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Seabiscuit Interviews: Gary Stevens

The Interviews:

Gary Stevens
(plays George Woolf)
Chris Cooper
(plays Tom Smith)
Jeff Bridges
(plays Charles Howard)
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Date: 07/15/2003
by Staci Layne Wilson

Q: What is more difficult, acting or horseracing?

Gary:  I don't know. It's difficult to say.

Q: Did you get tips from the other actors, never having acted before?

Gary:  Um, I've been trying to act like a jockey for 20 years. (laughs)

No, not really. Kathleen [Kennedy], Frank [Marshall], and Gary Ross sent me to see Larry Moss up in Palo Alto [Moss is one of the most famed acting coaches in Hollywood]. He was directing a play up there at the time and they sent me for basically three days for sessions with him. I was horrified, and intimidated; I didn't know what was going to happen. Basically, I sat for three hours with Larry the first night getting to know him. We just BS'ed. Next night, I showed up, read through the entire script with him all the way through, and he said, 'This is easy for you.' I said, 'I'm not doing anything.' He winked at me and said, 'Exactly.' And we didn't have a third session. He called Gary up and said, 'I'm sending this guy home.' Called Gary up and said, 'This George Woolf character is Gary. I don't want to mess with it.' He told me to go home. We were about a month away from starting the shoot and he told me, 'Just enjoy your last month of riding, golf, and everything. Then enjoy the film.' He was there for Tobey and I on a couple of occasions when we had some scenes that we thought would be difficult. He was there for moral support. That was my education.

Q: What had you heard about George Woolf before taking on the role?

Gary:  Yes. As far as his character, I knew a lot about him before Seabiscuit [the book] was even written. I'm very close friends with a guy named Chip Sterinolo who owns The Derby Restaurant, which was once George's. And I had my 25th birthday party up in his [Woolf's] old apartment. Anytime I've had a small dinner party or whatever, dating back to 1984, it's always up in George's apartment. I've actually held his Jockey's Apprentice certificate in my hands. The restaurant is supposedly haunted. After 2 a.m., lights will turn out, pictures lop sideways. He's a friendly ghost, but he's there. I've spent a lot of time in that restaurant and feel that there's a definite presence.

I feel like I knew the guy. Like I've known him all my adult life. Maybe that's why I was comfortable playing the part. There are a lot of similarities between George Woolf and myself, as far as our riding careers have gone. I hope the similarities don't stay too close! (laughs)

George was a legend. His statue is here at Santa Anita. He was way ahead of his time in terms of his riding style, the way he planned for races, and then there was his off-track presence. He always dressed to the nines, he drove the best cars, always had money. He was a very compassionate character. He didn't want anybody to know that he was as caring as he was. He helped people out, and they didn't know where that help came from. He was an intimidating character also, with his peers. Sometimes that can take you a long ways before a big race, if you can psych out your opponent.

Q: Do jockeys really talk so much during a race? [as was shown in the movie]

Gary:  Yes, Sometimes in a cheaper race you enter the stretch or the far turn and you're ten lengths off the lead and you know you have absolutely no chance of winning... it get boring back there. We'll say, "So... what are we doing tonight?" and things like that.

Q: How is Seabiscuit remembered in the racing business?

Gary:  His statue is here, too. There has always been and east coast / west coast rivalry with every sporting event and even with politics. Seabiscuit was the horse that put west coast racing on the map. He's what got us recognized as major league racing instead of west coast cowboys. Which is how New Yorkers perceived our racing.

Still to this day, we're not respected a whole lot. That's old school racing out there. That's where the blueblood horses are raced.

Q: Did you spend time with Tobey off-set?

Gary:  Yes. We spent a lot of time prior to shooting just to get comfortable with each other. A lot of time on the phone, to build that relationship we had together on the film. Basically, what you saw in the film is the way we are. There was lots of ribbing, but it's friendly. He gave me the confidence I needed for acting. I didn't know if I was doing a good job, bad job, whatever. To get a little pat on the shoulder once in awhile just helps the confidence a lot. It was the same with his riding. He didn't know if he was doing a good job or a bad job, and I was able to tell him. I don't pull too many punches. I'm a straight shooting guy and if somebody is doing a bad job, I tell them. Tobey did a hell of a job and for him to get that pat of the shoulder, and know you are doing a good job helps the confidence out a whole lot.

Q: Will you be doing more acting?

Gary:  I signed with ICM about a month ago and we've got some projects that look interesting. Obviously no one knows who I am, but hopefully after they see the film they'll know.

Q: Are you taking a lot of ribbing [from your fellow jockeys] now, you know, 'Joe Hollywood'?

Gary:  Unfortunately, the ribbing started over a year ago for me. The People magazine comes out with the 50 Most beautiful and um, Entertainment Weekly and now Vanity Fair. Yeah, I'm getting a lot of ribbing! What are you gonna do?

Q: How did they do those intense racing scenes in the movie?

