At the center of THE RINGER is the "ringer" himself, Steve Barker, a disarmingly humorous mixture of goofy boy and earnest man who finds himself undertaking the unthinkable by shamelessly trying to qualify for Special Olympics, despite being, as he puts it, "normal." In order for the film to work, the filmmakers knew they needed an actor who could embody the character's essential, underlying sweetness and his multiple dimensions - from his all-thumbs, accident-prone nature to the lessons he learns as he is unmasked and outdone by the very people he thought he could easily dupe - into one comic portrait.
The filmmakers went against the grain in casting the rough-and-tumble Johnny Knoxville, who, at the time, was largely known for his crazy, over-the-top antics on the widely popular MTV show "Jackass." In auditions, however, Knoxville revealed a fresh and different side of himself.
"Johnny came in and impressed us all," says Blaustein. "He revealed a sensitivity that I don't think the public has ever really seen before. Everyone knows that he can be funny and outrageous, but I think a lot of people are going to be surprised to discover what a moving dramatic actor he can be. From the beginning, he had the foresight to envision what this project could be - and he took the role to a higher level, finding both the charm and the absurdity of this character."
Knoxville was drawn to the script's willingness to run right over certain expectations about what it means to be smart or strong or successful. "I love the way the script balances totally outlandish scenes with very touching moments," says Knoxville. "People typically have a lot of preconceived notions about intellectually challenged kids and this story knocks those right down. Plus, with the Farrellys and Barry Blaustein involved, I felt the film was going to be done in a really honest and fearless way."
With Knoxville signed onto the project, the filmmakers turned their attention to casting the unscrupulous Uncle Gary, for whom they chose Emmy Award-winning veteran Brian Cox. It is Gary who, faced with a massive gambling debt, bets one hundred thousand dollars that Special Olympics athlete Jimmy will not win his record-breaking seventh consecutive Gold Medal. With so much riding on the outcome of the games, Gary keeps the pressure on his nephew Steve to carry out their putrid plan to fix Special Olympics.
Cox was attracted to the pure nerve of the character, who ultimately gets his comeuppance and then some. "I thought Uncle Gary was a funny part because the character is really out there and so politically incorrect - and he is also very different from anything I've done in a long time so it's a nice surprise," says Cox. "I normally play characters of gravitas and considerable intellectual ability, but Gary sure breaks that mold."
Adds Barry Blaustein: "Gary is a key character because throughout the film he expresses what a lot of the audience might be guiltily thinking. I wanted Brian Cox for the role because I'd seen him in ADAPTATION and I knew that he could be really funny and I also felt it was important to cast an actor who audiences hadn't seen in this type of role."
On the opposite side of the tug-of-war pulling at Steve is Lynn Sheridan, a Special Olympics volunteer who is as compassionate as she is irresistibly lovely, played by rising young star Katherine Heigl.
The filmmakers were themselves swept off their feet by Heigl's buoyant attitude and youthful optimism. "There were a lot of more well-known actresses that we looked at," notes producer Bradley Thomas, "but Katie came out of left field to win the role because she just exudes this incredibly sweet and compassionate presence that anyone would fall in love with, on top of being a talented comic actress."
Heigl quickly found a place in her heart for such a giving character, but she also understood what Lynn sees in Steve Barker - at least when he's pretending to be Jeffy. "One thing I really like about Lynn is that she is a very non-judgemental person," says Heigl. "And what she ultimately sees in Steve is that when he's pretending to be Jeffy, he's able to be very relaxed and goofy and fun without worrying that he is going to be laughed at. He's able to let go of himself in a way most people never do."
For Heigl, there was a similar surprise in working with Johnny Knoxville. "I had never seen 'Jackass,' so when I watched the show one night at the hotel, I was really shocked that this was the same person I had been working with because he's so different from that persona! I think people will be surprised to get to know the Johnny I got to know: a really nice guy with a big heart who is so much fun to be around."
The next big key to carrying off THE RINGER was casting the circle of friends that Steve unexpectedly finds at Special Olympics - and who, even in discovering his dastardly deceit, decide to attempt to train him to win the Pentathlon. The group was ultimately cast from a mixture of both character actors and intellectually challenged athletes with experience at Special Olympics. "We were looking for a group of actors whose chemistry would be similar to the unforgettable ensemble of actors in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST," says Peter Farrelly. "In that film you didn't know who was acting and who wasn't."
The cast the filmmakers came up with includes Jed Rees as the outgoing Glen who first spots "Jeffy" as a fake; Bill Chott as the outspoken Thomas who always has something to say; Geoffrey Arend as the pessimistic Winston who questions letting Steve/Jeffy off the hook; and Leonard Earl Howze as Mark, the muscular athlete who acts as the traffic cop and enforcer of the group.
