TSC Interviews: "Lights Out" star Holt McCallany
Holt McCallany has starred in countless films and television shows, most famously, “Tyson,” “Fight Club,” “Men of Honor,” and “CSI: Miami.”
Yet if you asked McCallany a year ago, he'd tell you there's one role that's missing from his filmography—professional boxer.
McCallany is an avid boxing and mixed martial arts fan, who always longed for the opportunity to play a boxer on-screen and in real life. He would eventually get his wish.
Fox's cable network FX signed McCallany on to do “Lights Out” in 2010 and since it's 2011 series debut, is now one of the hottest shows on TV. McCallany plays his dream role as a struggling boxer named Patrick “Lights” Leary, who is battling mental anguish and heavy debts, while trying to support his family.
In some ways, “Lights Out” is more realistic than your typical boxing show or film, showcasing the brutal reality many real-life boxers have dealt with when their careers and payoffs decline.
Holt McCallany spoke to The Sports Courier about his love for boxing and MMA, the state of combat sports, fight scenes with MMA legend Bas Rutten, and how “Lights Out” came to fruition.
How did the concept of “Lights Out” come about and when were you approached to do the show?
Back in the '90s, I did a movie for HBO called “Tyson,” based on boxer Mike Tyson's life. I played legendary boxing trainer Teddy Atlas. Teddy and I ended up becoming very close friends. He always talked about wanting to do a fictional show based on his real life. It was about an ex-boxer becoming a trainer and his relationships with boxers and his family and navigating the corrupt waters of boxing.
At various times, we had a couple of really talented guys approach us about the project. I remember someone said that the story sounded very familiar to another one floating around Hollywood. I spoke to my agent about it and he happened to have the script for a show called “Lights Out.”
It was similar to the idea Teddy and I had but about a boxer who is past his prime and how he deals with his demons. I knew after reading five or six pages of the script that I had something very special in my hands. We did a pilot and luckily got picked up as a series in 2011.
Did you have any background in combat sports before doing the show?
Yeah, I loved boxing growing up and still do. I've been boxing since I was a kid. My brother was a Golden Gloves Champion. I have always been interested in boxing and martial arts. I also got into Karate in my teen years. I continued boxing most of my adult life. Like I said, I played Teddy Atlas in the “Tyson” movie.
Then I had the lead on another TV show, where we had some “Matrix” style fight sequences, so I brought on one of the greatest MMA fighters of all-time to help me out--my good friend Bas Rutten. Bas is one of the greatest MMA fighters of his generation. I trained with Bas for several years.
I just continued to hang around the game and just be in the gyms. I trained at so many gyms in New York and Los Angeles; at Elite MMA with Bas. I had been training with Teddy Atlas for the pilot of “Lights Out.” Then I fought in the amateurs. I had wanted to fight in amateur boxing since my brother won the Golden Gloves many years ago.
I trained with Mark Breland, who is the 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, former world champion, and widely considered the greatest amateur boxer of all-time. Mark said to me “Look, man. You're here sparring everyday with guys at the gym—professionals, amateurs, former champions. Why not give it [amateur boxing] a shot?”
So I got trained to compete in the masters division of USA Boxing, which is the division for people who are 33 and older and want to compete in the amateurs. I won a three-round decision against a German heavyweight. It was a great experience.
I mean it's one thing to train with professionals and guys that have won Golden Gloves. It's a little different actually being in the ring and hearing the bell and knowing you're in a real fight. So for me to play a professional fighter, it's just the greatest thing that's happened to my acting career. On TV, you see a lot of the same stories. You see a lot of cop shows and hospital dramas and lawyer shows.
Things like that. But a boxer with dementia is just not gonna come along every so often [like in “Lights Out”].
You mentioned your good friend Bas Rutten. What was it like performing a fight scene with him in “Lights Out?”
Anybody that knows anything about Bas knows that he is one of the greatest fighters ever. He's also a great guy and great actor. Him and I actually worked together in a fight scene for a show I did about 10 years or so ago.
We've been friends for a long time. So when I found out there was an episode in “Lights Out” that featured a cage fighting scene, I knew I had to get Bas on board.
