TAMPA — Elementary school classmates made fun of Joshua Felder’s weight.
“Just kids being kids,” the 25-year-old Tampa resident said.
He also struggled to speak clearly.
“I had a slur,” Felder said. “I didn’t know how to pronounce words.”
He’s come a long way.
Felder is autistic, but “high functioning,” he said. “I am capable and responsible for myself.”
And now, he is a Hollywood star.
That former chubby boy with a slur can be seen playing basketball and reading lines alongside Woody Harrelson in the movie “Champions,” which hits theaters on March 10.
Harrelson plays a former minor-league basketball coach who is court-ordered to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. Despite early doubts, he seeks to lead them to a spot in the Special Olympics. Felder is the team’s star player.
“I want people to feel inspired and feel motivated,” Felder said. “It shows we have a voice and that we are capable.”
That’s true of the story both on screen and behind the camera.
Director Bobby Farrelly chose to cast men and women with intellectual disabilities, just as he did for “The Ringer,” about a man who attempts to fix the Special Olympics.
“They trusted that we could portray good characters,” Felder said.
Like his character, Felder is an athlete. He did not play on an organized basketball team growing up, but he could often be found on his neighborhood court.
Felder also ran for Hillsborough High School’s track and field team, competing in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m events as the only one from the exceptional student education program to “play regular sports,” he said.
That athleticism is on display throughout the film. Neither his jump shooting ability nor dribbling were enhanced with movie magic. It is Felder, not a stunt man, in the basketball scenes.
His path to Hollywood began two years ago through the Tampa chapter of Best Buddies, which promotes friendships between those with and without developmental and intellectual disabilities. The nonprofit also helps those with disabilities to secure jobs and live independently.
“I got an email from a program manager at Best Buddies that there were open auditions to try out for this movie called ‘Champions,’” said Felder, a global ambassador for Best Buddies. “And then they were mentioning that Woody Harrelson was going to be in it, and I am a big fan.”
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Felder had never been in a movie before, but acted in middle school plays, so he decided to give it a try.
Seeing himself on screen at the red carpet premiere left him “star-struck,” Felder admitted.
But he is not ready to give up his day job as an office assistant at the law firm of Holland & Knight.
“I want to see how this movie goes first,” Felder said. “Then I will see if I can get any other acting gigs.”
Meanwhile, Felder said, his main goal is to continue to inspire others to chase their dreams.
“People with any type of disabilities are never a disappointment in our society” reads, in part, a mission statement pinned to his Facebook page. “People like me are not afraid of anything whatsoever. … We are always heroes that are breaking barriers that we sometimes face for ourselves. But we fight to prove others wrong and show them that we don’t have to be treated like someone who isn’t capable of any responsibility for themselves.”