me. The situations that she in, relating to the fighter, nurturing, mothering somebody who really needed that. That's all true. Other than the fact that I was actually married with children, I think they stayed pretty true to what I went through, even including and especially the part where, as a human being, you do have flaws. As in the film, you mess up sometimes, you lose yourself along the way. And, the lesson to be learned is you can redeem yourself. When you get the opportunity to right the wrong, you can step up to the plate and do the right thing and be selfless..."
Meg Ryan can relate to the male-dominated world of boxing in her own industry. Although movies are probably further along in the feminist movement than boxing, she believes that the movie world still favors men to a large degree. "It's a perfect parallel [to the film industry]. One of the things that this movie gets at that I related to specifically was the idea of being underestimated. If you look a certain way, particularly in this movie. How this character kind of navigates the world is she's unapologetic about her sexuality, and that's a thing that can get through the door, and then the next second, it's your worst enemy. I think the sexual politics of that are still confusing in the workplace and I've definitely been someone who people like to think one thing of and, you know, they can think whatever they want, but it's definitely an issue. People are much happier patting you on the head than actually letting you be a whole real human being."