Conjuring Cosell

The new movie on Roberto Duran came out in theatres yesterday and one thing that can be stated with full confidence is that the filmmakers went to great lengths to recreate the time period involved, specifically the year 1980, when Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard engaged in two huge superfights that were bigger than boxing. A major figure at that time was famous sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, who was ringside for both fights and interviewed the principals. His role in the film is played by Robb Skyler, a veteran of stage, television and major movies, and Chris Connor recently spoke to him about “Hands of Stone” and the challenge of playing Cosell, a figure as famous as the fighters he covered. Check it out:

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Robb Skyler

I am here with Robb Skyler who is in the new boxing movie “Hands of Stone.” Robb, tell me about your role in the film, playing legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell.

Well Chris I am excited about this movie which centers around the life of Roberto Duran, played by Edgard Ramirez, coming from impoverished beginnings in Panama and all the way through his boxing career, though much of the story centers around his relationship with Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel, who is played by Robert De Niro. It’s a father-son type mentorship. And as you know, Howard Cosell was not only the voice of boxing for three decades but probably the most iconic sports broadcaster in history so in a certain sense of the story, my character is telling the boxing part of the story. The biggest and probably the most dramatic scene in the movie centers around the two Sugar Ray Leonard fights.

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How did you prepare for this role in that Cosell had a distinct way of speaking and calling fights and became one of the iconic voices of boxing?

Well, the fact is I was very familiar with Howard Cosell growing up, and I even did Cosell impersonations back when I was doing stand-up comedy. I used to do Cosell impressions even when just with friends, so I didn’t really need to do research as if he was an unknown entity. That said, I didn’t want to just do a caricature of him. I was aware to facilitate the vision of the director it was important that I not do that. Beyond already knowing what he sounded like and having the cadence and the rhythm of his speech, I had to go beyond what I already knew about Cosell and try to tap into his essence, his being, and create that inner life of the character.

Skyler as Cosell.

The Leonard vs Duran rivaly was bigger than life in that both men were the best in their weight class and also were fierce and bitter rivals. What was it like when you were calling the action between them?

Well, I’m very familiar with both boxers and their first two matches and aware of how these two legends are forever linked to each other with that second fight, the “No Mas” fight, which transcends sports. And yet the first bout was much better than the rematch. That first battle went to the score cards and it was a toss-up on who was going to get the win. There was a lot of suspense in terms of who would get the decision and that was a truly classic fight. That kind of fight doesn’t happen very often, especially in this era of boxing, because the nature of the game has changed and there’s so many more variables. In this case, the rematch occurred just a few months later and there’s been no more dramatic fight than that one. Not the better fight, but the more dramatic fight, and probably one of the biggest question marks in all of sports history. Such a ferocious competitor as Roberto Duran, who is regarded by so many as one of the greatest boxers of all-time, why would he quit in the middle of a round of a championship fight … it’s inexplicable. It doesn’t make any sense.

Edgar Ramirez and Robert DeNiro as Duran and Arcel.
Edgar Ramirez and Robert DeNiro as Duran and Arcel.

How did you get involved in this movie in the first place and how much work was involved in landing the role?

Well I happen to be a boxing fan and have always known a lot about it, so that wasn’t something I had to bone up on and, as I mentioned, I was familiar with Howard Cosell. So when I found out that they were looking for somebody to play him, I really took the initiative to bust down the door and read for the role. The casting director originally told my manager, “He doesn’t look anything like Howard Cosell.” And he was right, as typically I have a beard so I had to quickly shave my beard off in my office and then I found an old toupée and took some pictures and had my team send it off to the casting director. Then I had a lot of dialogue to memorize. The Screen Actors Guild would say, “No, there’s no rule that you have to memorize the material for which you’re auditioning,” but let’s just say the underlying message was I had better be very familiar with it. So I just holed up in my apartment for the whole weekend and I did in fact memorize the equivalent of about two dozen paragraphs of dialogue and I nailed it. The director was on location in Panama and he told me via Skype that I got the role and it was very flattering and rewarding. And it was also the hardest I ever had to work to get a role.

 The Hollywood versions of This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Usher Raymond, left, and Edgar Ramirez in a scene from, "Hands of Stone." (Rico Torres/The Weinstein Company via AP)
The Hollywood versions of Leonard and Duran do battle.

How much pressure was there on everyone to get this movie right because most boxing movies fall victim to over-the-top action or bland storylines. With both the actors and the real-life people involved, did the pressure ever get to you or others in the crew?

Definitely there was pressure, but that said, I didn’t carry the movie. That really was up to the leading actors, Edgar Ramirez, Robert DeNiro and Usher Raymond. I play a more supporting role, an important one, but not a really prominent one. That said, of course there’s pressure and we really wanted to get it right with the fight scenes and, by the way, those are going to blow you away. What Jonathan did in terms of the camera work is just amazing. I had a chance to see some of the playback of those scenes while on set and they are unbelievably beautiful. But in terms of pressure, of course that’s there, but everyone is dealing with it and either that weight grinds you down or, as I believe was the case with this film, people respond to it. It’s sort of like boxing; if you have a championship heart, the pressure makes you rise to the occasion.                       — Chris Connor

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