Last month, we shared the teaser for “Catch the Fair One”, an upcoming thriller starring WBA super lightweight champion Kali “KO” Reis.
It’s the first major acting role for Reis, and the second film from director and writer Josef Kubota Wladyka. They sat down for a discussion with Bad Left Hook in advance of the film’s world premiere. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
I had a chance to watch your film… It’s very good, very well done. But, given the weight and the subject matter, it feels a little inappropriate to say “I really enjoyed it!” So, I wanted to start by asking both of you: What sort of response are you hoping for from the audience?
Josef Kubota Wladyka: For me, as a filmmaker, I want an audience to feel like they’ve gone through a crazy ride with suspense, tension, and drama. And they leave the film thinking about the themes and the ideas it’s touching on. In no way is the film an answer to what it’s touching on. But if it leaves people thinking about it and brings awareness to it? That’s what I’m hoping for.
Kali Reis: To piggyback off that, something I do with boxing and with my platform is to bring awareness to missing and murdered indigenous people. To get those underrepresented faces of indigenous, mixed, northland tribes out there, to get that message across that indigenous people are still here. There are still issues we deal with on a daily basis that can happen next door. To feel that rage, that anger, that sorrow, that sadness and emptiness that people lose their loved ones, that she’s feeling in this film for her sister. To raise those questions for people who may not know that MMIW stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, or may think that’s a past problem. Just be aware and motivate some kind of change and awareness.
How did you two find and connect with each other, and how did the original script or outline change once Kali was officially cast in the role?
JKW: We got together in 2017. At the time, I was getting really into boxing, trying to learn and appreciate and watch it a lot more. Through a friend’s boxing gym and social media, I found KO. I was immediately drawn to her because she’s a world-class boxer. But also, she’s an artist, an activist who uses her platform to speak out on things she really cares about. I’m trying to do the same thing with my films, so I was drawn to her. I reached out and said “Hey, can I meet up with you?” I drove up to Providence and started hanging out with her. At the time, she was training for a fight. So she was going to the gym several times a day, and I asked to tag along and just take some pictures. We go to a typical tough gym, hot and sweaty and teeming with jacked up dudes, and there’s KO doing her routines. It comes time to spar, and she takes out her cheek piercings, puts on her headgear, and starts going toe-to-toe with these guys. It was in that moment, there was a truth and grace to her. I said “there’s a movie here.” So we started talking about collaborating on a film together. The initial idea was just bare bones, a woman looking for her sister because we were both raised by older siblings, so we knew we wanted it to start there. I invited her into the creative process; I wanted to partner, I wanted her perspective and insight. We just started working from there, created the fictitious KO and this story of a boxer who lost her sister, and two years later we were shooting in the fall of 2019. It was a great collaboration.
It seems like there are two different philosophies in working with performers who aren’t Actors by trade. Some people want to minimize rehearsal to keep as much natural energy as possible, and others rehearse extensively to work out as much anxiety as possible. How did you two approach this film together, and did it change at all along the way?
JKW: I think it comes down to the individual person you’re working with. With KO, first of all, I wanted her to have a creative part in the process. We started with improvisations, acting exercises, just shooting silly stuff to prepare her for what we need to pull from. One of my friends would come and we’d all just improvise and explore. But there’s a certain precision to this film, and I knew we could take it a step further. My casting director Allison [Twardziak] told me about this great acting coach in New York named Sheila Gray. When we got closer to shooting, I knew we needed to take another step. So, I basically…
KR: [Laughing] Threw me in to the wolves. Sent me to boot camp.
JKW: She crashed in my tight studio apartment and went to acting boot camp with Sheila. To prepare her also for the logistical pattern of shooting a narrative film. I give a lot of credit to Sheila for preparing her.
One of the things acting and boxing have in common is that you have to have a special kind of courage to try them, but they both have a way of humbling you when things maybe don’t go your way. You did a phenomenal job in your first feature film role, but was there any point along the way where you felt a little concerned about taking this opportunity?
