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Mike Pankow

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Paige biopic helped Stephen Merchant become wrestling fan

Paige biopic helped Stephen Merchant become wrestling fan

By Mike Pankow

February 13, 2019

Every fan remembers when Paige won the Divas Championship on her first night on the WWE main roster, but not nearly that many know the true underdog story of Saraya Bevis, the woman behind the superstar, and her journey to the bright lights and biggest stage of professional wrestling.

Paige’s ascent is now chronicled in a major motion picture, “Fighting with My Family,” which will be released nationwide in the United States on Feb. 22 following a limited release Thursday. The film is a fun-filled romp of heartbreak, sadness, joy and triumph.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, left, and Stephen Merchant first met while filming “Tooth Fairy” in 2010. Johnson pitched the idea for “Fighting with My Family” after seeing a British documentary about Paige’s family while filming “Fast & Furious 6.” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, left, and Stephen Merchant first met while filming “Tooth Fairy” in 2010. Johnson pitched the idea for “Fighting with My Family” after seeing a British documentary about Paige’s family while filming “Fast & Furious 6.” (Photo by Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

The idea of the film is based off a real-life documentary that aired about the family on British television in 2012. Paige’s family, based out of Norwich, England, a little over 100 miles northeast of London, was involved and invested in the wrestling business.

WWE legend and Hollywood megastar Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson saw the documentary while he was filming “Fast & Furious 6” in the United Kingdom. Johnson pitched the notion for a feature film to noted British actor and director Stephen Merchant, who along with Ricky Gervais created “The Office.”

Merchant, the writer and director of “Fighting with My Family,” explained how he and The Rock met during the filming of the 2010 movie “Tooth Fairy” and that the two kept in contact afterward.

“I stayed in touch with him and he saw the documentary on which this (movie is) based,” Merchant said on Jan. 31 during a Chicago media tour to promote the movie. “He became involved loosely in their lives as I dramatized in the film. He realized that it had a story and a shape and some characters that were really vivid.”

The story hit close to home for The Rock, whose extended family included many legendary stars, including his father Rocky Johnson, grandfather Peter Maivia, the Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika and current WWE Superstar Roman Reigns.

“I think the non-wrestling fans are going to resonate with “Fighting with My Family,” because there are a few elements in it that are universal: love, family, support, and perseverance,” The Rock said during the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “It’s something very important that young men and, especially, young women can lean into. It’s just this ideology that if you don’t fit into a box, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it or if you don’t conform, that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. The odds were stacked against her. That is a universal element that everyone can relate to.”

The original documentary called “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family” showed an inside glimpse at the lives of Paige’s family and their love affair with professional wrestling. It followed Paige working toward her dream of a contract with WWE and her brother Zak’s multiple failed attempts at making it to the big time.

The Knights, the surname by which they were known, were a simple, but crass family that bonded over wrestling, including Paige (who was then billed as Britani Knight) and her mother, “Sweet” Saraya Knight, are probably the most famous of the clan as both wrestled in the United States with Dave Prazak’s SHIMMER Women’s Athletes, which is based in the Chicago area.

“The Knight family are very much like I represented in the film,” Merchant said. “I really did not try to whitewash them or put any varnish on them. They’re very passionate. They’re very rough around the edges. They’re quite rude. They’re quite bawdy and abrasive, but they’re very lovable. They’re very sweet. They’re very intentionally funny. They’re very loving, they really love each other. They love wrestling almost as much.”

“Fighting with My Family” is a Rocky-like story, showing Paige’s evolution from a young girl rolling around the ring with Zak to the family’s fights with and against each for the World Association of Wrestling, the promotion ran by Paige’s father, “Rowdy” Ricky Knight.

Director Stephen Merchant, left, said he selected Florence Pugh from a group of about 16 young women to portray WWE Superstar Paige in the MGM Pictures film “Fighting with My Family. (Photo by Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Director Stephen Merchant, left, said he selected Florence Pugh from a group of about 16 young women to portray WWE Superstar Paige in the MGM Pictures film “Fighting with My Family. (Photo by Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Paige (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) sent tapes to WWE personnel hoping to get noticed, and finally the family received a phone call from WWE brass, a retired wrestler named Hutch Morgan (Chicago native Vince Vaughn), inviting them to a tryout in London. Morgan is loosely based on other former wrestlers who have become coaches and producers for WWE and NXT.

After a tryout camp held in conjunction with a WWE event, Paige was chosen for a WWE developmental contract while Zak was told he didn’t have what it took. Seeing her brother’s heartbreak, Paige went after Hutch, trying to convince the coach that he made a mistake in not taking Zak and even threatening not to come to America. But Paige decided to go to Florida and start her training for WWE at NXT (really FCW at the time).

The movie shows the difficulties of Paige trying to endure the grueling training sessions while being homesick and being chastised by fans and fellow trainees for being “different.” As many wrestling fans know, Paige was sort of an anti-diva. While possessing natural good looks, she had pale skin and dark hair and sported a piercing in her lip.

Pugh was brilliant in the role after Merchant picked her out of a large group of actresses.

“I needed someone who could play this young working-class woman from Norwich, England, who you believe was from that background, willing to do the wrestling, charismatic enough that you believe she can become a wrestling superstar and someone who could carry the movie with the acting chops to do so,” Merchant said. “I saw like 16 young actresses, but Florence was the one in the end who checked all those boxes.

