Disabled actors shine in basketball comedy 'Champions'

NEW YORK - The new comedy "Champions" stars Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, but the veteran actors have tough competition for the spotlight with some charismatic newcomers.

Harrelson plays a college basketball coach with a bad temper who's 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 game.

Harrelson's agent and another producer wanted to remake the original film, called "Campeones" - Spain's biggest box-office hit in 2018 - and thought the actor and basketball lover would be a great fit. Harrelson loved 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 the athletes played by disabled actors, who also needed basketball skills. They auditioned hundreds of people before finding the 10 standout personalities who make up the Friends basketball team.

Cast members Madison Tevlin, left, and James Day Keith attend the premiere of their film "Champions" in New York on Feb. 27, 2023. Associated Press

Harrelson says he wasn't sure what to expect on the first day of shooting. "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 Associated Press. "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."

The 10 actors have different intellectual challenges but many found their comedy chops on screen.

"Everybody brought something so unique and different to it," Olson said. "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."

The film was a chance for Harrelson to collaborate again with Farrelly after making the bowling comedy "Kingpin" in 1996. The director said he thinks audiences are more open to disabled actors on screen and seeing their stories. He recalled making the 2005 movie "The Ringer" with his brother, Pete Farrelly, where Johnny Knoxville infiltrated the Special Olympics. Farrelly said they cast nondisabled actors in disabled roles back then.

Woody Harrelson stars as a basketball coach with a bad temper in "Champions." Courtesy of Focus Features

"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 that they do have in the Hollywood world, it should go to them."

Some of the actors playing the Friends team members attended the film's New York premiere last week and for many it was their first time on a red carpet. James Day Keith, a Special Olympian for basketball, who plays Benny in the film said he likes setting a positive example for other disabled actors. "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.

Kaitlin Olson in a scene from the comedy "Champions." Courtesy of Focus Features

Casey Metcalfe, who plays Marlon, said he hopes disabled actors have a place in Hollywood going forward. "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.

Some of the actors, like Madison Tevlin who plays the only woman on the team, said learning the basketball moves was harder 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."

Olson, who gave big hugs to all the Friends at the premiere, called working with them "really inspiring."

"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 said. "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 in theaters Friday.

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