“Born a Champion” is one of the hardest hitting films to be unleashed in recent memory. Despite being based in the world of mixed martial arts, it’s the film’s heart, not the mixed martial arts action, that packs the knockout punch. A passionate practitioner of Brazilian Jujitsu, the film is the long-time passion project of the talented Sean Patrick Flanery (“Boondock Saints,” “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”). Co-written by Flanery and directed by French filmmaker Alex Ranarivelo (“The Ride,” “American Wrestler: The Wizard”), the film centers around Mickey Kelley, one of the first American black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Set in the 1990s, the film centers around the aftermath of a blood-soaked jujitsu match in Dubai, where the fighting legend falls to the sport’s rising superstar Blaine. However, years later, an online video proves Blaine cheated and the world demands a rematch. It’s more than your classic underdog story and focuses on the love for family and a man’s drive for greatness. Flanery and Katrina Bowden light up the screen with unforgettable performances alongside an ensemble cast that includes Dennis Quaid, Currie Graham, Costas Mandylor, Maurice Compte, Reno Wilson and Ali Afshar.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Sean Patrick Flanery and Katrina Bowden for an inside look at the making of this captivating film. Along the way, the duo offers insight into their creative processes, the challenges they faced with the project and more!
I’m excited to sit down with you both today. What a movie! I laughed, I cried and was inspired by this film and that’s just the first 20 minutes, which is before we gain full momentum! You both deliver deeply layered performances and I know this fling will serve as a springboard to other amazing projects.
Sean Patrick Flanery: Thanks, brother!
Katrina Bowden: Oh, thank you so much!
Sean, I know Jujitsu played a massive role in your life. Tell us about the impact it had on you.
Sean Patrick Flanery: I started over 20 years ago and I can’t overstate the impact it has had on me. A large percentage of the best things that have happened in my life have been a product of Jujitsu. I say that and it sounds kind of nonsensical. I made a lot of bad business decisions because of Jujitsu! I turned down some films that business-wise I probably shouldn’t have. For example, I wanted to compete one year and win the Pan-Ams, so I turned things down and I trained for that. With that said, in hindsight, I wouldn’t trade it for the world! The things that Jujitsu and who it’s made me become I wouldn’t trade for those things. It’s the one thing that I will keep doing throughout my life. Legacy-wise it will be one of the most important things I can leave behind and give to my kids.
“Born A Champion” was a longtime in the making. What made this a tale you wanted to bring to the masses?
Sean Patrick Flanery: No one has ever told a Jujitsu story before but realistically I am a writer at my core and I wrote a love story about family, the importance of family and fatherhood/motherhood. I wrapped it inside of one of my deepest passions and that’s Jujitsu, which is something that’s never really been extrapolated on screen before, at least real Jujitsu as opposed to cinematic Jujitsu. I wrote it in bed one night way back in 2007. I sent it to a producer buddy of mine who I had met on “Boondock Saints,” Paul J. Alessi. He read it and said, “Man, we’ve got to turn this into a movie.” That was almost 14 years ago, just to give you an idea of how long it takes to realize a dream. I’m certainly glad we kept pursuing it because we got people like Katrina Bowden to join us on set and make this movie what it is, which kinda blows my mind! [laughs]
How did the project come onto your radar and what made it a role you were interested in taking, Katrina?
Katrina Bowden: I read the script and I instantly felt connected to it and pulled to it. I thought it was such a beautiful story that really blended the world of mixed-martial arts, which I didn’t know much about, with a beautiful love story that was focused on family. I thought it was really inspiring, heart-wrenching and beautiful all at once! I really wanted to play Layla and I thought she was so great on so many levels. She’s such an interesting layered character. When I found out more about Sean’s process with this movie and it being such a passion project for him, it made me want to be a part of it even more. When you’re working with people who really care so much about a project because it means a lot to them, it makes the whole experience that much better, more exciting and the project often ends up being much better. I was very excited when we started shooting and making it come to life. I think it turned out really, really well!
I couldn’t agree more! What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the original written page?