Gary:  You're seeing something that's never been on film before and it was not easy. Fortunately, we had all professional jockeys. It's the most tedious thing I've ever done; we basically followed every race to the T, going by what The Daily Racing Form charts said. If the horse was 6th, three lengths off the lead, two deep in a pack of horses at the first turn, that's where they were on what you see [on the film]. If the horses finished 8th and 9th, early on in the race, that's where they're at. They're where they were in the actual race. To work with animals, it's not easy. It's very time-consuming and very tedious. There were good days and there were bad days. So to pull off what they pulled off is unbelievable. I've never seen anything before that has to do with racing scenes ever really look real or legitimate. Fortunately with the budget we were afforded [$80 million] we were able to get that done. But, I don't think you'll ever see it done again. This was a once in a lifetime thing and we'll never see a film that has to do with racing scenes like this again.

Q: Why not?

Gary:  Because it's damn near impossible for professionals to pull it off, let alone people that are amateurs. It's time consuming. Just the team they put together, and like I said, the budget we were afforded, to get the camera, and they did a lot of those scenes off the camera truck. [The camera] was designed by the same people who make the Smart Bomb. No kidding. When you see The Making of Seabiscuit, you'll see that's who designed the camera. There were cross hairs in there -- the same as what you see when they're bombing Iraq. This camera could bounce like this [gestures], but the picture was crystal clear. So that's what they went through to get what we see. Basically, you guys are in the race. You're getting everything but the dirt kicked in your face.

Q: And the speeds are... ?

Gary:  Forty-three to forty-four miles an hour most of the time. We were at full speed and you're out there in a pack of horses with a trace truck and three cars next to you. Sometimes that camera is 8" to 12" away from your head, 44 m.p.h., and not a whole lot of room for air.

Q: How do you hold the horses that want to win, back?

Gary:  That was a difficulty. You've never seen a racing film before, where the jockeys aren't pulling back. As professional jockeys, these guys didn't want anything to do with something that didn't look legit. So it wasn't easy. There were, I think, 16 different Seabiscuit horses with different personalities for different scenes to shoot at different points in the race, and basically it was using a Seabiscuit for one scene that flat wasn't fast enough to keep up. It was placing the horses against the competition.

[Jockey and Consultant, Chris] McCarron handicapped every one of those horses. He went around the country, picking them out. We had 49 horses in total. Chris got to know every one of these horses, so he could group them for a certain scene to where they either weren't fast enough, or were just fast enough to be where they needed to be. But then you didn't know if a horse was going to have a good day or not; what he did on Thursday, he might not do on Monday because he maybe he didn't sleep well or maybe he had a headache. They're a lot like humans [in that regard]. It took five weeks to shoot the match race scene, with just two horses. So, it was not easy.

Q: How many weeks would it take to shoot a typical race?

Gary:  We had to do three takes with each group of horses. No scene was further than 1/4 of a mile. The horses had to be rested 20 minutes between each take. And we had three sets of horses per race, so basically we got nine takes a day for certain scenes. It was a lot of pressure and getting the scenes right was not easy. Knowing that you have nine takes to do a specific point in the race, knowing you're on a schedule and that you have to move forward... there was as much pressure in those racing scenes as there were in the acting scenes.

Q: The book details how dangerous life was for jockeys, back then -- lack of safety regulations, the severe weight loss methods used, etc. How much better is it to be a jockey now?

Gary:  It's not a lot better to be a jockey these days. In some ways, it's worse. We're racing year 'round now in Southern California. There is no season. The weights are the exact-same today in 2003, as they were in the 1930s. The human race is bigger now, than they were then, but they haven't changed the scale of weight for us. Basically, if I weigh more than 115 pounds, I'm out of work. And that is true of any jockey that's out there. I'm 5'3", my normal weight is 125 lbs., and I weight 117, 118 today. I'm off all week doing this stuff, I've got to ride Sunday and I'm going to have to be 114 lbs. on Sunday. A normal day for me is: come out here [to Santa Anita Park] at 6:30 a.m., work two or three horses, go home for a bit, fight traffic going to Hollywood Park, and get there in time to pull weight for the afternoon's races. [At the time of this interview, Santa Anita Park was closed for racing till December, and Hollywood Park was open.] You walk into the sauna, and there's ten guys in there sweating off weight before the races start. Get done with the races, have a light dinner -- or a big one, and get rid of it. That's what these guys are dealing with every single day. I feel very fortunate as I get towards the end of my career, even with all the injuries that I've had, that I'm in relatively good shape. The best thing about doing the film was, I was able to eat!

Q: Why wasn't Red Pollard as famous as Seabiscuit, or George Woolf?

Gary:  Well, he wasn't a top-class jockey. He was just a jockey. Outside of Seabiscuit he never won any big races, so to speak. And outside of Seabiscuit he never even rode a horse of that caliber. Whereas a guy like George Woolf, he rode champions. He was as good as it gets.

Q: Didn't Red Pollard ride well into his 50s?

Gary:  Red Pollard wound up at small racetracks, he was an alcoholic and basically, he died broke. But he was a very, very intelligent man. There are still tons of people on the backstretch that'll remember these characters from real life and they say that Red used to recite poetry, quote Shakespeare, and was very intelligent. He loved to read and was an admirer of poetry and writers.

Gary Stevens Interview (plays George Woolf)
Chris Cooper Interview (plays Tom Smith)
Jeff Bridges Interview (plays Charles Howard)

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