From Sign Language to Bull Riding, Actors Like Riz Ahmed to Rob Morgan Learn New Skills for Their Roles

·7 min read

When Eli Goree was cast as Cassius Clay, the boxer who would become Muhammad Ali, in “One Night in Miami,” he was the most prepared actor you could find. That’s because he had begun almost two years prior, when he auditioned for the role of Ali in a different film, to be directed by Ang Lee.

“I started preparing by gaining weight, learning the accent, going through the audition process,” Goree says. The role ended up going to “some other actor out of England” — ironically, it was Goree’s future “Miami” co-star Kingsley Ben-Adair, though the film has yet to be made. But Goree felt destined to play Ali.

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“I believed that someone would make another Cassius Clay film someday and I wanted to be prepared to be the one to get cast,” he says. “So I found and hired my own boxing coach, and dialect coach, and strength and conditioning trainer. I started meeting with them regularly as if I had already booked the role. I would even tell them that I was in the process of preparing for a role and just waiting to hear the final word on whether or not I had gotten it. I didn’t see it as a lie, I truly believed that.”

And he was right — a friend sent him an Instagram post about how Regina King was casting “Miami.” Says Goree: “My manager submitted me and thank Jesus, it was one of the smoothest auditioning process I’ve ever had. It was like I had already been on the project for 18 months.”

The prep didn’t stop there. “We ended up bringing on my dialect coach that I had found, Trey Cotton, a phenomenal talent out of North Carolina,” he notes. “Production set me up with Rob Sale, a former professional boxer and current professional fight trainer who worked on ‘Creed.’ They also allowed me to bring on my fitness and conditioning trainer, Kenneth Oh. We worked throughout the shoot, I would train boxing in the morning before my call time and then weightlifting after shooting on set.”

The work paid off, as Goree is earning raves for his turn for the champ. And, like so many actors, he now has some new talents he can add to the Special Skills section of his resume (not that he’ll likely require one after Hollywood catches his electric turn). Several other actors headlining awards season films also picked up some fresh abilities via their characters.

Kate Winslet, like Goree, is portraying a real person — though obviously, self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning clearly isn’t as well-known as Ali. Still, Winslet welcomed the chance to get it right in “Ammonite,” in which the Oscar-winner portrays Anning living in 1840s Lyme Regis, England.

“Preparing for this film was really a lot of fun,” she says. “I often get to learn a new skill or a new craft when playing a character, but I never imagined that I would be taught how to fossil hunt. That was really important to me, because we didn’t want to use hand doubles; we wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Also, this is something Mary was doing as a child, so it just had to be in my bones.”

In addition to shooting in Lyme Regis, Winslet worked with fossil exert Paddy Howe. “He was just terrific at sharing his knowledge — he made it really user-friendly, there was nothing daunting about the words that he would use or the techniques he would describe. Often he would just say, ‘Go on — whack it.’ So we’d spend days whacking rocks together on a beach, because sometimes ammonites can be lurking inside them,” Winslet notes. She used hammers and tools of the time period for more authenticity.

Winslet adds that spending time in Lyme Regis was also helpful to build the character. “The people at the museum in Lyme were also incredibly helpful; that’s where Mary’s writings are, accounts of how she was thinking and feeling, and they were very generous in letting us access those. The atmosphere of the town, the sense of community, everyone knowing everyone and everyone knowing something about Mary Anning … that in itself was very helpful.”

And while there is the old adage that you should never work with animals or children, Carrie Coon does both in “The Nest,” in which she plays Allison, a woman caught in a fracturing marriage. Allison is an equestrian who teaches horseback riding, and Coon had virtually no experience with horses prior to filming. “I grew up in a rural area and there were horses across the street we rode around a paddock once or twice,” she notes. “Prior to the film, I had done some casual trail rides on vacation or with friends.”

Continues Coon: “I worked with Chris DeFilipis in New York, Sue Parker in Toronto, from whom I cribbed some training dialogue, and Camilla Naprous at Devil’s Horsemen, the premiere horse wranglers and stunt riders in the U.K.” Knowing what she was doing was vital because, “You can’t lie on a horse. You have to be really settled, because they feel everything. And they’re pack animals. So if you aren’t leading, they will find somebody who will, or they’ll just take over.” As a side benefit, Coon says the horses taught her stillness, which came in handy for the character of Allison, who internalizes so much.

Rob Morgan also had to learn his way around animals when he signed on to play an aging bullfighter on the Black rodeo circuit in “Bull.”

“I was familiar with the rodeo from an outsider’s point of view, but nothing like immersing myself in the culture like I did while we were filming,” Morgan says. “Having Southern roots in my family and experiencing that environment as a child, really helped and made it extremely comfortable.”

To prepare, “I took bullfighting lessons from the best in the game, Wayne Rogers and Teaspoon Mitchell. As soon as I landed in Texas, they took me to a bull-riding practice and that was the first time I actually sat on a 2,500-pound bull, against my agent’s wishes but I had to do it for my clear understanding of who I was portraying.” Morgan says that moment really helped him to connect to his character.

In addition, he notes, “The camaraderie and friendship I developed with the real bull riders and fighters also helped the sensitivities and pulse of my character. The community was very accepting of my Brooklyn energy and from there we just kept on riding.”

Sometimes, actors find themselves in a role in which one might expect their existing talents will carry over. But such was not the case for Riz Ahmed, who also raps under the name Riz MC, when he was cast as a drummer who losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” Though a talented musician who knows the ropes, Ahmed soon learned that “rapping and drumming are two very different things.” After his first lesson, his teacher told him, “You’ve got rhythm, we just need to work on everything else.”

Continues Ahmed, “It was very psychological, actually, playing the drums. You can’t think your way to playing the drums, you kind of have to let them play you. You have to kind of surrender to them. And that opened me up in new ways, it made me step outside thinking and into my body.”

For the role, Ahmed spent seven months learning drumming and American Sign Language, all to shoot the film in four weeks. “The signing element was so fundamental,” he says. “I just felt it would be really dishonest to just learn a couple of signs — everything about making this movie just felt like we had to go all in.”

Ahmed says he has not kept up his drumming abilities. “That’s the tragedy isn’t it, you kind of go about learning a new skill and then you have to go into learning the next skill for the next job. But the fundamentals are still there and I’m not ruling out a desire to pick them up at some point.”

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