Katrina Bowden: I think every character you take on as an actor is one you bring a bit of your own personality to. I guess I brought my own take of Layla. I don’t know specifically what that is! [laughs]
Sean Patrick Flanery: I’ll tell you what it is! Katrina has a certain pathos behind the eyes that I find incredibly, incredibly rare! There’s a passion and an emotion even when she is standing still and not saying anything. That really came out in a couple of scenes that I found absolutely soul shaking. I can’t see anybody doing it better than Katrina did it and I’m not just saying that because she is here with us now! I’ll tell you another thing. How did she become a part of this thing? I sent her an Instagram message and I said, “Katrina, you’re perfect for this. I’d kill for you to do it. I hope you will consider it!”
Katrina Bowden: I forgot about that! [laughs]
Sean Patrick Flanery: Basically, I begged and pleaded! [laughs] She read it and she joined us. I’m forever grateful! I think there is something rare that Katrina has and it’s something incredibly rare.
Katrina Bowden: That’s very kind of you. Thank you!
You make an incredible duo on screen. Tell us about building that chemistry.
Sean Patrick Flanery: When you meet someone new, there are some people that are stand-offish or have a cold barrier that you have to break through. With Katrina, when she comes in the door, there is a warmth about her. Without sounding nonsensical actory, she’s just one of those people whose presence is kind of inviting. I wasn’t really surprised at that. Just from watching her on screen, that is what she projects. Sometimes that’s accurate on a personal level and sometimes it’s not but I was very grateful that that was the same way the person that walked in the door conveyed.
Katrina Bowden: Similarly, I felt very comfortable with Sean right off the bat. I think we were able to have deeper conversations pretty quickly, which was really great. It makes you feel more comfortable and connected with the person. The getting to know you process came about pretty quickly and easily and I think that really helped with the chemistry on set between the characters.
“Born A Champion” makes terrific use of both of your skill sets as actors. Which scenes were most satisfying in a creative sense?
Sean Patrick Flanery: There is a scene that takes place in a friend of mine’s garage. In the scene Katrina’s character overhears something. Like I said before, there is very little dialog but what you see going on inside of her is kind of incredible. That was probably my favorite thing to watch on the entire production. To watch her do that and to watch her do it over and over again blew my mind to be honest! It was absolutely tone perfect!
Katrina Bowden: There are so many wonderfully emotional scenes for Layla in this movie. I just loved exploring those and trying to bring those to life with as many layers as I possibly could. The scene Sean just mentioned is one I really enjoyed doing!
You have guys like Renzo Gracie, Edson Barboza and Mickey Gall from the world of MMA. Then you have Dennis Quaid, who seems very much cut from the same cloth as both you and Mickey, in terms of authenticity.
Sean Patrick Flanery: Thank you. Dennis Quaid is a Hollywood icon, so I was blown away that he came and joined us on set. Any time there is someone like that involved, you are very grateful but you pray that they live up to what you thought they were. Dennis did, man! That dude is a solid dude across the board. I always make a joke, but I’m kinda serious in it, that I’m a blue collar actor. I have to work. I’ve never been a marquee player or the name that carries a film. Dennis Quaid is a huge star and he could not be more kick your feet up on the couch and let’s watch TV dude! I mean, he makes you feel that way. I’m really grateful for that!
There are so many tremendous performances in this film. Maurice Compte was a true standout for me as Mickey Kelley’s best friend. How difficult was it to get the right tone for the characters you had lived with for so long on paper?
Sean Patrick Flanery: I wrote the character to appear, on the surface, that they would never intersect anywhere in life. I wanted to show that that’s completely not the case! They came from two completely different worlds and yet they could not be closer blood brothers. His presentation is really, really hard but there is a core inside of him that is good as gold! They always say that when you make a film, if you cast it directly then you can just sit down and watch it happen. That’s kinda the way this film took place. Like I said, Katrina just showed up and did it. Maurice just did it! Reno Wilson brought something to the character, I have to say, that I didn’t really even see.
Katrina Bowden: So great!
Sean Patrick Flannery: The one person that surprised me in a different but better way is Reno Wilson. In my opinion, he brought a certain joie de vivre to this character that steals the show every time I’m on screen with him!
