The celebrity wattage was through the roof at the New York premiere of the Roberto Duran boxing biopic “Hands of Stone,” Monday evening at the SVA Theater. The film stars Edgar Ramirez as Duran, Robert De Niro as his trainer Ray Arcel, and Usher Raymond IV as legendary fighting rival Sugar Ray Leonard.
In addition to the trio of big stars of the film, the screening and red carpet also featured cast members Ana De Armas, who plays Duran’s wife; Reuben Blades, as Duran’s sleazy promoter; and Robert De Niro’s real life daughter Drena, who plays Arcel’s estranged daughter. Grace Hightower, De Niro’s wife, also attended, and I loved the cat print dress that she wore.
Also spotted were young fighters like Sadam Ali, eager to meet Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray, who both attended the premiere.
The excitement level rose even higher when Harvey Weinstein announced before the screening that Beyoncé and Jay Z were in the house. “They’ve already seen the movie” and their presence “says something about the film and their dedication and friendship with Usher.”
Weinstein thanked Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was also in the theater and also slammed Donald Trump a number of times before he said “no more politics.”
Harvey introduced writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who like Ramirez is from Venezuela. Jakubowicz thanked the cast, who gathered at the front of the stage to thunderous applause, and told the audience: “You’re about to watch the first mainstream movie about a Latino hero’s history. We’re always portrayed as criminals, drug dealers and rapists. That’s why you can say that’s who we are and still have a shot at the presidency.”
Earlier on the red carpet, the director talked to me about the unusual casting choice of Usher, who as a famous pop star could have been a distracting presence but who nails the physical and spiritual essence of the legendary boxer Sugar Ray that he’s the big revelation of the film. The director said of meeting Usher, “He immediately did the Ali shuffle and the classic Leonard moves. He was so passionate about who Leonard was for him and for his people. He started training immediately, a year before shooting.”
Twice financing fell through, but Usher stuck with the project. Said the director: “He ended up training with Leonard, who loved the idea of Usher playing him. He told me, ‘He’s got the right smile. With that smile I’ll teach him everything else.’ The smile is the key to Sugar Ray because he was one of the first boxers who was a showman. He was a super star. He was the first pop star in the ring. Everything that Leonard got criticized for so did Usher. Rappers call him the pretty boy. That’s what Duran used to call Leonard.”
When I spoke to the handsome star of the film, Ramirez told me the fighting was the toughest part of the role, but once he learned that, it was hard to keep a straight face because he had such a good time shooting the film. (Director and stars De Niro and Ramirez had such a good experience that Jakubowicz is already planning to do another film with them.)
I asked Ramirez what drew him to take on the role of Duran. “I grew up listening to stories that my father would tell me about Roberto Duran, how he was a beast and a brawler, and when I read the script I realized this guy was one of the most compassionate, one of the tender guys and had the biggest heart. That was quite revealing and attractive.”
Usher was the last person on the red carpet and he was great fun, especially when he demonstrated some of Sugar Ray’s signature footwork, including the “side step” that looks like a beautiful dance move but is fast so opponents have a hard time catching you. “Such a graceful move,” Usher said.
As for why he put himself through such a big challenge to play such a difficult part, it was because of the man he portrayed. “I was really looking for something that was different. This was an opportunity to share the life of an amazing man, an amazing man who was an icon for a lot of people. And although this movie isn’t about Sugar Ray Leonard, it’s an important moment to celebrate our icons, and I’m happy this gave us that opportunity.”
Then the pop idol/movie star did a graceful side step into the theater.
“Hands of Stone,” a Weinstein Company release, opens today.