In Bobby Farrelly’s Champions, Marcus (Woody Harrelson), an aggressive, ambitious minor league basketball coach, finds his perspective on the game turned inside out when he is court mandated to work with the Friends, a team of players with intellectual disabilities players. To find the people for the team, the filmmakers cast a wide net in the US and Canada, looking for the right mix of talent who could both act and play basketball.
After 10 actors were chosen, Farrelly needed someone to work with them on basketball and acting, as well as help mold them into a team. The perfect person was closer than Farrelly imagined. His son A.B. Farrelly, an acclaimed actor and stand-up comedian, had coached kids with disabilities in high school as part of a program called Hoop Heroes.
“A.B. worked extensively with them and I remember what a terrific job he did,” says Bobby Farrelly in the production notes. “I thought it would be great if I brought A.B. in to help me with these actors.”
We spoke with A.B. Farrelly about working with the Friends’ actors in what turned out to be his dream job.
You worked with the actors who played the Friends. What did that entail?
I was sort of the point person for them. I got to coach them in basketball and run lines with them.
You had previously worked with disabled athletes in high school as part of the Hoop Heroes project.
I helped coach a basketball team for people with intellectual developmental disabilities, and I had worked with the Special Olympics before as a volunteer. In high school, I coached with Hoop Heroes. Since I had done that before, I was happy to step into that role again.
How did your work as an actor and stand-up comedian help with working with the Friends’ actors?
I got lucky here because this job combines three things I love: basketball, disabled people, and acting with comedy involved. When I first signed up, they asked if I had any professional experience as a behavioral therapist, which I don't, but I knew that my experience as a comedic actor would help because comedy is hard. Luckily these guys are very funny. Immediately after meeting them, we were able to riff and joke around. I chose to live in the same hotel as the actors who play the Friends, which I think helped. For me, it was about creating the right energy and letting that translate when we were on set.
How was it coaching the players?
Right away, we could see that some of them were phenomenal players. With others, we needed a little more practice. It is not that they were not good players, but they have to work as a team in the film. We had to be sure if they ran plays, they knew how to run them as a team. When I ran the practices, it wasn't so much teaching them how to play basketball as it was acquainting them with the fun plays we were doing in different scenes. We also hired a Special Olympics coach in Manitoba. She is a vice principal who volunteers as a coach. I remember when she got her first paycheck, she turned to me and asked, "I'm getting paid for this?" I had to tell her, "Yes, you are getting paid. You are on the crew." Two of our actors are on her team in Manitoba. She was fantastic, and the team she coaches showed up in the film as the Beasts, one of the teams the Friends end up playing.
How did you help form these different actors into a team?
From day one, they were the Friends. Their connection with each other was so instant that they didn't need any help. I got really lucky with that. And they are still really great friends. To watch them play together and be absolute movie stars in the film was probably the most rewarding experience of my life. Whether it was acting or playing basketball, they were all so incredibly talented.
Can you describe any particular moments that were moving or memorable?
On the very first day, when somebody did something great, the entire team would chant their name like when they chant “showtime” in the film. We made sure that everyone got included in that, even when someone was just stumbling with a line and nailed a trick shot. Whenever I see those chants in the movie, I really love it because that all came from a real place. Also, there is a great scene with Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), who was always motivating people in real life like she is in the movie. At one point, however, we needed her to make a basket in the movie. She’s an incredible actress but probably just an OK basketball player. So, we came up with this great idea where Jimmy Keith, who plays Benny, picks her up so that she can make a shot. It was so great.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I hope they leave laughing. This is a movie with 10 actors with intellectual developmental disabilities. These are kids who probably no one in high school thought, "That's the kid who is going to be a movie star in a movie with Woody Harrelson." And yet, they are. Kevin Iannucci, who has only been in one other film, improvises scenes with Kaitlin Olson like a pro. When the world tells you what you can't do, it is pretty cool when you show it what you can do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.