Boxing On

Chick Fight star and former competitive figure skater Malin Åkerman tells Gemma Gracewood about the meditative power of boxing, how Margot Robbie inspired her to become a producer, and her adoration for Tilda Swinton.

It’s so important to focus on the fact that women supporting women has so much power and strength.” —⁠Malin Åkerman

One of film’s earliest preserved specimens is The Gordon Sisters Boxing (1901), a 90-second curio in which sisters Bessie and Minnie Gordon go at it with boxing gloves, in full petticoats, in front of a genteel scene of a formal garden with fountain centerpiece. It’s theatrical yet strangely thrilling, possibly because women’s fight films are few and far between.

There’s 2004’s po-faced, Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, Priyanka Chopra’s 2014 turn as Indian boxing star Mary Kom, and last year’s Fighting with My Family, a good-time, must-see starring our girl Florence Pugh as a pro wrestler. But a global sports-fighting industry stacked with female champs hasn’t really translated into big screen chick-fights. The best woman-on-woman fight scenes are usually contained in narrative action (the airplane scrap between KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron in The Old Guard was one of 2020’s highlights on that front).

And that’s, in part, what attracted actor and emerging producer Malin Åkerman to Chick Fight, a story set around a secret underground women’s fight club founded by a therapist to give her patients a physical outlet for their rage. “I love boxing,” says Åkerman. “It’s not a man’s sport. It’s an everyman’s sport, it’s an everywoman’s sport. It’s a very cathartic experience for me because afterwards I feel like I’ve gotten everything out.”

Åkerman plays Anna, a 40-something financial and emotional disaster whose bestie introduces her to the club once she hits rock bottom. That friend, Charleen, is played winningly by comedian Dulcé Sloan, with a fun turn by Fortune Feimster as the fight club referee, plus Alec Baldwin as Anna’s booze-loving trainer, and former WWE star Kevin Nash as her recently out father.

Malin Åkerman and Alec Baldwin in Chick Fight.
Malin Åkerman and Alec Baldwin in Chick Fight.

Though she has has starred in more than 40 films, Åkerman is new to producing (Friendsgiving is her other film out this month). The hunt for projects she could take the lead on began after the jolt of missing out on a role uniquely suited to her: Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. “I grew up as a figure skater, I competed nationally in Canada for ten years,” Åkerman says, recalling that she hit up her team: “I just said, ‘How come I didn’t even get called in for this?’ And they said, ‘Well, because Margot Robbie built it from the ground up. She produced it.’ I went ‘aaah’ and a light bulb went up over me and I went, ‘Alright, that’s it, I just have to take things into my own hands and start finding material’.”

Chick Fight was scripted by first-time feature writer Joseph Downey, who strives to create female-led stories. Some aspects feel contrived—a rivalry between Anna and Bella Thorne’s Olivia in particular; Alec Baldwin in general—but Åkerman worked with director Paul Leyden, a good friend, to enhance “the female perspective and the female voice” in the script. This comes across in scenes between Anna and Charleen, which tingle with no-bullshit connection. “I think that the important message in this film was sisterhood. It’s so important to focus on the fact that women supporting women has so much power and strength. We need to stick together and we need to be this force of unity.”

In the pursuit of more projects, her lockdown has been a whirl of Zoom meetings with potential writers—a silver lining of the pandemic. “I’ve had time to focus on searching for new material. Just taking the bull by the horns and creating the material that [I] wanna create. That is the way to go.” Åkerman herself is partial to “films that breathe”, giving No Country for Old Men, Babel and Call Me by Your Name as examples. “I just think there is so much art involved in those types of films.” Javier Bardem and Tilda Swinton stand out in her “Rolodex of actors” as particular fascinations. “Anything Tilda does, I will watch.”

Malin Åkerman, Dulcé Sloan and director Paul Leyden on the set of Chick Fight.
Malin Åkerman, Dulcé Sloan and director Paul Leyden on the set of Chick Fight.

Those films and artists, Åkerman readily adds, are “a long shot from the kinds of genres I usually get myself involved in”. Chick Fight, on the other hand, fits neatly in the Åkerman universe—a breezy comedy that balances silly training montages with meatier questions. While above ground, it looks like a classic comedy, the underground cage fights are filmed at high-speed to allow for the visceral, glossy slow-mo shots that come part-and-parcel with today’s movie fights—roundhouse kicks, fists meeting bones, spit and blood flying—and sound effects to match. “That guttural, animal instinct is so amazing to be able to release,” Åkerman enthuses.

It feels important to note, given the David Fincher elephant in the room, that Chick Fight’s only commonality with Fight Club is the three words “secret fight club”. Åkerman says the films that more directly influenced Chick Fight are Rocky (“this is the comedic version of that underdog story”), and the buddy-movie vibe of Thelma & Louise. “That’s the closest to this that we could get. It’s that ‘enough is enough’ feeling. I just love that film. It’s, like, ‘Fuck the system and fuck society as it’s been created and told us to be and not to be. Let’s break down those barriers’.”

The Thelma & Louise connection feels especially strong in Anna’s very sudden economic descent from small business owner to evicted, unemployed and dispossessed. It’s a clear-eyed statement, in the middle of a comedy, on the lack of a social safety net in America, particularly for women—and on the importance of finding your own community (and for many, choosing your own family).

Åkerman was born in Sweden and raised in Canada; both are countries with stronger systems in place for social support, and pro-women policies. “Everything seems a bit more logical over there.” On pandemic-ridden, post-election America, she says, “That’s been really interesting, to take into account what kind of country we’re actually living in and what needs to be worked on. I hope that we continue to move forward and not backwards as far as women and equality goes.”

Among the many downsides of the coronavirus pandemic, one is the closure of gyms and sports clubs, an inconvenient side-effect at a time when exercise—an outlet for stress and frustration—is so beneficial for mental-health management. Which brings us back to the joy of boxing: “Most of us have so much on our minds; life is so full of anxiety, or stresses, and it’s so hard to shut that off.”

“Some people are able to shut up their brains by actually sitting and meditating. My brain just gets much louder when I do that, so if I am able to just concentrate on not getting hit in the face, I am completely out of my mind and in my body.”

Chick Fight’ is in theaters and on demand in the US now.

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