During a holiday break from training, Paige was on the verge of quitting, but a heart-to-heart with her parents (Lena Headey and Nick Frost) and Zak convinced her to go back with reckless abandon.

Eventually, Paige realized her potential and ascended through the developmental ranks. While the movie glosses over her being the first NXT Women’s Champion, they culminate the story with the Rock telling Paige that she would be elevated to the WWE main roster.

Then the movie dramatizes that fateful moment on the day after WrestleMania in 2014. Then-Divas Champion AJ Lee (portrayed in the film by Thea Trinidad, currently Zelina Vega on the WWE SmackDown roster), challenged Paige, who surprisingly came out from backstage, on the spot for a title match.

Trinidad was spot-on with her portrayal of AJ Lee. While some elements of the match were embellished, the finish was the same as Paige hit her finisher, the Paige Turner, to score the pin and win the championship in front of an adoring crowd as her family watched on TV at home in Norwich.

Trinidad helped steal the show in the scene with her rich background in professional wrestling.

“Thea was someone Dwyane had discovered and became friends with,” Merchant said. “He sent me tapes of her, and I thought she was amazing. She studied AJ, she learned AJ’s rhythms of speech. Thea is a wrestler herself, so it’s slightly tricky for someone with their own identity to imitate someone else. But she did an amazing job.”

The casting was superb, including the performance of Headey, who was the perfect choice to play the crass and brash matriarch “Sweet” Saraya.

“Lena had heard about the project, she had seen the documentary,” Merchant said. “If you’ve seen her in “Game of Thrones,” you expect this very regal, sort of Ice Queen, but she is really goofy and fun and lovable in real life. And she, very sweetly, auditioned for me, even came down to convince me she was the right fit.”

It was a departure from playing Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” but Headey got down and dirty with the part with lip piercings, tattoos and all.

“I read the script because I saw the documentary years ago and loved the family,” Headey said at Sundance. “Then I got sent the script and I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to make a film of this naughty, brilliant family, I want a piece of that.’ ”

Merchant wasn’t a wrestling fan growing up, even telling a story of how his grandfather would watch it on British TV. He would quickly grow bored and walk out of the room.

The Rock took Merchant to WrestleMania 32 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, just outside Dallas. After his experience with The Rock and directing “Fighting with My Family,” Merchant changed his tune.

“That was really my first experience of it,” Merchant said. “I was won over. I really became a fan of it, because when you see it live and you see it there and you’re feeling the energy of the crowd, you’re seeing the showmanship of it, the theater of it, the dance of it, the stunt work of it, it’s hard not to be won over by it. It’s very, very entertaining. It’s like soap opera in spandex. That’s when I went, ‘I understand what this is now. I understand why this is pleasurable and fun.’ ”

Merchant, who also played Hugh, the father of Zak’s girlfriend in the film, worked diligently in making the film appeal to true wrestling fans. He immersed himself in the original documentary, spent extensive time with the Knight family and worked closely with The Rock on the movie’s production. It was a story, he thought, that transcended the genre and would leave an impact on people.

WWE Superstar Paige speaks during Monday Night Raw at Allstate Arena on Sept. 29, 2014. (Photo by Mike Pankow)

WWE Superstar Paige speaks during Monday Night Raw at Allstate Arena on Sept. 29, 2014. (Photo by Mike Pankow)

“I wanted it to be for wrestling fans, but I also want to really work for people like me who had no interest or knowledge of wrestling,” Merchant said. “I basically kept thinking, ‘Would my mom enjoy this?’ Because my mother doesn’t even know who The Rock is. So could I make her get emotionally invested in this movie? Could I make her love? Could I make her cry? Can I have her cheer for this girl by the end of the movie? So it’s like a true-life, Rocky underdog story. It has humor, it has heart. It has this family connection that is very relatable.”

Paige, herself, attended the premiere at Sundance and came away very happy.

“It’s 97 percent of my life,” she said. “The only thing that was a little bit inaccurate was when the Rock was screaming at me backstage. The rest of it is completely accurate. It’s a beautiful story. It’s uplifting and inspiring.”

Windy City Slam editor Mike Pankow interviews noted British actor/director Stephen Merchant about "Fighting with My Family," the upcoming biopic on WWE Superstar Paige. The interview was conducted during Merchant's Chicago media tour on Jan. 31, just days after the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

 “FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY” QUICK FACTS

Release dates: Thursday, Feb. 14 (U.S. limited), Friday, Feb. 22 (U.S. nationwide), Wednesday, Feb. 27 (UK).

Running time: 107 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13

Written & Directed by: Stephen Merchant

Executive Producers: Andy Berman, Hiram Garcia, Daniel Battsek, Tracey Josephs, David Kosse and Rhodri Thomas.

Producers: Kevin Misher, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Stephen Merchant and Michael J. Luisi.

Spotlighted Cast

Florence Pugh                                                                               Paige/Britani Knight

Jack Lowden                                                                                  Zak Zodiac

Lena Headey                                                                                 “Sweet Saraya” Knight

Nick Frost                                                                                       “Rowdy” Ricky Knight

Dwayne Johnson                                                                          The Rock

Vince Vaughn                                                                                Hutch Morgan

Thea Trinidad                                                                                AJ Lee

Guest appearances by: WWE Superstars Sheamus (Stephen Farrelly), The Big Show (Paul Wight) and The Miz (Mike Mizanan), NXT UK Superstar “Bomber” Dave Mastiff and independent wrestler Tessa Blanchard (stunts).

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