Focus Features’ Champions Brings Authentic Disability Representation to the Court
The new comedy film, starring Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, follows a former minor league basketball coach who is court-ordered to volunteer coach a team of disabled basketball players.
The players, known as the Friends basketball team, are all portrayed by disabled actors. While hundreds of disabled actors auditioned, the team of ten, comprised of Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, and Bradley Edens, were each selected unanimously after delivering stellar audition performances.
The production team also consulted with disability-focused organizations including Special Olympics and Best Buddies to ensure authenticity and accessibility were at the center of the project.
Director Bobby Farrelly had no doubts that this was the correct decision. “Given that this is a story about a community who are incredibly underrepresented – not only on screen, but in general – there was never any question about casting people reflective of the characters they’d be portraying.”
NBCUniversal has been tackling authentic representation in other projects as well. Peacock’s “Celebrating Disability On-Screen” collection launched last year, and NBCUniversal recently partnered with 1in4 coalition, a group of industry leaders working to enact positive change in the disability media landscape, who helped with the Champions release.
Farrelly elaborated on the importance of such representation in the film. “We've become aware that disabled actors tend not to audition for non-disabled roles, so when the character is disabled, it should go to a disabled actor.”
This authentic-casting mindset was also part of Universal Pictures’ highly anticipated adaptation of Wicked, which put out an extensive casting call to find the perfect actor to portray the film’s disabled character, Nessarose.
Overall the film is a strong example of how accessibility and inclusion ultimately result not only in a more equitable industry, but in a more truthful form of story-telling that audiences are asking for. As Farrelly explains, “I think Champions is such a warm movie and it's genuinely funny but we're never laughing at people, we're laughing with people. It’s a laugh-out-loud story that you can't help but love.”
Champions releases only in theaters on March 10.