Having graced both the cinema and television screens for close to five decades now, Ernie Hudson is an actor of incomparable stature. From Ghostbusters to The Crow, Airheads to Miss Congeniality, he has cemented himself in your favourite films, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.
His latest role is that of Coach Phil Peretti in Champions (read our review here), Bobby Farrelly’s remake of the acclaimed Spanish comedy Campeones, a hilarious and heartwarming story of a former minor-league basketball coach (played by Woody Harrelson) 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.
To celebrate the film’s release, Peter Gray spoke with Hudson about reuniting with Harrelson almost 30 years after first starring together, bonding with the young cast, and misconceptions about his ability to play basketball.
I know to many kids of the 80’s and 90’s their Ernie Hudson movie would probably be Ghostbusters, but my gateway Ernie Hudson was The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The Crow, so it’s a real pleasure to chat with you today.
Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, I look back on those movies, some 30 years ago now, as two that were very, very special to me.
Champions is such a beautiful movie. One of those feel-good movies that we do really need to keep seeing in cinemas. I wasn’t aware it was based on a Spanish film. Were you familiar with Campeones coming into this?
When (the script) came to me I was told about the original, but I hadn’t seen it. I’d love to see it. I know it won the equivalent of the Academy Awards in Spain and it did really, really well. You’ve got to be careful when you’re dealing with certain subjects and being respectful to people. It was like when I did The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, I was very aware. But Bobby Farrelly, who I just love and have so much respect for, he was very passionate about (Champions), and Woody (Harrelson) is one of those people who just connects with people. I knew it was going to come from a loving place. It was important to them that they got it right, that it was funny, but not laughing at them.
Mentioning the script, are you at that stage in your career now where the scripts just come to you? Do you still have to audition or is this the “Ernie Hudson does what we wants” phase of your career?
(Laughs) Well I can’t say a tonne of scripts come, but I stopped auditioning maybe about 8 years ago. The auditioning process and the actual work are totally different. After you’ve done as much as I have, if you really don’t know who I am, then I’m not sure I want to work with you (laughs). I’m also at a point in my career where I’m not chasing things like I used to. I no longer have to do a movie in the hopes it’ll get me somewhere else. I try to just take the project for what it is. The biggest part for me now is that I just want to be a part of it. There better be a good reason, or a lot of good reasons, why I say yes. And with Champions I really liked the script, and Woody and I have worked together before, so I always love working with people I admire and respect. Woody’s managed to maintain that spirit. Some people become so cynical.
It was The Cowboy Way that you first worked with Woody on, back in 1994. Had you kept in contact in the years since, or was it more when you reunited it was as if no time had passed?
It was really like that, yeah, that no time had passed. We’ve run into each other over the years. I did a play on Broadway that he came to see a few times. But Woody’s always been just Woody. You work with people and see them change over the years, and I get that life happens, but when you meet someone who holds onto that essence of who they are? That’s Woody. No matter if he’s the good guy or the bad guy, he brings that to his work. I just love watching him work. And I loved watching the way he connected with these kids. When they weren’t shooting he’d be playing basketball with them, or goofing off, and it just gave them a sense of that they were valued, and I don’t think a lot of actors are good at that. But Woody is.
I was going to ask about that. That’s all actually them playing basketball in the film?
Yeah, that’s all them. The scenes I did was with the kids, and it was them, but I know for the opposing team they brought in (professionals), but the kids played. And Woody, I mean he did White Men Can’t Jump (laughs), but he can play enough for it to look real.
The majority of your scenes are with Joshua Felder, too. Did you have any time to bond with him?
We talked about life, in general, it wasn’t just basketball. There was a certain wisdom and maturity about him. Of all the kids, he was really proud and secure of who he was. It was fun getting to know him on a personal level. He probably knew as much about basketball as I did (laughs).
Those scenes you have towards the beginning of the film where you’re coaching, I mean, it does sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Yeah. I’m not a big sports fan. It was just a gene I never really got. When I was a kid I was actually pretty good, and they would ask me to join the team, but I always interpreted that as “You only want me to join your team because I’m black” (laughs), so I deliberately fell on doing that. I just naturally gravitated towards theatre and acting. Later on I realised it might’ve been fun (to play). I think there’s a lot of lessons from basketball that I missed along the way.
Oh, I completely understand. I’m about 6″2, so I was always a tall kid and I think people expected me to play well. Just because I’m tall doesn’t mean I’m coordinated, so I completely understand that mentality.
I remember doing The Basketball Diaries with Leonardo DiCaprio, and the movie opened with me and him playing basketball. They cast me and when I got (to set) they told me to go up and dunk the ball. “Are you kidding me?” (laughs), again, the assumption I’m black means I can dunk the ball. I love sports though. I’m always impressed by what athletes can do. I think the lessons you learn in sports of being a part of a team, and who’s the star player, and who’s there to fill in, is all the things I missed along the way.
Champions is screening in Australian theatres from March 9th, 2023