By Ashley Hocking
Four students debuted on the big screen as audiences snacked on popcorn and sipped soft drinks at the premiere of the independent film “Jayhawkers” on Feb. 14.
Junior Christian Espinosa, senior Matt Rood, junior Clara Lehr and sophomore Tristan Delnevo auditioned locally for director, producer and screenplay writer Kevin Willmott.
“We wanted to use younger actors because basketball players in the 1950s appeared younger then than today,” Willmott said. “They all worked very well in the film. They were very cooperative and worked hard. I treated them like all the other actors.”
A-listers, Blake Robbins from “The Office,” Kip Niven from “Walker, Texas Rangers” and Jay Karnes from “Burn Notice” also starred in the film.
Espinosa played the role of Gene Elstun, a University of Kansas basketball player. As an athlete on the Lawrence High basketball team, he was excited to portray a collegiate-level basketball player.
“To be a part of it was something really special to me because I cherish basketball and Kansas tradition,” Espinosa said.
On the other side of the basketball court, Rood played the role of a North Carolina basketball player in the championship game.
“I was really excited because it was my first on-screen acting thing ever, and I got some really cool experience working on set of a film,” Rood said. “I really enjoyed seeing the back part of a film. I’d never been on a movie set. It was cool to watch the people work and to go around and see the monitors of exactly what was happening before it all came together.”
Rood’s fondest memory of the film was suiting up in a tank top and hot shorts.
“The championship game was filmed in black and white,” Rood said. “We look like we’re wearing the typical powder blue North Carolina basketball uniform. But in reality, the fabric that they chose to make it look like blue on the black and white screen, was really different. I was wearing a bright red tank top and these hot pink silk short shorts with blue trim.”
Though Rood has an extensive theater background, taking on the role of an athlete was an obstacle to overcome.
“I was nervous because I’m not a basketball player,” Rood said. “I told them that I was uncoordinated.”
Though being on the basketball court was a new experience for Rood, it was not for current KU basketball player Justin Wesley who portrayed Wilt Chamberlain.
“We didn’t know he had the acting in him,” Espinosa said. “Bill Self actually recommended for him to be Wilt Chamberlain in the movie. It was cool to actually see him take on Wilt Chamberlain.”
Both Rood and Espinosa were nervous to execute plays alongside a collegiate athlete.
“I was basically scared of messing anything up, so I tried to stay out of his way,” Rood said. “I stood near him a few times in the free throw part of the movie, which made it into the film.”
Basketball was a major element in the film, but “Jayhawkers” overall was a commentary on the modernization and desegregation of collegiate athletics that paralleled the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.
“It’s about one of the greatest basketball players of all time, civil rights and segregation,” Espinosa said. “It represents Lawrence as a town. I hope the audience realizes that this is what Lawrence was at one time.”
Willmott initially was inspired to create the film shortly after Chamberlain died.
“Several news stories appeared that discussed his effect on civil rights in Lawrence and the region,” Willmott said. “When [fellow screenplay writer] Scott Richardson started to research the story, it quickly evolved into a great narrative.”
One scene that stood out to the student actors was a depiction of Chamberlain being kicked out of a restaurant because of the color of his skin.
“Wilt Chamberlain desegregated Lawrence’s culture because he’s a celebrity,” Rood said. “They basically used him to force people to integrate. They’d take him to a restaurant, and they’d be like ‘You can’t eat here.’ And he’d be like, ‘I’m Wilt Chamberlain.’ Then, they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re pretty cool. You can eat here.’”
In the scene, Lehr played a hostess who greets Chamberlain at the restaurant. Though Lehr prefers being behind the camera, she embraced the opportunity.
“It was fun getting to see what being in a film is like,” Lehr said. “It’s fascinating to be in front of the camera. It really is.”
Working with Willmott was Lehr’s favorite part of the movie because of his easy-going nature.
“It’s fun to be in his stuff because he’s easy to work with,” Lehr said. “He’s just a nice guy. He takes everything very slow, and makes sure everybody is comfortable about what they’re doing.”
Although Delnevo had a small role, he was delighted to be a part of the production as an extra.
“I was only on screen for like a quarter of a second, but it was fun to see and understand how the whole process of movies work,” Delnevo said.
The movie has been a work in progress for more than a decade, but the filming process didn’t begin until last summer. “Jayhawkers” is Willmott’s sixth independent feature film.
“It’s great to see your ideas come to life,” Willmott said. “It is hard work, and it takes a long time. There are many obstacles, but when you get to show it to the audience it is well worth it.”
The “Jayhawkers” premiere was held at the Lied Center to spark interest within the community.
“We had tremendous crowds selling out several times. It couldn’t have gone any better,” Willmott said. “It has been a tremendous experience, and well worth the 10 years it took to make the film.”
After the movie’s initial success, the film premiered for a second time at Liberty Hall on Feb. 28.
Willmott plans to tour “Jayhawkers” in theaters throughout Kansas soon. The film will also, eventually, be available for purchase locally, on Netflix and on iTunes.
For the student actors, the movie’s influence is significant. Working with big Hollywood names inspired Espinosa to strive to become an actor one day. Rood also hopes to continue his on-screen acting career, too.
“I’ve had really good experiences with on-screen acting,” Rood said. “I was in [Tech N9ne and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Fragile’] music video. I’ve taken a few classes and I want to continue some screen acting classes, as well as my on-stage acting classes in college when I go to study theater.”
Though it is no small accomplishment for a high school student to be a part of an independent film, the four student actors involved with the film have not let their 15 minutes of fame go to their heads.
“People at school that I don’t even know come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I saw you in the movie,’” Espinosa said. “It definitely feels special. I don’t feel different about myself. As a joke, I signed some autographs, and it was kind of silly.”