‘Champions’ Actor James Day Keith Talks Film’s Disability Representation: ‘I’ve Been Proving People Wrong My Whole Life’

Woody Harrelson steps onto the court once again (“White Men Can’t Jump,” “Semi-Pro”) in the heartfelt sports comedy “Champions.” Directed by Bobby Farrelly, the remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones” sees Harrelson as Marcus, a former minor-league basketball coach who leads a team of intellectually disabled players called the Friends.

“It’s really hard to make an authentically funny and emotionally vulnerable film, and I thought they did such a wonderful job,” Kaitlin Olson, who plays Alex in the movie, told Variety Monday night at the New York premiere of “Champions.” “I met all the Friends and they’re such an incredible cast. They all showed up ready to play, and we just had the most amazing time.”

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After watching hundreds of auditions during an open casting call across the U.S. and Canada, the production team found the ideal Friends: Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe and Bradley Edens.

“The Friends would come to set so prepared,” Farrelly said. “They’d all know their lines, they’d have a really good expectation of what was about to happen, and they just delivered.”

The director also acknowledged his son A.B. Farrelly, who worked closely with the disabled actors on set. “He worked with this basketball team called Hoop Heroes in high school, and they were all these players with intellectual disabilities,” Farrelly explained. “I thought this would be perfect. I’ll have A.B. work with the Friends and get them ready — because he knows a lot about acting and stuff, too — so it was a huge help to me.”

“Champions” marks the film debut or first major feature for many of the actors portraying the Friends.

“I love every part of this movie because we’re the largest minority in the United States — the developmental disabled community — and it’s possibly the best experience of my life,” Metcalfe told Variety. “I feel like this will be a very influential, iconic movie.”

“It shows you can do whatever you want to do,” Keith said. “I’ve been proving people wrong basically my whole entire life, and this movie shows it.”

For “Champions” writer Mark Rizzo, he hopes that the film will encourage more disability representation on screen where they’re “not there just to be there,” but rather “have a story and characters with agency.”

He continued, “I really hope this demonstrates that a cast of disabled people can do extraordinary work.”

“Champions” premieres in theaters March 10.

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