Heart of Champions: Exclusive Interview with Actor Alex MacNicoll

Heart of Champions: Exclusive Interview with Actor Alex MacNicoll

The most powerful and compelling sports dramas are the ones that feature diverse athletes who reluctantly learn how to bond together to overcome their personal adversities and succeed as a team. That’s certainly true for the characters in the new ensemble film, Heart of Champions. The movie features several protagonists who strive to figure out how to contend with their struggles in order to boost team morale.

One of the drama’s most notable characters who must figure out how to reconnect with his teammates is John, who’s played by 13 Reasons Why  star, Alex MacNicoll. As one of the leaders of the rowing crew that’s plagued with conflict in Heart of Champions, which was written by Vojin Gjaja and directed by Michael Mailer, John is a powerful moral anchor who strives to reconcile his teammates’ differences.

In Heart of Champions, a college rowing team descends into turmoil after it finishes last in a national championship. The loss leads to constant infighting between John and his fellow team leaders, Alex (Alexander Ludwig) and Chris (Charles Melton).

Meanwhile, the team sees the arrival of their new coach, Jack Murphy (Michael Shannon), who arrives at the start of the new season. The tough Army veteran is tasked in transforming the status quo and unlock the members’ true potential. Using his experience and unconventional methods to help them overcome petty rivalries and personal challenges, Coach Murphy must inspire the young men to learn what it takes to be a team before they can be champions.

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MacNicoll generously took the time last week to promote the distribution of the film during an exclusive virtual interview. Vertical Entertainment is releasing Heart of Champions in select theaters this weekend.

Exclusive Interview with Actor Alex MacNicoll

Q: You play John in the new coming-of-age sports drama, Heart of Champions. What was it about the character, as well as the overall script and production, that convinced you to take on the role? How did you become involved in the movie?

AM: As with many other projects, it started with an audition, which I got through my agents. I originally auditioned for another role – the role of Chris, I believe – before I got the role of John.

Once I was cast in the role of John, I had a blast with it. The script, which is very heartfelt, deals with overcoming adversity and teamwork. It’s also a coming-of-age story, and the struggles of growing up.

I have a background in sports, and I’m a fan of sports movies. So my interest in this film was pretty peaked from the get-go.

After I auditioned for it, I think there was a bit of a director change-up, and Michael Mailer came on to helm the project. I then got to meet him person and go over the script.

The team was then like, “We see you more of the John character.” I was like, “Great, I just want to be a part of it.” So we spoke about John and it worked out.

We all then went down to Louisiana, where the movie was filmed, and got in the water. We worked hard training for a few weeks and learning how to row. We got to work with a wonderful coach while we were there training. Vojin Gjaja, who’s the screenwriter, was also there. So there were a lot of people there to help us.

The rowing process was pretty paramount, as far as the tone of the film was concerned. Hopefully, we did it justice, for the most part. Luckily, we had tons of experts, collegiate rowers and people who have been around the sport forever there, helping out with the film, and making it the best that it could be.

So training down there with the LSU (Louisiana State University) rowing team was great. We also had rowers come down from Massachusetts and all over the place help us…I was very excited about the rowing aspect.

Also, working with Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Michael Shannon, Andrew Creer, Thomas Kasp, Lilly Krug and the rest of the cast was amazing. It was great working with everyone.

Q: Like you mentioned, Heart of Champions was written by Vojin Gjaja and directed by Michael Mailer. What was your experience like of working with them on the film?

AM: Vojin Gjaja based the story a little on his own experience in life, but it was obviously dramatized and embellished for the movie. He was fantastic because he was on set everyday, and open to interpretation changes and collaborating. He was also willing to work through different lines and story and character arcs. So he was truly wonderful to work with on the film.

Michael Mailer was also great. He was the same way – he had an overall vision of what he wanted, but was also open to collaboration. Overall, we had the same tone in mind and vision. Mailer was there to shepherd us through all of that.

I’m pretty sure we made all of our days, and it was pretty smooth sailing, as far as I know. We had great producers to help us with that part of the production.

There were a few times for me, character or story-wise, that we dipped into some more emotional things, and the environment was very safe for that. We were able to explore those deeper emotional journeys.

I don’t want to give away the entire plot, but there’s more than just sports in the plot; there’s also some tragedy.

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The characters came together as a family, unit and team.

Q: You mentioned training for your role of John, who’s one of the leaders of his school’s rowing team. What was the experience like of creating the physicality for the role?

AM: It was very painful and rewarding at the same time. I’m actually wearing the LSU hat today, in honor of everyone we worked with at the school. But the training was brutal. Rowing was one of the most challenging sports that I’ve ever pretended to be a part of in my acting.

I was blown away by the rawness of the sport and how challenging it is, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. So much goes into it; as far as the team aspect, there’s a small margin of error once you’re on that boat and the race has began. The smallest motion to either side can throw off the balance of the boat.

Along with that, you have these athletes who are incredibly strong and powerful. It’s incredible to watch all that power work in unison to propel this boat, and the speeds they get up to is pretty awesome.

It was an incredibly exciting experience, and I gained a huge level of respect for rowers and the sport in general. We all had a blast, as they paired us with highly competitive rowing athletes. It was an incredible experience to be in the boat with, and learn from, them.

Q: Like you also mentioned earlier, Heart of Champions also stars Michael Shannon, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Andrew Creer, Thomas Kasp and Lilly Krug. What was the experience like of working together with your fellow actors to bond together as a team?

AM: We were very fortunate that we were able to train with our coach, who’s an internationally recognized rower and coach. She took us under her wing for about three weeks, and we did a boot camp for rowing.

We got to go down to False River in Louisiana and stay with a wonderful family there. We were able to build up our team spirit and camaraderie while we were there. We worked from about 6am, when we got on the water.

We were able to learn and grow, but we also got frustrated. We then went home and slept, and did it all over again the next day. We did that everyday for the three weeks of training. While that experience was tough, I think it was also beneficial to help us build our camaraderie and rowing ability on screen.

Then Michael Shannon, who played Coach Jack Murphy, came in. He really embodied this present, compassionate but disciplined leader. He was fantastic, and it was great to watch and learn from him from an acting standpoint. His embodiment of the character and his presence made it easy to listen to him and get into character.

All of the other guys on the team were also great to work with during the shoot. A few of them were actual competitive rowers, so the rest of us tried to do our best to keep up with them. I think we all did a decent job, all things considered. It was pretty fun.

Q: The movie was shot on location in Louisiana, like you mentioned earlier, specifically in Baton Rouge. What was your experience like of filming the drama on location?

AM: Louisiana was awesome. We were mostly in Baton Rouge, and the community there took us in. They showed us a great time and fed us. It was my first time there, and it’s a really great place to film. It was also my first time ever being in Louisiana.

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There was also a great crew down there…From what I could see, it was a really tight production, and a bunch of hard-working, nice people. So it was a truly great experience all around.

Q: Vertical Entertainment (distributed) Heart of Champions in select theaters (this weekend). What does it mean to you that the movie is being released in theaters?

AM: It’s very exciting. I’m glad that we have a limited theatrical release during these times. I think theaters are slowly coming back, which is great. I personally like going to the movie theater and seeing films on the big screen.

I hope people enjoy the film; it definitely has a lot of heart. It’s a sports movie on the surface, but it also has a lot of other things going on under the surface. I hope a lot of people can relate to, and enjoy, it because it has a lot of universal themes in it.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

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