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In Focus

Inside Zac Efron’s dramatic body transformation for his role in The Iron Claw

Zac Efron, Harris Dickinson, and Jeremy Allen White packed on muscle and underwent intense training for their roles as the legendary Von Erich brothers in A24’s latest drama. WWE fan Nadine Smith speaks with the film’s real-life wrestlers and stunt coordinator about what it takes to get ring-ready

Tuesday 06 February 2024 06:00 GMT
Zac Efron turns in a tough but disarmingly tender performance as the last surviving Von Erich brother
Zac Efron turns in a tough but disarmingly tender performance as the last surviving Von Erich brother (A24)

There’s an inherent challenge when making a biopic about a great performer: how does the recreation of their art compare to the real thing? Movies such as Bohemian Rhapsody devote lavish attention to Freddie Mercury’s most iconic performances, while other biopics, like, say Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson) or Control (Ian Curtis) sidestep the artist’s work to focus on their interior life instead. Some actors, like Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, give themselves completely to their character, taking painstaking measures to capture one’s voice or mannerisms. If you’re Bradley Cooper, you might spend six years learning to conduct as preparation for the role of Leonard Bernstein in Maestro.

Sean Durkin’s new film The Iron Claw explores a very different kind of performance: the bloody spectacle of American professional wrestling. The film tells the uniquely tragic story of the Von Erichs, a dynasty that dominated wrestling throughout much of Texas during the 1980s. Headed by rigid patriarch Fritz Von Erich, the family produced six sons, five of whom went into the wrestling business at their father’s encouragement.

These days, American wrestling is synonymous with the cartoon monopoly of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), but only a few decades ago the landscape looked dramatically different. From the end of the Second World War up until the 1980s, wrestling in the US was governed by a mafia-style network of loosely affiliated promoters. These promoters each controlled individual regional territories but worked in concert to keep the business in a chokehold. Fritz owned one such region: World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) ran the show in North Texas and Oklahoma, with its homebase at the storied Dallas Sportatorium. In the early cable era, WCCW was on the cutting edge, showing off high production values and eye-catching editing far beyond what most other weekly wrestling shows were capable of. The company was a pioneer in the use of pop music for entrance themes and video packages: the Von Erichs pumped up their loyal fans with the heavy riffs of rock anthems like Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and ZZ Top’s “La Grange”.

As the beloved heroes of their father’s company, the Von Erichs were the quintessential boys next door – musclebound but morally upright. They were adored not just in their home state of Texas, but also around the world, revered by audiences from Tokyo to Tel Aviv. Professional wrestling, however, takes a hard toll on the body and the mind, and the glory of the Von Erich boys came with tremendous personal suffering. The family’s firstborn, Jack Sr, died in a freak accident as a toddler, and tragedy seemed to follow the family ever after: David Von Erich would pass away in 1984 while on a wrestling tour in Japan – while brothers Mike, Chris and Kerry would all die by suicide. The Iron Claw is told from the perspective of the last surviving Von Erich brother, Kevin, played by a tough, though disarmingly tender Zac Efron.

Efron, along with co-stars Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson, underwent a brutal training regimen to bulk up for the film. Alongside their physical transformations, the actors were required to become proficient enough in the fundamentals of wrestling that they could perform many of the moves themselves. In an interview with Men’s Heath, Dickinson shared that he “gained a huge amount of respect for the world of wrestling, because of the discipline and the sacrifices”.

The Von Erichs, pictured from left to right: Kerry, Fritz, Kevin, Chris (front), Mike and David (Supplied)

Professional wrestling matches may be coordinated and sometimes choreographed ahead of time, but by no means are they easy. It’s not uncommon for wrestlers to spend years training before even thinking about their first match, logging hours in the gym just throwing themselves against the mat over and over. At times, wrestling demands a level of stamina and strength beyond even what quote-unquote regular athletes are expected to give. They must not only be able to lift hundreds of pounds of muscle over their heads, but possess the endurance to move non-stop, as well as the coordination to fall realistically and without injury – all the while, making it look effortless and natural. On top of that, they’ve got to be charismatic personalities on the microphone.

The Iron Claw successfully captures the adrenaline rush of old-school wrestling thanks in part to the involvement of real wrestlers. Former WWE superstar Chavo Guerrero Jr has carved out a niche as Hollywood’s go-to wrestling consultant, with credits on projects such as Netflix’s hit series GLOW, the Alison Brie-starrer that takes place in the spandex-laden world of women’s wrestling in the Eighties.

His work on The Iron Claw is something of a full-circle moment. His father, Chavo Sr, wrestled multiple members of the Von Erich family. In The Iron Claw, actor and wrestler Ryan Nemeth portrays Gino Hernandez, one of WCCW’s most dependable bad guys and a regular opponent of the Von Erich brothers throughout the 1980s. Until his death in 1985, Hernandez was one of the top heels – professional wrestling parlance for a bad guy – throughout Texas, naturally overflowing with an arrogance that made him deliciously fun to hate. “Sometimes I would even suggest to Chavo, maybe we can do this or that to make it more authentic, because I literally saw Gino doing it with your dad,” says Nemeth.

