Matthew Von Der Ahe on ‘Champions’ and the Importance of Representation on the Big Screen

Matthew Von Der Ahe stars in “Champions,” Bobby Farrelly’s refreshingly unsentimental, hilarious and rather gritty remake of the 2018 Spanish hit “Campeones.” The story follows a disgraced minor league basketball coach (Woody Harrelson) who, after a DUI, is sentenced by a judge to coach a local Special Olympics basketball team, the Friends. Von Der Ahe, who has Down syndrome, plays the saucy Craig, who loves the game, his teammates and the ladies, and stars with Kaitlin Olson, Cheech Marin and a large cast of actors with intellectual and developmental disabilities [IDD]. Von Der Ahe has been acting since he was 7, and his credits include “Code Black,” “Weeds” and “Yo Gabba Gabba.” He’s also a state ambassador for IDD advocacy and volunteer organization Best Buddies, works at a restaurant called the Village, paints watercolor art, takes drum lessons and works out with a personal trainer, “who pushes me to do my best.” He’s also a musician: Stick around through the jubilant closing credits sequence of “Champions” and you’ll see him on the drums.

Why did you go into acting?

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I love watching TV. I love how each story is told. I wanted to be a part of that. I put myself in other people’s shoes and practiced saying their lines, and I thought it would be fun to do it for real. I think there aren’t a lot of writers who make roles for people with IDD, so I feel really lucky to get jobs. I love how acting makes me feel.

What were your feelings when you landed this role?

When they offered me the job, I was so excited and shocked. I had already learned all of the lines for the audition, and I had watched the original movie, so I was really into it already. I thought so much about what I wanted Craig to be like. Working with Woody, Kaitlin and the actors that make the Friends team has been the most amazing experience for me. I’ve learned so much and I had a blast doing it. I am honored to be in this movie and my family is proud of my hard work.

In the movie, everyone, from Woody Harrelson to you and your teammates, seem to be having a blast.

It was so much fun working with everyone. When I got into Canada to film, I was a little shaky and nervous, but I knew it was going to be fine. One of the first friends I met was Joshua Felder [who plays Darius]. We all had so much fun, and we never wanted it to stop.

How important was it for you to make a film about the abilities of people with Down syndrome and other challenges?

I think it’s important to let everyone know that even though we have a disability, it does not define us. I know I am capable. Sometimes I need a little help and extra time. The movie kind of shows that. We are a terrible team because nobody ever believed in us. But then Woody’s character does, and he changes our lives, and we change his.

What’s a fun memory from the film?

I’m color blind, but you can’t see that, so nobody knows. On my wardrobe fitting day, I was trying on all of the clothes they had chosen for me and I would walk out and model each piece for them. All of a sudden, I burst out of the dressing room, dancing. They had put a pair of neon yellow shorts for me to try and it made me so happy. I think until then, they thought I just had low energy, but my mom explained my lack of enthusiasm for all of the other clothes. So they put me in super fun colors that I could see. I loved that they made that change for me.

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to get more jobs and keep acting. Most recently I was the voice of the main character, Jasper, in Disney’s “Tytgat Chocolate.” FWIW, I COULDN’T CONFIRM THIS It was the first time I worked on a dubbing project and it was so much fun. I dance with a performance group called Straight Up Abilities and I also perform on stage once a month with an improv group called LA Connections. SHOULD THIS BE LA Connection? I’m the only person with an intellectual disability in that group. I do the best I can and I try to show others that everyone can shine.

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