They’re ready for the closeups, Mr. Farrelly Actors dish on Woody Harrelson, favourite moments on set of Winnipeg-filmed 'Champions'
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When Woody Harrelson came to town last year to film Champions, a basketball comedy about a hotheaded, down-on-his-luck coach forced to take over a Special Olympics basketball team, it was big news. The star of White Men Can’t Jump and Semi-Pro was spotted around the city, sticking out like a celebrity thumb.
But for three Winnipeggers, Harrelson’s arrival meant more than a potential selfie with an Oscar nominee: Alex Hintz, Tom Sinclair and Ashton Gunning got to star in a much bigger picture, making their Hollywood debuts in the film, directed by Bobby Farrelly.
The Free Press chatted with the three actors about their experience making the movie.
WFP: I see in the film’s production notes that you’re a movie buff. Do you have a favourite movie line, or a favourite mythological character?
One of my favourite movies is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A line from the trilogy that I really like is “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” This was said by Galadriel to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. It relates to how even though hobbits like Frodo seem small and insignificant, ultimately the fate of Middle Earth rests on the decisions and actions they take.
My favourite mythological character is Hercules, because he never gives up, and manages to overcome every trial the gods send his way, despite the odds being stacked against him.
Do you have a favourite myth?
My favourite myth comes from Japanese lore and is called Grandfather Cherry Blossom. It’s the story of an old man and his wife who had jealous neighbours. As a reward for being humble and kind, they were awarded with magical items that helped them when they had trouble. Their mean neighbours tried to get ahead through lying and deceit. In the end of the story they got punished by losing their ill-gotten gains.
Was this the first time you’ve acted in a movie?
Champions was my first-ever acting role. Previously, I took drama class in high school and participated in some productions, but only in minor roles. I also attended a production class in high school where we studied and helped out with lighting and sound.
Was there a lesson you learned on set that you’ll always remember?
When you see a real opportunity, just seize it and don’t let go. Don’t give in to fear about your limitations or be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone because you never know where it might lead you.
What attributes make a coach great?
A good coach is very supportive of their players. As Ernie Hudson’s character shows, it’s important to connect with the players on a personal level, not just about the game. It’s also important that the coach appreciates whatever challenges the players might be facing and be patient and adaptable to give them ideas on how to overcome challenges. A good coach gives constructive feedback and tries to keep a positive attitude on how to build on strengths of their players and not focusing so much on what they can’t do.
What attributes make a coach bad?
A bad coach might take out their anger on the team when they don’t win. They might be impatient, domineering or overbearing. Maybe they are too focused on winning and not on the love of the game. They might also be insensitive and single out those that are different, even insulting them personally rather than giving constructive advice. A bad coach is often short-sighted and not inclusive — only letting the star performers play most of the time, while the other players don’t get a chance to participate or develop.
You’ve acted before. What makes this film different from your other experiences?
This was a professional, big-screen production. All I’d done before was acting in theatre and small short films. But those did give me some acting and improv experience that helped me prepare for this film.
What was your favourite moment on set?
Working with Woody Harrelson in a one-on-one scene that didn’t make the final cut. My line was, “He’s no Rain Man.”
You’re also a filmmaker. Was there a lesson you learned about directing from Bobby Farrelly?
You don’t always have to film a scene the way it’s written. Sometimes, you have to change a scene to match the tone of the story.
Which moment from the film did you like best?
There was an unscripted moment where I fell backwards off the bench at the big game. It was so funny they kept it in anyway.
Who introduced you to basketball?
My older brother, Gerry, encouraged me to join Special Olympics when I was a teen. He has always been very involved in Special Olympics.
What attributes do good teammates have?
They should be open-minded, caring and accepting of who you are. It also helps if they’re funny.
Did you feel people treated you differently when they found out you were an actor?
Not really. I think everyone just treats me as who I am. Although, I am getting a wider following on social media.
You play for the Razorbacks basketball team in Special Olympics. Do you have a favourite moment from that experience?
I joined the Razorbacks last summer and have been liking it a lot. It turns out that our cast assistant, Joanne Zahaiko, who worked with us during filming, is a coach and she recruited me to join her team. In the film, our competitors on the Beasts team are mostly Razorbacks. I’m really more of a hockey guy though!
Who is your favourite basketball player and team?
I really like the New Orleans Pelicans and right now, Zion Williamson is my favourite player.
What’s your best skill as a basketball player?
My left-handed layup isn’t bad!
What was Woody Harrelson like?
When the camera is rolling, he gives his all. I remember he was happy to take his time with us and gave us tips to get the perfect take. Bobby Farrelly was the same way.
Did you meet anybody you admire?
I became good friends with the rest of my teammates. We hung out a lot when we weren’t filming and explored the city together, which was a lot of fun.
Have you seen the movie yet?
I was lucky enough to be invited to New York City with all of the cast for the world premiere a couple weeks ago. It felt a bit embarrassing to see myself on screen. I kept laughing when I saw myself.
What do you hope audiences like about the movie?
I hope that audiences like the message of inclusion in the film. That even those with different abilities can excel in our own ways. In the film, the character Julio (Cheech Marin) is on our side and rooting for us. It’s important to have those people around you that can help and support you.
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.