Interview – Ernie Hudson on celebrating the abilities of those with intellectual disabilities in new comedy ‘Champions’

Woody Harrelson stars in the hilarious and heartwarming story of a former minor-league basketball coach who, after a series of missteps, is ordered by the court to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. He soon realizes that despite his doubts, together, this team can go further than they ever imagined. Champions is directed by Bobby Farrelly, and co-stars Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters).

Leading up to the release of Champions on March 9, the amazing team at Universal pictures set up a chat with one of the film’s stars and legendary actor, Ernie Hudson. We discuss the importance of highlighting the abilities of those with intellectual abilities, working with Woody Harrelson again after 30 years, and how Ghostbusters was a life-changing theatrical experience for the actor.

Nick: Mr Hudson, it’s a pleasure to meet you today. How are you, sir?

Ernie Hudson: Well, thanks. Thank you for taking the time.

Nick: I’m appreciative of your time too! Jumping into Champions – the first thing I noticed is that this is a reunion between yourself and Woody Harrelson almost 30 years after The Cowboy Way! What was it like working with Woody again after all that time?

Ernie Hudson: I’m such a fan of his. There are certain actors who, I suppose, bring a naturalness. There’s something about their personal energy that is imbued in their work. Woody is just a great guy and down to earth, and it always seems to come through. We met on The Cowboy Way, and I love his relationships with the way he approaches work, but how he also approaches people.

I felt that when I got the script [for Champions], he was just such a natural for this. When he was working on the set, I noticed that even when we weren’t shooting, he just connected with the kids and made them feel comfortable enough to want to play with him. There was no judgement. He wouldn’t run off to his dressing room when they yelled ‘cut’. He really spent time getting to know them on a real, personal level, and I just love and respect him for that.

There was a number of reasons I wanted to do this film, but certainly working with Woody, and with Bobby Farrelly. I knew of his [Farrelly’s] work, but we hadn’t worked together before. But also having done a movie like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and dealing with a character who was disabled – I just felt like this is a movie that we don’t see a lot of, and it’s great to approach it from a very human perspective.

Nick: I loved the moment in the film where we see your character, Phil, sitting in the stands with Darius [Joshua Felder], watching the ‘Friends’ play basketball, and it just seems like everyone is having so much fun. Was that feeling on screen the same feeling on set making the movie?

Ernie Hudson: Yeah! The time we [Ernie and Joshua] spent together shooting, we were really just talking. It wasn’t always about basketball. I mean, he probably knew more about basketball than me! But it was just getting to know him as a young man. I was really impressed with how confident he was. He just had everything together and it was more about me getting to know how from a personal perspective. It was really cool. I enjoyed spending the little time we had together.

I think a lot of that natural competence came through his character. It’s also just who he is. The other kids were great too, but I spent more time talking with Joshua. He’s the one who I actually had a connection too. He reminded me of so many kids out there with so much potential that you hope someone like a coach will play a role in their lives because it can make all the difference in the world.

Nick: As someone whose family works quiet closely with people who have intellectual disabilities – my grandfather worked in a home for children with physical and intellectual disabilities, and my mother is a special education teacher – when I see movies like Champions, I get incredibly joyous because it’s a story that celebrates and emphasises the abilities of people with disabilities. However, it is a subject matter that has to be treated with care and caution, especially in a comedic sense. Was there any hesitation for you in doing this film before you read the script?

Ernie Hudson: When I read the script, it kind of reminded me of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle years ago where I played a character who was mentally disabled. When I was preparing for that movie, I spent a lot of time visiting some of the facilities where people with those disabilities lived and getting to know the kids. But like you said, this movie celebrates their abilities. What I loved about the script is was this sense of community that it had, and having that sense of belonging, I thought was really important. I believe there are a lot of people out there who can feel isolated, depending on their circumstances and situations. And knowing that there are places that they’re welcome, and that their abilities are welcome, as to not feel so isolated, is great. This movie let’s us into their world and takes us to a place of understanding that is really beautiful.

Nick: Champions is absolutely hilarious. I watched it last night and it was such a great communal, theatrical experience hearing all the laughs, and a few tears! How important is the theatrical experience to you, especially for a movie like Champions? And do you have a special theatrical experience memories yourself?

Ernie Hudson: When I first saw Ghostbusters, I got so caught up in the sense of being on this journey together. I remember when the librarian ghost—this nice old lady [laughs] – just jumps on out, started this crazy ride, but we were all in it together. That movie had that sense of community when it came out.

Art is meant to be part of this universal spirit. It’s great to be shared. Even if you experience it in isolation, you’re still able to share it with the world and I think that’s what keeps us going. Otherwise, we get too stuck in our own thoughts and our own misinformation, that it becomes too hard to work our way out of it. Movies are one of those things we can do to have some kind of escape from reality.

Hopefully, movies keep the theatres alive, and people feel like they can go back out for a movie like this! So many movies are about wars. Somebody’s fighting some kind of big war. So, it’s nice to have a movie that’s coming out with so much smiling and laughing, and just wanting to connect with people.

Nick: I love the fact that your character, despite having a conflict with Woody’s character, Marcus, is still a mentor to Marcus throughout the film. As an actor and as a person, who was that person in your life, that no matter what you were going through, was always there to give you the advice you needed?

Ernie Hudson: You know, I’ve been very fortunate. Mostly my family, but certainly my brother who passed away at the beginning of 2020.

Nick: I’m sorry to hear that.

Ernie Hudson: But you know, he allowed you to live your life without judging. But he would say: ‘you might want to think about this before you do it’! My wife, who I’ve been with now for almost 50 years – and for 45 of those years, I had no idea why the heck she was with me! – she just allows for that space for to grow up. When I was a kid, there was a guy who was the deacon of my church, Brother Cole. He was just so wise, and he could almost speak with his eyes! He’d kind of look at you and you’d starting thinking again about what you’re going to do.

My grandmother, even though she passed away 14 years ago, even to this day before I do certain things, I wonder what she would think about it. We’re very fortunate those people are like angels who are there at the times when we really need the. I feel that relationships are so important and I just take the time for those relationships that make a difference.

And with Champions, the fact that Marcus is Phil’s friend, and even though he did a stupid thing, in spite of all of that, I’m still going into check on him. I don’t cut people off. I’m gonna be over here, you won’t have trouble finding me. But, I’m also not gonna chase you over their either. It’s that kind of relationship. There are people we need to love and acknowledge, and they are there for a reason.

Thank you to Ernie Hudson for his time, and to Universal Pictures for organising the chat! Champions is in Australian cinemas from March 9, with special previews between March 3-5 at select cinemas.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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