‘My All American’ follows determined athlete Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who’s diminutive in size and stature. Supported and driven by his father, Fred (Michael Reilly Burke), Freddie’s discipline towards his athletic pursuits is only surpassed by his desire to win. That spirit serves helps make him a three-letter jock at Wheat Ridge High School in suburban Denver. It also catches the eye of his classmate Linda Wheeler (Sarah Bolger), who he pursues to become his girlfriend with the same focus he exhibits during any given game.
Finn Wittrock and Sarah Bolger generously took the time recently to sit down for separate roundtable interviews at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to talk about starring in ‘My All American.’ Among other things, the actor and actress discussed how they were drawn to chronicle Steinmark’s inspirational story in the biopic, as he was a genuinely caring and sympathetic person who determinedly persevered in any situation he was put in; how they enjoyed collaborating together on the drama’s set in Austin, as they were both so present in connecting with their respective characters and their journeys; and how they were humbled, and knew they were doing the football player’s life justice, when people who knew Steinmark became emotional as they visited the set and watched the biopic being filmed.
While both the strengths and flaws of protagonists are highlighted in many successful biopics, Wittrock initially discussed how it was difficult for him to portray Freddie as such a nuanced character who’s known for being perfect in many aspects of his life. “It was great-I had met a lot of guys who knew him and played on the time with him. They all said, ‘He was the best guy I ever knew. He was a perfect person,’” the actor revealed. “So I had to get under his skin, and what gave him such a perfect veneer.”
Wittrock then explained that Steinmark was perceived to be such a perfect person because he wanted to be so ideal. “He believed in what he believed in…I think he tried to see the good in life, even in his darkest moments.” The actor also respected the fact that the football player was always asking how Mitchell was doing, even when he wasn’t feeling completely happy himself.
Also speaking of how Steinmark was considered to be so perfect by those who knew him, Bolger said “When you look at him, you think, there’s no way he’s that kind, nice, wholesome and good….But nothing bad seemed to happen to this guy” for most of his life, the actress pointed out. “Even as a freshman, he had this high position of a safety” on the football team. “Linda has said, ‘I have never met anyone else in my life who’s like this kid. Freddie was the best person I have ever met, and will probably ever know. He changed my life because of it.’”
On the prospect of playing a real person herself, Bolger noted that portraying Wheeler in ‘My All American’ was a complete change for her. She changed the way she normally wears her hair and make-up, and exchanged her Dublin accent for an American one, while shooting the biographical drama. “There’s this human who’s in California who’s going to see the film, and it scares me that she’s going to call me afterward” and discuss her transformation for her portrayal, the actress admitted. But she also noted how “good, wholesome, kind and supportive” Wheeler is, which partially attracted her to the role.
During filming of the biographical drama that focuses on Wheeler’s high school and college love, Bolger was surprised that the woman she was playing took the time to talk to her on the phone. The actress wondered if Wheeler wanted to discuss her relationship with Steinmark withher. “I would have completely understood if she didn’t want to speak with me. This was a big moment in her life. The love of her life died, and I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to go back to,” Bolger explained. “But she did, and she was so helpful and lovely.”
The actress added that Wheeler “shared all of these images with me, as well as these private notes that she and Freddie shared. I also spoke to her on the phone as I walked around the UT campus. She said, ‘There’s a post box that we met by.’ That made it real for me that I was walking in the footsteps that someone else did.”
While Bolger hoped to honor Wheeler and Steinmark’s relationship and memories, she feels that as an actress, she has to infuse a part of herself into all of her characters. “I was mirroring Linda more so than engulfing everything she said on the phone. I’m sure she didn’t want to watch an exact depiction of her. Since I never met her, it was hard to perfectly emulate her,” the actress explained.
Bolger also revealed that she’s grateful that she gets “about a week in between my projects to dive in” into her next role. “I’ve never had the problem of having to film two projects at the same time. So I get to fully develop my characters (on every project). They always require me to use a different accent from my own…no project ever really wants an Irish girl, which is so sad,” she divulged. “But I would love to do a project in Ireland, on which I get to be a Dublin girl, but it doesn’t happen too often.”
Wittrock also revealed how the physicality of his roles helps form his emotional connections to his characters. “I think sometimes people, especially younger actors, become obsessed with the physical aspect of their characters, like gaining or losing weight. That is a part of acting, but it’s not all of acting,” he revealed. While the physicality is “the way in” to connecting with a character, acting “is more about uncovering the character’s mentality and soul. The physical stuff then tends to naturally follow.”
The Emmy Award-nominated performer added that for his turn as Steinmark in the biopic, he didn’t need to try to connect with the character’s physicality. “I was working out every day on the set. I was also in this football boot camp, and was living like a football player,” he revealed.
Further discussing what the shoot for the movie, which was shot in Austin, was like, Wittrock revealed that it took place “in mid-July. But these poor extras had to act like it was mid-November, so they had overcoats on. The older ladies were passing out. So it was brutal.”
The community where the movie was filmed was also “so excited to have this story that had been so important to them for so many years was brought out into the world. So that’s why we all felt lucky to be a part of that,” Bolger revealed.
‘My All American’s lead actor added that while filming the scenes in which Steinmark was playing football, he received some “bumps and bruises, as imagined. I remember on the first day, we did this exorcise that involved three guys lying on their stomachs, and they had to continuously roll and jump over each other. I got a cleat to the shins. I was like, ‘Welcome to Texas!’”