Some of the “Lights Out” crew knew who he was and were familiar with his work. Others I had to educate. But I'm really glad I was able to get him in that scene. He just brings this energy to anything he does. The best part about Bas is that he knows what he's doing. He helped choreograph the scene better than anyone because he's a fighter. But he's even greater because he makes the scene look good. And in the process, he makes you look good. And most importantly, he makes the scene look real.
That's why “Lights Out” for me is so special. It's because it's a part I love taking place in a sport I love and I get to work with my guys. I get to work with Bas Rutten, who I'm hoping will be brought back on for season two. I have Mark Breland and Teddy Atlas training me. These are my guys. The guys I'm comfortable working with, who I know very well. That's why this show is so special to me.
Did those guys [Bas, Teddy, Mark] try to discourage you from taking that amateur fight right before your big role?
It was actually quite the contrary. Teddy Atlas gave me a lot of advice. Mark Breland trained me and was in my corner. Former UFC Champion and King of Pancrase Bas Rutten also trained and cornered me. I was very confident going into my fight that I would do well. No disrespect to my opponent whatsoever, but he didn't have a team like I had.
When you have guys like Mark and Bas supporting you and Teddy before the fight guiding you—I knew I'd do well. They were very supportive of me. I had my friends and family there too. Just a great experience overall.
You obviously play a boxer on a boxing show. Even with the big main event paydays, MMA, specifically the UFC, has surpassed boxing in terms of consistent interest from fight-to-fight. Besides Pacquiao-Mayweather, which won't happen anytime soon, what can bring boxing back to prominence?
I love boxing, but MMA right now is the fastest growing sport in the world. MMA is an extremely exciting sport. I love boxing too. I think there is a big crossover with boxing and MMA fans. I know I'm not the only one that's a fan of both sports. I think people just need to be reminded about the things that made them love boxing, rather than hearing about the politics and all the bad things.
I hope that “Lights Out” and my friend Mark Wahlberg's film “The Fighter,” can help, even a little, in reminding people about why they loved the sport of boxing in the first place. I hope we can give positive attention to boxing and help get fans excited again because at the end of the day, boxing stripped down of the politics, is a great sport.
I'll always love boxing like a lot of people. I just think other people need something to remind them why they loved boxing. Hopefully, Mark and I can play a small part and do that.
When Bas Rutten came onto the MMA scene, his striking ability was unprecedented for his era. Are you surprised at how many MMA fighters still have a long way to go in terms of striking?
It's very interesting you say that. I agree. To this day, you see some wrestlers not throwing a punch correctly or fighters that throw those loopy right hands. Sure those loopy right hands can knock people out sometimes, but it always leaves that guy susceptible to getting knocked out too.
Head movement, footwork, the way to throw punches....I am surprised, but I feel like striking is still evolving and has a long way to go in MMA.
You did a segment on KTLA with Bas Rutten and Frank Shamrock about anti-bullying. How did you get involved with their great cause?
Both guys actually called me up about that and I said “yes” with no hesitation. I truly feel like bullying is a serious issue.
I hate bullies. When I was a kid and got suspended from school, I was sent to a boarding school in Ireland. My father was Irish, but I was born in America.
So when I went to Ireland, I found out I was the only American kid there. And anytime you're the only “something” somewhere, chances are, you're going to be bullied. I realized pretty quickly that I had to stand up for myself.
Bas had a similar experience. When he was a kid, he had a terrible skin disease and was bullied all the time because of it. That led him to start standing up to bullies and learning martial arts, which probably steered him towards his career as one of the greatest in MMA history. Frank dealt with bullying too as a kid.
This is a great cause by great guys. Bas is an old friend and Frank is a class act. The reason I like both guys and feel like they're the right ones to promote anti-bullying is because they're not just professionals in the ring. They're professionals outside of the ring. They truly are role models kids can look up to.
I think the greatest thing for a kid is to find the courage to stand up to a bully. I hope Bas, Frank, and I can give kids that courage and help prevent bullying.
Catch "Lights Out" Tuesday nights at 10 p.m./ET on FX. For more information on Holt McCallany, visit HoltMcCallany.net.