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Antoine Fuqua talks about his new film, Southpaw, playing college hoops, rooting for the Lions and why there aren't more great football movies

FUQUA, 49, HAS directed 20 features, including Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won the 2001 Best Actor Oscar. He took a few minutes from the set of his new movie, a remake of The Magnificent Seven, to talk about Southpaw, which opens on Friday.

You have an athletic background, including boxing. Is that still part of your life?

I've played sports my whole life. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I played hoops and got a scholarship to play at West Virginia State. My uncle was a football coach in the youth league, so I started when I was six and played all the way through high school. There was a boxing program at the Y in the Hill District that I took part in. I was always training and hanging around gyms. Pittsburgh has a rich tradition of boxing, and we did everything from slap boxing on the corners to stepping in the ring. Today, I box every day as part of my exercise.

You played for only two years in college. What happened?

My interests changed. I loved playing sports, but I fell in love with making art. Me and the coach had some friction, too, so I lost my appetite to play. I wish I had continued playing, but when you're young, and you think you're the best, you want to just charge ahead. When you get to a college environment you might have to be more about discipline or leadership or control, but when you're in it you don't see that.

You were a point guard, so is directing more like being a point guard or a coach?

Closer to a coach. There are different personalities and skill sets, some stronger in some things and some in others. Certain people are going to stand out—LeBron will stand out, Denzel will stand out—but you have to make everyone feel like they're on an equal level. There's usually around 300 people on a set and it's a team, and my job is to see all the skills and abilities that everyone has, utilize those properly and give everyone the chance to be the best he can be.

How did your background play into Southpaw?

The biggest thing I was hoping to say is that as an athlete you're all about winning, you're filled with fire and venom and confidence. But as you get older and slower, you've got to find another way. It's not just physical but mental, and you have to think more. You have to grow up as a man and a person because [immaturity] will affect your life.

When I started boxing I was a tough guy, so they put me in the ring with this soft-spoken featherweight, and I thought, I'm gonna tear his head off. He knocked me out. The trainer was teaching me that I could fight in the street, but I wasn't a boxer. This was a game of skill and a mental challenge. It was very humbling. And most boxers have a humbleness, deep down, because when you get in that world and see how vulnerable you can be—one punch in the right spot on the jaw can get anyone—you know the risk. You see that there's a science to it. For me, boxing is a metaphor for life and for what I do. Making a movie takes a year and a half. You gotta pace yourself, find a rhythm, find the angles, understand the personalities. The only way to win is by knowing what you're doing and putting it to work in a positive and precise way.

In Southpaw, Billy Hope, played by Jake Gyllenhaal (above), struggles to balance his life in the ring and out, which we see more and more with athletes. Did that play into your approach?

That's why I wanted to do this movie. Life is a fight. Every day these guys put their game face on, they get up at 5 a.m., and they're pushing and training and hitting the weights and they're rewarded for being aggressive and being alpha and developing those instincts. Then they go home, and they're a husband and a dad, and they have to behave differently. In the real world being aggressive, acting on those instincts, can get you in a tight spot. In this movie, this guy is thrust into the role of being a parent, but if you didn't put the time into learning how to be parent, into developing that side of yourself because you were dedicated to this other endeavor, it's a harrowing journey. Win or lose, the real fight is outside the ring.

This is your first sports movie. Have you avoided them on purpose or was it a matter of opportunity?

I always wanted to do one. A few years ago I developed a movie about the Steelers, about how sports help communities, but I didn't get to make it. I love Pittsburgh, and Steelers fans will get mad at me, but I can't help wanting to see the Lions win something, to help the city. When you put a winning team in a struggling place, people get a shot of positive. When Southpaw came along I was excited, because it's not really about sports, which is when sports movies are great. They're more about life outside the ring.

Why have there been so few great football movies?

People make them more about the game than the people. Look at the Gale Sayers movie [Brian's Song]—it was not about a game but about the relationship between two friends. The first Rocky was more about a guy, a bum who wanted his life to mean something, to make it to the end standing.

Who do you root for now?

I'll never not root for the Steelers, but, yeah, I would like to see the Detroit teams win. I like Golden State. My son, Brando, he's 10, he hipped me to Steph Curry. He knew they would be champs. That was fun.


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