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MOVIES: Hitting the Mat with the Cast and Director of First Match

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Making its world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, First Match is the story of Monique (Elvire Emanuelle), a Brooklyn teenager who seeks to form a connection with her estranged father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) by joining her school's wrestling team, where her father had been a respected champion in his youth. Under the tutelage of Coach Castile (Colman Domingo), Monique quickly rises to prominence, but the relationship with her father evolves much differently than she anticipated.

On the morning of the film's world premiere, the cast of First Match - along with writer and director Olivia Newman - were gracious enough to share a few moments with me to discuss their work in the film, and their excitement about the first public screening.

Olivia, where did the inspiration for this film come from? I know it began life as a short and worked its way through the Sundance Lab to become a feature, but where did the idea originally spring from?

Olivia Newman: I had seen a documentary called Girl Wrestler, about a Texan wrestler. In Texas, they have a law that prohibits girls from competing against boys in full-contact sports. She was in eighth grade and facing the fact that she was going to end up on the bench all through high school, so I just started wondering about the girls that would wrestle in high school, if they had the choice. There was a growing number of girls all over the country that were joining boys' wrestling teams in high school, and so I really wanted to explore what that experience was like for a girl participating in a boys' sport.

So with the short film, I wanted to explore that experience of preparing for your first match against a boy. Because I was based in New York, the wrestlers I had access to were in the New York City public schools, and it was a different scene than the wrestlers I had been reading about, from the Midwest. It was an urban wrestling world, which is not typical of the sport, and I was looking for a wrestler with a really great film presence. I knew I was going to cast a wrestler, and not an actor, and the wrestler I cast happened to be from Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. And through the process of making the short film together and traveling with it to festivals and just becoming friends, she shared stories with me about growing up in Brownsville that were really interesting. So our friendship inspired the feature version of the film, which is very different from the short, and is grounded in her world of Brownsville.

Colman, you've done a lot of period pieces - things like Selma, Lincoln and Birth of a Nation - and in Fear the Walking Dead you're in this sort of alternate future. Is there something refreshing about playing a role that's just grounded in a reality that feels current?

Colman Domingo: Absolutely. I felt what was so interesting about this role was that he was sort of an ordinary guy - there were no bells and whistles about him at all, he was just sort to help be a good influence. He was very much an everyday man, and I was very drawn to him because of that as well. It's nice to play roles where I'm playing real, grown men. In this chapter of my career, I've been playing lots of fathers and coaches and principals and things like that, and I knew there could be more complexity, but you can be a bit simpler as well. It's nuanced in a very quiet way, and I've been drawn to more roles like that.

Looking at the two role model characters, with Coach Castile and with Monique's father, Daryl, there's a really interesting dichotomy there. On the outside, Coach Castile is obviously that most people would be drawn to, but Monique is willing to overlook a lot of her father's shortcomings and the things he's done to disappoint her. How did you strike that balance?

Olivia Newman: The script went through different iterations where the coach had more of a role, and I really wanted to focus on the team as being the family that [Monique] realizes that she has. I didn't want [Coach Castile] to overpower the team, I wanted him to be the father of this team. It was a fine balance to strike, because we've seen movies where it's "good father vs. bad father," and I didn't want Daryl to fall into just the "bad father" category. I wanted him to be complicated and for us to understand the draw to him, to believe that he truly loves his daughter but he just doesn't have the tools to truly guide her in the way that Coach Castile does. But I think all of our parents are flawed, and we love them despite that. I wanted both of those characters to be influences in her life, but not to have them battling against in other in this black and white, good vs. bad dichotomy.

Elvire, you and Yahya share a number of complicated emotional scenes in this film. How did you develop that authentic bond without carrying that emotional baggage home with you afterward?

Elvire Emanuelle: I think it's so relatable, because everybody wants to be loved by their father, and every father wants to be loved by their child. For me, it was just about trying to make it real. I don't have that dynamic in my personal life, but the idea is hurtful, and falling into what that means is what helped me. We also had times before shooting where we met to discuss the role with Livi, and there was a lot of preparation in understand the story that was being told.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen: I think we both bought into the idea that we were here to support these characters, and that these stories were not necessarily our own, but that we were playing the roles in order to tell an important story. And once we got on the same page about what the story was, it was just about leaning in and exploring all of the possibilities, figuring out we could best tell this story in a truthful way. I think for myself, that's the thing that allowed me to go home and not take my work home, because I feel like if I do a good job and commit myself on set and tell the story that we set out to tell, then going home is the easy part.

Do you have a preference for playing characters like this, that are more complex and complicated, and less from the clear-cut black-and-white mold?

Yahya Abdul-Mateen: I'm definitely drawn to the opportunities. If I'm given something that's black and white on the page, I'm inclined to look for the grey areas. Daryl is definitely a character that could have been just a typical bad father, but one of my goals was to make sure that he was a fully rounded and fleshed out character as much as possible, and that he could have a heart. In terms of my own interests, I'm really interested in challenging myself, and sometimes that can be fun with a character who is black and white, and maybe there's a mystery and you want to know where the grey areas are. But in this case, I was given a character that had a lot of different colors that I could explore, bit by bit.

The film is premiering at SXSW, which is one of my favorite festivals. What does that mean to you, to show up with a film like this and play in front of the SXSW audience?

Olivia Newman: I can't wait to experience the film with an audience, because as a filmmaker that's the end goal, to feel the room and to feel if the film is resonating with people. That theatrical experience is what I wait for, and I know the performances in the film are going to blow people away. And this is Elvire's real breakout role, and I cannot wait for audiences to get to know her.

Elvire Emanuelle: I was just saying to Livi how exciting it is to be somewhere that everyone is gathered all for the love of the art. It's definitely exciting to be here, and I'm so grateful, and I'm just waiting for someone to wake me up.

First Match was the recipient of the Luna Gamechanger Award at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, and will debut on March 30th, exclusively on Netflix. 

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