Actors become a part of a sports team in “The Boys in the Boat”

Laurie Sparham / MGM Pictures
A group of actors went through intense rowing training for George Clooney's newest film.

LOS ANGELES — Rowing is one of the most intense sports in the world. To row successfully, one must withstand immense strain on one’s body and execute top-notch technique. In eight-man crew, rowers must be in sync, or else the boat will end up astray; such skill often takes years to develop. A group of actors in “The Boys in the Boat” had to learn such talent within months. 

“The Boys in a Boat” is George Clooney’s newest film, based on a book written by Daniel James Brown about the 1936 University of Washington Rowing team. The story takes place in Seattle, where the main character, Joe Rantz, scrapes by as he completes his studies. However, he risks losing his spot in the university if he can not pay his tuition and can not get a job as all positions are filled or gone. That is when he learns about the rowing team, one that includes a job with pay that could cover his tuition. The team is made up of underdogs like Rantz. The film depicts their story, facing affluent rivals and, eventually, Nazi-controlled Germany in the Olympics. 

Authenticity was one of the most important aspects of crafting the film. Brown wanted the movie to capture the essence of the story. Making sure the rowing in the movie was comparable to actual rowing was necessary to achieve such a goal.

“It’s really important,” Brown said. “ These guys, at the end of the day, they’re still actors. They’re not Olympic rowers.”

Learning how to row well is what the group of actors set out to do. Each of them spent months training with top coaches and college rowers. The work was rigorous training, and they regularly had blisters on their hands because of such work. Even while delivering such effort, the actors had yet to get far four months into training. They were getting better but were not close to their goal of 46 strokes per minute. Then, it clicked. 

“We spent five months in England. It took four months to feel like we got ten percent of the way there,” said Thomas Elms, who plays Chuck Day. “And then something magical happened in the last two weeks of filming when we actually put the boats on the water.”

While they were usually only capable of rowing 500 meters (the Olympic distance is 2000) without going astray, it was all they needed to film the scenes. The demanding task of learning how to row ended up being a rewarding experience for many of the actors. They learned what it takes to be a part of a team, building a relationship with each other as they worked tirelessly to find success in the boat.

“We set this target, 46 strokes per minute in February on the [River] Thames when it was snowing. And we thought, on the first day, we will get it. On the second day, we thought nah, we ain’t getting this. And we managed to do it. I don’t know how, but when we did it, it was a shock. No one spoke for about 45 minutes. And then there was euphoria that we’d achieved the target that we set ourselves five months before, and that really bonded us,” said Callum Turner, who plays Rantz. 

The chemistry the actors developed while rowing translated into their acting. They represented the brotherhood of the original rowers in the scenes as they felt some of it among themselves.

“It’s something that you always hope to achieve on camera, but it doesn’t always happen,” Elms said. “And I think it became so much easier because we literally became brothers on a sports team out there. We weren’t just actors making a movie. We were really trying to live up to the expectations of the global rowing community.”

Brown approves of the film, pointing out the quality of the rowing scenes. While it does not match the quality of Olympic rowers, he considers them “passable as expert rowers.”

“The actors put a lot of sweat and a lot of work into making their rowing at least passable as expert rowers, and I think I think it comes off that way,” Brown said.

Many members of the rowing community will see for themselves when the film releases in theaters on Dec. 25. The actors hope the rowers will approve of their ability to portray the original story, but they are proud of their own efforts. They learned what it takes to be a part of a sports team, forming bonds with each other.