Harris Dickinson as David Von Erich in ‘The Iron Claw’ (House Claw LLC)

Nemeth knows first hand the sort of unexpected skills you’re required to develop as a wrestler. “People shouldn’t have this skill set – but I have it,” he says with a laugh. “Nobody’s supposed to get slammed into the ground, even if it’s a wrestling mat.” In addition to his appearances for All Elite Wrestling (AEW) as the showboating platinum blonde “Hollywood Hunk”, Nemeth has worked extensively as an actor, comedian, and screenwriter for over a decade.

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“With The Iron Claw, it really felt like everything coming together for me: acting and playing a character on camera, but also using these bizarre skills I have from wrestling,” he says. “I remember texting my girlfriend and telling her that this is what I should be doing with my life. I wish we could make one of these a year.”

The Hollywood Hunk’s experience on screen and in the ring made him uniquely suited to assist with a film like The Iron Claw. “The main difference between an actual live pro wrestling match and wrestling for film is that you have to do it so many times,” he explains. “We had footage of Harris Dickinson throwing a hip toss and then putting the Claw on and getting an amazing silhouette shot. They asked me to be in the shot, and I thought it would be like 10 minutes or half an hour, but I had to take like 50 or 60 hip tosses. Any wrestlers who read this know that taking one hip toss isn’t that hard, but 60 of them? That’s pretty hard.”

Standing by on set, Nemeth became another go-to encyclopaedia of wrestling knowledge for Efron and co. “When I wasn’t wrestling as Gino, every morning I would text Chavo and ask to come help, because it would mostly be lifelong actors or stunt doubles who aren’t wrestlers,” says Nemeth. “So, for some of these big matches that they filmed, I would just be available on hand for someone to go, ‘Wait, which one’s a body slam? Which is the suplex?’ On those days I was getting just as sweaty as when I was doing the Gino matches.”

Efron, Allen White, and Dickinson might be new to the wrestling business, but Nemeth has nothing but praise for his co-stars, who were eager to learn – and also paid their dues, so to speak. “Those guys are all amazing, and they were so well prepared because they had been watching nonstop Von Erichs’ matches,” he says. “The first day I showed up to stunt rehearsal, I went into the gym and saw Zac standing there with Harris right next to him watching the Von Erichs on the monitor. I saw that they were taking it very seriously.” Wrestling may be more physically intensive than learning how to conduct or sing, but the actors were up for it. “Zac was jumping off the top rope and he didn’t need to! There’s one shot of Harris throwing a dropkick and you can tell it’s definitely him because there’s no cutaway,” he says, clearly impressed.

Like his castmates, Nemeth dug deep into old-school wrestling footage and closely studied the real in-ring work of his character. “I basically would go to YouTube and type ‘Gino Hernandez versus’ and then watch every single thing I possibly could,” he recalls. “I would ask friends who have that encyclopaedic brain for wrestling what their favourite Gino Hernandez matches were, and I asked the old-timers that trained me when I came up if they knew him and what he was like.” Hernandez was a perfect foil to the upstanding Von Erich boys: a cocksure cheater with perfectly coiffed hair and aviator glasses that almost never left his face. In one of the most memorable bouts of the Von Erich boys’ career, in 1985, Kevin and Kerry wrestled Gino and his tag team partner “Gentleman” Chris Adams in a “hair versus hair match” – a contest in which the loser has to have their head shorn. The preening vanity of Gino’s persona made him a natural fit for a match in which his personal appearance is put on the line. There was as much physical comedy to his performance as athletic ability.

‘The Iron Claw’ captures the adrenaline rush of old-school wrestling thanks in part to the involvement of real wrestlers (House Claw LLC.)

Nemeth’s cinematic immersion into Hernandez started coming through in his actual wrestling work, too. “I even started sneaking some of his mannerisms in the ring into matches in AEW,” he confides. “Of course, no one’s doing impressions or impersonations of famous wrestlers. We’re telling a story by bringing to life the highlights and mannerisms of a character that does not exist any more.”

Wrestling is a bizarre business, meaning it runs primarily on passion: the ultimate motivator to do such dangerous things with your body isn’t money, but because you love it beyond reason. That sense of dedication is essential to a movie like The Iron Claw, not just to ensure accuracy in the performance of wrestling, but to capture the crazy spirit that propelled performers like the Von Erichs. In both the physical commitment of its actors and the on-screen narrative, The Iron Claw is about enduring and moving forward, even when it hurts.

‘The Iron Claw’ is in UK cinemas on 9 February

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