“Hands of Stone” follows the life of Panamanian fighter Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), who made his professional debut in 1968 as a 16 year‐old and retired in 2002 at the age of 50. In June 1980, he defeated Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) to capture the WBC welterweight title. EUR/Electronic Urban Report caught-up Usher ahead of the film’s release to discuss the affect that losing had on Leonard’s competitive psyche.
“Sugar Ray is a very modest person, and I think it has everything to do with where he started and what it took to make him who he is. As an actor, he probably wouldn’t say this but I’ll say it for him, I think that was the first time that he decided to sit in his confidence and arrogance,” Usher told us.
“Not arrogance in the way that was out of control, but there was something — and I wanted to play that up when I walked into the ring. I wanted you to pay attention to my eyes in this one scene when I’m walking from the dressing room to the ring. The way I looked, it was like his whole movement was just arrogant and you never saw Sugar Ray like that. You always saw Sugar Ray bouncing and super light, but I wanted you to understand that his spirit was like, ‘This is my show. This is my house and you’re not taking it from me. Ain’t nothing you can go to change it.’ That was his character and that was the thing that I relied mostly on when telling that story,” he added.
Usher confessed that he would not have signed on for the project had he not received the blessing from the cultural legend.
“I didn’t ask him for his permission until I read that book (“Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran”). I did want to get his blessings before I took it on, but I wanted to be prepared before I asked him. Cause I wanted to know what I was asking for. I said, ‘Sugar, they asked me to play you. I just want to get it right. Are you okay with that? If you don’t want me to do it, I won’t.’
He said, ‘My wife is a huge fan of yours. My wife loves you more than me!’
“I took it on, like cool. ‘Can I sit with you? Will you be available for me when I need to ask you questions?’ He said, ‘Of course, whatever you need to do, come to the house. I’ll come to Atlanta. I’ll come watch you box, and answer any questions you need.’ He made himself available.”
Usher was quite excited about playing “an icon to a lot of African-American people,” primarily because its one of those rare moments in cinema that we can celebrate the accomplishments of our heroes.
“We have to use this opportunity to tell our history, cause there’s so many books and so much information now that can catch your attention and you begin to recognize there’s so many things that we don’t know about ourselves and the history books didn’t teach us. It was hidden from us, our identity was completely taken from us, and we don’t know that because there’s not been any references or things that have allowed us to be able to celebrate them. Well, this is the opportunity that we get to do it by way of writing, by way of spending the time to nurture the stories and turn them into reality and turn them into things that are palatable for people to understand.”
Raymond decided to play up the “Masculine side of Sugar Ray Leonard” after he “read the script twice,” and “it began to help me understand how I was going to approach the character, and that’s when I decided that I want to tell this masculine side of Sugar Ray Leonard that people didn’t get a chance to see,” he said.
“I was able to tell a different story, or piece of the story that he might not have been able to tell in that time. And that was a story about his masculinity. The story of who he was as a man defending his woman, as a man — an African American man. There are so many representations on this time where men aren’t standing up for their women. Now, it did lead to him losing, but he stood up.”
Duran shocked the boxing world by returning to his corner in his November rematch with Sugar, famously saying the words “no mas” (no more).
“I hoped that I would only represent the greatest parts of who he was, because these were some very difficult times for him, that first fight was a difficult moment for him, and though this movie is not necessarily just about Sugar Ray Leonard, it’s Duran’s movie, but Sugar Ray Leonard has a big part in the story of what Roberto Duran’s legacy represents through the “no mas” fight.
“Hands of Stone” took two years to complete, and Usher explained that was primary because a lack of production funds and conflicts with talent caused delays. Additionally, the Grammy-winning artist revealed that he “sacrificed a lot to do this film.”
“I pushed back an album while dealing with a ton of other tumultuous things in my life, but I had all these other obligations that I had to meet but I still wanted to do the film. So I lined everything up and made so many sacrifices. I turned down so much business. I turned down tours. I turned down releasing an album. I turned down going back to “The Voice,” which I really did enjoy.”
During the year that it took Usher to prepare for this role, his trainers helped him get into the best shape of his life, and “I grew my hair out, which I thought was fun,” he said. “When I decided that I was going after the character, Sugar Ray asked me, ‘You gonna have that afro?,’ I said ‘yeah,’ and I started growing it and I grew it for a year.”
“I love every aspect of preparation and getting to know the character, and standing toe-to-toe with amateur boxers in preparation, cause I didn’t want to do it based on the choreography that was given to me. I really wanted to know what types of pressures these types of athletes go through, when you’re standing face-to-face with an opponent who intends to do you harm.”
He continued: “I would do three-minute sparring rounds. I wouldn’t go higher than six or seven rounds, and we had pads on, but I loved it. I was in the best physical shape of my life, and have been slowly declining from that moment,” he joked.
The physical training made it easy for Usher and his co-star Edgar Ramirez to occupy the headspace of their characters.
“We didn’t have to get in or out of character, we were in it. You look in the mirror and you see a body ripped and you’re in the gym and you’re boxing, and you’re going for it, and you walk out in public and you find yourself shadowing boxing because it becomes second nature,” Usher said.
Director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s collaborative style also jived with the way Raymond prefers to work.
“One thing that I’ll say was very interesting and very helpful from Jonathan is the idea of spirituality and method. He brought me and Jurnee — (Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays his wife in the film,) — our first meeting, he made us lay on this ottoman and look up at the ceiling and just imagine these things (as he would) throw these words out at us. His idea was, ‘You have to spiritually connect through what this conversation is in order to get to the place that I need you to be on camera.’ And I thought that was so genus and so mindful and thoughtful,” he explained.
“People connect to the emotion of a character, and when they do that, it doesn’t even matter what the scene is about. When you connect to the emotion, everybody feels it. You’ll find yourself crying because there’s something emotional that’s deeper in the choice of words and the choices of speed of how he chose to write it. That was a great experience for me and I hope to have many more experiences like that in preparation of other films.”
Any future roles that Usher accepts will be carefully considered “Because you really only have so many shots or chances to tell the right story of who you are as a creative person,” he said.
“I am now beginning to understand why Larenz Tate is so particular about what he chooses, he’s one of my favorite actors, but he’s so specific about what he chooses to do, and now I understand why. I am holding for the right role, and [I’m] willing to make the sacrifices necessary to play the right role, and also to create what the last three years have shown me.”
He’s referring to the growing lack of diversity in Hollywood, and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and he believes because of this, black artists have a responsibility “to tell stories that are meaningful for our history.”
“You look at stories that have resonated, it has been only things that are significant in a way that people not of color can recognize. There’s so many other great stories which I’m hoping to produce, be a part of, act in. I really look at Nate Parker as an example of what I mean, or Tyler Perry and the influence that he has to create what he has chosen or what he’s going to do next.”
Still – Usher acknowledges that to make films like “Hands of Stone” takes “risk and it takes discipline,” and if everybody involved with the project “didn’t look at this film as a labor of love, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Hands Of Stone” arrives in theaters August 26.