For the actors, these were both challenging and multi-faceted characters. "All of the guys who become the circle of Steve's friends have their own idiosyncrasies and oddities but they also all know how to deal with each other and get along, which is very interesting," notes Bill Chott. "I think the main trepidation when you play characters like these is just that you really want to make sure they are authentic and not over the top. Our challenge was to do right by these great characters."
Joining with this ensemble as Jeffy's hard-to-please roommate Billy is intellectually challenged actor Edward Barbanell -- who himself has been a Special Olympics athlete for the last 15 years and has previously appeared in several regional theatre productions. Barbanell took to the role of the feisty Billy - who becomes the group's self-styled ringleader - like a natural.
Says Barbanell: "I have never acted in a film before, but Gail Williamson from the California media access office told Barry Blaustein about me and I went out to Los Angeles and before you knew it, he gave me the part. I really wanted to be part of THE RINGER because this film is all about being part of a team and that's what Special Olympics are all about."
"Eddie Barbanell is a genius and he was a natural fit for the role of Billy," proclaims Peter Farrelly. "He's the only one of the intellectually challenged actors in the film who we allowed to go off page. I usually don't like when actors go completely off page unless it's someone like Bill Murray because you know it's going to be funnier than what's written. There are not many actors who can do that, but Eddie can, and when he goes off the page it's actually funnier."
Another actor making his motion picture debut is four-time Special Olympic World Games competitor and medalist Leonard Flowers who plays the legendary superstar Jimmy. Flowers, who has appeared on a Wheaties Cereal box, is not only an accomplished Special Olympics athlete, but also is a public speaker for the movement. A six-time Gold Medal pentathlon champion, Jimmy is all about the flash and bling-bling, stepping out of his limousine wearing gold plated running shoes and a red velvet running suit - and was a blast for Flowers to play.
"Jimmy is the person that everybody wants to beat," says Flowers. "He believes that he is the greatest athlete of all time and doesn't think he can lose in any event that he enters. The thing that he doesn't count on, though, is everyone coming together to defeat him."
"I didn't know what to expect when I first got to the set," Flowers continues. "I have never really been around actors or on a movie set before, but after seeing how everything is done, I've learned that I really enjoy acting and hope that I get to do it again."
"We were especially fortunate to find someone like Leonard Flowers to play Jimmy," says Blaustein. "It's a crucial role and there were a lot of actors who wanted to play it, but none of them could bring the reality that Leonard brought to it. He looks and acts like a superstar, which is what Jimmy is. One of the things I was really happy about is that when people see Leonard as Jimmy for the first time, they say he doesn't look intellectually challenged, so he makes you question your assumptions. Leonard has really changed people's perceptions."
"Leonard is a stud and he really nailed his part," adds producer Thomas. "He is such a great athlete that we had to consistently tell him to slow down a little bit because he was so much faster then Johnny."
For intellectually challenged actor John Taylor, who has previously starred in such films as SEVENTH SIGN, the role of Rudy was something special. "I think this film will show that people with handicaps can do anything," Taylor says, "and show what Special Olympics is all about."
Taylor first signed up for Special Olympics when he was 10 years old and has been a long-time fan of the organization - and he especially loved that this film provided a chance to show off his track skills. "I run fast," he admits, "and in the movie when Steve first is in a race he is right next to Rudy and Rudy says to him 'Rudy kick your butt.' Rudy gets to run very, very fast, which was a lot of fun."
"Eddie Barbanell, John Taylor and Leonard Flowers were each so wonderful in their roles," sums up Blaustein, "…they were simply great actors who just happened to be intellectually challenged."
Rounding out the cast is Zen Gesner in the role of Lynn's philandering boyfriend David. Gesner was drawn to the script and to working with the Farrellys. "The magic of the Farrelly Brothers is that they know how to reach the heart within the most crazy, wild stories," Gesner says. "After you're done laughing at Steve, you actually feel something and it touches your soul."
Gesner particularly enjoyed getting the opportunity to bounce off of Johnny Knoxville's comedic energy. "Johnny had a really tough job on this movie, but he somehow made the character believable and hilarious at the same time. He was so much fun to watch it was nearly impossible to keep a straight face in those scenes," says Gesner.
Working with such a diversely talented supporting cast also proved to be invaluable for Knoxville. "I was a little nervous coming into the project about having to play a character that was pretending to be intellectually challenged," admits the actor. "So it really helped to be surrounded by such a great group of people. I learned a lot from everyone on the set."
As production got under way, life also began imitating art, with many of the Special Olympics athletes and intellectually challenged actors inspiring the rest of cast with their hard work and close-knit friendships. Says Bradley Thomas: "We found ourselves being so moved by them. It became a really unusual and gratifying experience, and not at all what you expect when you're making a comedy."
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