Disabled actors shine in basketball comedy 'Champions'

Streaming HUBMarch 8, 2023

NEW YORK (AP) – The new comedy “Champions” stars Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olsen, but the veteran actors are competing for the spotlight with some charismatic newcomers.

Harrelson plays a bad-tempered college basketball coach who is facing jail time or community service for some bad behavior. To avoid punishment, he finds himself coaching a basketball team of young adults with intellectual disabilities, who help him rediscover the joy of the sport.

Harrelson’s agent and another producer wanted to remake the original film, which is called “Campiones” — Spain’s biggest box-office hit of 2018 — and the actor and basketball lover would be a great fit. Harrelson liked the story and signed on as star and executive producer, and tapped his longtime friend Bobby Farrelly to direct.

Casting was challenging as the producers wanted athletes to be played by actors with disabilities, which also required basketball skills. They auditioned hundreds of people before finding the 10 standout personalities who would make up the Friends basketball team.

Harrelson says he wasn’t sure what to expect on his first day of shooting. “Once I came in and met everyone and we started it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be so much fun!’ And it really was,” Harrelson told The Associated Press. “He taught me that he could walk the right path, no problem. But at the same time he taught me just who he is, the great fluidity of just being.” .

The 10 actors have different intellectual challenges, but many saw their comedy on screen.

“Everybody came away with something so unique and different,” Olson said. “And parts of his real personality shined through, which is probably why he … got the role in the first place. There was a lot of … wonderful acting, but there’s also a lot of wonderful acting as himself.” is, and it gave us an opportunity to act that out.”

The film was a chance for Harrelson to collaborate again with Farrelly after making the 1996 bowling comedy “Kingpin”. The director added that he feels audiences are more open to actors with disabilities on screen and see their stories. He recalled the 2005 film “The Ringer” with his brother Pete Farrelly, where Johnny Knoxville infiltrates the Special Olympics. Farrelly said they cast disabled actors back in disabled roles.

“We would never do that nowadays, so the world has changed in that regard,” Farrelly said. “We played it very broad. It was … a kind of goofy comedy. It’s here, it’s set in reality. These are all very real people. At first we didn’t think anything of it. It was what People were doing it. Dustin Hoffman played ‘Rain Man,’ you know? But nowadays I think we’ve realized that actors with disabilities have a hard time getting roles … So the parts of the Hollywood world that Yes, they should go.

Some of the actors who play members of the Friends team attended the New York premiere of the film last week, and for many it was their first time on the red carpet. James Day Keith, a Special Olympian for basketball who plays Benny in the film, said he likes to set a positive example for other disabled actors. Keith said, “I see myself as a role model because after seeing what I did, they might want to do it themselves because there is no limit to success.”

Casey Metcalf, who plays Marlon, said he hopes to see actors with disabilities find a place in Hollywood going forward. “The more people we have in this industry who are diverse, like me… not only racially diverse… but you are neurodiverse. I think really, you know what the industry needs, Metcalf said.

Some actors, such as Madison Tavlin, who plays the only woman on the team, said that learning the basketball moves was harder than acting.

“I’m a really natural on camera when it comes to acting, but with basketball, I’ve never played before … so the team helped me a lot.”

Olsson, who hugged all of Friends at the premiere, described working with them as “really inspiring”.

“They showed up 100% every day. They came in ready to work, ready to do everything they could, ready to take in all the information. And it was really beautiful,” Olsson said. You work with a lot of people sometimes who are like, ‘It’s just a job and they’re getting it done.’ These guys were like, ‘We’re here. We are ready to extract every ounce of milk out of it.

“Champions” is in theaters Friday.


Associated Press Producer John Carucci contributed to this report.

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