Probably most famous for playing Spider-Man in the early 2000s, Tobey Maguire has a reputation with filmgoers for his boyish innocent characters (see Pleasantville, The Cider House Rules, and the aforementioned webslinger trilogy). But in the newly released Pawn Sacrifice, Maguire takes on one of the darkest roles of his career, portraying the legendary (and notoriously troubled) chess master Bobby Fischer.
The biopic focuses on the height of Fischer's fame during the '60s and '70s, leading into his preparation and participation in a series of matches in 1972 against Soviet rival Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber), all while struggling with demons both real (the political pressure of the Cold War) and imaginary (his mental instability).
The actor recently took the time to speak to Enstars and talk about what drew him to play the most famous chess player in modern history, how he immersed himself in a man who dealt with pressure while balancing intelligence with his darkness and if he's any good at chess in real life.
Enstars: You not only star in this film, but also act as a producer. What about this story had such an appeal to you?
Tobey Maguire: It came about because [producer] Gail Katz came to me and asked me if I was interested in doing a project about Bobby Fischer. I didn't know a whole lot about Bobby Fischer at the time, I did some research and I knew that he was a great chess player and some sense that he had a difficult personality. So in doing some research on Bobby, I discovered some things that gave me pause about him so some of the things he said later in his life that are...I don't know...awful. But digging into him, the story is quite fascinating and the time we ended up focusing on it in the film, which is this really difficult fragile paranoid guy at the center of a kind of...there's like a sports movie trajectory set in this really tense political climate that I thought would be a fascinating framework.
You have other projects coming up as a producer rather than an actor. Do you think that says something about the quality of scripts out there right now?
I'm not really sure what it says. I think there's good scripts out there. First of all, I like collaborating with people and building stories. It's fun, it's what I do, I'm the storyteller, and I like collaborating with other storytellers. I also don't want to sit back and wait around for somebody to send me the script that I want to do. So that's just a lot of different factors that have to line up and I'm fairly particular. You know, I might sit around for a year and a half or so before somebody sends me anything that I want to do. And I just want to be busy working and have a creative outlet.
What kind of research did you do to prepare to play Fischer?
I watched everything, I listened to everything as far as I know that existed. I talked to anybody who would speak to me that knew Bobby Fischer. I read several books on Bobby and articles throughout the whole process. I would listen to Bobby and watch Bobby and just immerse myself in it.
Your scenes with Liev Schreiber have a lot of moments where there's no dialogue and the acting is all in your facial expressions. Can you talk a bit about what kind of challenge that was like?
It's something that [director] Ed Zwick and I talked about quite a bit, which is how do you dramatize games of chess and make it engaging for anybody who might be watching it, and we knew it was largely going to be silent. It's actually interesting if you know the stories of the people coming into the match, you know what's at stake for them. In Bobby's case what could throw him off his game and he becomes his own challenger as well as the challenger in front of him. And whether it's cinematically or expressions or somebody whispering to somebody to help us understand what just happened, just sort of pulling all of these different tactics to try to engage an audience without having to understand anything about chess.
The film hints at some of Fischer's paranoia while he's still a child. Is that something the movie was trying intimate, that his mental issues were related to his childhood?
I don't think that was our intention, but he did grow up in that atmosphere. And I think that certainly had an effect on him. Maybe he also had a genetic disposition and was more susceptible than somebody else to being paranoid and having delusions? And you can be paranoid and people [can be] talking about you or watching you or whatever, but you can even know that definitively and still have a sense of fear about it and I think those things can co-exist and you're still stricken with paranoia.
How are you as a chess player in real life? Are you any good?
What I've learned in this movie is that I am not a good chess player. I'm good enough to not play [laughs]. It was sort of discouraging as I was learning about chess talking to international masters and grandmasters about the game and what it takes to be really good at the game. And the truth is it just takes a tremendous amount of time. You have to play a lot, you have to study a lot. There's a tremendous amount of memorization and understanding opening sequences, and then of course there's theory. So I determined that it would take me years of playing every day for hours a day to be any good as well as studying, reading, studying past games.
You have a rep for being a pretty serious and successful poker player. Does that help in how you portray playing chess on screen?
I think it doesn't hurt. It's very different and I think Bobby, himself, hated games if there was any element of chance, he would get really frustrated because his skill would maybe get him an advantage, but then the chance element might take that advantage away, and he almost felt that was unfair. So he no longer played games that had any element of chance and only want to play a strictly skill-based game, which essentially is chess. And he had all of the control, it's all skill, and the communication is very pure. He loved that there is this framework and essentially there is pure communication with the person he is playing with. There's no kind of manipulation or something else that could happen, it was like a safe place to communicate purely.
Pawn Sacrifice hits theaters on Wednesday, Sept. 16.