Everyone can get behind an underdog story. It might be the fact that it’s inspiring to see someone defy the odds, or it might be an affinity for always rooting for the little guy in the face of a giant, but almost always, the underdog tales derive from something in the human spirit that everyone can cling to—hope.
In 1938, during the Great Depression, a group of orphans living in a Masonic home in Fort Worth were given an opportunity that forever changed not only their lives, but the face of Texas football forever. The Mighty Mites football team showed up to their first game without full uniforms and with only a handful of practices under their belt, but somehow manage to take their season all the way and become champions that captivated the country at a time when they needed it most. That is hugely in part of Rusty Russell (played by Luke Wilson), a legendary high school coach who shocked his colleagues by giving up a privileged position so he could teach and coach at the orphanage.
’12 Mighty Orphans’ hits theaters this weekend, and the film brings back the nostalgic feel of sports movies from many years passed… There are no explosions or superheroes in capes, just superheroes in their own right on and off the field.
Wilson sat down to discuss what went into preparing for his role as Russell and why he feels this movie is special enough to inspire the country once again almost a century later.
What was it about this role or film that made you want to sign on?
I’ve known Ty Roberts, the director and writer, for quite a while and we’ve always talked about doing something at some point. I was already on a project and away for six months and I was really looking forward to getting home and just getting off the clock and taking it easy for a little while… then this came to me.
This was a real role and a real character, and I knew it would be an undertaking and something that wouldn’t necessarily be easy to do—but it became one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on. By the end I just felt so lucky the way that it all came together and I felt lucky to have been asked by Ty to play Rusty Russell. That’s how it came to me, but I wanted to do it because I knew it would be a challenge.
I definitely follow sports, but I have friends that joke with me that I don’t know exactly what’s going on, or I don’t know where the Cowboys are in the NFC East and who is in different trades. But I’ve always liked reading about coaches, even with things I don’t watch like college basketball with people like Bobby Knight or John Wooden. I just thought that was kind of an interesting dynamic and they were always interesting guys. It’s kind of like being a director or teacher: You’re dealing with all of these different personalities and you’re always trying to get the most out of everybody, but everybody is not the same. You can’t play favorites, you have to treat people equally while at the same time, make these little adjustments for these different kind of personalities— especially for these boys who are orphans that all would have had these different kind of difficult things happen to them to have them wind up at this Masonic orphanage in 1938. So, that all seemed really interesting to me, and with the backdrop of Texas football, and the Depression and the Dust Bowl, I just always thought that was an interesting time in U.S. history, too.
What kind of research went into this role specifically, and does playing a real person have you take on a different approach?
Definitely. But to me, this was great because it was a real person but not someone that people were familiar with. The way he looked or the way he sounded—it wouldn’t be like trying to play JFK or somebody that people are so familiar with the way that someone looks or sounds. But it is really fun to get the chance to do research on somebody, and nowadays, with the internet you can go on and find so much stuff, and Jim Dent wrote this great book. But Ty Roberts gave me these great audio tapes that Rusty had made as an older man, it was kind of him looking back on his life and his career and family, so those were really helpful to listen too.
Also, his grandson, Russ Morton, was on the set a lot, so I would find myself having lunch with Russel, and I feel in retrospect, that really affected the way I played it just listening to the way that he would talk about Rusty as a grandfather and the fact that Rusty was an orphan himself and he’d been to WWI and went through hell there and had what I think is definitely PTSD from his war experiences.
So I knew I didn’t have that pressure of wanting to play something that rings true for people as Rusty Russell, because I knew I could do my own take on it. But really I just found myself wanting to honor the memory of somebody who really was so special and selfless. The idea of trying to play somebody who was quietly dignified and the idea of helping other people and not looking for any recognition or money or even a pat on the back—just really an incredible guy. I just wanted that decency to come through and it’s something where you just have to trust through the course of the movie and scenes and the different situations with the classroom and coaching and with Vanessa Shaw playing Juanita, his wife, that that would come through.
It’s not like doing a comedy where I would hope that you being in the scene with me would think it’s funny, or the people on the crew would think its funny or the people watching the monitor… you’re really in a way kind of on your own, but that’s exciting too.
A film such as this really gave me nostalgic sports movie vibes that I just don’t think really happens with films nowadays. Would you agree?
For sure. I grew up loving those sports movies, too, and I think the biggest and most important one for me growing up was ‘Hoosiers.’ I was never any good at [basketball,] but I love that movie and I love Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper and just seeing that Midwestern basketball is the equivalent of Texas Football. But yeah, these don’t really seem to come along that often so when you do them, you want to do them right.
Of course some of these movies do have similar themes and that’s just the way it goes, so you have to put your own stamp on it and just trust in the script and trust in the other people acting in it. And Ty is just one of those people where I trusted his taste on everything and we felt the same way about the movies we loved from the 70s and saying, ‘Look, if this person only is in one scene or has one line, they have to be great when you make a period film like this.’ Because at least for me, you can get pulled out by something that doesn’t ring true. I also think when you get those great faces or characters that you haven’t seen before, it can help me as Rusty Russell and people who might recognize me blend in more to the fabric of the story and to seem more like a fictional character.
’12 Mighty Orphans’ opens in theaters June 18.