For a guy writing and directing a film about professional wrestling, Stephen Merchant sure didn’t know a lot about professional wrestling.
The film is “Fighting With My Family” — a biopic based on the life of WWE superstar Paige, following her childhood in Norwich, England, as part of the Knight wrestling family. It hits theaters Friday.
“I had no knowledge of pro wrestling before I began this project,” admits Stephen Merchant, best known for co-creating the U.K. “Office.” “I never watched it. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Who he does know is Dwayne Johnson, with whom he co-starred in the 2010 classic “Tooth Fairy.”
“The project began life as a documentary which Dwayne Johnson saw on British TV,” Merchant says. “He couldn’t sleep one night when he was making ‘Fast and Furious’ in London, and he came across this documentary [‘The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family’]”
Merchant says the documentary spoke to Johnson, who also came from a wrestling family. When he decided he wanted to turn it into a feature film, he sought someone with an authentic British voice, which is something 44-year-old Merchant, who hails from Bristol, England, has.
“When the Rock sends you something, you take a look,” he says.
The film follows Paige (she uses a host of names, but we’ll stick with Paige for clarity), played by Florence Pugh, as she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) wrestle in World Association of Wrestling, the promotion run by their parents, Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey). It’s a film equally about wrestling and the dynamic between brother and sister and their dichotomy of success.
For Pugh, playing the physical role of a wrestler was a big departure from the rest of her work, which includes the BBC TV production of “King Lear,” where she stars as Cordelia alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins, and her upcoming film, the Greta Gerwig adaptation of “Little Women,” where she plays Amy March.
“You’re right, it is a totally 180 degrees,” Pugh says. “My interest in characters has always been about trying to find complex, interesting and sometimes confusing characters, because I think that’s who we all are. And partnered with the script that Steven wrote, and watching the documentary, it was such an exciting and inspiring story. I think I would have been a fool to not to want to be a part of it.”
Like Merchant, Pugh was a novice to pro wrestling.
“When I came to this job, it was such an eye-opening experience,” she says. “It was like wrestling 101 in the space of three months. So I learned a lot, and I can happily say when I came away from this film I had this newfound respect, and I just take my hat off to anyone who steps inside that ring.”
In terms of her in-ring work, Pugh says Merchant encouraged her to do as much of the grappling as possible. But that means lots of training, including CrossFit, and work with WWE wrestlers.
Paige was "a very difficult role to cast because you needed someone who had the charisma that Paige has, that you believed she could become a WWE superstar,” Merchant says. “You need someone who was actually willing, unlike me, to jump in and run the ropes and do as much of it as possible.”
Merchant says that after seeing Pugh give a “more controlled and stately performance” in the 2016 drama “Lady Macbeth, it “didn’t necessarily suggest that she could play this rough-and-tumble wrestler.” But in the end, after auditioning 60 actresses, Merchant said she did an “extraordinary job.”
“My admiration for her is off the charts,” he says.
Despite his desire for an actress willing to get physical, he says that he himself didn’t try any in-ring moves.
“I never even skied for fear of breaking my leg,” he says. “So I’m not jumping into a wrestling ring anytime soon. I was nervous about the extras injuring themselves. I thought, well, if I go down too, we’re never getting this film made.”