Stephen Merchant: 'When Dwayne Johnson goes in front of a wrestling crowd it's like Elvis has come on – it's insane'
- Murray Robertson
- 14 February 2019
Writer and director of Fighting with My Family explains how The Rock got him into wrestling
The extraordinary tale of WWE superstar Paige was memorably documented in 2012 Channel 4 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family. It's a fascinating portrait of two generations of professional wrestlers all living in a modest Norwich council house while attempting to break into the lucrative US market. Dwayne Johnson, himself from a family of wrestlers, happened to watch the film while in London, and it stayed with him. A few years later he decided to turn it into a feature.
'I think there's probably only one or two English people in his phone: me and Jason Statham,' explains Stephen Merchant. 'And Statham he hires when he needs someone shorter than him to pretend to beat up in a film, and he comes to me for everything else.' Johnson had worked with Merchant on 2010 comedy The Tooth Fairy, and the pair had stayed in touch. Johnson asked his friend to watch the documentary. 'I sat down expecting to think, "I don't care about wrestling, I'm not interested," and very quickly I was charmed by this family's story. I found it very moving, particularly the hardships of chasing this wrestling dream.'
And so Merchant wrote and directed Fighting with My Family with the intention of keeping it as authentic as possible. 'There was a kind of Rocky quality to Paige's story anyway: the underdog story.' He auditioned over 60 actors for the lead role before finding his Paige in rising star Florence Pugh. 'We needed someone who had the physicality and the charisma so that you believe she could become a star in that world. But we also needed someone who could power the movie and carry it on her own shoulders. It wasn't an easy role to cast, or to play.'