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THE CAST: Becoming a Team





5. THE CAST: Becoming a Team



THE CAST: Becoming a Team

The process of becoming part of a team is a powerful one for the young characters, filling them with a newfound sense of purpose that in turn transforms their lives. Evan Ross, who plays Fobbs’ teammate Reggie, says, “Reggie is very shy. He really wants to be a part of the team but always feels like the odd one out because of his stutter. So it’s a big moment for him when Jim Ellis tells them, ‘We're a team now.’ He's wanted to be part of something for as long as he can remember. He develops this love for Jim – almost like for a father – because Jim took him under his wing and frankly saved his life.”

The team is all male, with one determined exception: Willie, a headstrong girl played by Regine Nehy who Elston takes under his wing. “Wiloma – who Elston calls Miss Willie – is a young black female who just barges in and announces she wants to swim,” Mac says. “He appreciates her determination and he becomes her guardian angel.”

Explains Regine Nehy, “Willie wants to do something with herself and her life. She doesn't want to be on the streets hanging around the guys. She wants to show that women won't be held back just because someone says something isn’t a good idea.”

As if learning how to swim competitively isn’t a challenge enough, Ellis’ co-ed team is also in constant conflict with a group of white suburban students – from Philadelphia’s preppy Main Line communities – who insist that black swimmers don’t belong in their sport, let alone their pools. The lead tormentor, Jake, is played by actor Scott Reeves. “My character Jake is a racist, plain and simple,” Reeves says. “Jake is a snake. He’s the star swimmer driven even further by his hard-ass coach.”

Jake’s coach, Bink, played by Tom Arnold, does nothing but encourage his students’ negative opinions of the hopeful P.D.R. team. “The role of Bink originally was that of your stereotypical racist coach,” says Arnold. “But I felt that for Bink, it isn’t so much about race as it is about conduct. Ellis’ kids are out of control, and he has no respect for their behavior.”

While their on-screen characters might be unruly, the young actors who comprise the P.D.R. team impressed the entire filmmaking team with their focus and commitment to the project. Mac says, “This is a very talented group of young actors. The kids pushed me. I don’t think I was acting in this film – I was reacting.”

“These young actors are exceptional,” adds Ellis. “They’re just like a group of young men that I had swimming for me in the '80s and early '90s who set the first national agegroup record that our club ever achieved.”

The young cast members are equally impressed with Ellis. Kevin Phillips, who plays Andre, says, “It’s been an honor getting to know Mr. Ellis, this man who stands for so much. What he did, he did from the grace of his heart. He just went out there and tried to make a difference in people’s lives. And, you know, years later he's still doing it – still healthy and alive and coaching. So I think, God bless you, Jim. Thank you.”

Just as PRIDE represents a rite of passage for Ellis and his team, its completion is another step in the long journey of its first-time director, Sunu Gonera. Zimbabwean-born Gonera began his career as a professional athlete in South Africa. He then made a leap into business, which was followed by a quick rise as a leading commercial director. “It’s hard doing a film about someone's life when that person's still alive,” Gonera admits. “It’s a huge responsibility. As a first-time feature-film director, the cast, the crew, the studio, and the subject of the movie – the man himself – have all been fantastic partners for me on this venture. I couldn’t have asked for more.”


During pre-production, Gonera focused on creating as authentic a setting as possible for the film. He visited the Marcus Foster Recreational Center in Philadelphia with Ellis and producer Paul Hall, and conferred with director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti on establishing the right cinematic mood and overcoming the technical hurdles of shooting in water.

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