“It defied everything that you thought about them”; the Cheech Marin “CHAMPIONS” interview

Cheech Marin loves sports, both in movies and real life. In 1996 he paired up with Kevin Costner for the golf romp “Tin Cup,” and in the weeks to come he will be seen in “The Long Game,” a real-life tale about a young Chicano golf team in Del Rio, Texas, in the fifties.

Meantime, Marin is co-starring with Woody Harrelson in “Champions,” a touching basketball comedy in which Harrelson plays a big-shot coach who, following an altercation with a colleague, is sent to lead a team of disabled persons. Marin plays Julio, an assistant coach on the team of young adults.

“Probably basketball players are the most athletic of all the sports, because they’re running up and down the court. Running, jumping, leaping,” Marin said on a Zoom call. “It’s supposed to be a non-contact sport, but it hardly is.”

Marin and Harrelson acted together before in Sam Shepard’s play “The Late Henry Moss,” which ran at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 2000 and was directed by Shepard himself. The all-star cast also included Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, James Gammon and Sheila Tousey.

“And that’s where Woody and I worked together,” Marin recalled. “So I thought [of ‘Champions’], this is gonna be fun to work with Woody again. He’s a real, dedicated, serious actor, and it’s only about the work. Every other thing can fall by the side or is not important. I knew it was going to be a fun project.”

Marin said it was equally, if not more, rewarding to work with the young disabled adults playing the basketball team, called “the Friends,” in “Champions.” Too often, disabled persons are played as figures of mockery in movies; Marin said he found his young co-stars were anxious to be treated equally on set—especially when it came to finding the humor in the screenplay by Mark Rizzo.

“We got along a lot that way because I would joke with them,” Marin said. “They would appreciate it because they wanted to be treated like everybody else. And you have to build up trust with them. Can you tell them jokes or joke with them about what they’re doing? And [if] they laugh, OK, then you’ve got communication there.”

Most of those young performers had never acted before, but Marin says that didn’t stop them from learning about being on a professional set and the necessity of taking direction with grace and humility. One of the young actors, Casey Metcalfe, impressed Marin by being able to speak seven different languages. Others, in addition to being decent ball players, were also musicians and dancers in their own right.

“It defied everything that you thought about them,” Marin said.

One standout in the cast is Madison Tevlin, who plays the tough-yet-lovable Cosentino.

“She and I got to be buddies. She was great,” Marin said, then modulated his voice to the Cheech & Chong era to channel how Tevlin says in the film, when yelling at her teammates: “Mush, you filthy huskies!” Marin calls it his favorite bit of dialogue in “Champions.”

“She just came in and took charge, but every once in a while she would get stuck on something and I would help her,” he said. “She would do it right away.”

The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture—known colloquially as “The Cheech”—opened in Riverside, California, last summer. There Marin showcases artworks by Chicano artists over the centuries. He says that what is currently on display represents but a fraction of his collection, all of which he aims to share with the public some day.

“It was anticipated it was going to take years to do at least one roll through the whole collection. I think it’s going to be longer now because everybody has their favorite piece,” he said. “Mine changes all the time.”

It’s been quite the arc for Marin, whose career has spanned the high art of his museum to the “low” end of culture in his many stoner comedies with Tommy Chong. He says he’s not surprised the country has become far more accepting of marijuana—only that it’s taken as long as it has.

“Lenny Bruce had a great line: ‘Marijuana will be legal because all lawyers smoke it,’” Marin said of the infamous comedian.

In addition to “Champions” and “The Long Game,” Marin will be traveling to Austin to meet up with his frequent collaborator, Robert Rodriquez, at SXSW. The pair have even joined forces at the Robert Rodriguez School of Film at Marin’s museum in California.

Meantime, he hopes that people who come to see his work with Harrelson in “Champions” will walk away with an appreciation for the fact that disabled adults possess the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.

“I think the best advice is to listen to them when they talk,” Marin said. “Sometimes it’s difficult, depending upon their difficulty, and sometimes it’s easier. People [often] believe the stereotypes [but] they’re just really sweet, sweet kids.

“They’re not kids anymore, they’re young adults. [If] they trust you, that’s a big deal.”

“Champions” opens in select theaters on Thursday