The “Shameless” and “The Bear” actor stars in Sean Durkin‘s ode to the (allegedly) cursed Von Erich family, whose five out of six sons died before turning 34. The A24 film is led by Zac Efron, with Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons also portraying Von Erich brothers, with Holt McCallany and Maura Tierney as their parents; Lily James co-stars.
Actor White said during a New York City Q&A for the film’s first East Coast screening that he didn’t believe it was “physically possible” to transform into Kerry Von Erich for the role.
“I knew I couldn’t get as big as Kerry. I just don’t think it was physically possible for me,” White said. “I’m a pretty little guy, but I tried. I don’t think it’s possible for any human on the planet. There is this story I love about Schwarzenegger. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kerry were in the same room once, and Kerry popped his shirt off and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself was too nervous to take his shirt off around Kerry. That’s how big this man was. We were all trying.”
Production shipped in real ’80s workout equipment for the cast to use between takes. White, Dickinson, and Efron spent two weeks coordinating the wrestling routines and training together before filming “full matches” in front of real crowds, according to writer/director Durkin.
“We didn’t do bit by bit. We were doing full matches. So the crowd would get into it, we would go through the whole thing, shoot long takes,” Durkin said. “And so it really felt like putting on a real wrestling event.”
And while White and Efron compared wrestling alongside their co-stars to being like an immediate “trust fall,” White also added that it was intimidating to even be in the same frame as Efron whose physical transformation to play Kevin Von Erich is the most jaw-dropping of the film.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to stand near Zac. I saw him and I went, ‘Can Harris stand next to him?’” White joked. “No, I mean, Zac looked so amazing and I think, yeah, just being around him was a motivator for me to eat more, train more.”
During the post-screening panel, White noted that wrestling is like tap dancing and gymnastics rolled into one. “I think there is a dance component in the combat sport,” White said, drawing upon his own dance background. “You just get a sense of your body in space. I think that that’s a really important part of professional wrestling, your understanding of body and the space and to not hurt yourself and to not hurt others.”
And co-star Efron’s iconic musical background, namely for the “High School Musical” franchise, in turn proved helpful in playing a professional wrestler.
“I am a very physical learner, a visual learner. So to be able to have translated choreography lessons onto screen in the past I think is really was good for wrestling,” Efron said. “There’s little things that Kevin does very well. His physicality was unique, and you could just tape some of what we did on an iPhone and rehearsals and see things that did not look as cool as when he did it. And so we could make adjustments during that flying jump off the top rope. Kevin had this way of exploding at the top and pulling his shoulders and his legs back, which looked really cool, and you had to jump pretty high in order to have that hang time. So I remember watching playback the first time, it did not look good, and the next time it looked more like Kevin.”
Efron added of his physical approach to the role, “It definitely wasn’t [director] Sean’s personal training, but I think it was the way the footage and everything that we saw of Kevin in the ring was electric and his athleticism and just the combat and how light on his feet he was … it looked real. And he also just had this incredible physique to compliment that. So I knew that going into it, physically relating to Kevin or being able to get into that shape, to do that, you have to become kind of obsessed. It takes over your life. That’s all you’re doing is eating, sleeping, training and wrestling. That’s what they were doing in real life. [In] the prep for this movie, we all started hanging out in the ring, but really our lives outside of that were kind of nonexistent, and that that really helped me figure out Kevin’s mindset.”
Efron concluded that it was “incredibly motivating” to know that the real Kevin Von Erich would be watching “The Iron Claw,” and led to him forming real-life bonds with both the Von Erich family and his co-stars.
“Just knowing that he was going to be out there and would ultimately see it, I didn’t know if I was going to do a good job or not. It was very motivating,” Efron said. “That would keep me going in the gym and in the ring, just wanting to make him proud. And I did get to talk to him. We were in Dallas for a world premiere and he came out and I got just at least an hour and a half of one-on-one time and a lot of hugs.”
Reporting by Ryan Lattanzio.