Visiting the set of On The Ropes, it was immediately striking at just how convivial the atmosphere was. Everybody gave the sense that they felt honoured to be a part of the production.
When talking with Keisha Castle-Hughes about being involved with the show, it immediately became clear what was driving their enthusiasm: On The Ropes wasn't just an ordinary job for any of them. In order to be a part of the production, Castle-Hughes and Chamoun had to really want it. Both Castle-Hughes and her co-star Nicole Chamoun had spent months physically preparing for their roles, getting their bodies to fighting shape while also throwing themselves into the unfamiliar world of boxing. By the time each of them got onto set, they were deeply invested.
What made On The Ropes such a compelling show to be a part of was just how much the show speaks to the conversations we're all having regarding female empowerment and independence. Produced by the female creative team of Courtney Wise and Shannon Murphy, On The Ropes is a story of two women each embracing their physical and emotional strength in the face of considerable opposition.
Talking with Keisha Castle-Hughes on set was a thrill in itself. Castle-Hughes has been a constant on our screens since debuting in 2002 in the beloved film Whale Rider. Since then, we've seen her appear in Star Wars: Revenge of The Sith, Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger, Red Dog, The Almighty Johnsons, The Walking Dead, Roadies, and Game of Thrones.
SBS: What was it about the role that spoke to you?
Keisha Castle-Hughes: I always like to look for opportunities to work in this part of the world, because I don’t a lot anymore. I’ve been based in LA for ten years and so I don’t get to come home a lot. It’s exciting.
When I first read On The Ropes, it was something unlike what I’d read before, which is always exciting. The biggest thing is the fact it’s a female-driven story told from the perspective of woman. It’s from Amira’s point of view. It’s her story and it’s her world. I think that SBS are doing stuff that no one else is doing. They’re telling stories that are real, that are diverse, that have characters that are people we know. They are not characters that are just built for the screen. It’s representative of the world. Of 2018.
The biggest thing for me was that I wanted to know more about this world, about this family, about where they come from. About how they got here. And then, obviously, putting that against the backdrop of the boxing world… It’s such a fascinating world. There are so many layers to it. You can go into the depths of it and learn about… I had never done any kind of boxing. I didn’t know anything about this world. So anytime I get an opportunity to get a sneak peek into another world like that, I’m always willing to.
Had you boxed for fitness or anything like that before?
I had never. This has been a brand new world for me, across the board.
On the screen you need to look like you know what you’re doing. What sort of preparation did you need to do?
We’ve been training intensely. I have been training for three months and we train on average five hours a day. Shannon Murphy, our Director, it was really important for her that we underwent the training. Obviously, there’s no world in which I can become a pro boxer or even an amateur boxer in that time. But understanding the world and understanding the nuances and diving deep into how it works, the psyche of a boxer, and understanding what that feels like to undergo that training. To be that exhausted. To restrict a lot of things in your life. It’s all-consuming. Any kind of athleticism can be. I love food and I was like “What do you mean I can’t eat whatever I want? This is so crazy”.
Obviously you haven’t been able to eat what you want in the lead-up to the production, but what about now with the temptation of craft services?
I know. I’ve been so impressed. I had totally forgotten how we are so much healthier in this part of the world and so much more conscious of stuff like that. Everyone knows the tales of the craft services trucks on American productions. And they are all true. It is every single snack and thing you never thought you wanted or would ever buy is available to you at all times of the day.
This is why you’ve been LA based for ten years now?
[Laughs] Exactly. I just work for the craft services. It was kind of great because we are much more health conscious. And I think particularly this production has been as well. There has been a large effort to reduce our waist and to be really conscious of recycling, reusing cups and bottles, and not having a bunch of snacks, packaging and stuff, and that are full of sugar. It’s mostly fruit and crackers.
Are you given specific meals apart from the rest of the crew?
I have a meal plan that I stick to. But, I just keep track of it.
Quietly, just between you and I, you stick to it or you “stick to it”?
