SXSW 2018: First Match interviews with Writer-Director Olivia Newman, and actors Elvire Emanuelle & Yahya Abdul-Mateen IIPosted by Wilson Morales
March 27, 2018
Playing on Netflix on March 30 after having its World Premiere at the 2018 South by Southwest (SXSW) is the upcoming film First Match, written and directed by Olivia Newman and starring newcomer Elvire Emanuelle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo, Jharrel Jerome, Eisa Davis and Jared Kemp.
The film won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.
Hardened by years in foster care, a teenage girl (Emanuelle) from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood decides that joining the all-boys high school wrestling team is the only way back to her estranged father (Abdul-Mateen II).
First Match is Olivia Newman’s feature directorial debut, based off a short film she wrote and directed while at Columbia University. This is Elvire Emanuelle’s breakout role after appearing in Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages. Best known for his role on Netflix’s The Get Down, Abdul-Mateen II was last seen in 2017 Paramount’s Baywatch reboot and Fox’s musical hit The Greatest Showman On Earth with Hugh Jackman. He will next be seen as the villain Black Manta in Warner Bros upcoming film Aquaman, which stars Jason Momoa as the title character.
Blackfilm.com recently spoke with the cast while the film played at the SXSW festival.
Can you talk about taking this film from being a short film to developing to a full length feature?
Olivia Newman: So, I made this as my thesis at Colombia. I was interested in this phenomenon that more and more girls are joining boys wrestling teams. So, I went out into the New York City public school wrestling community, to interview girls for my research and also to find a girl to cast in the short. And the wrestler that I cast in the short was a girl who happened to be from this neighborhood in Brooklyn, Brownsville, that I didn’t know much about.
And, in making the film together, and traveling with it, and then just becoming friends over the years, out of that friendship and stories that she shared with me about growing up and meeting her friends on the team, and hearing from them, the idea for the feature kind of grew out of that relationship, and I decided to ground the feature film in Brownsville, where she was from.
In terms of casting your leads, which I read was a nationwide project, what led you to cast your leads right now?
Olivia Newman: I really wanted to find a girl from Brownsville, just pick her off the street. And we did a lot of street casting, we worked with casting agents and did a nationwide search, we sort of were like, “Let’s leave no stone unturned,” ’cause it had to be somebody who could feel authentically from this particular area, and also somebody who was athletic enough that we could train, in a very short period of time, to wrestle.
We did every kind of casting possible, and then Elvire self-submitted an audition tape through Actors Access. And I remember the day I watched it at home. I came running out to my babysitter, without was watching my kids. I said, “I think I found my girl! Oh my God! Oh my God! I found her!”
I just had that gut instinct. But then I had to see if she could wrestle. Part of the callback process was we did a wrestling training with our finalists. And after Elvire’s training, my trainer took me aside and said, “She is a total natural. This girl, I could have her wrestling in months.”
I said, “Well, great, ’cause she’s the one I wanna cast. Perfect.” And, so, then, we started working and she started training. I hope it’s okay to tell this story about Brownsville. A few weeks in, Elvire says to me, “Livy, where’s the production office? I wanna go walk around Brownsville and get to know the neighborhood.”
She’s been born and raised in Brooklyn until you were six, right? And then moved to Philly when you were six.
Elvire Emanuelle: Yeah.
Olivia Newman: I gave her the address, and I’ll never forget the phone call I get form Elvire, where she says, “Livy, I just got off the train. Oh my God, this is where I’m from. This is where I grew up, this is where I came for summers to visit my family.”
Elvire Emanuelle: The same exact train stop. It was eerie, ’cause I was standing where my dad would stand. I wasn’t standing where I would stand, ’cause we didn’t get on the train when we were kids, but every now and then, we would walk my dad to get on the train to go to work. And I was looking at where I used to stand as a kid. It just felt familiar, it was so weird. It was like this eerie … I was standing in the opposite place of where I used to stand, but it just felt so familiar.
Actually, I called my dad, like, “Dad, what stop did you used to get off of?” And he was like, “Uh, hm, Rockaway on the three train.” And I was like … I think it was Rockaway, three train, right And I was like, that’s where I was getting off of, and I was walking distance from the building that we used to live in. I just knew that I was in Brooklyn, and that I would come to Brooklyn in the summers, but I never knew the name of the neighborhood.
Olivia Newman: So, we found our girl from Brownsville after all.
Elvire, how did this role come about for you? Did somebody talk to you about it, did you see it online anywhere?
Elvire Emanuelle: I had seen it on Actor’s Access. I think I scrolled past it twice, and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know,” and I wasn’t sure if I could submit for the role. But, I was like, “Well, let me give it a try,” and I self submitted for it, and then I sent in a tape, and then I came here.
And then for you, Yahya, obviously, we’ve seen your work on The Get Down, and I saw your stuff earlier, on other films. But, for you, what led you to doing this project?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: When this script came in my email, I was playing a character called Cadillac on The Get Down, and this was a guy that was just different. He was a guy, on Tuesday, with a problem, and I was really looking for the opportunity to learn how to put a script together, to learn how to dive into something. And I knew that it was gonna shoot under a very short time schedule, and I hear a lot that that’s really one of the best ways to work, and challenge yourself to see what you’re made of.
So, Darrel was a challenge for me because he was young father with a high school daughter, with a child that was grown, or almost grown. And so, there were a lot of challenges to him, and I wanted to step into it, and have an exciting time, and to see what I was made of.
