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The new face of boxing

Meg Ryan, Charles S. Dutton on 'Against the Ropes'

By Stephanie Snipes
CNN

Ropes
Meg Ryan (left) plays real-life boxing manager Jackie Kallen (right) in "Against the Ropes."

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Meg Ryan -- sweet, wholesome, "Sleepless in Seattle" Meg Ryan -- was not a boxing fan. But when she was offered the role of boxing manager Jackie Kallen in "Against the Ropes," she knew she wanted it.

"I met [Kallen] and I thought 'I'm in, oh, I'm in' because she is just too colorful," Ryan said.

Ryan immersed herself in the sweet science. She read up on the subject -- everyone from Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. She studied Kallen's career, that of a public relations exec who got into boxing management on a fluke and ended up with four world champions, all the while maintaining a flashy wardrobe and a perfect manicure.

And she'd never been to a live fight before, so she attended a few.

Once, however, the real-life Kallen -- who was an adviser on the film -- tried to push Ryan's studies a little too far. While attending an undercard fight, Kallen tried to convince Ryan to get in the ring and prep the boxer for a round. Ryan and director/co-star Charles S. Dutton laughed.

Kallen was serious.

"We were like, 'No, Meg is here to observe,' " said Dutton.

Kallen replied, "No, no, no, no. The only way she's going to play me is to get in there and do it."

They politely declined.

Putting the pieces together

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In "Ropes," Charles S. Dutton (left) plays a trainer, and Omar Epps (right) a boxer that Kallen helps lead to the title.

"Against the Ropes," loosely based on Kallen's life, also stars Omar Epps ("Love and Basketball") as an aspiring prizefighter and Tony Shalhoub as a rival manager. Dutton plays trainer Felix Reynolds.

Ryan said she wanted to mentally and physically break her good-girl stereotype. "Against the Ropes" seemed like the perfect fit, along with her recent role as a teacher attracted to sexual adventure in "In the Cut."

"Those externals sometimes are really fun to play ... but the reason they are important in this movie is because [Kallen] really wants to be noticed. She wants to be seen, she wants to be heard," said Ryan.

Dutton had faith she could pull off the role.

"I knew she could do it. Because it wasn't a gruff cigar-smoking portrayal, it was Jackie Kallen. The real Jackie Kallen would be in a grimy funky gym doing her nails," said Dutton.

In directing "Against the Ropes," Dutton said he wanted to not only capture gritty boxing action, but the drama of close relationships. Ryan agreed: The relationship between Kallen and Shaw was important to balance the picture, she said.

"I think [Kallen] really made [Shaw] feel worthwhile, and she had respect for him, and faith in him and no one else had yet in his life," she said. "So, in the middle of all this sort of corrupted experience of the boxing world is this very sweet, very pure, oddball relationship."

Boxer's shape

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The film aspired to boxing verisimilitude, says Dutton, who also directed.

Dutton said he wanted to break away from boxing films like "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" and make the fight scenes as real as possible. By casting Omar Epps, Dutton realized his goal.

"I chose him because he really knew how to box for real," said Dutton. "Omar is so good that several times boxing trainers and managers were trying to actually sign him to a contact."

Epps trained nonetheless. He spent the better part of pre-production in the boxing ring. Dutton said Epps had to work on his "boxer's shape" or the film would be a joke.

"As exciting as the "Rocky" movie was, when you go and look at it now you can see about a thousand misses," said Dutton. "I could see me running into fighters and the guys looking at me saying, 'What in the hell kind of boxing was that?' "

As for Ryan, she now understands why boxing and boxing movies are such a draw.

"There is something about the sport that is so filmic ... there is something about the availability and the purity of these two guys who are absolutely stripped down to a very, very primal contest," said Ryan.

Now she stops on ESPN instead of flipping past it.

"We wrapped a year and a half ago and [since then] ... I've been to fights and watch fights," said Ryan. "It's nuts."


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