Victor Ortiz has been a world champion, fought on boxing’s largest stages, and gone head-to-head with Floyd Mayweather. Yet there he stood, on the set of Southpaw, amazed at how the line between fact and fiction was being blurred before his eyes.
Specifically, he was riveted by the authenticity of watching Jake Gyllenhaal play a prize fighter who loses everything when a tragedy sends his career and personal life into a downward spiral, prompting a humble attempt to reclaim his past glory.
“I knew that the punches were not real, but I would still sit there in awe,” Ortiz said by phone. “I thought I was at a fight. That’s how real it seemed. They came back to the corner all bloody and breathing hard.”
Gyllenhaal was fully committed to his performance as Billy Hope, both physically and emotionally, although Ortiz didn’t realize to what extent that was true until he saw the actor perform in the Broadway play “Constellations” several months after shooting the film, then talked with him backstage.
“That Jake that I met on that set was not the Jake that I met on Southpaw,” said Ortiz, who plays a small role in the film. “He transformed himself completely, as a boxer and a person. He put on this whole boxer persona, and I really thought it was him. I didn’t call him Jake. I called him Billy.”
Ortiz originally auditioned for the role of Miguel, the main adversary of Billy both inside and outside the ring. But when he lost out to someone taller (Ortiz stands just 5-feet-9), director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) stepped in.
Unlike some of the casting personnel, the filmmaker was familiar with Ortiz’s decorated fight career and instead offered him the smaller part of Ramone, a street kid who aspires to become a champion.
In fact, in one scene Ortiz’s character is holding Billy’s WBC championship belt on the way into the ring. That’s the same belt that Ortiz himself won in 2011.
That’s an example of why, despite his limited screen time, Ortiz was on set for the entire six-week shoot, offering tips where he could, and using the rest of the time as his own personal acting class.
“I definitely helped a little here and there,” Ortiz said. “I knew how to make it very authentic. [Fuqua] would sit me down and listen. But at the end of the day, I’m not a director. He understood completely.”
While Ortiz was impressed with the fight sequences, he said the story of a broken down fighter lured back into the ring for financial gain was a reminder of one of the sport’s too-frequent consequences.
“The portrayal in the movie is pretty spot-on. It takes one punch to end a fight. You can land that one punch, the champ can go down, and you can make a lot of money,” Ortiz said. “A lot of boxers need to understand when it’s time to put the gloves away.”
Ortiz, 28, made his acting debut with a small role last year in The Expendables 3, and is currently shooting an action movie starring Bruce Willis that is due out in 2016.
He hasn’t fought since breaking his wrist in December 2014, and has been in the ring just twice in the past three years. But even with 37 pro fights on his resume, he said he’s not yet ready to transition from boxer to full-time actor.
“I have two careers going on at once, but I understand that one day my muscle twitch won’t be as quick,” Ortiz said. “But until then, I’m in my prime, and I’ll be back.”