Kevin James and Bas Rutten of “Here Comes the Boom” talk about UFC, mat burns, and Henry Winkler

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Comedian/actor Kevin James started doing stand-up comedy in 1989 and made many appearances on late night talk shows (David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien). He made a few guest appearances on Ray Romano’s sitcom, Everyone Loves Raymond; those spots led James to start his own CBS show, The King of Queens, which lasted nine seasons. The popularity of the show (and James’s performance, which landed him a prime time Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 2006) opened a few more doors in Hollywood, leading to his breakout role starring opposite Will Smith in the 2005 romantic comedy Hitch.

When Hitch became a bona-fide hit, James started in appearing in more films, mostly comedies, such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Grown UpsPaul Blart: Mall Cop, and Zookeeper—the latter two of which he also wrote the screenplays for. Another comedian/actor and good friend, Adam Sandler, has produced many of James’s films, starting with 2007’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Opening this Friday at theaters around the Twin Cities is Here Comes the Boom, the latest film James wrote, produced, and stars in. While it is another comedy, it is one that does not quite come off as silly as some of his previous films. Still, it’s entertaining for the family and features some good action.

James plays high school biology teacher Scott Voss, who finds out that one of his friends and fellow teachers, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), will lose his job at the end of the school year since the school is going to be cutting all extra-curricular activities due to budget cuts. Voss gets the idea to start training and become a mixed martial-arts fighter in order to help raise money to help keep Mr. Streb’s job and his music program. The cast is rounded out by Salma Hayek, who plays the school physician who Scott keeps asking out on dates, only to be rejected over and over; Greg Germann as Principal Betcher, who is the one making the cuts to the school; and former MMA fighter Bas Rutten from the Netherlands (who fought mostly in the mid to late 1990s and was also known as “El Guapo” or “The Handsome One”), who trains Scott in exchange for Scott helping Rutten’s Niko to study for and pass his U.S. citizenship test. The film also features other former and current UFC and MMA fighters and personalities.

James and Rutten stopped in the Twin Cities last week and answered some questions about the film in a round-table interview I was present for along with six other local and national media outlets.  The interview lasted around 25 minutes; these were some of the questions and answers from James and Rutten, who showed up about ten minutes into the interview. 

While this story is not autobiographical, how do you feel you can relate to your character in Here Comes the Boom?

Kevin James: As far as teachers are concerned, I have some great teachers in my past and in fact one of them was named Mr. Betcher. He was such a great guy and influenced me in a positive way that I still adhere to some of his principles today, and you’re talking about 30 years later. There were a handful of great teachers and didn’t matter what subject they taught, but it was about the life lessons and being supportive and positive about whatever you want to do in life, you should go out and do it. There were teachers who you could tell that didn’t want to be in the classroom all the time and it showed and that’s how my character starts out, as sometimes you do become complacent in life and in one way or another, no matter what type of job you’re in and sometimes you need something that can wake you up and inspire you and look to be a better version of yourself.

Here Comes the Boom, at least on a surface level, has a lot of similarities to last year’s Warrior. Were you concerned when you saw that film?  

Kevin James: Yes. We shot this film a year and a half ago. So it wasn’t like once Warrior came out, we said, “Oh, let’s make a funny Warrior.” I had no idea that Warrior was being made, and I always wanted to make a UFC/MMA type film since I’ve been a fan for many years now. I also wanted it to be a real inspirational movie too and when I heard about Warrior my producer was saying, “Don’t go see it.” Not that it wasn’t a great movie, but there were a lot of similarities, about the teacher going back into the ring and I told the producer, “I gotta see it.” I went and saw it, and I loved it, and I wasn’t all that worried about our film after seeing it. Thy’re such different movies—I mean, ours is a comedy, and not to be meant a spoof comedy and slapstick like something like Paul Blart or Zookeeper, but this one was more organic to what was going on in the situation. When I saw Warrior didn’t do as well as I thought it should, I thought, I hope it isn’t the fighting aspect that didn’t work—but I want to show the human aspect of it. And when I met Bas, being a fan of UFC, I was more inspired as I got to meet all these real-life fighters. It wasn’t the fighting that made me want to do this, it was to find out they were regular guys. I wanted to find out why they were fighting, whether it was to put food on the table for their kids, for someone in their family that needed help, or if they just loved the sport.

