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In a role she was born to play -- herself! -- U.S. women's soccer star Alex Morgan shines in her film debut, despite some initial nerves and hesitation.
Starring as -- who else? -- herself, the U.S. women's soccer star appears in the upcoming "Alex & Me."
As one of the world's best-known soccer players and a World Cup and Olympic champion, Alex Morgan is understandably confident when it comes to her day job. She thrives on being the leader, on and off the pitch, for the national team and the Orlando Pride, and doesn't hesitate to step up or speak out.
But when asked to be the lead role in a movie? Well, that's another story. Even if the role is Alex Morgan, and virtually no one else can play the part.
Approached by Eric Champnella, one of writers of the 2012 Kevin Durant star-vehicle "Thunderstruck," about a similar project for her, the 28-year-old was apprehensive but ultimately agreed. And once she committed, she was determined to do her best, even in such unfamiliar territory.
"I believe that when you do something, you can't go halfway. If you're going to do it, then you got to go all the way in," said Morgan ahead of last month's premiere in Los Angeles. "When I agreed to do this movie, and when the director came to me and introduced the script and wanted to make this a real thing [as a] movie in theaters and on screen, I initially was a little intimidated. But if I agree to something, then I'm 100 percent in. I feel like that's kind of just my mindset in all ways of life."
Produced by Nickelodeon and Warner Bros. and set for release on June 12, "Alex & Me" centers around Reagan Willis, a young girl who dreams of playing soccer like her hero Alex Morgan. She's devastated when she doesn't make her local club team but finds solace and encouragement when the poster of Morgan on her bedroom wall comes to life. (Does she really come to life? Is it a hallucination? A dream? You'll just have to watch and see.)
Shot over five weeks in New Orleans in the fall of 2017, Morgan was on set for just two weeks despite being a central component of the movie, joining the production in between the U.S. team's friendlies against South Korea and Canada. Corey Podell, a veteran acting coach who frequently works with the child actors on Nickelodeon projects, was assigned to help Morgan as well as her younger co-stars, and had no idea what to expect -- particularly in such a short time frame.
"I'm not a sports person, so I'm embarrassed to say this, but I didn't know who Alex Morgan was," said Podell. "So I looked her up, and I quickly realized, she's THE soccer player. So I really knew nothing going in except that she was a great soccer player and she's beautiful. I knew nothing else.
"I watched some interviews with her, and a commercial she did, and she just seemed nice and normal so I really had no expectations. It wasn't until all these hordes of kids would show up on set after school every day with their soccer balls just to see her that I realized just how famous she really was."
The two quickly bonded, as Morgan did with many in the cast and crew, and the soccer star made sure to attend cast dinners and outings -- including a memorable trip on Halloween to a haunted mansion with all of the young girls from the movie. While Morgan considered it normal team building, it was a surprise to all those working on the movie to see her constantly popping up to their events, and it meant a lot to them. The word "family" was used by virtually every cast member on the red carpet of the premiere in describing the atmosphere on set, and watching them interact with one another made it clear it was more than just a buzzword. The hugs and inside jokes were incessant, as was the praise heaped on to one another.
Podell, who says she is usually met with some resistance and a fair amount of ego when working with adult actors, was equally surprised to find Morgan had none of that. Not only was she receptive to feedback and criticism, she asked for it. Before the start of every day on set, Morgan would consult with Podell on line delivery and how to best appear as her authentic self.
"It was really cool to see that she was open to receiving help and I realized that being an athlete makes her so coachable," said Podell. "She's been coached her whole life, so she's really open to feedback and was so receptive to it. Adult actors sometimes get a little defensive, and sometimes take it personally, but with Alex, she would be like, 'Corey, what do you think? How should I say it? Should I say it like this?'
"She really wanted guidance and it was like watching a sponge, because she just absorbed it all. She even learned from the girls on set, and I think they helped her a lot too. She grew so much every day we were on set and improved and got so much more comfortable. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to tell exactly when things were shot when I'm watching the movie, because she truly improved that much throughout the process."
Morgan was grateful for the help, and consulted with anyone and everyone on set, although sometimes the process caused her more anxiety than anyone would likely have guessed.
"I was always asking what I was doing wrong," said Morgan. "Eric was constantly telling me to deliver the lines how best I felt comfortable or how I would in real life. For me, I feel like freedom is almost restricting, and that sounds like such a contradictory statement, but I want to know exactly how I'm supposed to do it, and I think that draws from soccer.
"In that way, I think I'm almost too coachable, because I'm bad at improvising. It absolutely got better though throughout the shoot and as I got more comfortable with everyone and having a camera in front of me."
Overall, Morgan was pleased with her performance -- she gave herself a "high seven, low eight" out of 10 -- but isn't exactly itching to do another film in the near future. Her focus is firmly on soccer, and helping the national team in the lead-up to the 2019 Women's World Cup. Without the presence of many of the former stalwarts of the team, Morgan knows this is her team now and is ready to take on all the added responsibilities that come with it.
"We're just trying to do everything we can to bring home another World Cup trophy," she said. "Obviously, we'll want to make sure that we're marketed well, and get as many people are interested in the World Cup as possible. I generally try not to think about [being the face of the team] but I feel like I've been given the time to grow up in that role so I don't feel like anything really changes. My preparation and goals are the same as before -- I just want to win and help grow the game."