Ernie Hudson Talks Disabled Sports Underdog Movie Champions

In his own words, actor Ernie Hudson isn’t a “big sports guy”, which may leave you wondering why he signed on to star in new film Champions.

The remake of the award-winning Spanish film Campeones follows former minor-league basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) after he is court ordered to manage a team of disabled players.

At first thinking that the task is ridiculous, Marcus soon realises that this team can go further than they ever imagined, making it his mission to get them to the championship, something encouraged by Hudson’s coach Peretti.

Playing a basketball coach meant that Hudson spent plenty of time on court whilst on set, but he admits that he still isn’t into the sport.

In fact, the actor tells us that out of all the cast and crew he was the worst player, which came as a surprise to his colleagues: “I found out very quickly that I’m the worst player, but I did get out there and try to shoot some baskets with the kids.

“Because I’m six feet tall and Black, people think that I must know how to play basketball, so they are stunned when I can’t.

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“I remember doing this movie called The Basketball Diaries and they hired me assuming that I could play – when they told me to shoot one I was like ‘that’s never going to happen’. They were shocked!

“I do like playing with my sons although they say that when they beat me, I don’t want to play anymore, which is true.”

The question is then, why did Hudson agree to the project? The answer is Woody Harrelson himself, with Hudson jumping at the chance to star alongside his old buddy: “Me and Woody had worked together before on a film called The Cowboy Way and we have been friends ever since.

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“I love his humanity and innocence that always comes through, even when he plays bad guys.

“I’m also friends with Cheech Marin who was also starring in the film and so, I just wanted to work with people that I really liked.”

It’s quite sweet that friendship was Hudson’s motivation here, especially since the film is a celebration of exactly that.

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Whilst the relationship between Peretti and Marcus can be tense, even resulting in a physical tussle on the court, they remain by each other’s side through thick and thin, albeit begrudgingly at times.

For Hudson, this reflects the realities of friendship: “I have friends just like that – they have this way of screwing things up, but you help them out knowing that they are capable of doing so much more.

“Peretti realises the potential that Marcus has and even when he’s forced to fire him, he still checks in on him which says a lot about what friendship is really about. Just because someone lets you down doesn’t mean you should give up on them.

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“They have known each other for a long time, there is history, they have pieces of each other from the past, even though they might not remember some of it.

“I love the fact that he doesn’t give up on Marcus – they really are a part of each other. ”

The same is true of the basketball team themselves, who are known as The Friends, an ensemble brought to life by ten brilliant disabled actors.

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Thousands of young actors auditioned for these roles during a nationwide casting search across the US and Canada, with the team only looking at disabled performers knowing that this representation was not only crucial, but would also bring authenticity.

The filmmakers soon found their stars that would bring the team to life, many of whom were newcomers appearing on film for the first time, not that you could tell upon watching the movie.

Hudson describes working with this cast as a rewarding experience, particularly forming a connection with actor Joshua Felder, who portrays Darius, a young player coach Peretti used to mentor.

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“It was great! I especially loved Joshua, there was something very special about him, which reminded me of one of my own kids, but they all had a real charm about them.

“It was also great watching how Woody connected with these young actors and reminded them that they were all bringing something to the film. When we weren’t filming, he was always playing basketball with them!”

Countless sports dramas have hit the big screen over the years, often focusing on unexpected competitors as we all love an underdog story. So, what makes Champions stand out?

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For Hudson it’s the fact that it’s about The Friends, stating that stories about the intellectually disabled are still rare despite there being greater awareness.

He explained: “I love how it explores the sense of community created between these people that some will consider as outsiders. They have a place, they belong, and the film shows that they are capable of doing amazing things.

“But it also shows their humanity – I’ve not seen a lot of movies do that. I did one years ago called The Hand That Rocks The Cradle where I played a character who was intellectually disabled.

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“At that time there were people embarrassed of their disabled family members to the extent they would lock them away – we are all more accepting now.

“But still, you want projects out there that are really honest and something where we can comfortably laugh, but not at them. This film has that.

“It looks at the value of life itself and how we often put conditions on it saying ‘I’ll have a great life if I do x, y, and z’.

“But life is great and we shouldn’t judge it by those conditions. We all bring a lot to the table.”

Wise words there from Hudson, alongside a reminder that you will probably want to bring your tissues to this movie – it’s an emotional ride.

Champions releases in cinemas on 10th March.

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Emily Murray

Emily Murray


Emily is a journalist and film critic who unashamedly cries at most movies having got too emotionally attached. When not at the cinema, she is at home cuddling her cat Holmes, whilst binge watching New Girl. She can be found on Twitter @emilyvmurray