I do stick to it, unfortunately [Laughs]. I learned very quickly… At first I was very much like “I’m just going to eat whatever I want”. The biggest shift for me was that since I had this role, I had to start eating meat, which I’ve never done. I just didn’t have the energy and I couldn’t make it up. I just needed it. I went to a doctor and they told me I needed actual meat and protein when I’m working out this much. So, that’s been a really weird shift for me. At first I thought I’d be fine, but your body responds to that level of training and knows what it needs. If I did have any point where I ate sugar, I would just shut down and training would be ten times worse the next day.
Are you vegetarian or vegan?
You’re known to have a political activist streak with involvement with groups like Greenpeace. Boxing doesn’t immediately sound like something a Greenpeace activist gets involved with.
[Laughs] Yes and no… Boxing is a brutal world, but the thing that has been the most fascinating for me is that a lot of people come to boxing that have had a coloured past. There’s a lot of discipline to it. It requires you to be focused and it can give people focus they haven’t been able to find in other outlets of their life. One of the things that I really took note of and we’re pushing to have more in the show is that there’s a bunch of kids who get into boxing who don’t have a lot of options. They get to a point where they feel they’re from a culture that is very much focused on having a weekend where you just go to the pub and get drunk. That’s an outlet. But it’s been great to watch so many people who come to it, especially in the amateur boxing world, who have all of these stories of having this as an outlet. They have the fitness and focus. They might be working toward a fight. It takes away all of that other stuff. It’s such a cooler outlet as well, knowing that in six weeks time they will have a fight with someone and potentially get their nose broken. It’s a healthier way for people to be expressing themselves.
How did you find it working with Jack Thompson (who plays Strick on On The Ropes)
Working with Jack Thompson... anytime you get an opportunity as an actor to work with someone who has had that long a career and that much experience, and then not to mention that successful, it’s super exciting to be around. When we first all found out that Jack was going to be part of On The Ropes, we all collectively went ‘oh my god’. He came in for our big SBS read-through and no one could form sentences around him at all. He’s a very charismatic man. There’s something about him that you start falling over your own feet when you’re around him. It’s nice to shut up around actors like that and just observe and learn as much as you can. He’s wickedly funny, so he makes it very easy. There’s nothing about him that’s pretentious at all.
Can you pinpoint something you learned from Jack Thompson?
I don’t get to work with Jack a lot. I just have the one scene with him. But he has a grace about the way he just moves. The comfortability about getting on with it and getting stuff done. Being around that creates an ease. It’s something to look to for all of us. He leads the way. Actors… we do like to find a lot of things to complain about and he’s a nice reminder that there really isn’t much to complain about.
You’ve been in a Star Wars movie. The last year has seen a lot of conversation regarding the misogyny of Star Wars fandom (following Kelly Marie Tran openly talking about the abuse she received from 'fans'). For you, having played Queen Apailana. What has been your involvement with the fans?
It was exciting to be a part of it, but it was such a small involvement and I was so young. But it’s fascinating. We’re seeing an interesting shift where there wasn’t as much of a culture around being a fan. But we’ve moved into a world where all of a sudden the majority of the mainstream is nerd culture, which is great because why not? You can create worlds where you can tell all sorts of stories and there is no limitations in terms of how people look or who they are. I haven’t personally experienced that. Star Wars fans are intense, that’s for sure. I’ve done a lot of Comic-con stuff and have only had pleasant experiences with people who are grateful to meet you if you were part of the franchise.
I notice you’ve got some tats on your arm. Are they real tats, or these for the show?
They are real with some added to for the show.
Playing a boxer, as apart from, say being in Game of Thrones, having tats is probably a welcome thing?
Even in this day and age, I know a lot of actors now… In a world like Game of Thrones, it’s harder, but in terms of modern day stuff, people have tattoos a lot. Especially in professional spaces. I don’t have to cover them as much as I used to.
On The Ropes airs every Wednesday night at 9:30pm on SBS. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.
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