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Actor Kevin Iannucci on 'Champions'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In the new movie "Champions," we meet Marcus at a turning point in his life. His attitude has cost him his minor league basketball coaching job. And a DUI has left him at the mercy of a judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHAMPION")

ALEXANDRA CASTILLO: (As Judge Mary Menendez) I will offer you 90 days community service, coaching adults with intellectual disabilities at the Friends Association in Capital East.

DETROW: Marcus, who's played by Woody Harrelson, reluctantly accepts the community service, and that's where he meets the Friends, an unconventional basketball team.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHAMPIONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What up, Coach? Give me the ball. Yeah.

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Marcus) What's that guy's deal?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Showtime? He's a specialist.

HARRELSON: (As Marcus) Specialist?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah. He's the only player in the league who shoots backwards from half court, and he's on our team.

KEVIN IANNUCCI: (As Johnny) Pretty good shot, huh, Coach?

HARRELSON: (As Marcus) No. That's a terrible shot.

DETROW: And this may come as a complete surprise if you've never seen a sports movie before, but Marcus and the team go on to learn from each other. Kevin Iannucci plays Johnny, one of the team's key players. Like Johnny, Kevin has Down syndrome, and he is joining us now to talk about the movie. Hey, Kevin.

IANNUCCI: Hey. What's up?

DETROW: The first question I had is, what attracted you to this role? What made you want to do this movie?

IANNUCCI: I've actually seen the Spanish version of this movie, and it was funny. It was heartwarming, emotional. And I just wanted to be a part of it.

DETROW: I wanted to ask you about something you wrote in an essay for Newsweek. You were talking about your acting career. And you wrote that stepping out onto the stage was like stepping through a portal into a fantasyland. When the final act would end and all the lights came up, the thunderous applause would make my heart burst with pride. How did you first get into acting?

IANNUCCI: I started when I was kind of young, and then I kind of went into theatre. And I did some stage plays, of course, high school plays. And then I went to join a local agent, which got me my first debut movie, "The Best Of Enemies." And then my biggest ever is "Champions," and I'm so excited about it.

DETROW: And that connection you feel to acting, that reaction in the moment, did that come right away for you? Was this something where the first time you did it, you felt, this is for me?

IANNUCCI: Yeah. I think I had potential. So here I am now.

DETROW: And you mentioned "Champions" is your biggest role. You're one of the leaders of the movie.

IANNUCCI: Yeah.

DETROW: What was it like to be in that setting on a big movie with a movie star like Woody Harrelson?

IANNUCCI: A magical experience. I had so much fun keeping up with them between Woody and Kaitlin. And they are just amazing. On what they do, it's so fun to get along with them.

DETROW: I mean, there's a message in this movie. And I'm wondering if you think the movie as a whole might have a broader message for Hollywood. There's been such a conversation about diversity in movies. Do you hope that that this opens the door for more roles like people like you or more movies with this kind of focus?

IANNUCCI: I totally agree about that. And I do see people with disabilities. You just go out for it and do what you got to do and believe in it.

DETROW: What's been your favorite memory of this process?

IANNUCCI: I think one of my favorites has to be (inaudible) karaoke.

DETROW: Yeah.

IANNUCCI: I mean, that scene, I sang - knocked back down and get up again, and no one's going to keep me down. I think that was like one of the most favorite songs I have that I like to listen to.

DETROW: That's a fun song to sing, but was it - did it make you nervous to be goading Woody Harrelson into singing along in that scene?

IANNUCCI: Not really.

DETROW: No? (Laughter) That was one of my favorite scenes in the movie, too. What comes next for you? You said this is your third movie role, right?

IANNUCCI: Yes. I can't wait for any other roles to come. I'm going to keep acting.

DETROW: Well, I can't wait to see them, either. That's Kevin Iannucci, who plays Johnny in the movie "Champions," which is out now. Kevin, thank you so much for talking to us.

IANNUCCI: Yeah. Thank you so much, too. And go watch the movie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.