Learning the Game: Actors Suit Up

To turn Krasinski, Clooney and the rest of the performers into the Duluth Bulldogs, there would be much training on and off the field. Invariably, the new team would find itself playing football in swamps of mud in Greenville, South Carolina, while wearing scratchy woolen uniforms as the weather took one of her various phases-from blazing sunshine to plummeting temperatures when the skies turned ugly.

During two weeks of football camp, which occurred prior to principal photography, the guys learned to play "period football," as well as how to execute plays that were both comedic and athletic. Coach TJ TROUP, a scholar of the period, onetime defensive back and longtime high school and college coach, led them through the paces. For the consultant, the trick was to help Clooney accurately depict early football, while also serving the needs of the story and the cameras capturing it.

Troup states that Clooney proved to be as prepared a historian as he was a filmmaker. "George shared some points with me on how he wanted the games to proceed," the coach offers. "He and Grant had really done their homework on not only early football, but the subtle nuances of that era. My job was to tie all those pieces together. They wanted to ensure the authenticity of the plays, formations and stances, as well as how the game was played, because it was so much different."

The free-for-all nature of the game in the '20s made for a brutal experience for players of that generation. Troup explains, "The field had the same dimensions, but the philosophy and rules were different. For instance, there were no hash marks on the field. If a player was knocked out of bounds in 1925, the ball was placed one yard from the sideline. You had virtually the entire field to either your right or your left. And coaches in that era believed it was unmanly to win a game by passing. So, teams basically ended up in a rugby scrum where they would pound at each other, with up-the-middle running plays."

That worked for these Bulldogs. Adds on-screen coach Wayne Duvall, "Back in the day, coaches were more like the managers of the team. They didn't give the teams plays. In fact, they weren't allowed to call them from the sidelines; that was a penalty. The players knew the plays and, in this case, Dodge was in charge of strategizing and executing them."

The role of team captain was one Clooney took seriously both on-and off-screen. Duvall surmises the experience the whole group had with their director. He tells that Clooney's style was not micromanaging, but more, "'do that thing you do.' If it's not what he wants, he'll tell you. But even better, there's a real safety net with George; he gives you the liberty to make mistakes, but you know he'll protect you from being a complete jerk."

The ensuing camaraderie and team spirit that came from Troupe's camp had its effect on Clooney's men, with on-screen and off-screen friendships that continued throughout production. Notes the director, "They had plays they understood, so I could come out and step into a play and go, 'Okay, here's what we're doing.' You had to learn how to play differently, and you had to make it look mean-which is hard to do because you don't have any pads. The guys all had to learn the plays-how to grapple yank. But we also put them in hotel rooms all together, so it was like a dorm in Greenville. They all spent time together, went to movies, hung out."

Clooney had worked with several of the actors before, from Tommy Hinkley in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to Keith Loneker in Out of Sight. While helpful to have familiar faces around when you're being tackled or sacked during rain-soaked scenes, there was more than one occurrence when the director was hit in the back of the head with an errant knee or shoved into the unfortunately named "safety zone."

Of all the teammates, the only one who had professionally played the game was Loneker, who portrayed overgrown high school student and formidable force of nature Big Gus. An affable giant, Loneker played for Kansas University before going on to join the Los Angeles (subsequently St. Louis) Rams and the Atlanta Falcons. The trouble for the athlete was "unlearning" his 21st-century football skills to convincingly play in the style of the 1920s.

"The stances are different-who to block, how to hold the ball, everything," offers the actor. "Luckily, I've been gone from football long enough that I could still get in a bad stance. I've always played on the line, but dreamed of being a running back, so I was excited about that." Director Clooney had other plans, however, and the brick wall was used to pound anyone who came near him, including the ref. Laughs Loneker, "Unfortunately, I never got to touch the ball!"

John Krasinski, due to shooting schedules with The Office, came late to football camp. He adds, however, that this already bonded group of actors welcomed him immediately. "I was completely aware of being the black sheep, the last one to come to football camp," he recalls. "I felt like the evil stepbrother, but they were so incredibly open, very similar to their characters."

The camaraderie came in handy during filming of the final game, which involved a week of playing football in, alternately, heavy rain and blazing sun on a field saturated with buckets of mud. Once they were in it, they were never out of it. Every day, the Bulldogs donned uniforms caked in muck and proceeded to dive, slide, wrestle, run and slog around. A team of makeup artists-armed with buckets of mud-stood in boots on the sidelines and prepared to run in to reapply to faces, necks and arms for close-up shots.

With extra pounds of mud stuck to the players, it was as if suction cups were on their feet. The hated slop would even become a key prop in an elaborate Clooney prank on the football guys-read: a fake shooting schedule, greenscreen, night work and a kiddie pool full of muck. Ah, football.

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