When he was 12 years old, Alex Shaffer was cast as Samuel in his middle school's production of The Pirates of Penzance. He auditioned again a year later for the seventh-grade play, this time to no avail. No big shakes. Already a promising wrestler who had been pounding the mats since kindergarten, the Hunterdon, N.J., teenager walked away with his ego intact.
But when a local newspaper ran an ad last February seeking young grapplers for a film role, a friend implored Alex to give it one more go. Slight problem: It was wrestling season. "I was like, No man, that's lame, I want to focus on wrestling!" says Alex (who would go on to win New Jersey's 119-pound division). With a little more prodding, he went for it. Then he was called back. And back again—eight times, by Alex's count, before he finally got the role.
In Win Win, which screened to rave reviews at Sundance last month and which opens on March 18, Alex, now 17, teams with Paul Giamatti (Sideways), who plays Mike, a struggling middle-aged lawyer and after-hours coach of a high school wrestling team that consistently comes out on the bottom. A complicated twist of events brings ace wrestler and troubled teen Kyle (Alex) into the picture, and here the young actor's relative inexperience brings an air of sincerity to his brave performance as a runaway who shoulders his pain quietly—until he's on the mat.
Director Thomas McCarthy, a onetime wrestler himself, preferred the challenge of teaching an athlete to act rather than the other way around. And by the end of 37 days of filming, Alex rediscovered what had drawn him to acting in the first place, that it provided an outlet for his gregarious personality.
With a harsh twist of fate, acting may be where Alex stays. After filming wrapped, he learned of a stress fracture in his L5 vertebrae. Once ranked No. 25 in the U.S., he had to swallow the pill. "I won't be wrestling again," says Alex, who is already back on the audition trail. "I really enjoy wrestling, but now I got [acting]. And I really enjoy that too."
KIMBERLY WRIGHT/¬©2010 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX (GIAMATTI AND SHAFFER)
MAT LOCK Shaffer (right, with Giamatti) is a near sure thing on- and offscreen as a wrestler.
¬©FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (POSTER)