Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White turned heads this year when fans noticed they packed on pounds of muscle for their A24 wrestling drama “The Iron Claw,” which is based on the lives of the Von Erich brothers.
Efron, Allen and the rest of the cast put in serious work to look the part for the film — but once they gained that muscle, how did they perfect those wrestling moves? Chavo Guerrero, Jr., former pro wrestler and stunt coordinator on “The Iron Claw,” speaks with Variety to unpack the actors’ intensive training process.
After communicating with director Sean Durkin about his vision for the film, Guerrero began by acquainting the actors with the wrestling ring and the fundamentals of the sport. Guerrero, who also trained the stars of the Netflix series “Glow,” always asks actors what experience they have with wrestling or adjacent combat sports.
“I’ll take what they already know through amateur wrestling or boxing because the footwork is very similar,” he said. “And then I also ask if they’ve had any theater experience. Because that’s kind of what we’re doing in the ring … It’s a four-sided theater as opposed to just one side. So if they have that then I start explaining to them, ‘You already know how to wrestle — you just don’t know you know yet.’”
Guerrero would always encourage “The Iron Claw” actors to slow down when it came time to be in the ring with a real audience watching them. He recently experienced a proud mentor moment when White made an incisive comment about the art of wrestling in an interview.
“[Jeremy] was explaining to the interviewer that sometimes the moments in between the moves are more important than the actual moves in the choreography,” Guerrero says.
He details a standout memory from set when Efron had to execute a cross-body move in which he jumped onto Guerrero from the top rope of the ring. Guerrero offered the actor an important piece of advice: the higher he jumped, the easier it would be to pull off, since the hang time would allow them time to locate each other and land correctly.
“It was really cool to see an actor trust me with his body in a sense,” Guerrero says.
The former WWE wrestler explained that everyone on set pushed each other to be better; the actors and Guerrero himself were inspired by Efron’s dedication to the role of Kevin Von Erich.
“Zac was a machine,” he says. “We’d be in the ring and he would go, ‘Hold on let me get this meal in’ and he’d get a quick ready meal in and then he’d come back in the ring. And then an hour later, he’d be like, ‘Oh, let me throw down a protein shake.’ So then you have competitiveness between the actors, too. Jeremy was just saying that he saw Zac take off his shirt in the ring and he’s like, ‘Oh, man, I gotta step it up.’”
Guerrero had the same reaction as White: “I saw Zac and I was like, ‘Wow, okay.’”
Each actor brought different natural abilities to the ring, Guerrero explains. “They all have something they’re really good at, so I’ll work with that. Harris [Dickinson] had done some boxing before,” he says. “They have different approaches to it. Jeremy would sit and ponder in his head and kind of visualize it, and then he’d just be ready to go and do it. Zac, I would walk through it more. He had more of that dance background from ‘High School Musical.’ That’s what he was used to.”
Efron’s “High School Musical” training ending up working in his advantage: “He was like, ‘Yeah, I really wasn’t a dancer before that, and I kind of learned how to do that.’ So I would incorporate that into the pro wrestling moves and choreography, like, okay, well, footwork — same thing. And I would start explaining that to him, and that helped them understand what pro wrestling is.”
Guerrero looks back fondly on “The Iron Claw” experience, commending the actors for their work ethic: “This is really my first big, huge feature film. [The actors] weren’t like prima donnas … They were serious. They brought the realism every time. It was really, really great to see.”