UM alum's movie gave soccer star Alex Morgan a chance to be herself
Before she scored the deciding goal against England Tuesday and set the internet aboil by pretending to sip tea, Alex Morgan was in Eric Champnella's movie.
She's in the title of the made-for-video feature, in fact, and if anyone wants to join in Morgan's celebration or get ready for the Women's World Cup soccer finale by ordering "Alex & Me," Champnella says that's a capital idea.
If anyone wants to cheer wildly for the co-star of a rare sports comedy aimed at pre-teen girls, connecting a thread from Michigan to France in the process, he says that's also a capital idea.
Morgan might well be on more posters on more young girls' walls than any woman in America. Champnella, a UM graduate from Southgate, will tell you she's worthy of the thumbtacks.
"She is an incredible human being," he says from his home near Los Angeles. "She is the person you want your kids to look up to."
Morgan, 30, is a tri-captain of the American national team and already a World Cup and Olympic champion. Her next leading role will come at 11 a.m. Sunday, when the U.S. faces the Netherlands for the title in Lyon.
Champnella, 53, finished either first or second for 12 straight years in the Michigan State Fair hog-calling contest. He went on to be a stand-up comic whose accomplishments included introducing his sister to her future ex-husband, Tom Arnold, at David Spade's 30th birthday party.
"Alex & Me," filmed in fall 2017 and released a year ago, was Morgan's first movie as an actor and Champnella's first as a director.
She had an acting coach to help her play herself, co-star Siena Agudong of Nickelodeon's "Star Falls" had an athletic coach to help her play soccer, and Champnella had all of 19 days on set to make it work.
It helped that he wrote the screenplay, which centers on Agudong as a 13-year-old whose family is fixated on her older brother, a heavily recruited football star.
After a failed tryout for a prestigious team, Agudong bonks her head, at which point Morgan steps out of a bedroom poster and becomes her friend and motivator. Hilarity ensues, as does the almost mandatory winning streak for a band of castoffs.
It's familiar material, all the way to a deserving male character impeding a soccer ball with his groin. But Champnella, who co-wrote "Eddie," "Mr. 3000" and "Thunderstruck," makes it funnier than usual — and as he points out, the head-bonking plot point that's old hat to an adult might be new to his 8- to 13-year-old target audience.
"There used to be tons of these inspirational sports movies," Champnella says. He grew up with them and started out writing them.
But it was actually his daughter Reagan, now 11,who inspired "Alex & Me," partly because she plays travel soccer and partly because the half of her bedroom that isn't devoted to Taylor Swift is given over to Morgan.
Having conceived the idea, Champnella contacted Morgan's marketing team — and was speedily rejected. He tried again, forwarding a note Reagan wrote when she was 8 years old professing her devotion to the game.
That got him a few minutes on the phone, where he sold Morgan on his passion for the project. Then they started filming in New Orleans, where she sold him on her thoughtfulness, work ethic and patience.
Word of the shoot spread quickly, he says, and wherever they set up, a throng of girls would be standing just outside the frame.
"As soon as I yelled 'Cut,' Alex would walk right to them," he says. "She'd sign every jersey and ball, take every selfie."
Every scene in the movie included children, which meant workdays had to be shorter than normal even within the compressed schedule. Grinding almost nonstop, Champnella spent Halloween night preparing for the next day.
Morgan, the international icon, went with the kids to a haunted house.
Actor and director Jim Klock, who plays Agudong's father, says Champnella's greatest attribute as a director was his sense of humor, which connected to his ability to improvise.
"He was like a kid in a candy store every day," Klock says. The catch was that "he could have all the candy he wanted, as long as he had it in 19 days."
Still, he says, Champnella kept his temperament even and his enthusiasm high.
"That type of stuff really trickled down," Klock says, even to Morgan, who would soon be going from small movie sets to packed stadiums.
"An incredible woman. So focused on giving back," says Klock, 43.
For obvious reasons, he says, everyone in the cast and crew knew her name from day one. In short order, she knew their names as well.
Just playing — and being — herself, she made dozens of new fans.
Sunday, the team behind "Alex & Me" will have something to root for. It'll be Alex and them.