Fighting words: talking with NU alum Richie Keen and Charlie Day about Fist Fight

    High above the Chicago streets, I sit in a hotel suite opposite of Fist Fight actor Charlie Day. Director Richie Keen (Speech ‘96) sits to my left. They dunk pastries into fancy teacups as a reporter from The DePaulia and I prepare to find out everything there is to know about their new movie.

    While Day has a prominent role in his show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as well as in the film Horrible Bosses, this is his first time as a leading man. Similarly, Keen has racked up directing credits for shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Teachers and Shameless, but Fist Fight is his first feature film. The movie centers on an impending fight between two public school teachers, Andy Campbell (played by Day) and Ron Strickland (played by Ice Cube). Their clashing personalities and teaching styles comes to fruition on the last day of school, surrounded by students who seem to run the school with their senior pranks.

    See (and hear!) what Keen and Day had to say about stunt doubles, memes and improv in an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Get ready to understand the magic behind the Fist Fight posters you see tacked on every Northwestern doorway.

    Keen: You get a hug! Because I went to Northwestern!

    NBN: You did! Where did you live on campus?

    Keen: I was a Phi Psi. I was in a fraternity for a minute, but I never lived in there. I lived at Ridge and Davis. Where do you live?

    NBN: I live in West Fairchild – it's a very interesting dorm, by the Rock. Did you do RTVF?

    Keen: I was a theater major but tried to weasel my way into any RTVF classes that I could. Are you in …

    NBN: Medill!

    Keen: Ah, yes.

    NBN: Our publication that I'm writing for actually wasn't around when you were at Northwestern …

    Keen:Are you calling me old? You're calling me old!

    Day: It only happened within the last 25 years!

    NBN: We kind of pride ourselves on being more fun and conversational, so the questions may get progressively stranger.

    Day: Good.

    NBN: Charlie, your character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia barely had a job, ate cat food, was illiterate …

    Day: Still is!

    NBN: Still does all those things. But [in Fist Fight], you’re this family man English teacher. How was this transition? Did you draw anything from your character on Sunny?

    Day: Relieved to be a character who can read and write. Relieved to be maybe a man who's a little bit more like myself in many ways. But then when he unravels, then he dips into some more Charlie Kelly –

    Keen: Hysteria.

    Day: Hysteria, psychosis.

    NBN: It's like that meme of you. ‘Cause you're a meme now, I don't know if you know this. Pepe Silvia is a meme now.

    Day: Yeah, Pepe Silvia!

    Keen: I felt like I did a really good job at casting because it's very rare to see Charlie not be the craziest person in the room. But when you have Jillian Bell and Tracy Morgan and Kumail Nanjiani, he actually is the one who goes, “Hey, hey, everyone hold on, let's all think about this," and that was really fun to watch.

    Day:By the way, I love all those memes. I put one out of myself today saying, “me promoting Fist Fight movie” and it's me doing the Pepe Silvia thing. I think I've gotten to the place where I'm allowed to do a meme of myself.

    Keen: Yeah, you have.

    Day: I think I’ve earned it, I think I’ve earned it.

    DePaulia: You mentioned Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell. Was there a lot of improv on this film?

    Keen: The answer is there was a lot of improv, but the question is how much did we actually keep. We’d shoot everything scripted, but there's no way I'm gonna have Kumail and Charlie stand together and not let them fuck around for an hour.

    Day: You know, it's funny because sometimes the term improv gets confused with the term “alt.” And I think more often, you're seeing alternative ways of having the same conversation. No one's never really improvising any story.

    Keen: I'll give you an example. When Charlie says, "Don't do meth,” and Jillian says, "Because it's a gateway?" and he says, "It's the finish line." That's written. When Charlie says, "Don't do meth, period," and she says, "When I'm on my period? That's when I need it the most." That's improvised.

    NBN: If they do that improv and someone breaks, but it's funny enough, do you just do it again and keep it?