For Olivia, there’s so many themes that’s in this movie, from being a sports film, to a father-daughter relationship, to adolescence, and others, how would you best describe this as far as what’s the best theme to describe this movie?
Olivia Newman: I tend to say that it’s a very universal story about wanting love and parental approval. That, to me, is how I connect to Mo, and I think that anybody can relate to that feeling of just wanting to feel loved, and then finding it in the most unexpected place.
When I went into looking into girls who are wrestling boys, I expected to hear a lot about the animosity from the teammates, and boys not wanting them on their team, and there is some of that to begin with, but, once you prove yourself as an athlete, the camaraderie and the bond that comes from being in a team sport, it is like family, and once a wrestler, always a wrestler. All the coaches that I’ve become friends with over the years, they have a specific kind of mentality and loyalty to the sport and to the kids that they coach now.
I wanted to explore this idea of how far we will go for our family’s love, and then what is family? Can we construct our own families? Does family have to be blood? So, those were the themes that I was exploring.
For Elvire, as athletic as you are, how much more training did you have to do for this role?
Elvire Emanuelle: For this role, I did five weeks of wrestling training with Mike, that Livy introduced me to, and that’s how I learned to be a wrestler. Before that, I had not wrestled before, yeah.
Have you ever watched wrestling on TV?
Elvire Emanuelle: Oh, yes. I play wresting at home just for fun, not school wrestling. Yeah, so, that’s pretty much the only exposure I had to wrestling.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: There’s a line in the movie, the caretaker’s line, she says something about a luchador, or something like that.
Olivia Newman: Oh, yeah. She’s Mexican. She thinks when they say wrestling they’re talking about-
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: She thinks they’re talking about with the masks. I love that part.
So, when you took it from the short film to a feature film, was there anything different, or did you add more layers to it?
Olivia Newman: Yeah. The short is really about a girl preparing for her first wrestling match, and trying to connect with her dad, who’s a single father, who works the night shift. The feature, it expands upon this father-daughter relationship, but it’s a very different father-daughter. It explores the setting as, really, a character in the film that I wasn’t aware of, and didn’t really explore in the short, because the feature really grew out of my relationship with that wrestler who was in the short film.
It really digs deeper into what is behind this young woman’s drive to become a wrestler, and to get her father to pay attention to her, and bring him back into her life.
This is your first feature, so, throughout this learning process, what’s the main thing that you learned after completing this movie that you can hopefully take on to your next project?
Olivia Newman: This film was really hard to get made, and if I had listened to all those nos that I got, it probably wouldn’t have got made, but I felt like I would go see other movies about young, white teenage boys coming of age, and I’d say, “Why does that story matter more than my story?” This is a character that I’m dying to see on screen, and I love her. You fall in love with these characters, and you wanna see them come to life.
I made this film with my best friends. My producers are friends from graduate school. We made it exactly the way we wanted to. We wanted to shoot in Brownsville, and we wanted to give back to the community, not come, roll in, and take. We wanted to put as much money from the production into the community, get our catering from there, get our background actors from … Use their apartments and pay them the fees. We wanted it to be a very community minded and based project. And I feel like, when I watch it, I feel pride from what I see on screen and knowing what went on behind the making of it.
For me, every project I do after that, this is going to be … What a lucky chance that my first feature is going to be the thing that I use as my example of this is how I wanna make every project, and I want it to come from a place of love, and authenticity, and honesty. And then, also, the collaboration on every level, with the actors, with background actors who would give me feedback on my bad dialogue, and I’d say, “Okay, yeah. What would you say then? Okay, if my dialogue’s not working, you tell me.” Just having that sense of everyone who’s around you can make the project stronger. So, that’s what I, hopefully, will be able to take everything I do from here on.
And then going back a bit, Yahya, how did you and Elvire get into a chemistry so that the audience watching this, whether it’s on a screen, or, come March 30th, can bond that there’s a father-daughter relationship that’s hard to break?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I think, behind the scenes, we just built a chemistry that’s really based on friendship, that was based on a newness, also, at the same time. I was talking about this a while ago, that this was my first film, but it was definitely one of my first, and Elvire was coming into this is her first. And, so, it was interesting, though, ’cause I had just finished shooting The Get Down, or I was in the process of shooting The Get Down, so, in a way, I felt a little bit like a pro, in comparison. This wasn’t my very first time around, and, so, that also kind of led into the father-daughter relationship, because I felt like, behind the scenes, I might be sharing a little bitty tidbits about how the day might go, or about what to expect, and saying that “Everything’s gonna be cool, we’re just gonna go there, have fun, don’t worry about anything, just you trust me and I trust you.” And then you see Darrel, who’s kind of saying the same thing, “Hey, you trust me. I got a plan. It’s all gonna go smoothly, everything’s gonna be great.”
So, there was a lot about our own personal dynamic that really lent itself well to what we were being asked to do within the script.
Elvire, we don’t get to see many films with black female leads, so how was it for you, basically, to carry this movie along with the rest of the cast, and to be the focus point?
Elvire Emanuelle: It was amazing experience. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be able to tell a story that asmeaningful, that was unique. Everyone there really did love the project. Everyone that was a part of it was there, it was like a passion project for everyone. It was just an important story to be told, so it was a great experience and I’m happy that we get to see Mo be normalized, and see a different perspective of what someone’s life could be like, and her perseverance to overcome and be a better person.