Katey Sagal, director Ben Younger and Miles Teller at the 'Bleed For This' premiere, in theaters November 18th.
In the fact-based film, Bleed For This, cocky Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) takes a brutal beating from Junior Welterweight Champion Roger Mayweather in 1988. After his humiliating loss, fight promoter Lou Duva (Ted Levine) urges him to retire. Instead, Pazienza moves up two weight classes under the guidance of his new trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). Rooney’s radical strategy pays off when Pazienza, 14 pounds heavier, takes down French boxer Gilbert Delé in front of a hometown crowd to become Super Middleweight champion of the world.
Pazienza doesn’t have much time to relish the victory, however. Shortly after the bout, a head-on car crash leaves him with a broken neck. Initially told he may never walk again, doctors recommend spinal fusion surgery that would guarantee mobility but effectively end his boxing career. Pazienza chooses the far riskier “halo” spine-stabilization treatment, requiring him to wear a circular metal brace screwed directly into his skull for six months.
Recovering in the modest home he shares with his fiercely devoted father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds) and anxious mother Louise (Katey Sagal), Pazienza secretly starts weight training in the basement with the help of a reluctant Rooney and begins to recover both emotionally and physically. 13 months after the accident, the man fondly known as “The Pazmanian Devil” returns to the ring to do battle with Super Middleweight Champion Roberto Duran (Edwin Rodriguez) in the biggest fight of his life.
Sagal is almost unrecognizable in her role, but director Ben Younger immediately recognized that she was right for the role. And it was a role she was excited to play even more so since Louise was a real person.
“The script was reined in. It was who she was. They’re real people. They’re real Italian people. There’s a certain kind of verve about them. Ben sought me out. You never quite know why someone thinks you’re right for their project, but I so responded to the script. I was really pleased that he went for me. Louise is sort of the centered, quieting force of the film. That quieting, motherly vibe that set the tone of the family. Anytime anybody casts me, I think they’re a little bit of left field [laughs]. I’ve never been the obvious choice. Ben pursued me and I think I was the one who said to Ben, ‘let me read for you and let’s make sure.’ He saw something in me and it worked.”
As with any job, there’s an inherent risk when you step outside your comfort zone. Sagal might be more well known for her television roles, but she welcomes the challenges that film presents.
“I don’t know if it’s risky. It’s exciting. I’ve been trying to get more work in film. This is what I deduce: There are good roles for women in my age range, but there are a lot of amazing women to play them. It’s very competitive. The risk part is what I’m all about. I’m all about doing different things. That part never scares me. I was really pleased to be a part of the film – to have an accent, to have a different look, to get to wear shoulder pads again [laughs].”
In the film, Louise can’t watch any of her son’s matches. Though none of her children are boxers, she could relate, as all mothers can, about loving your children, even if they make choices that you might not always agree with.
“That’s a true story. Louise could never watch him fight. Louise was a woman of strong faith. As much as she comes from a boxer’s family, she would never watch the fights. Her story arc, with the fact that she watches the fight in the end, was her giving up control and becoming even more faithful. It speaks to a mother’s love. Ultimately, what we do as mothers, we get to the place where we don’t try to change our children anymore. We just support the choices that they’ve made. That’s the way I mother my kids. The don’t always do what I think they should be doing. Ultimately, if they’re committed, then I get on board because I love them.”
As a boxing fan, she didn’t have to do much research on that aspect of the part.
“I love boxing, I really do love it. I’m not obsessed but I love a good fight. My husband (Sons of Anarchy creator, Kurt Sutton), who wrote Southpaw, has informed me on the sport aspect of boxing. I can watch it almost like a dance. I can observe the technique appreciate it. It’s not that I want to see someone get punched in the face and get knocked out – though that’s pretty exciting – I just think it’s fun.”
Speaking of research, the filmmaking process was much smoother since Vinny was an active consultant.
“I think it’s fantastic. Ben did a lot of work with the actual family. To have Vinny around and to meet Vinny was great. He wasn’t around all the time, but he was around enough. He was so flattered that the story was finally being told. I don’t know if you’ve met Vinny, but he’s quite a character. Louise passed in 2002, but I watched film of Louise. You got a sense of her so you just run with that. She worked in a beauty parlor and wears glitzy sweaters and shoulder pads.”
Recently, Sagal revisited her sitcom past when she reunited with her 8 Simple Rules costar, Kaley Cuoco on The Big Bang Theory.
“[Big Bang Theory creator] Chuck Lorre is a friend of mine. He’s tried to put me in a few things but the timing was never right. This was perfect since it was with Kaley. Since Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner ended, I’ve sort of been having a great time wandering around doing little jobs here and there. I am going to do another series for CBS that just got an order so I will be having a regular job. It’s a sitcom so I think I’ll be on network television again for a while. It’s called Superior Donuts. It’s based on a play by Tracy Letts. It’s myself, Judd Hirsch, a comedian named Jermaine Fowler. It takes place in a gentrified neighborhood in Chicago. I play a cop. It’s a genre I’m familiar with but a role I’ve never played. It’s interesting to do stuff you’ve never done before. It’s harder the older you get because they want you to play someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. I like that my character is a cop.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, she will also be starring in the upcoming ABC version of Dirty Dancing.
“It should be coming out in the fall. I play Vivian. I’m so excited because I got to sing Fever in the movie. I danced and I got to work with the guy who choreographed Hamilton. He choreographed the entire movie and it’s really why I took the gig. I wouldn’t have done it if they shot it live. I would have been terrified, but I got to rehearse quite a bit.”
Though she might have been reluctant to shoot Dirty Dancing live, Sagal is no stranger performing music live. In the 70s and 80s, she was a back up singer for Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Gene Simmons and Olivia Newton-John, among others. Though her career may have focused more on acting lately, she has never lost her love for music.
“I have a new band so I can plug that. I’m in a band called The Reluctant Apostles. We have Davey Faragher (Cracker), Michael Urbano (Smash Mouth) and a bunch of great musicians. We formed this great band. I just wanted to be in a band. I play guitar. I play bongos. I sing. We play locally in L.A. We play at Molly Malone’s. We were in Hermosa Beach at Saint Rocke. We just really love to play. I started out in music which you can read about in my new book. It’s called Grace Notes and it comes out in March. It’s a book of recollections. I started to write it for my children. My parents passed away when I was young so I have all these blank spots in terms of memories. I have three kids and I wanted to write things down for them. That’s how it started. It’s not really a memoir though. The reason I brought it up is because there’s a lot of stuff about music in there. You get to a place in your life and you’re like, ‘f*** it, I’m going to do everything.’”
Bleed For This opens in theaters November 18th.