    Day: That’s right. So if you do an alt and you laugh, and you know, “OK. that's really funny,” and do it again, it's never quite as good as the first take. Whatever magic is in there is lost. So that's why you have to try your hardest not to laugh.

    Keen: Of course he’s saying this!

    Day: Oh I know, because I’m the worst at it.

    Keen: Some of my favorite moments on set are watching Charlie just barely not break – like, you can see his lip starting to curl. We had a cast that hung out in between scenes. I picture Tracy Morgan walking around in a tank top telling stories. It shows on screen that everyone's having fun working together. You can't make up that chemistry.

    NBN: This film is obviously focused on teachers, but I wanted to know what you guys were like as students. Did you do any senior pranks or get sent to the principal?

    Day: I was too scared to get expelled from my school to do any actual pranks. We were nickel-and-diming our way through [my] school, so I knew if I got expelled, I would be such a huge disappointment to my parents. But I was terrible at school, though. I was just a jokester, and I couldn't pay attention, and I was very distracted by all the girls.

    Keen: I was part teacher's pet – teachers loved me – but also a little bit of a punk. So I did get in trouble several times, but when I got sent to the dean, they just hung out with me.

    DePaulia: What was the hardest part of the film to coordinate? Was it the dance number, the fight?

    Keen: The fight at the end was eight days of filming. I shot so much footage on it because I knew we had to deliver on the promise of the title.

    Day: The truth is, sitting here in this chair right now, I'm having to adjust my leg for a second because I'm still in pain from this movie – and it's been a year and a half since we've filmed it. For me, without question, filming that fight was the most difficult thing as an actor, physically at least, that I have ever had to do.

    NBN: Did you want viewers to get more than just a simple laugh out of this movie? Or was it deeper than that?

    Day: I always hope that people laugh, but that they don't feel as though their laughs came cheap. What I feel like we accomplished with this film was that you had good laughs, but you were thinking the whole time, and you're thinking about the school system and what teachers are going through.

    Keen: If there's anything we're saying at all, it's that we know the educational system is messed up and we know that these teachers are under a lot of pressure. We just wanted to find the funniest, most bizarre way of showing what would happen if they were pushed to the absolute limit.

    DePaulia: What was it like working with Ice Cube? I would've never thought to pair you two together.

    Day: No, and I never would have thought that would happen in my life. I was a big fan of his music when I was in high school and he was really coming onto the music scene. And it was like he was speaking to me, even though I was not a kid growing up in Compton.

    Keen: I went and sat down with Ice Cube and people asked me if I was intimidated and I was like, “Yeah, he was in NWA. I don't care how nice he was upon meeting me, I’m like, that shit is real.”

    Day: I mean, the last letter is attitude …

    Day:You didn't get to your fun questions, what were your fun questions gonna be?

    NBN: Oh yes, I'll do a quick fun question. So I stalked your stunt double on IMDb …

    Day: Uh huh, yeah.

    NBN: And I wanted a quick rating of how much you think this looks like you. Like, comparison-wise.

    Day:Uh, that doesn't look anything like me.

    Keen: I don't think I've ever seen that person in my life.

    Day: No, but that's a glamour shot. When he's got bruises under his eye and a little bit of scruff, he was a good pass. And height- and weight-wise? He was a good fit. And I wish –

    Keen: – he did more! I wish we used him!

    Day: I don't want to take credit away from him because anything that we did, those guys also did, so they also were working their butts off. I just wish we didn't have to do it too. Here, I'll show you a picture and you can see for yourself.

    NBN: Do you have a side-by-side?

    Day: I do.

    Photo by Kira Fahmy / North by Northwestern

    NBN: Mm. Beautiful.

    Day: Not bad! You wanna take a picture of that with your phone?

    NBN: Yeah!

    Day: You can put it in the article.

    And I did.

    Fist Fight is in theaters nationwide.


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