Woody Harrelson casts disabled actors for basketball movie

Woody Harrelson  with four of the basketball team players in Champions sitting on a bench

A new movie follows Marcus, a college basketball coach, avoiding prison by signing up for community service which sees him stepping into the shoes of a coach managing a basketball team consisting of players with learning disabilities.

In “Champions” Marcus [ Woody Harrelson ] does such an incredible job it sees the team competing for a place in the Special Olympics.

Based on the 2018 Spanish movie “Campeones” the script grabbed Harrelson’s attention so much he signed up to be not only a lead role but also the executive producer brought in his close friend Bobby Farrelly to direct.

But there was a challenge, the disabled characters had to be played by disabled actors who could also play basketball.

Hundreds of people auditioned for the roles which eventually went to 10 talented actors forming the Friends basketball team in the movie.

Apprehensive at first any hesitation Harrison had about the filming was put to rest as soon as Action was called.

“Once I came in and met everybody and we started at it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be so much fun!’ And it really was,” Harrelson told The Independent. “They taught me that they can nail the lines, no problem. But also they just taught me, just the great fluidity of being who they are.”

Harrison shares screen time with Kaitlin Oslon, who plays Alex, Marcus’ love interest in the movie. The star said how evident it was that the 10 young actors had a gift for being in front of the camera.

“Everybody brought something so unique and different to it,” Olson recalled. “And parts of their actual personalities shone through, which is probably why they … got the role in the first place. There was a lot… of wonderful acting, but there’s also a lot of wonderful just being themselves, and it gave us an opportunity to just play off of that.“

It’s not the first time Harrelson has been involved in a movie which has a link to disability. In 2005 he made “The Ringer” with his brother Pete and Farrelly which saw Johnny Knoxville’s character, Steve Barker, competing in the Special Olympics. 

“We would never do that nowadays so the world has changed in that regard,“ Farrelly said. “We played that a lot broader. It was… much more of a kind of a goofy comedy. This one here, it’s set in reality. These are all very real people. Before, we didn’t think anything of it. It was just what people were doing. Dustin Hoffman played ‘Rain Man,’ you know? But nowadays I think we’ve come to realize that disabled actors have a hard time getting roles ... so the parts that they do have in the Hollywood world, it should go to them.”

James Day Keith, who plays Benny in the movie, was an easy choice for the director having played basketball for the Special Olympics in real life.

Keith attended the New York premiere of “Champions” last week with the rest of the cast. 

“I do see myself as a role model because seeing what I did will probably make them want to do it themselves because there’s no limit to success,” Keith said.

Casey Metcalfe plays Marlon, he hopes the movie paves the way forward for more disabled actors to be cast in Hollywood blockbusters.

“The more people we have in this industry who are diverse, like myself ... not just racially diverse ... but you’re neurodiverse. I think that’s exactly, you know, what the industry needs,” Metcalfe said.

Madison Tevlin stepped into the role of Consentino, the only woman in the team. She admitted learning basketball skills was much tougher than acting.

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

All 10 actors were given a huge hug by Olson at the premiere, who said it was “really inspiring” working with them on set.

“They showed up every single day, 100%. They’re ready to work, ready to do the best that they could, ready to take in all the information. And it was really beautiful,” Olson told the media. “You work with a lot of people sometimes who are just like, ‘this is just a job and they’re getting it done.’ These guys were like, ’We’re here. We’re ready to milk every single ounce out of it.”

[ Champions is on nationwide release at cinemas from Friday 9 March ]

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