In “Champions,” Kaitlin Olson plays Alex, the sister of a young man with Down Syndrome. Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, a temperamental basketball coach sentenced to work with the team. Alex is not nearly as messy as Olson’s best-known roles: on “Hacks,” struggling with dysfunction and substance abuse as the daughter of Jean Smart’s Las Vegas stand-up performer, and on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” as a selfish, not-very-bright, and utterly un-self-aware waitress. In an interview, Olson talked about creating a sense of family history with her co-stars and the particular challenges of playing a kind, responsible, and thoughtful person.
You play Alex, a character who wants to be an actress, and we see her performing Shakespeare for middle schoolers. Is she a good actress?
Yes, I think that’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about her, that she lives in this tiny town. She probably doesn’t want to be there. She’s probably staying there because she wants to protect her brother and make sure that he’s safe, she works as a teacher, but her love is acting. I think that she’s very passionate about it. And even though it’s on such a small scale, it doesn’t matter to her. It’s where she feels happiest. So, yes, she’s probably a pretty great Shakespearean actress.
I loved it when Alex told Marcus that acting was her basketball because she showed that she really knows her stuff. And she used a story from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale to communicate to the team something Marcus had not been able to explain.
Marcus is just oblivious to the fact that it’s his responsibility to change his tactic in getting Johnny to understand. It’s really representative of how people who are not disabled need to adjust their perspective a little bit. You meet people where they are, and when you do, they can thrive. So, when Alex recognizes that she just needs to use the Winter’s Tale reference with him, and then he’ll get it, that’s such a powerful message for inclusion and how it’s our job to sometimes adjust our tactics to help people thrive.
What did you do to connect to the actor who plays your brother, Kevin Iannucci, to give us a sense of their relationship over a lifetime?
It was important to both Kevin and myself that we meet each other before we were on camera together. And honestly, I don’t think we needed to dig too far into each other’s past. We just had to get to know each other. And the truth is, Kevin is just a big beautiful heart. He is just such a loving, wonderful, present young man. And he was so excited to be there and so ready to learn and to deliver his best. And just developing that connection was enough for us. It was very easy for me to know my character would be fiercely protective of him and value him.
Alex is in her forties, and she’s living with her mother and her brother. What does that tell us about her and about how quick she was to get angry when challenged on that?
I think it tells us that she’s put aside all of her goals and dreams to do what she thinks is the most important thing, which is to make sure her brother is okay. And I think that she has a hard life, but it’s worth it because what she’s doing in taking care of her brother is more important from her perspective than just forgetting about it and moving out and following her dreams.
I think that he helps her understand that it’s more about her than it is about him. He doesn’t need it from her, but she thinks that he does. That is such a powerful moment when he climbs the bleacher stairs to let her know that he’s moving out. I think she finally understands that he’s been staying there for her.
When you first got the script, what was it that really called to you?
I loved how different this character was from anything I had been doing on camera for a while.
I was very excited to work with [director] Bobby Farrelly and Woody. And I just love a well-executed combination of humor and vulnerability, and emotion. I read a lot of projects where it seems forced, and this one felt very real and authentic.
What is it in Alex’s wardrobe that tells us about who she is and how she tries to be herself, even with all the restrictions she’s dealing with?
Oh, I love this question. There was a vintage purple jacket that we had that she wore all the time. And I think that there’s just something interesting about having a set piece. Oftentimes when you’re doing a show, you wear one outfit, and then you can’t ever wear that again on camera. I’m like, “Hold on a second; in real life, people have a closet. They re-wear their wardrobe.” So, we went out of our way to make sure that this coat is just a special part of her life. She probably spent a little bit of money on it, more than she usually does. I like that it was a coat because it felt very protective. And it was the one thing that she did for herself because she’s a very selfless person who really spends her life trying to take care of everybody else.
I’ve always really appreciated the way that you commit yourself to characters who are very messy. And this character, it seems to me, is not messy. That must have been, in some ways, more of a challenge.
I think humans are messy, and it’s something that I love. It’s one of the reasons I love acting. She’s just messy in a different way than Dee or Mickey. Inadvertently she was being very selfish by holding her brother back and not listening to him, thinking she’s going to protect him. He’s been telling her, “I don’t need you to protect me.” I don’t think she knows that she’s being a martyr, but she is. But you’re right, she’s not a degenerate. I loved being able to just do something different.
“Champions” will be available only in theaters on March 10th.