'I've been proving people wrong my whole life': North Andover man makes big screen debut

Mar. 11—NORTH ANDOVER — James Day Keith, a North Andover native, and actor Woody Harrelson have a lot in common.

Keith found that out while making a movie with the Emmy Award-winning star of "Cheers," who has also been nominated for three Oscars.

"I'm a goofball and sometimes I'm serious, and Woody was also the same thing," Keith said.

But while their senses of humor mesh in real life, there is a sharp contrast between the roles they play in the movie "Champions," which opened Friday to excellent reviews.

Harrelson portrays Marcus, an assistant coach for a minor league basketball team who is fired for shoving his head coach, then gets arrested for driving drunk.

A judge orders Marcus to complete 90 days of community service as the coach of a basketball team called The Friends, the members of which are young adults with developmental disabilities.

Keith is one of those basketball players, Benny, who along with his teammates teaches Marcus some humbling lessons about life while Marcus leads them to success on the court.

"It's a coach that can't win and a team that can't lose," Keith said.

Keith, 25, graduated from North Andover High School in 2016 and is currently a student at North Essex Community College in Haverhill.

He volunteers for Meals on Wheels, has a job cleaning stables and paddocks at Windrush Farm, and hopes to become a teaching assistant.

"I love working with little kids," Keith said. "I know you have to have a lot of patience working with little kids."

The Cinderella story that The Friends portray in "Champions," in which they gradually come together as a team and make surprising strides in a basketball tournament, also describes Keith's improbable appearance in the film.

That's because "Champions" is not only the first move that Keith has made, but also the first acting he has done.

"Special Olympics in Massachusetts emailed my dad, and then my dad forwarded to my mom and said, 'Would Jimmy be interested in this?' I said, why not," Keith said.

After his mother, Kathleen, filmed his audition with her phone and sent it to the casting director, Keith's expectations were low.

That was only realistic, because hundreds of people with developmental disabilities tried out to play members of The Friends, according to the Associated Press.

But if Keith had an edge, aside from his sense of humor, it may have been the skills that he developed as a Special Olympics basketball player, in a league that plays at the Thompson School and was organized by his mother. He also has been skiing since he was three, plays soccer, and has the shoulders of a champion powerlifter.

But for whatever reason, Keith was chosen for the role in spite of long odds, which left him ecstatic.

"My mom said, 'I have good news and bad news,'" Keith said. "'The bad news is, we're moving to Canada, and the good news is, you got the part.'"

"Champions" is set in Iowa but it was shot in Winnipeg, Manitoba, from October to December 2021.

The director was Bobby Farrelly, half of the Farrelly Brothers filmmaking team that created "There's Something About Mary," "Shallow Hal" and one of Keith's favorites, "Fever Pitch."

"The director said, you don't need to memorize your lines, because he might want you to say it this way or another way, and that took a lot of weight off my chest," Keith said. "Then he said, just be yourself, so I was myself, and that took another huge boatload off my chest as well."

It also helped that the character of Benny was based in part on Keith's own predilections for wearing basketball jerseys and citing statistics from the NBA.

While Farrelly's instructions helped set Keith at ease, the director was also a perfectionist who shot scenes over and over until he got what he wanted.

"There's really, really long hours doing it," Keith said. "You had to constantly go back to the trailer, try on a different costume, film, and then go back, change."

But he and Farrelly bonded as New Englanders, and watched Patriots games together at a bar on Sundays. Keith also got to know Farrelly's son, A.B. Farrelly, who worked as a Special Olympics basketball volunteer and coach in Duxbury.

In fact, getting to know his fellow cast members, which included thumb wars with Harrelson before and after shooting scenes, was Keith's favorite part about making the film.

But it also left him hoping that the release of "Champions" will help to create more opportunities for actors with developmental disabilities.

Keith is preparing for that possibility by taking a class in improvisation at North Shore Music Theatre. He also completed an English class at Northern Essex that was a prerequisite for studying acting.

Keith likes the fact that "Champions" portrays people with special needs as having plenty of potential.

"Anyone who has an intellectual disability or not can have a dream," he said. "They can prove anybody wrong, because I've been proving people wrong my whole life."

That is evident in the film, which Keith saw in Manhattan for the first time two weeks ago, right before he attended the premier.

"For some weird reason it made me cry," Keith said. "I'm not really a crier, but all that emotion, all that hard work. I knew my mom and dad were crying. I wasn't crying because it is a sad movie, I was crying because I did not expect myself to be so good. It was happy tears."