The actress discusses her first big screen role, how she was cast, and what it was like working with Sylvester Stallone

One might think after playing all 24 parts in an autobiographical play, Balfast Blues, that she wrote and directed, Geraldine Hughes, would have run the gamut as far as acting is concerned. However, making her big screen debut as Marie in Rocky Balboa, she brings a certain innocence and freshness to the cinematic apple of the Italian Stallion's eye.

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Rocky Balboa is the next story in the saga of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa, one of Hollywood's most beloved characters. In the film, Rocky has long since retired but is drawn back to the boxing ring one last time. On the way he is challenged by a powerful new champion, by personal tragedy and ultimately by himself.

How did you get cast in this film?

Geraldine Hughes: Sheila Jaffe, the casting director, saw a play that I did, that I wrote and performed called Belfast Blues. She rang me and asked if I'd come and audition for Rocky Balboa, and I thought "Right, okay. Really?" I was packing boxes to move to New York, so I drove out to Culver City and I went over and auditioned. I really wanted to show Sheila that I could be American do an American accent... and I did that I suppose. Then I went back to packing boxes. The day before I left to go to New York she rang me and I was having coffee with someone, and I was exhausted... and she said, "Would you come and meet Sylvester today at 12:30?" I said, "Meet Sylvester, what is going on around here?"

So I went over and met him and he was delicious and lovely, and it was very moving to meet him because growing up in Ireland, he's it. Rocky in the 1970s, growing up in Belfast, when that movie came out, boxing is a huge sport over there, everybody was just overwhelmed. His posters are still up on everybody's walls. To be a part of that... I think that kind of hit me today that I'm actually in the film, because you work and then you move on, and then suddenly there's a film.

Being Irish, what insight do you have into this Philadelphia city girl?

Geraldine Hughes: I can relate to Marie. I come from West Belfast, a working class family, and can really sort of identify with someone being in a tough place, not feeling too great about themselves. That was easy enough to access unfortunately.

Did you go back and look at the first film because your character was a little girl in that?

Geraldine Hughes: Well, I was wondering if I'd actually have to say, "Screw you, creepo!" Which I didn't. I went back and watched the first one over and over because when I read the script, I felt that it had the same sensibility. Certainly, when I saw it, I realize that's exactly what he did, homaged the first one on so many levels. The first one is my favorite, that's the one that's always played in my house. Although the Mr. T one, that's a pretty good one, too.

Did you feel any sense of honoring Adrian who isn't in this film?

Geraldine Hughes: There was never a moment when I thought I would be replacing Adrian. That was never a notion and I don't think that that happens really, because she's still very much a powerful character in this film. The relationship between Marie and Rocky is dealt with in such a delicate way. They're two people who are lonely and who found each other, and are great company for each other. I hope that people who are great fans of Adrian, which there are many, will still go and see it and realize that she is still very much a part of this legacy. He honors her so beautifully, especially at the end, I think.

What was it like shooting these boxing scenes?

Geraldine Hughes: As an actor, it was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do because it was 10 days at the Mandalay Bay. The first day when the boxing stuff started, they started to fight, and right away really fighting; Sly was taking real hits. He's an actor, not a boxer and I was like, "What is going on?" I couldn't watch it. It was really scary to me. So I wish the camera had been on me then and gotten all of the action shots. It was great, over 2000 people showed up each day to come and watch and be extras in the film.

Why do you think Rocky is such a legend?

Geraldine Hughes: I think it's the ultimate underdog story. It's about someone who comes from nothing and is given an opportunity. I think the notion is that if you work hard enough, and fight hard enough, you can survive and actually succeed in what you want to do. It's sort of about being told that if you're born in a certain place that that's where you're gonna stay, and that's not true. Just because you get older and you're bones begin to creak a little bit... doesn't have to be true either.

What do you think happens between Rocky and Marie at the end?

Geraldine Hughes: That's not something that I even know. It's an interesting question because if you're a man or a woman, the reaction has been, "They're just friends" or women say "They're gonna be married and have fifteen kids!" I love how he's left it because there is that moment, the night before the fight, where she sort of leans in for the little peck and there's a great chemistry with the two of them. I would hope that something nice would happen.

What did Sylvester tell you about playing Marie?

Geraldine Hughes: Well Sly was the writer as well so he was always writing and rewriting her as well. He was constantly changing who she was together... even as we were doing the scenes. Sometimes improv a little bit, or play it a different way, it was being developed as we were doing it.

Did he ever tell you why he picked you for this role?

Geraldine Hughes: I was afraid to ask that, and I haven't ever directly asked that, "So what was it that you loved about my audition?" Apparently, whatever it was I did on that tape, there was something about that. And he had watched it... and from the stories I had heard he really felt, "This is the one. I have to keep looking because this can't be the one." He went back to my tape and in the meantime showed everybody my tape, I was on the set and people were coming up going, "Yeah, I saw your audition tape." I was like, "Did he show it to everybody?"

Rocky Balboa opens in theaters nationwide on December 20 from MGM Pictures.