James Yonushonis stepped into a downtown Pittsburgh office building and descended toward the basement, fully expecting he’d be stepping onto a movie set.
It was more like a wrestling practice. Or practice — for a wrestling film.
Yonushonis remembers feeling hesitant. He can’t remember the last time the sport he’s dedicated most of his life to got a legit showing from Hollywood. But this was different from all the hoky portrayals — A.C. Slater’s forgettable bouts on Saved By The Bell come to mind — Yonushonis had seen before.
The building space was cramped and hot like most wrestling rooms Yonushonis had spent time in. The athletes warming up, whipping each other around, had their various wrestling scars. Black eyes, swollen foreheads and cauliflower ears. There were wrestlers Yonushonis recognized.
“The director was Bennett Miller, he was there and was watching guys roll around and seeing what stuff would look like,” Yonushonis said. “He had a wrestling coach in there. Kind of ran it like a little wrestling practice where he got to see everyone jog and warm up and everything together and then saw what some wrestling looked like.”
Yonushonis was there with friend and Team USA wrestler J.D. Bergman. Both fit the profile of extras Miller was looking to cast in Foxcatcher — the story of Olympic champion brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and millionaire John du Pont who shot and killed Dave Schultz in 1996.
An All-American at Penn State in 2006 who spent the next five years training to make the U.S. Olympic and World teams, Yonushonis had plenty of wrestling experience. He had recently taken up coaching again, following a year as an assistant at Maryland with a job at a Catholic high school in Columbus.
Shortly after meeting Miller and some other members of the crew, Yonushonis joined a handful of other former NCAA wrestling standouts helping coach the stars of the film. His experience — five days was all Yonushonis was required for — has only added to his own personal anticipation for the film that is receiving plenty of Oscar hype.
Originally shown on Nov. 14 in Los Angeles and New York, Foxcatcher has gradually been released to more theaters. Philadelphia was among a handful of cities able to show the film on Nov. 21. Foxcatcher will open in Pittsburgh and 18 other cities on Dec. 19.
Theater employees in State College are unsure when they will be able to screen Foxcatcher.
Yonushonis, the former Philipsburg-Osceola High School standout who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Meredith and their three children, has to wait at least another month to see the film as it doesn’t come to his city until Jan. 9.
“It’s going to do really well,” Yonushonis said. “You do get a sense of how good it is going to be. The professionalism behind it, what goes into it, it was eye-opening.”
When Yonushonis was in sixth grade, he got the issue of USA Wrestler magazine that commemorated Dave Schultz following the shooting.
“It was on the front cover, the big story in USA Wrestler, ‘Death of a Legend,’” Yonushonis said. “So I can remember it from when I was young.”
Years later, Yonushonis met Mark Schultz at the Olympic Training center in Colorado Springs. Their interactions were limited usually to poker games.
“I was out there to train and you have a good bit of downtime in between workouts and I can remember playing Texas hold’em with Mark at night,” Yonushonis said. “It was a handful of us. And I think he was pretty quiet. Most of us were probably too scared to say anything to him because we knew what a world-beater he was and he would probably throw us down and choke us out if we said the wrong thing or something.”
The next time Yonushonis ran into a Schultz, it was an actually Channing Tatum who plays Mark in Foxcatcher. Cast as former Iowa national champion Rico Chiapparelli, Yonushonis is involved in an all-wrestling scene in the film.
Yonushonis spent his first day auditioning and a second day was devoted to working out with Tatum. While numerous wrestlers, notably Jesse Jantzen, contributed to training Tatum and Mark Ruffalo who plays Dave Schultz, Yonushonis’ scene called for him to help prepare Tatum for a match.
The crew filmed portions of the scene for three days, Yonushonis said. Inside a packed gym filled with extras who sat in as the crowd at the 1987 Word Team Trials, the scene was completed.
“It is not as glamorous as everyone wants to think it is,” Yonushonis said. “The people that were there, locals would come sign up to be extras and watch parts of it. They would literally be sitting in a gymnasium for 12, 14 hours all day long. They’d bring in a boxed lunch for those guys and those extras and they’re back in their seats assuming the same spots and the same positions.”
His sequences with Tatum came about in a unique way.
Much like drilling with a teammate before a real match, Yonushonis and Tatum eventually worked out a system where one of them would exert more pressure as the aggressor and the other would allow himself to be taken down. The scenes called for Yonushonis to have the upper hand, and Tatum had to learn gradually over their practice session to loosen his grip on certain moves and in certain positions.
“It was somewhere between drilling and going live,” Yonushonis said. “You’re going 100 percent because you want it to look real but a lot of times you’re letting the guy do the move too. And a lot of the times it was me being the guy because I got to win. I was going pretty hard and he was moreso giving me resistance but only in certain spots at certain times.”
After the scene was finished, Yonushonis was turned loose. The hype level for the movie has been steadily increasing. He’s eager to see how much of his scene makes it into the final cut.
Many others are eagerly waiting to see the film. Count Penn State wrestlers and Nittany Lion coach Cael Sanderson among them.
“I am excited. I’ve seen some interviews and stuff with Channing Tatum where they talk about how hard they worked, drilling and getting in there and wrestling,” junior Morgan McIntosh said. “I’ve seen in the trailer, it looks like they actually put the time into it and learned what wrestling’s all about.”
McIntosh, from Santa Ana, Calif., which is about six hours down the coast from where the Schultz brothers grew up in Palo Alto, won the Dave Schultz Award as one of the country’s most outstanding high school wrestlers as a senior.
Somewhere inside a box packed away in his parents’ house in Utah, Sanderson has a hat from the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas from when he was a kid. He remembers having it signed by the Schultz brothers and du Pont.
Heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, du Pont was a well known philanthropist who built a wrestling facility on his eastern Pennsylvania estate. In 1997 du Pont was convicted of third degree murder of Dave Schultz. He later died in prison. Steve Carell portrays du Pont in the film.
“It is a little eerie,” Sanderson said. “Everyone knew that the du Pont guy was a little different to be nice I guess. I didn’t know any of the details really, I was still in high school and younger when all that stuff happened. But it was shocking world wide. Dave Shultz was a great ambassador, one of the greatest of all time and to have what happened happen, it sounds like people have really gotten behind it. It’s gotten some great reviews so hopefully it’s a good movie.”
Sanderson said he knows Mark Schultz “fairly well” having trained with him later in life when Schultz coached for a time in Sanderson’s home state.
Like Yonushonis, Sanderson is hoping plenty more people learn more about the Schultz brothers as the film moves to more theaters. Sanderson also will need to find a babysitter for his two youngsters, too, to attend the film.
“I didn’t know any details but it seems like it’s the real deal just from the actors they hired,” Sanderson said. “They got the best of the best and so it seems like they’re going all in. So that’s exciting.”