You started out writing stand-up material and have now started writing screenplays. What was the writing process like for Here Comes the Boom?

Kevin James: It was about spewing out the ideas, which I had in me for a few years. I wanted to tell it in the right way; we’re trying to spin so many plates and there are so many moving parts to this story. There is the music, the inspiration, the schools, and the comedy on top of it. It was difficult to make a real serious fight movie and make it a comedy too, without making it a buffoon thing. It was hard trying to figure out, where does the comedy come from? We didn’t want to make it too goofy, well then it takes away from the believable fight scenes and the reality of it and people might not be as drawn to it then. We actually drew from real-life situations, like the scene where the ring breaks. The referee told the fighters, “Watch out for that corner of the ring, broken right there. I would stay away from it.” The rain fight was also something true that happened, we saw that on YouTube, and there was another fighter we saw who wore this helmet with big horns and had a shield and he looked like a badass and as soon as he got into the ring, he got knocked out and his corner man had to carry his shield back into the locker room. So we wanted to pull from real-life experiences and it is such an interesting world all these guys are in. Having UFC’s involvement, too…they didn’t want us to make a mockery out it. They gave us their brand, which they had never done before. Their big concern was they wanted me to have a believable story of being allowed into the octagon. Dana White suggested my character be a former collegiate wrestler. I thought it was a great idea to have him have that background; it’ll lend that balance to it and have the viewer go through this experience together.

Bas, how was it for you and the other UFC/MMA guys to come onto a film set, compared to meeting up in the ring, where it’s serious business?

Bas Rutten: It felt like camaraderie. When these guys would meet up in the ring, they would fight each other and lot of these guys had never met each other when they met on set. Now some of them are friends, and they fight one another. Plus, a bunch of these guys are really funny and they had a good time on the movie.

Kevin James: And by the way, after you fight another human being, there is no animosity between each other, there is nothing left.  So even when there are guys that legitimately hate each other and they are talking trash before the fight, they get in the ring and at the end of the match, they end up hugging one another. I mean, they can’t go back to talking trash again. And those were the moments that actually moved me.

So, Bas, how did Kevin do?

Bas Rutten: Seriously, he was good. He got respect from all the guys there; just the persistence of training and doing everything that regular fighters do. It’s not an easy life, training two or three times a day, watching what you eat and getting an injury and trying to train around an injury. If you get something like a mat burn on your toes a few weeks beforehand, it opens and re-opens that burn everyday form training.

Kevin James: From training, I don’t think there is no fighter that goes into the Octagon perfectly healthy. It’s hard to do that. You’re training and sparring as much as you do, you’re going to get hurt. So almost everyone goes in with an injury and the key is not to show that you’re hurting or that you’re injured. But when you do get into the ring and you have that adrenaline going, most of the time you forget about most of your injuries then.

How was it to work with Henry Winkler?

Kevin James: It was incredible. I was a huge fan of “The Fonz,” and I really loved him in Night Shift. He was the catalyst of what makes me do something as crazy to sacrificing myself and laying my life on the line for somebody. So you have to get behind this guy instantly. It’s not somebody you can build-up during the course of the movie and you wouldn’t buy me doing it. He was making the school a better place by all the work he was doing for his students and that was worth fighting for. But working with Henry Winkler from the moment we met for the first time on the set, it was like butter. He came on the set and he is a really funny guy and has a great sense of humor. I would catch him when the cameras weren’t rolling and thought I might see a different side and I never saw that. He was a sweet guy and I don’t see anyone else who could have played that part.

Bas Rutten: If you were depressed or upset coming onto the set, it was gone when you saw him, he would light up the room. He’s a good dude.