Despite the injury he sustained while filming the football scene with his co-stars, Wittrock insisted that he “had a great community of actors around me. Aaron’s total dedication to being the coach showed that he didn’t have to act; he just became the coach. Sarah and Robin (Tunney, who played Freddie’s mom, Gloria) were also so present.” The performer also revealed that many of the supporting actors who portrayed the athletes on the football team hadn’t acted much before signing onto their roles. “For a lot of them, this was the first movie they were in. So there was a lot of excitement to it.”
Besides building authentic bonds with the other up-and-coming actors in the cast, Wittrock also noted that collaborating with Pizzo was also a powerful experience. “Obviously, he’s the tried and true sports guy. But as the director, he knew he was taking a big risk. So almost everyone was doing something new.”
Bolger also revealed what it was like collaborating with ‘My All American’s lead actor once they arrived on the set. “It was really important for us to be a close unit. You see Freddie and Linda almost instantly fall in love; there isn’t any frivolousness to the romance,” she explained. “Finn and I got along so well together. He’s such a good actor. I’m watching him in ‘American Horror Story’ right now-he’s so good!” She added that she thinks it’s great that her co-star has such natural talent that he can play such diverse characters as Steinmark in the biopic, as well as Dandy Mott and Tristan Duffy on the past two seasons of the acclaimed FX anthology series.
Wittrock also revealed that he would have liked to have lived during the era in which Steinmark’s story is set. “I would have loved to have seen Austin in the ‘60s. I fell in love with the city, even just being there for two months (during the shoot). But there’s still a hippie vibe lurking around the corners.” That atmosphere contrasted with Steinmark, who was clean-cut and the perfect example of what life was like in the ‘50s, the actor noted. “He was the all-American guy, and I would have probably been the long-haired hippie.”
Bolger also chimed in on whether she would have liked to live during the era that Wheeler and Steinmark dated. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t use Facebook and other social media; it’s a tool as much as anything else nowadays,” she admitted. “But I do think that their lives were so innocent and pure because of a lack of all of these things that make it so easy for people to have a wandering eye. Would I want to go back to that time? I’m not sure. But I loved living in that moment while we were making the movie.”
The lead actor also embraced how people who knew and were close to Steinmark, including his brother Sammy, were on the set as the drama was being filmed, and how emotional they became. “These tough ex-football players were weeping, which is when we knew we were onto something,” Wittrock admitted.
Bolger added that the people who knew the football player were “so emotional when they visited the set.” Seeing how sensitive everyone still was about Steinmark’s death, even decades later, made the actress feel humbled to help tell his story on screen.
The lead actress also said that representing Steinmark and Wheeler’s true story in a biopic, during which people who knew them both visited the set and collaborated on the story, added pressure of doing right by the couple. Many of the real-life counterparts of the film’s characters attended the shoots of UT’s football games. “There was a moment when Finn was on the field and Finn stumbled. I remember Sammy, Freddie’s brother, was there, and I thought, that’s so much pressure,” the actress revealed. She also divulged that “We wanted to respect the truth of what happened, but we also want to be creative as actors, and put our own spin on it…It was a huge responsibility.”
While Wittrock noted how he appreciates the opportunity he was given to portray such an icon as Steinmark in ‘My All American,’ he’s also values the chance to star as Tristan, a male model, in the current season of ‘American Horror Story: Hotel.’ Working with Lady Gaga, who plays The Countess, “is awesome; she’s a real work horse, which is something people may not know. She’ll be here in New York, accepting an award over the weekend, and then be on set (in L.A.) at 7am on Monday. But you’ll never have known that she had gone anywhere.”
The actor added that the six-time Grammy Award-winning singer-turned-actress “really went out of her way to show the cast that she’s a member of the ensemble…I think she did a lot to break the mystique about her. She hangs out with the crew and sings songs on set. She’s very approachable.”
Wittrock has received acclaim for his roles on the past two seasons of ‘American Horror Story,’ ‘Hotel’ and ‘Freak Show,’ and has also relentlessly and powerfully worked to translate that praise into his portrayal of his film characters. His roles on the hit thriller show are fictitious and are largely created within his own mind and through his collaborations with his fellow actors and the crew. However, the characters in some of his recent movies, including ‘My All American’ and last year’s fellow biographical sports drama, ‘Unbroken,’ are based on real people, so the characters’ fates are already mapped out.
The actor humbly admitted that “There are challenges to playing a real person who’s a legend. While the process is daunting, the good thing is that you do have references, because you have real people who really knew (the character). I also had the benefit of having two really great books” that both films are based on. ‘My All American’ was inspired by ‘Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story’ by Jim Dent, while ‘Unbroken’ is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 book of the same name.
“When you’re playing a character that was created by Ryan Murphy in his weirdest nightmares,” Wittrock laughed as he then started discussing his ‘American Horror Story’ roles, “you have to imagine that work. You still have to be as thorough about the person as you can, but it has to be done entirely through your imagination.”
With his current role of Tristan, “I decided that even though the story is modern, he’s a punk-rock guy from the ‘80s,” Wittrock explained. “So I immersed myself in bands like The Sex Pistols, who were popular when punk was starting. I listened that music every day. So you create a history if there isn’t one.” The actor added that he’s excited for devoted viewers of the show to witness his transformation throughout the rest of ‘American Horror Story: Hotel,’ which he described as something he’s never done before.
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