“I can definitely hold my hands up and say wrestling wasn’t something that I grew up watching,” says English actress Florence Pugh (Outlaw King, Lady Macbeth), who nonetheless plays WWE Champion Saraya “Paige” Bevis in Film4’s heartfelt biographical comedy Fighting With My Family. “Now my Twitter feed is just full of WWE.”
Based on the true story of Paige’s unlikely rise to success — she went from wrestling with her family in their own gym in Norwich, England, to climbing into the ring with some of the biggest names in the industry — the movie is written and directed by The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant and executive-produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Pugh stars alongside Nick Frost, Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, and Vince Vaughn.
Johnson, who rose to fame as a WWE wrestler before making the leap to Hollywood, stumbled upon a 2012 Channel 4 documentary about Paige and her family, felt a deep connection to the familiar story, and decided to make it into a movie with Merchant at the helm.
“He’s so gorgeous,” Pugh of the wrestling legend, who also costars in the movie. “I was sure that I was going to find some little problem with him — I was adamant that I was going to be the person that discovered he smelled funny or that he actually didn’t know how to wrestle, but he really is that perfect!” When she first signed on to the project, Pugh felt nervous about taking on character in a world she knew little about, feeling the pressure of expectations that WWE super-fans would undoubtedly bring into the theater. Luckily, Johnson was there to play mentor too (a role he also fills the flick). “He was so helpful with sculpting the wrestling side of it,” says Pugh. “I take my hat off to him for trusting me as a non-wrestler entering this wrestling world, and I also thank him hugely for being patient and completely helping me along the way.”
As helpful as he was off set, when it came to acting opposite him, the Rock made things pretty easy for Pugh too. In an early scene in the film, Saraya/Paige and her brother Zak (Lowden) attend tryouts for the WWE’s NXT training program and seek out the Rock for a some quick advice. After a few platitudes, he goes full Rock on them, delivering a rousing and slightly terrifying monologue that would easily feel at home in the ring. “He learnt it in about 20 minutes,” Pugh recalls. “He came on set and we went through our lines and he kind of disappeared, then he came back and he knew it all. He just shouted at us for a good couple of minutes. It was just mental. At the time, it was exactly as impressive as it was in the film, and honestly, the faces that you see me and Jack making during that scene were exactly the faces we were doing; we didn’t need to act.”
That’s not to say a pep talk from the Rock was all it took for Pugh to transform into the pro-wrestler-to-be. Not unlike her character, she went through an intense training regimen to get ring-ready. Early on, Merchant sat Pugh down and told her he wanted her to do as much of the wrestling as possible. “That was so exciting to me because it’s very rare that as an actor you’re allowed to do any of your own stunts — it’s just not a thing,” she says. “That’s another thing that made me fall in love with the project: Not only did they want to make it as real as possible, but also they trusted us to do it and needed us to do it in order to make it a good wrestling film.” Things got a little less exciting and way more grueling pretty quickly, as both Pugh and Lowden embarked on a demanding training process. With just a month and a half to get it right, the actors were each paired with a trainer and put on a strict diet. “It was absolutely brutal, and you were just hungry all the time,” says Pugh. “You’re constantly sore, but I kind of liked all of that stuff; I’d never been required to do anything physical for a role before, and so it was totally something we were all up for.”
Donning spandex and wrestling with an actor you barely know is a pretty good way to speed up the bonding process, but Pugh and Lowden also had to nail a chemistry test to be cast as the brother-sister duo. “They got us in the room together improvising,” Pugh says. “We didn’t have to do any roly-polies or anything, but Stephen wanted to be very sure that he had found the right chemistry because it’s obviously so crucial to the story. Jack and I loved each other pretty much instantly, and were play-fighting anyway. We didn’t have to do much work after that; we’d kind of tapped into it.”
Physical prep was just part of the process. Pugh also had concerns when it came to mastering the comedy of it all. “I remember when I got this job, getting worried and complaining to my friends that I wasn’t funny,” she recalls. “They were like, ‘Dude, you’re literally doing the film with the king of comedy, I think you’re fine.’” When they got on set, Merchant was just as instrumental in sculpting Pugh’s performance as Johnson. “It’s so handy with him; if you weren’t being funny, he’d tell you and help you make those lines work,” Pugh says of Merchant. “That may not sound like a big deal, but having someone who’s going to be that brutally honest is really wonderful. He’s such a fascinating guy to work with because he’s so intelligent and he’s really good at taking the piss out of you, so you get really good at taking the piss out of him as well.”
Even with Johnson and Merchant’s approval, Pugh still had to win over the movie’s inspiration herself. But, interestingly enough, Pugh didn’t meet Bevis until the movie premiered at Sundance in January. “We were in contact the whole duration of the shoot, but at the time she was suffering from her neck injury,” Pugh explains. “So I only met her a month ago. It was like meeting my long-lost twin; it was so wonderful to finally give her a hug.” As for approval, Pugh needn’t have worried. “It honestly was one of the most relieving things to hear,” Pugh says of learning of Bevis’ emotional response to the film. With Bevis on board, that only left winning the fans over. “It’s a bit like if you did a biopic on a ballet dancer and you’re not a ballet dancer,” says Pugh. “It’s going to be just as difficult for ballet dancers to watch that as it is going to be for wrestlers to watch this. Ultimately, we’re doing a sport that people live and die by, and you don’t want to not do it justice. But you know, it’s been so satisfying to read and hear the support and wonderful feedback from actual wrestlers and fans, and allow myself to enjoy it.”
Despite knowing little of the WWE world to begin with, after transforming herself into Paige, Pugh now more than understands the appeal of the wrestling arena. She recalls the initial nerves and massive rush she felt shooting one pivotal scene: Though it’s the climactic scene in the film, the moment when Paige makes her main roster debut wrestling Divas Champion AJ Lee was filmed just three days into shooting, and in front of a live crowd of wrestling fans at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, after Monday Night Raw. “All of the wrestling training and all of the preparation was gearing up to that scene,” Pugh says. “It was terrifying, but so exhilarating. Everyone’s cheering or booing for everything you do, and you’re just totally in it. In that moment, I completely understood what it was like to want to wrestle, to go up there every night and feel like a superhuman for about eight minutes. You’re invincible.”
Fighting With My Family is in theaters now.