Katrina Bowden: He has such a charming performance. Everything he did just makes you love him!
Sean Patrick Flanery: I couldn’t agree more!
As you mentioned, this film took years to become a reality. What were the biggest challenges in bringing it from script to screen?
Sean Patrick Flanery: Any time that there is a martial arts film, people want either wall-to-wall fighting or, if it’s a love story, they want wall-to-wall love. This film kind of merges the two. I tried my best not to pull away from either to deliver on the opposite side of the aisle. There are no dynamic flying hook kicks in it. There is no “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It’s a very slow, methodical, ugly martial art. To shoot that and have it be interesting takes a little bit of specific camera work and choreography. We had a great director of photography, Rueben Steinberg, who I think knocked it out of the park. Generally speaking, anytime you write something, one of the biggest hurdles to get over is writing something and then being unable to find that location, so you have to rewrite it to accommodate the location that you have. Outside of that, there were so many magical variables that fell into place! A lot of it just came down to luck and timing. I’m grateful that there weren’t any hurdles that caught my foot and made me faceplant! Thankfully, I stayed on my feet!
You both have been a part of a ton of high-profile projects with their own unique challenges. What are the keys to successful collaborations in your field of work?
Katrina: I think passion is a big one. As an actor, when you take on a role, you have to really love it. The more you really love it, connect to it and your costars, the better everything is going to be on screen. I think that’s the biggest one for me. I find that when I’m shooting something that if everyone there really loves what they are doing, it’s a much better experience and produces a better outcome. With this film, working with Sean and having it be such a passion project of his and him casting it so amazingly across the board, it was just really easy to perform and perform well. It came to life in such a great way. Most of my scenes are with Sean and our back and forth worked really, really well. We were both on the same page and when you’re on the same page the material comes to life in a special way.
Sean Patrick Flanery: I agree whole-heartedly.
It’s been a pleasure to watch both of you evolve at your craft over the years. What do you look for in the material you are taking on these days?
Sean Patrick Flanery: Man. My goal has always been to do good. By that I mean that I want a career where I have things that I want to hand to friends and say, “Hey, watch this!” I always make the joke that if you look at my IMDB page, I think I have around 150 different things but, I’ll be honest with you, 99.5% of them I hope no one ever sees! [laughs] I just hope that .5% is something I can add to! I think that is similar with a lot of careers. I don’t think I’m a severe outlier. There are so many variables that go into making a film that there are a lot of things that can ruin it. I’ve certainly done things that I thought had an amazing script but they just didn’t turn out well. My goal is just to do things I am proud of that I can hand to my friends and say, “Check this out. I made this!”
Katrina Bowden: I totally agree and I would add that I like to do things that are challenging, different and are outside of what I have already done. I never want to be too comfortable!
“Born A Champion” is a film with a tremendous heart. When you have to dig deep like the characters in this film, where do you look for inspiration?
Sean Patrick Flanery: For me, it’s family. It’s no different than in the script. You have a banana on a string in front of you that you chase. As soon as you have a family, that banana turns into something very, very different. The stakes are very, very different. It’s all about family!
Katrina Bowden: That’s a great answer. I don’t have a family of my own yet. For me, especially for the deep emotional scenes, I pull from pain in my past and the things that matter to me. I definitely look to my family, friends and the people closest to me in my life the most. So, I feel similarly to Sean, though it’s not exactly the same. As an actor, you have to pull from your own experiences and life. You might not have the exact same experience as the character has or might be going through but we all operate from a similar place emotion. Anger, sadness, fear and joy are something we have all experienced. You have to take those experiences and use it in whatever way you can to relate to the character you are playing.
I know our time is short but I have to thank you for delivering an amazing film. It will take the viewer through every one of those emotions you just mentioned. I couldn’t be happier to help spread the word. Thanks for your time today and the hard work you put in on this project.
Sean Patrick Flanery: Thank you, brother. I appreciate it.
Katrina: Thanks, Jason! Talk to you soon!
“Born a Champion” is available through digital retailers, in select theaters and on demand Jan. 22, and on Blu-ray Disc and DVD Jan. 26. Check out the trailer below!