Woody Harrelson stars alongside 10 actors with learning disabilities in the new sports comedy “Champions.”
In Bobby Farrelly’s solo directorial debut, the 61-year-old three-time Academy Award nominee plays Marcus, a hotheaded minor-league basketball coach who is court-ordered to manage a team of players with aspirations of making it to the Special Olympics.
The movie’s production team held an open casting call across the United States and Canada seeking performers with disabilities to portray members of the team, which is called the Friends. After thousands of auditions, producers said they found their perfect ensemble in Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Casey Metcalfe, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Bradley Edens, Tom Sinclair, Alex Hintz and James Day Keith.
Felder, who is autistic, opened up about working on the project in an interview with Fox News Digital.
“It was very amazing, a great experience,” Felder said.
He continued, “I was in total shock because I’m working with Woody Harrelson, and it was just mind-blowing.”
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The 25-year-old Florida native is a global ambassador and international board of directors member for Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Felder told Fox News Digital that he learned of the open casting call two years ago through the organization.
“The Best Buddies program did a Zoom call with me and a few other participants about a movie opportunity and wanted us to audition for about two to three weeks,” he said. “I did my auditions, two on Zoom and one in person, same with every other participant. I just happened to be the only one to make it.”
Felder, who was a first-time actor, shared his thoughts on working with Harrelson.
“I feel very blessed to work with someone like him,” Felder said. “He definitely has a humble mindset. He’s very genuine, very kind with all of us. He doesn’t treat us any different at all. You just feel like one of his regular close friends while working with him.”
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Marcus, who has anger management issues and a drinking problem, is very reluctant to coach the Friends. However, he agrees to lead the team for 90 days as part of his community service rather than face jail time after drunkenly crashing into a parked police car.
Felder’s character, Darius, who is the team’s star, initially rejects Marcus as his coach and refuses to play for him. Felder told Fox News Digital that one of his highlights from working on the film was a “scene I did with Woody when he was portraying Coach Marcus having a friendly conversation with me at my house saying he’s not the same person he used to be when he was a drunk driver and all that, or when he used to be an alcoholic.”
The scene between Harrelson and Felder was also a standout moment for Farrelly. During a Q&A for the film’s production company, Focus Features, he raved about Felder’s performance.
“Every time we had to do a basketball scene on the court, we had no idea what was going to happen,” Farrelly said. “It’s hard to orchestrate a play and then execute it with cameras. We just let them play and started filming. Over the course of a basketball game, there was always stuff that surprised me.”
The “There’s Something About Mary” director continued, “But the biggest surprise came off the court with Joshua Felder’s character, Darius. He has this emotional scene with Woody, and the way Joshua played it had me in tears watching them from the monitor. It was just so powerful.”
“As a director, you hope to get a good performance, but when a guy gives you so much more than you could have hoped for – that’s just magic.”
Felder said that Harrelson and the Friends actors also had a lot of fun offscreen on the basketball court.
“I’m not going to lie, we didn’t really get to sleep because taping this movie each day was about 12 hours,” Felder told Fox News Digital.
He continued, “But the fun part about it, behind the scenes since it’s a basketball movie, me and other cast members, including Woody, would play basketball. We played games like three points or even trying to do some layups or playing H-O-R-S-E.”
He also shared some advice that Farrelly gave him on acting: “Stay in character, get some good rest and always practice. Definitely practice your lines before shooting and doing your scenes.”
Felder noted that another highlight from the experience was the chance to represent his hometown of Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think we have a lot of actors coming from Tampa,” he said. “We mostly just get like athletes.”
During his interview with Fox News Digital, Felder reflected on the message that he hopes movie-goers take away from the film.
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“What I want people with or without disabilities to understand is that this movie is the biggest example to show that we are capable of doing anything we set our minds to,” he said. “If we have a disability, we never let define us. We could do everything that regular people can do because, you know, that’s who we are.”
Felder continued, “We are human beings like everyone else. It shows them that we’re breaking barriers every day, and we’re just wanting to make history for ourselves.”
“And we kind of use our disabilities as our superpower to help us get these opportunities. Like this movie, for example.”
Harrelson echoed the same sentiments during a Friday appearance on “Today” in which he was joined by four of the Friends, including Felder, Iannucci, Metcalfe and Tevlin. He expressed his hope that “Champions” would lead to more opportunities for people with disabilities in Hollywood.
“Hopefully, if people see this film, they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, you know what? Let’s write in a part that wasn’t in whatever script they’re doing,’” the “Triangle of Sadness” star said.
The movie is a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” which was inspired by the true story of the Anderes team in Valencia that won 12 Spanish championships. “Champions” also stars Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin and Matt Cook.
Harrelson recalled that he was immediately on board with the project after watching the original film.
“I watch that, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m in.’ It is such a beautiful story, so funny, so brilliant,” Harrelson said of “Campeones.”
He continued, “And then once I met all these guys the first day, I said, ‘Oh, we’re going to be in good shape.'”
“My favorite part was just being on set with Woody,” Iannucci told host Savannah Guthrie. “He is such a talented guy and it was so much fun working with him.”
“We had a good time, didn’t we?” Harrelson said.
“Oh yeah, we did,” Iannucci replied.
“I felt like it was one of the best summer camps I’ve ever been to,” Metcalfe recalled.
Tevlin remembered the moment that she learned she landed the role: “Right away, I call my dad and I said, ‘Dad, you will not believe this. I’m in a movie with Woody!'” she said. “He also freaked out when I told him.”
Felder told Guthrie that he wasn’t surprised that Harrelson had some skills on the basketball court: “I always knew he was a good ball player,” he said. “Especially after I saw him in that movie ‘White Men Can’t Jump.'”
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In the 1992 comedy, Harrelson starred opposite Wesley Snipes as streetballers who con each other before teaming up to hustle their competitors. The film was a box-office smash that launched the former “Cheers” star’s movie career.
In an interview with the New York Times last month, Harrelson revealed that he didn’t meet the Friends until the day that they filmed their first scene together.
“The scene when I first meet the Friends, Bobby Farrelly made it so that was actually my first time meeting them — it was onscreen,” he told the outlet.
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“I had so much trepidation the night before,” Harrelson added. “When he told me, ‘Maybe we’ll go with the script, maybe we’ll go off it, maybe we just throw the script out,’ I was like, ‘Holy [expletive].’”
He continued, “As an actor, I’m maybe too rigid, but I’ve always thought you kind of need that script, even if you’re going to improvise. But as with most fears, it was completely illusory.”
Harrelson went on to say that he immediately bonded with the cast.
“These guys are so cool, so funny, so honest,” he said. “They’ll never tell you a lie. They’ll tell you a fib — ‘your shoe’s untied’ — but their kindness and warmth, within a couple of hours I was hook, line and sinker a part of them.”
“I haven’t had much experience with people with disabilities, so I didn’t know what to expect, and I’ve got to say, it was probably the most enjoyable experience I ever had making a movie.”
“Champions” opened in theaters nationwide on March 10.