Legendary is the Karate Kid-style story of a gangly high schooler, Cal Chetley, who goes against the wishes of his mother (Patricia Clarkson) to join the school wrestling team. Cal wants to wrestle in part to gain confidence, but mostly to get closer to his estranged and emotionally closed-off older brother, Mike, a former HS-wrestling stand-out.
WWE and action-film star John Cena plays Mike, appearing in a much more quiet, thoughtful role than usual. Legendary also features Danny Glover as another of Cal’s wise mentors, and Californication‘s Madeleine Martin as the young man’s friend-with-romantic-potential.
Last week I spoke on the phone with the film’s star, 23-year-old Devon Graye. Best-known for playing the young Dexter on Showtime’s Dexter, Graye talked with me about his first feature-film starring role, playing the charmingly John-Boy-Walton-esque Cal, and of course learning to wrestle.
Devon Graye: The huge thing about Legendary was that it centered on this young kid who was bullied and kind of alienated in school but had the strength to keep on going, and was kind of a hero in his own right. He wasn’t a popular kid and was kind of a bookworm, but he was confident–he knew he had to make a difference for himself and for his family. I thought that was very attractive, seeing someone who was so young who had this difficult attitude about life–this was something you don’t normally see in characters in high school. I think that was what drew me to Cal’s character. And I just I love the story, the relationship between the mother, the son, and the brother–all of that is very attractive.
Graye: I would say Cal is one of the closest characters to me that I’ve ever played. I’ve played a lot of darker characters, like the bad boys or teenage killers–I was playing a lot of dark sadistic teenagers. So Cal is so much more who I really am and a lot like who I strive to be–someone who’s always positive and always looking on the bright side. When it got to the wrestling stuff, that became more challenging because I’m not usually athletic and I’m not super ambitious when it comes to physical sports or anything.
You strive to have all of those elements come together without making them too syrupy sweet or too sappy. Playing a character who’s immediately so good, you don’t want him to be so good that he’s almost bland. So that determination and that fire Cal has kind of needs to be there to balance it.
Graye: I grew up in an artistic home where my dad was a vocal major and my mom was heavily artistic as well, so sports weren’t a huge thing growing up in my house. But this script was half about the wrestling, and half about the heart of the family, so you can’t really fake any of that. I knew would have to be a good actor in the family scenes but also be a good wrestler by the end of the movie. So I felt incredibly intimidated jumping into this world of wrestling that I knew nothing about. My first day of wrestling training in LA, I felt so much like a fish out of water. I was so petrified to be there and to be learning this sport–I didn’t have confidence in myself that I could do it.
But by the end of the six-week shoot I felt very confident and very secure. That’s a huge credit to the wrestling coaches that they brought on, these two great local high school wrestling coaches from New Orleans, Jonathan Orillion and Matt Pinero. They were just amazing teachers and worked so hard. They were so passionate about the film, helping me every single stress-filled day and answering every single question I had.
We’d go to different wrestling tournaments and daily practices, and I’d wrestle with some of the guys there. Afterwards we’d go out to eat with them, and they were so worried about their weight and what they could and couldn’t eat. I saw how dedicated to this sport they were and how it just takes over every little aspect of their lives.
Graye: Patricia, John, and Madeleine all come from different acting backgrounds and have very different acting styles, so it was a lot of fun to kind of see and learn from each other. And I do see Cal as the ground that keeps all the other characters straight. That’s another thing that potentially drew me to the character–its kind of remarkable to play a character who is the glue that holds it all together.
I have a very close family and so all of that felt normal. I didn’t have to fake any real emotion–I was feeling it all both on and off screen. Once you’re there with the other actor the relationship develops naturally. Patricia really believed she was my mother, and I felt like John was this older brother who I really looked up to. I’m not a method actor, but I tricked myself into believing things for a little bit of time, which is something I think every actor wants to feel, to feel truly connected to the other characters.