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Champions Cast

Casey Metcalfe, Woody Harrelson and the other members of the basketball team known as "The Friends" in the movie "Champions" pose for a picture in New York City.

BRATTLEBORO — From the Hollywood hills, to joining the Theatre Adventure program in the small town of Brattleboro, to appearing in a feature film, Casey Metcalfe’s journey has been anything but easy.

A little over a week ago, Metcalfe was on the red carpet in New York City for the premiere of “Champions,” in which he is starring with Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olsen. The movie will begin screening at the Latchis Theatre on Friday.

Harrelson plays a basketball coach who is sentenced to coaching a team of individuals with special needs to play basketball following a brush with the law.

As a young child, Metcalfe was diagnosed with autism. His parents are Tim Metcalfe and Prudence Baird. Tim Metcalfe wrote movies such as “Killer: A Journal of Murder,” “Kalifornia” and the “Revenge of the Nerds” films. Baird was a publicist in Los Angeles and is a volunteer disabilities advocate.

When he was 9, Metcalfe began working with Joey Travolta’s Actors for Autism troupe. During that time, he was one of the actors who played himself in the award-winning documentary “Kids with Cameras” in 2009 by award-winning filmmaker Alex Rotaru.

After moving to Brattleboro, Metcalfe joined the Theatre Adventure program, which, at the time, was part of the New England Youth Theatre (NEYT). The two are now separate entities.

When Metcalfe was part of the Theatre Adventure program, there was very little interaction between the program and NEYT, Baird recalled. Metcalfe changed that.

“Casey broke that barrier down,” Baird said. “After he was on the main stage at NEYT, Stephen Stearns started including a lot of Theatre Adventure actors in NEYT productions and really trusting them.”

Metcalfe wanted to be in a show on NEYT’s main stage. One day, he approached Stearns, the founder of New England Youth Theatre, and asked him what he needed to do to be in one of the shows. Stearns told him to audition.

The first play he appeared in on the NEYT stage was “Oliver.” After that, it was not infrequent for Metcalfe to be going back and forth between the Theatre Adventure program and shows on NEYT’s stage.

“He was so gifted in so many ways and he was having a hard time trying to fit in, which is true for all youth really, but in particular someone with autism,” said Laura Lawson Tucker, director of Theatre Adventure. “A lot of it was social, emotional kinds of development; finding acceptance of self and belief in self. Then what happened was we became a launching pad for him and then he started developing theater opportunities at New England Youth Theatre. That was very exciting and he auditioned for, and was part of, many shows on stage with NEYT.”

Eventually, Metcalfe was trusted with larger roles with complex dialog. Metcalfe left both organizations after he graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 2015. He began matriculating at the University of Vermont and it was while he was there that the role to play Marlon in “Champions” came up.

Brad and Linda Kessell had been friends of Baird and Tim Metcalfe’s when they lived in Los Angeles, but they lost touch after Baird and Tim Metcalfe relocated to Vermont. Unbeknownst to Baird, Linda Kessell had been following Casey Metcalfe’s acting career on Facebook. So, when Brad Kessell, the producer of “Champions,” brought home the script and told his wife they needed to find 10 special needs actors, Linda Kessell told him to reach out to their old friends to see if Casey Metcalfe would be interested in auditioning.

When they eventually got in contact, Metcalfe had one day to prepare and submit an audition tape. After that, Metcalfe was called back several times to audition for various parts, including the lead part of Johnny, which ultimately was given to Kevin Iannucci.

To help prepare for the auditions, Tim Metcalfe called Stearns. Stearns said he spent two hours with Casey Metcalfe, rehearsing for the audition and using a wide variety of techniques until the character was who Metcalfe thought it should be. Stearns later learned that Metcalfe got the part and said he couldn’t have been more proud.

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“It makes me feel so delighted. Here’s a young man who has a lot of challenges and accepts the challenges and uses them as springboards to the next stage of learning and development,” said Stearns. “He’s like one of my sons or my nephews. So, it’s a thrill and he so deserves it. It’s not an easy leap.”