KR: No. Once the decision was made, like with boxing, I have a purpose outside of myself. I have a purpose for my people, I fight for a cause, not just for Instagram likes. I have a work ethic where if there’s a goal I have, I’ve set it. However I get there, whatever needs to be done, I can have an expectation, an outline of how I’m going to get there. And boxing has trained me to be adjustable. To be comfortable with being uncomfortable. So, I told myself no matter what I have to do to get this done, I’m going to do it. At no point did I ask, “Why am I doing this? Oh my God!” It was so important for us to make this. I just wanted to, like with boxing, prepare myself in the best way possible to perform.
JKW: I think there’s also a lot of character parallels. We’re doing a lot of very technical shots with precise marks. And maybe because boxing relies so much on peripheral vision, she was just a natural at it. It was like working with a seasoned pro. And the same thing, just having the courage. A lot of it is like jumping off a ledge, right?
KR: [Laughing] It’s more like you pushed me.
One thing that seems tricky about a film depicting human trafficking and sexual violence is keeping the focus where it belongs. Like the cliché about how it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, because there’s things inherent to showing combat and battles that make them look exciting. But you did very well at avoiding any sort of eroticism that can come from nudity and sexual content, and keeping the focus clearly on the human trauma and emotional toll on Kali’s character and the trafficked women we meet along the way. How important was that to you, and how did you make it happen?
JKW: It was really important to us, first of all with the visual language, to not glamorize it in any sort of way. For us, it was always about keeping it grounded in the emotions of what Kali was going through as she gets taken into this world. Obviously, I’m a male, but I have KO’s perspective, all of my producers are women, and I’m asking for and relying on their perspective and insight on what’s right, what’s too much. Because we did not want to glamorize any of that. I think the idea was to ground it in the reality of the character’s circumstances. And often, it’s scarier if you suggest, but don’t show. A lot of stuff is left off-screen, because I think it’s enough to understand through the feeling of what’s happening.
Kali, there’s a scene in the early part of the film where you’re struggling hard on multiple levels, but in the middle of it all, someone recognizes you as a fighter. It’s a nice moment for your character and you as a performer, and I’m curious if that’s something that you brought to the story yourself?
KR: It was an aspect that Josef brought, actually. It was an interesting place to explore, because it could be a place of shame, or one of pride. It depends on your emotional state. And her emotional state at that point in the story, she doesn’t want to be recognized. She just wants to find her sister. In my real life, if I get recognized? Personally, I try to stay under the radar. In her mind, she doesn’t even want to be seen. I’m not coming from where she was… She’s embarrassed, because it’s a reminder of what she tries to remember and forget at the same time. Where she was at her top when her sister was by her side is a sad moment for her. But, she’s trying to be nice.
You obviously put on a hero face for the kid who recognizes you. Makes me think about Joe Smith Jr. knocking Bernard Hopkins out of the ring, then going to work on a construction job later the same week.
KR: Yeah, because most boxers, we have to go to work in the morning after a fight. You go to New Zealand, you don’t get paid, then we have to go open the store to make a living.
You aren’t the only person boxing fans might recognize from this film. Shelly Vincent plays a big supporting role. You two are both from Rhode Island. Did you bring her in on this film, or did Josef meet you both at the same time?
JKW: At the time, they were roommates. Shelly, I knew she had the charisma and the charm. They would post a lot of workout videos together, and there’s a chemistry between them. Originally, the character was a guy, but we both agreed we have to have her play this character. A strong person not just in boxing, but preparing her for something more.
KR: We’ve known each other for a very long time. That’s my life, we call each other like brother and sister. Nobody else could have played that character, especially in the context of the film, but Shelly. Oddly enough, once we get to filming, we weren’t particularly close as friends at the time. We had to have a reconciliation that was really healing for us. And also put so much more into the performance. There was just no way anyone else could have played that part. For that character, and my character, to have her helping [my character] as the only person that she can really trust.
Claressa Shields led a pay-per-view card earlier this year. One of the things that was great to see was how many high profile guys tried to put a spotlight on it, encouraging people to buy and watch it. Are you hoping for that sort of community support from the boxing world for this film?
KR: Oh, absolutely. I’m hoping we can bring the boxing community into the film world and have that support as well. With movies, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what your background is when you sit down and watch it. As long as the message gets portrayed. And I’m excited for the boxing world to see, I don’t just throw my hands! [Laughs]
“Catch the Fair One” will world premiere on Sunday, June 13th as part of the US Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. Distribution details and public release dates have yet to be announced.