Rare is the actor that can pull off fitness feats such as climbing a hundred-foot cliff, paddling into a similarly-sized wave—and then pivot to star opposite an Oscar nominee in a critically acclaimed biopic. Edgar Ramirez did just that this past year (Point Break, Joy) and is potentially poised to one-up himself in 2016, starting with his portrayal of Roberto Duran in Hands of Stone, which opens Friday.
The gist: Recent history hasn’t been kind to Duran. To many, he is still the boxer who uttered ‘No Mas’ and refused to leave his corner during a November 1980 fight versus Sugar Ray Leonard (played by Usher Raymond—yes, that Usher—in the film). But he is not only a national hero in Panama, he is an all-time boxing great.
We spoke with Ramirez about his mindset portraying an icon, as well as the prep that went into his role.
MF: As someone who has trained for several high-intensity films, like Point Break and Che, how did the training differ for this film?
ER: I thought I knew how to work out before I immersed myself into boxing. I now know what an extreme work out really is. It changed everything for me. It’s incredible. Boxing combines in perfect proportion, strength, speed, and endurance. Normally most sports are either about one of the three, either about speed, or endurance, or strength. Boxing combines all three of them. It’s really intense.
It also makes your mind sharper because you have to make choices really fast. One choice that you make or you don’t make could lead to a punch in your face, it could lead to somebody beating you up, you know what I mean? Your mind becomes very agile, just as agile as your body. This also affects your normal, day-to-day life. You’re more aware, you’re more alert. It’s really amazing how it heightens your instincts when you’re boxing.
MF: Were you just state-side? Or did you travel to Panama?
ER: I trained for over eight months in Panama, and it was pretty much between four to five hours a day. At the beginning, I was working with Duran’s sons, who were my first trainers. Then I moved to the less privileged areas of Panama to train in a gym that was closer to the reality that surrounded Duran when he was growing up.
MF: Why is that?
ER: For me, it was very important to be as close as possible to the environment he was in when he was growing up. That would be very important to build the character. My trainers were Panamanian trainers. They trained with me in the same gym. I had five world champions from Panama that trained with me.
MF: Wow, that’s pretty amazing. That’s quite an experience.
ER: I’m telling you — at the beginning, when I had my first training, I freaked out. I went to my hotel thinking, “God, am I going to really do this? Am I going to ever learn how to do this? This ease and this flow—are my punches going to fly, is it going to become this dance?” I didn’t know. Then my trainers told me “Trust the process, just trust the training, it’s going to happen.” The kid that comes to this gym to learn how to fight, they don’t know shit. They don’t know anything. They probably know how to fight, and they probably aren’t afraid to fight. But they don’t know how to do it. It’s an art that you learn. It was beautiful when I first felt it.
MF: Was that the moment when you felt in tune with the training?
ER: Well, I cannot really recall the moment when I said, “Okay, this is happening.” It just started to happen and it’s a beautiful feeling and then he proves that you have to, that you really have to do the work, you have to put in the work, you have to do the homework and you have to trust. You have to trust your training that it will get you where you need to get. Which is a great metaphor for life.
MF: I am assuming your body underwent a huge transformation to play Duran, even more so than for a film like Point Break or any other of your roles.
ER: Before filming began, I was doing Pilates for another role, and all that core work really helped me with boxing. So when I was learning how to box, I already knew how to control my core. That really helped me to learn quicker. You might think that boxing is all with the fist, but actually the leg work is really intense.
MF: Right. And the cardio too.
ER: Exactly. If your feet are not in the right position, there is no impact on your fist. That’s where the strength comes from. It comes from your leg. The fist is just a medium for the strength that your body is generating.
MF: Are you normally this active? Do these roles mirror your everyday life?
ER: I’m very physical. I love to work out, I’m very athletic, it’s a great therapy, not only for my body, but for my mind. It really keeps me clear. With this movie I reached levels that I hadn’t reached before in my life.
MF: How do you mean?
ER: There’s no way for you or there’s no way for me to imagine a boxer. You cannot relate to a boxer unless you go through the deprivation, the hardship, the struggle of a boxer. Usher and I had to become fighters on our own before I even started to build the character. For me, in order to understand Roberto Duran’s state of mind, I needed to feel what being a boxer was like. Normally you create characters from the inside out, but in this case it was from the outside in. I needed to transform my body first and I needed to go through all the physical transformation, but then ended up in a deep spiritual and mental transformation in order to attempt to emulate his punches and his combinations and to do the choreography. It needed to become my second nature.
So were you actually boxing through the film?
It was all me. The only double I had was for rope jumping, because Duran was like Cirque Du Soleil rope jumper. The only person who can do that is his son Robin. He’s the only one. There are only two people who can do that with a rope, and one of them is Robin. He was my double on those things. The punches, man? That’s all me.
So since you are recreating Duran, what prep went into the film, other than just training?
I watched everything. Every fight he was in, and especially the fights that we portrayed in the film. We recreated some of the best and greatest fights in boxing history in the film. There is no way around it — first become a boxer and then you start to study the fights. To do it any other way would be like wanting to learn climbing and then go to Mt. Everest on your first attempt. It’s impossible.
What did Roberto think of the film? Was he a consultant on it?
Yeah, he loves it. He went to Cannes with us, and he cried at the end of the screening, so we all cried. It’s a very emotional movie just like him.
You have this rep of being a physical actor that also is adept at portraying nuanced roles. Was this a departure for you?
I think that every male actor fantasizes with a boxing film. They’re very epic and it’s so primal. When you go to a boxing match all your fears, all your aspirations in life, all your frustrations, are projected towards the fighters. One guy or woman against another. In the case of what I did, it’s one of the most primal things. You can get taken over by aggressiveness, or by the violence around you. That’s the worst that can happen to you—one of the things I found most interesting about the film is the fact that it explores and focuses on the psychological aspects of the sport more than the physical, which is just one part of the possibility of winning a fight. Your body can just take you so far, if your mind is not in the right place. It’s so complex and fascinating.
You can also catch Ramirez in this fall’s blockbuster The Girl on the Train.