Metcalfe said the role that Theatre Adventure and NEYT played in his development could not be overlooked in the success he has had.

“I think it really helped launch me and introduce me a little bit to our community. I think like all other places, like a lot of people in the disabled community, we have felt a little isolated especially from the main stage of NEYT,” said Metcalfe. “What Stephen and I and his team showed me was that disabilities don’t need to hold me back, which I think is really cool. He helped show me that his theater was indeed inclusive and I’m so glad I did all that because it really helped me grow as an actor, and his clown partner, Peter Gould, also helped me. They both trusted me with really big parts and lots of dialogue and complexity in their plays.” Stearns also taught Metcalfe about the art of clowning with the help of Gould.

Filming for “Champions” was set to begin on Oct. 17, 2022, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, but when Metcalfe and all the other actors arrived, production got held up for more than a week. It became a positive experience that Metcalfe and Baird said they will never forget as the group of actors explored Winnipeg and spent time together before shooting started.

“It was the most enjoyable experience ever,” Metcalfe said. “It was awesome and the new friends I made are for life, I think.”

Baird said that often times, unless it was a special program such as Theatre Adventure, her son felt isolated from others. During the filming of “Champions,” that was not the case. Each one of the actors who played a team member brought a parent or a relative. In the process, a bond was not only formed among the actors, Baird said, but among the parents and relatives of the actors as well.

“It was the first time that we did not, as guardians, and parents, and relatives, we didn’t have to explain, apologize, or make excuses for why our child was maybe acting different or unexpectedly,” Baird said. “The team members, every single one of these young people has been, in their lifetimes, rejected, put last, not chosen for a team, not chosen for a play, not invited to play dates, not invited to birthday parties, and here we were, all together, equals. No one [was] trying to make a hierarchy. It was just a big celebration of ‘this is our time. This is our kid’s time,’ and maybe, finally, the world will see what real inclusion looks like.”

Metcalfe also said it was a great experience working with Harrelson.

“He was humble. He was modest,” Metcalfe said. “He gives me hope because he and I are follically challenged. I have no hair on my head. He has no hair on his head. We got along perfectly.”

During the auditions, Baird said director Bobby Farrelly realized that each of the actors with special needs brought different perspectives and characteristics to their roles. As a result, he made the decision to throw out a lot of script and improvise during filming.

During an interview on Sunday Morning for CBS News, Harrelson spoke about the high level of improvisation in the film and what it was like working with actors with special needs.

“To just throw things out and see how it goes? It just kind of freaked me out,” Harrelson said. “I didn’t sleep. And then I went in there, I meet these guys, and they are just awesome. I just had the best — I love them. They’re just all incredible people and phenomenal senses of humor, which really comes through.”

Now that “Champions” is beginning to hit theaters, Executive Director of the Latchis Theatre Jon Potter made serious efforts to ensure that the Latchis could screen the movie given Metcalfe’s connection to the area.

“When we found out about it, we reached out to the studio and put in a definite request to be able to show it when it opens on March 10. Sometimes we’re not always able to get films right away,” said Potter. “We just wanted to make sure we could get it in right on opening weekend.”

The movie will begin screening at the Latchis Theatre on Friday, but Potter didn’t stop with just getting the film to screen. On Sunday, there will be a special fundraiser screening at 4 p.m. to benefit Theatre Adventure, New England Youth Theatre and Special Olympics Vermont. The fundraiser will give fans a chance to meet Metcalfe, followed by a Q & A after the screening. There will also be a raffle for a basketball signed by the cast and a poster signed by Metcalfe.

“I think it’s just a huge, huge deal and this is definitely Casey’s triumph, but it’s also a great moment for Theatre Adventure and New England Youth Theatre,” said Potter of Metcalfe being in the film. “One of their folks has made it to the big screen and to me, it’s like the Super Bowl for local theater and for people involved in those organizations. I’m just unbelievably excited, not just for Casey, but for everyone involved in those organizations.”