Woody Harrelson On What The Young Champions Cast Taught Him While Making The Basketball Comedy

 Woody Harrelson in Champions
Woody Harrelson in Champions

Over 30 years after starring in one of the all-time great basketball movies, White Men Can’t Jump, Woody Harrelson has returned to play a coach of the sport in Champions. The 2023 new movie release has the actor portraying a man who gets kicked off a minor-league team, and after a run-in with the law, he gets assigned a team of players with intellectual disabilities as his community service. It’s an underdog story both on-screen and behind the scenes, and the leading actor shared that he learned some new things from his co-stars during the filming of the movie.

The latest Woody Harrelson movie employed a host of first-time actors with similar disabilities to the characters being portrayed in “The Friends” team. When speaking about working with his co-stars in Champions, Harrelson opened up about his experience improvising with the key players, telling CinemaBlend:

Bobby didn't want me to meet them until we all met really for the first time, which I thought was a great idea. So, we met for the first time on film in the same way that Marcus first met them. And that was really wild, you know, because usually you almost inevitably meet the actors ahead of time. And, so whatever trepidation I had about, well, are we gonna do the script or we're gonna throw the script out, or how is this immediately just made, uh, silly. It was fun. They were highly professional and they taught me a lot about what it means to be a real actor to just be your authentic self in the moment. And, it was really a great experience.

Champions (2023)

Woody Harrelson in Champions
Woody Harrelson in Champions

Release Date: March 10, 2023 (Theaters)
Directed By: Bobby Farrelly
Written By: Mark Rizzo
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Matt Cook, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matt Cook, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, Alex Hintz, Casey Matcalfe, Bradley Edens and James Day Keith

Harrelson spoke fondly of his experience as the unlikely coach of ten teammates who happen to have disabilities, and he worked closely with those actors on Champions. As the actor shared, when audiences watch his character meet “The Friends” in the movie, it was actually the first time he was meeting them in real life. He found his experience working with the young cast to be really authentic throughout shooting, and he felt like he actually was the one who learned something new from them rather than the other way around.

Champions is based on a 2018 film from Spain with the same name, Campeones, which was inspired by a real Spanish basketball team created by people with intellectual disabilities that won 12 Spanish championships between 1999 and 2014. CinemaBlend also spoke to the movie’s director, Bobby Farrelly, who shared his own experience working with the cast of Champions:

Every single day,’The Friends’ had us laughing with improv moments. We had a beautiful script to start with, so we wanted to get what was in the script for sure. But, the guys would come up with stuff every day and Woody being the improv actor that he is, would just run with it. But you know, a lot of the improv too is the way we were shooting a lot of basketball scenes and it's hard to orchestrate exactly what's gonna happen while you're shooting a basketball scene. So, what I would do is let them all let them play for a minute while we filmed them. And so many things happened during those moments that you didn't quite expect. That was the true improv, is that It was really genuine basketball play.

The cast of Champions was balancing a lot, between having to really play basketball on screen and simulate some funny and endearing moments between the team and Harrelson’s coach character. The movie marks a rare major release starring actors with disabilities in an industry where the community has often been depicted by people without disabilities, stereotyped, and still to this day, not represented much on the big screen.

Champions is now playing in theaters. Additionally, you can catch Woody Harrelson’s recent induction into the SNL five-timers club after hosting during Season 48, and you can look forward to the White Men Can’t Jump remake starring Jack Harlow, coming out on May 19.