The first look at Back in the Day shows what’s been seen in many a boxing movie: flashy fight scenes and drama for the hero inside and outside the well lit ring. But William DeMeo insists to not let those scenes fool you. For one, the climactic victory of the hero Anthony Rodriguez occurs very early in the film.
“I tried to creatively make the story different than it’s been done so many times, with him winning in the beginning and explaining how he got there,” DeMeo — the star, writer, and producer — tells EW. “The boxing genre’s been done 5,000 times. I didn’t feel like I needed to have my movie with huge, long, drawn-out 15-round fights and extensive training, which we’ve seen 500 times.”
There’s more happening in the movie beyond training montages and fights, DeMeo says. Toss in a dash of the mob, led up by Alec Baldwin and Michael Madsen. DeMeo also wanted to show how his home neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn was mired with racial tensions and depict its evolution through the years.
“It was a different kind of cool back then than it is now,” he tells EW. “I would say in the last 10 years is when the neighborhood really changed in a big way, as opposed to the way it used to be. It was pretty much run by organized crime; it’s a known fact. That’s the heyday of the mafia. It’s much more diverse now than it was.”
DeMeo chatted with EW ahead of Back in the Day‘s release in theaters and VOD services Friday.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea of Back in the Day come from?
WILLIAM DEMEO: I’ve been wanting to do something with boxing for a long time. It’s been done so many times, the genre, and I feel like I give a different look at it. I wanted to have some racism, because growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in [Bensonhurst], back then, it was a very tough neighborhood. There was a lot of racial tension going on in the neighborhood. There were incidents that had happened back then and riots and protests, way before all of this stuff that’s happening now.
I got that story kind of from where I’m from and just tried to put all the pieces together and create this story of a half Italian, half Puerto Rican fighter growing up at that time period, dealing with some racial tension because he’s half Puerto Rican. I tried to really make boxing the backstory as opposed to it being all about boxing. It’s more about the struggle, outside the ring, as it says in our tagline.
Again, boxing is in it, but there’s so much more: the mob element, the love element, and the racist element, and the alcoholic father. There’s so much that goes on in here in this story. … This is completely not [Southpaw or Rocky].
What does Bensonhurst mean to you that you wanted to get across in the movie?
First of all, the way we grew up is long gone. I just really wanted people to remember how things were earlier on, and then the change. I tried to show the drastic change in the neighborhood. I tried to show how the mob was once strong, and years later, it’s depleted. I tried to show how it was really Italian at one time, and now it’s not. To show the change in the neighborhood was really important to me to get across. That was a big thing. Brooklyn went from being a certain way at one time, and now it’s completely different.
I show in the beginning, just people hanging out and the neighborhood was very alive, as opposed to coming back where it’s a different world: social media has taken over, and it’s just a different time period. Alec Baldwin’s character, who’s the mob boss, explains how social media is going to the ruination of the life we chose, because everyone pulls a camera out, no matter what you’re doing. Everyone knows everything.
This is the most star power you’ve shared top-billing with. How does that feel?
It is extremely gratifying to be top billed next to more than just Michael Madsen and Alec Baldwin, and Danny Glover and Shannon Doherty and Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson! Being from Brooklyn, that I have to say… With Alec Baldwin and Madsen, that was amazing. Really, to be honest, it was a real highlight of my day to have Mike Tyson on the set. That was a highlight of the whole film shoot, almost, was when Mike Tyson strolled on set, because he’s so cool, too. Sometimes people have this image about him, which is just ridiculous, because the man’s a gentleman. He’s someone who doesn’t want people messing with him. He’s a real man, but that’s a whole other story. Being from Brooklyn and having a boxer who is from Brooklyn, who grew up not too far from where I grew up, that was amazing to have that.
Do you have any stories of Tyson on set?
I just felt that Mike is just seriously a cool guy. He’s just a cool guy. It’s crazy, because when I see him, he has certain things you didn’t know what to expect in a way. He was all about the project, too. He stayed extra hours, he was there. He cared about the project. He took pictures with so many people. He was just a cool guy. Sometimes, there’s certain people where you feel like there could be some tension — there was no tension. He was just really cool, laidback, down to earth. I feel like he’s a little humble, too.
You get the sense that Mike is just really… He was telling me when we were talking he really wants to act. That’s what he really wants to do; this is kind of his passion. The biggest issue I had when landing Mike Tyson was the fact he doesn’t really want to play himself anymore — he wants to be an actor. He’d rather play someone else than be Mike Tyson.
What was it like working with Larry Merchant, a boxing legend in his own right?
Larry’s great. At first, I had it written there was an interviewer, and it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be someone from the boxing world when I first wrote the script. I’ve always been a fan of boxing, but I wasn’t an obsessive boxing fan, but being I was making this movie, I started watching more boxing and HBO fights a lot. I was like, this guy is such a face for boxing. Larry Merchant: he’s the guy always interviewing, he has issues with [Floyd] Mayweather [Jr.]. I said, “Why don’t we give this part to a real boxing guy, someone who’s a face of boxing?” We reached out to Larry. It’s funny, because he just so happened to be from my neighborhood. He left a long time ago — he grew up on Avenue O. We bonded over that. He understood what was going on, too.
I know the movie’s about more than boxing, but I have to ask: What was your workout routine, what was your diet like?
My diet was extremely strict. I cut out all the bad carbs. I ate mostly the good carbs mixed with a lot of protein. I tried to get in at least an hour of training with weights and an hour of training of boxing almost every day. Again, I couldn’t focus so much on doing all that because of creating the movie and being involved in every aspect and having to be involved in the actual making of the film. But I trained hard.
The diet is such a big thing to really get your body to another level. I’ve been pretty strict since we finished filming. When you see such a transformation — I worked out my whole life, pretty much, and I felt like I’ve been in good condition — but when you make the diet a big priority, it’s a huge difference in your physique. Being that I’ve seen that transformation, I’m trying to keep the build I have. I cheat a little now, but it’s better than it was before I started this film.
What was the hardest thing to quit eating?
Pasta. That was the biggest thing. I cut [social drinking] out completely, I cut out sweets. Right before we were filming, it was Christmas, and we’re having a big Christmas dinner at my house. My whole family was there — it’s such an important thing for an Italian-American, Christmas.
We’re all sitting down eating — I cut out pasta completely, and if I ate pasta, it would be maybe once every three weeks, and it would gluten free, whole wheat, and not the normal pasta I was used to eating. All of a sudden, the family’s like, “Oh come on, you got to eat, it’s Christmas Eve. You got to eat!” So I ate a whole bunch of pasta, and literally my body was so used to this seven months of none of these heavy carbs, I hit the couch, and my legs gave way. I was gone. I was sitting there, and I’m sleeping. I lost all my energy. My body was like, “What is going on here right now?”
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed.