"In terms of the riding, I wasn't concerned about it," the 28-year-old actor notes, recalling how quickly his confidence in his own horsemanship faded. "I'd done another movie where I rode some horses (Ang Lee's 1999 'Ride With the Devil'). So, I knew that I had a start. I did not realize what kind of athletes that jockeys are. They're just warriors, these guys. It's unbelievable. The first time that I actually got up in the stirrups and did a bit of galloping on a race horse, and also just did some posting, I couldn't believe that after a couple of minutes my legs were noodles. I could barely stand up."
Based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book "Seabiscuit, An American Legend," "Seabiscuit" tells the incredible true story of how an abused horse beat the odds to become a champion, teaching three men along the way the valuable lesson, "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little." Maguire plays Johnny "Red" Pollard, an angry young man whose family, devastated by the Depression, sends him away because they can't afford them. Jeff Bridges portrays Charles Howard, an optimistic businessman with a Midas touch and boundless faith in humanity, even after the tragic death of his young son, while Chris Cooper follows up his Oscar-winning turn in last year's "Adaptation" with another great role -- that of the quiet, kind, earthy cowboy and horse trainer, Tom Smith. When Howard hires Smith to find and train for him a racehorse, Smith falls in love with the wild, ill-tempered Seabiscuit, and insists he can make him a winner. Recognizing similarities between the horse and Pollard, a rider known more for brawling than winning races, Smith hires Pollard as Seabiscuit's rider.
"Tom Smith was down-and-out as a trainer, and nobody really thought he was worth hiring anymore," explains Kathleen Kennedy, the film's producer. "Charles Howard had gone through an extraordinarily sad experience in his life with the loss of his son and eventually the dissolution of his marriage. Red Pollard had suffered his losses, being left on his own at such a young age. And the fact that Pollard, Howard and Smith and this funny-looking little racehorse came together and basically re-built their lives while creating a legend -- those are the elements of a wonderful story."
Agrees the book's awe-struck author: "I was thinking, 'If I can sell 5,000 copies out of the trunk of my car, I'll be happy.' I just wanted to tell the story."
Hillenbrand says she was shocked then when her editor called to tell her that after only five days on sale, the book had already made it onto the best-seller list, debuting at No. 8. The following week, it rose to No. 2 and, the week after that, "Seabiscuit, An American Legend" topped the list at No. 1. The hardcover edition of the book remained on The New York Times Best-seller List for 30 weeks; the paperback edition debuted on the list the week of April 14, 2002, and hasn't left since.
"I loved the script, and I thought that Gary Ross did a fabulous job of adapting (Hillenbrand's book,)" says Maguire. "I had read the book prior to reading the script, and I love the story. It's such a great book and Gary, I thought, using the kind of documentary, historical device of showing the photos and having (noted historian David) McCullough do some narration, I thought was a brilliant way to establish the time period and what was going on there, and how that ties into the characters' own personal situations in their lives, and that's so tremendous. ... The character (of Red Pollard) was just wonderful, very complex and I was excited about it."
To prepare for the role, the strapping lad dieted down to a lower weight to give him more credibility as a jockey and even trained with retired Hall-of-Fame rider Chris McCarron.
"We brought in a mechanical horse that they call an Equi-ciser to my house and several times a week, I would get up there, and Chris would coach me, and that was both for form and just to build up my strength and endurance so that I could do it," Maguire remarks, adding that he usually finds the physical preparation for his films exciting -- at least in the beginning.
"I just dive into it, and I like seeing the results of it, and it's something that's tangible, and a lot of the homework that I do is just about learning the psychology of the character, and that's very interesting to me, but this is like, you know, you look in the mirror and you see it. You start to see the character poking through, physically, and that's fun.
"The hard part is maintaining it while shooting. You know, you're working 14 hours a day, and you still have to be on a diet even though you're so tired and you're not getting enough sleep and all you want is sugar, and I'm eating 1,500 calories a day and working out several times a week. That becomes hard, and I had little mini-breakdowns where I said, 'Bring me as much as candy and donuts as you can possibly find,' and I actually had competitions with a couple of people to see who could bring the most. Two people, they each brought me different little baskets of treats, and I just ended up eating it all anyway. Then, I'd have to pay for those breakdowns."
Maguire's transformation into Red Pollard also included a shocking new hairdo. Asked about those curly, auburn locks he sports in the film, the actor, laughs: "The hair? I got a haircut. We curled my hair everyday, and we colored it, too."
Just as "Seabiscuit," the odds-on favorite to be the summer's critical darling, raced into theaters, Maguire is already swapping his jockey gear for a red Lycra Spidey suit, once again changing his diet and workout regimen.
"The bulking-up (for 'Spider-Man 2') wasn't hard," he insists. "Again, it's just about maintenance, and I'm two thirds of the way through 'Spider-Man.' So, I'm doing OK so far, but it gets tough in the middle of a picture. You just kind of get tired."