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How actors in 'The Boys in the Boat' trained to appear believable as Olympic athletes

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Actors frequently learn new skills for their movie roles. For "The Boys In The Boat," these actors had to get really good at rowing, good enough to believably play the U.S. men's national team in the 1936 Olympics. NPR's Mandalit del Barco brings us the story behind a holiday movie that's based on a bestselling book and directed by George Clooney.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOYS IN THE BOAT")

JOEL EDGERTON: (As Coach Al Ulbrickson) Row.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

EDGERTON: (As Coach Al Ulbrickson) Row. Row. Come on.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "The Boys In The Boat" is based on a real-life group of students at the University of Washington.

DANIEL JAMES BROWN: These were hardscrabble kids. They were the sons of loggers and dairy farmers and shipyard workers, and none of them had ever rowed a lick in his life when they turned out for crew at Washington.

DEL BARCO: Daniel James Brown, who wrote the book the film is based on, says the guys overcame the odds to beat rivals at UC Berkeley and elite universities on the East Coast and in England.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOYS IN THE BOAT")

EDGERTON: (As Coach Al Ulbrickson) Row.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Row.

WALLY WINGERT: (As character) And they're off.

DEL BARCO: And three years after they learned to row, they competed against the German team in the 1936 Olympics, presided over by Adolf Hitler.

(CHEERING)

DEL BARCO: Getting "The Boys On The Boat" (ph) to the screen wasn't easy. Brown says he sold the film rights more than 10 years ago.

BROWN: Originally, it wound up at the Weinstein Company, which was, of course, a disaster.

DEL BARCO: Film production was stalled for years as producer Harvey Weinstein was tried and eventually convicted of rape and sexual abuse. After Weinstein's company dissolved, MGM picked up the film rights and hired George Clooney to direct.

GEORGE CLOONEY: I said in the auditions to the guys, dude, if you're not an athlete, we'll have to fire you, because we can't do it. You can't just come in and say, yeah, I'm an athlete.

DEL BARCO: Clooney's actors may have played soccer and other sports, but rowing was new to them.

They had to look like they were an Olympic team.

CLOONEY: Yes.

DEL BARCO: And at the beginning, they didn't necessarily.

CLOONEY: That's maybe the greatest understatement in the history of understatement.

CALLUM TURNER: Oh, very kind.

CLOONEY: That was really kind.

TURNER: Why are you being so generous?

CLOONEY: No. No. It was really like - it was shocking. You know, we could put eight kangaroos in a boat, and it would have been more coordinated when we first saw - with those - with their little arms. Yeah. Exactly.

DEL BARCO: Clooney filmed the story in England, chronologically, as the actors built up their skills and endurance.

TURNER: It was a gigantic task.

DEL BARCO: British actor Callum Turner plays the main character, Joe Rantz.

TURNER: We did five months of training, basically. We rode four hours a day for two months. We worked out for an hour on top of that. We had the nutritionists, physio, PT, the whole shebang. And as you know, rowing is excruciating.

DEL BARCO: I did know. And during my interview with Turner and Clooney, I mentioned my own experience.

For, like, a few months, I was on the crew team at UC Berkeley, Cal Bears.

CLOONEY: You were - ah.

TURNER: Wow.

DEL BARCO: So...

TURNER: So you know. Did we do a good job?

DEL BARCO: Yeah.

TURNER: Great. And they set us up to succeed. They gave us the best of the best, and it's the closest that I ever experienced to being part of a professional sports team.

DEL BARCO: It may look easy, but as Callum Turner says, rowing is really hard to learn. I took a lesson in Marina del Rey with coach Iva Boteva of iRow Fitness. She had briefly trained Joel Edgerton, who played the coach in the movie.

I'm hoping the muscle memory comes back at least a little bit.

IVA BOTEVA: Yeah. Let's find out.

DEL BARCO: OK.

BOTEVA: The one advice I would give you is to give yourself time, OK?

DEL BARCO: OK. Look. First step, get in the boat.

BOTEVA: So you're going to hold your handles here. Push the seat back.

DEL BARCO: Boteva of her had me in a single sculling boat, not an eight-person crew boat like in the movie. But the movements and the foundation are similar. She showed how to square and feather the oar, extending arms and legs, how to finish each stroke.

BOTEVA: Catch the water. Push with the legs. Pull the back. Pull the arms. That was it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DEL BARCO: It's all coming back to me now.

BOTEVA: Push, push, push. Oh, that was a nice stroke.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DEL BARCO: By the end of the lesson, I was rolling smoother and faster, but nowhere near the precision, speed and strength of an Olympian. By the time they finished filming "The Boys In The Boat," the actors were able to row like real champs. Here's Turner and Clooney again.

TURNER: We'd built up some sort of momentum in the...

CLOONEY: The last eight days of the shoot with the race.

TURNER: Yeah.

CLOONEY: And they got it.

TURNER: And we managed to do it. And I remember - kind of similar to in the film when they're like, did we win? Did we win? We were like, did we do it? Did we do 46 strokes?

CLOONEY: Yeah.

TURNER: And we were in shock. We couldn't believe that we'd actually achieved the thing. And as you know, you know, there's, like, this bond that you make that's so special, and it's unique to any other sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOYS IN THE BOAT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, inaudible).

DEL BARCO: George Clooney says he hopes that spirit of camaraderie makes "The Boys In The Boat" a feel-good movie for the holidays.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.