WONDERKID: Director and star discuss film about gay footballer
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 07/11/16 2:05pm
The trailer has been released for a new short film called 'WONDERKID' which focuses on a young professional footballer whose sexuality is threatening to alienate him from the game he loves.
Created and directed by Rhys Chapman and starring Chris Mason in the lead role, 'WONDERKID' has won support from a host of different organisations, including the Football Association, the Premier League, adidas and Sky Sports, with commentator Martin Tyler, pundit Alan Smith and reporters Geoff Shreeves and Guy Havord lending their voices to the film.
The full 'WONDERKID' film is set to be released online in the coming months.
We spoke to Chapman, Mason, Tyler and Shreeves to learn more about the project and its message...
Football v Homophobia
Over 5000 players make up the combined membership of the PFAs in England and Scotland. Any that are gay might well already be out to their team-mates, but for whatever reason, they are not out in public. Rightly, that's a personal decision for them - the wider question for the rest of football is whether we're sympathetic enough to players who may be struggling with this issue.
"We sometimes see footballers as objects that are there for our entertainment, but we forget that they are humans with real life problems," says Mason. That desire to empathise with a gay footballer and see the issue from their perspective lies at the heart of 'WONDERKID'.
For young players making their way up the pro ranks, it's even more important to be supportive. The 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles showed that LGB self-identified individuals make up an estimated 7% of the 16 to 24-year old population in the UK, while the 2014 Youth Chances Survey found that 44% of young LGBT people from the same age range had considered suicide.
Chapman believes "the main reason that players do not feel safe enough to come out is out of fear of the reaction of the fans." The figures back up that fear - the most recent Kick It Out survey published in March 2014 recorded 39% of players as having witnessed homophobic abuse in stadiums. Meanwhile, 26% of players surveyed said they had witnessed such abuse on the training ground or in the dressing room.
Why a short film format?
Chapman, a 27-year-old film-maker from East Anglia, has been working on the project for the last three years. With a determination to educate as well as entertain, he knew a short film could show a different perspective and increase awareness.
"Because we don't know of any gay footballers currently playing in the UK, people wouldn't necessarily understand the trauma suffered by someone in that environment," he said. "So we've created an authentic and emotional portrayal of a fictional gay footballer at the top of the game, to shine a light on this subject and hopefully create a great deal of compassion towards any gay footballers."
Getting the team together
Chapman found his own rising talent in the form of lead actor Mason, a 24-year-old Liverpudlian (and big Everton fan) who was recently seen playing a Kray twins' cousin in the crime thriller Legend. The 'WONDERKID' role had instant appeal to him.
"As an actor, it's always important but quite rare to be able to be a part of something that has such a strong message and the ability to help change opinions," he said. "The script is fantastic and the complexity of the character is something I wanted to take on.
"Also, as a massive football fan and a regular matchgoer, I have sadly witnessed homophobia in the stands and it's something I'm proud to stand up against."
Providing voiceovers to help tell the story of WONDERKID's journey is Shreeves, who feels the film excels on a technical level too.
"I went to a studio in Soho to record the parts and was amazed by the quality of the film, especially the action sequences shot at Vicarage Road. A lot of football films fall down on their action sequences, but these are really impressive.
"When I saw the quality of the edit, I was really enthused about it as a football film, even regardless of the content, which is a powerful and relevant narrative."
With Shreeves suitably enthused, a call went in to 'The Voice of Football', Martin Tyler...
"Geoff asked if I'd be interested," explained Tyler. "Then the director Rhys rang up and said: "I'm a friend of Geoff Shreeves." I told him that was the first time anyone had ever started a conversation by saying that! Haha!
"My own son Adam is a young film-maker and I've seen him swim against the tide to get things done, so I wanted to help Rhys swim with the tide. I was more than happy to offer my services to do some commentary along with Alan Smith and Geoff - who's a good friend of mine really!
"The theme is laudable and thought-provoking, and I was only too pleased to support the venture."
The central character
While striving for authenticity on the pitch, Chapman knew that WONDERKID himself - a unique talent making fast strides, via a transfer to a bigger club and international recognition - had to strike a positive chord with a wide audience.
"We've created an inspiring character, that knows he is gay, accepts he is gay and wants to come out," explained Chapman, "but it's his profession that's holding him back.
"We've made the character very likeable, and he's relatable to a straight audience too. You want him to succeed."
WONDERKID's complex relationship with his friend and agent Johnny helps drive the story, while the reactions of team-mates and fans also provide our hero with challenges.
"This character is strong and wants to stand up to the adversity," adds Mason. "He believes that everyone deserves the chance to be themselves."
A real life WONDERKID?
The experiences of Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzlsperger in English football (both came out only after retiring, with Rogers subsequently returning to the game with great success at LA Galaxy) suggest that at some level in the UK professional game, a player could be going through a similar internal struggle to that of WONDERKID in the film.
"If enough people see the film, then it will go a long way in making the public realise that it is in fact a simple solution - it's in our own hands to make footballers feel safe enough to come out," says Chapman.
"The core message of this film is that it is OK to be yourself. Everyone has a unique personality, but many will choose to fit in instead of being themselves."
Tyler agrees that the film helps reinforce a message of acceptance that will provide reassurance for gay footballers: "It addresses an important issue and the more that issue is addressed, the easier it will be for it to happen in real life."
And when it does? "You'd hope people would be accepting and that sexual orientation should have no bearing on being a footballer," adds Mason. "Some fans and people on social media can be quite cruel to footballers already though. I hope the film can help people be that little bit more understanding."
Chapman is hopeful too, particularly with regards to the media. "I'd urge them to consider that any footballers going through this may be dealing with great anxiety - but I also think that if any players do come out, there would be overwhelming support from the media."
Football for everyone
Chapman wants to encourage those who watch WONDERKID to seek out more information on the issues they see in the film, with various organisations ready to offer guidance and advice.
"We hope that WONDERKID can act as a platform for the good work being done by people like Football v Homophobia, the Gay Football Supporters' Network, LGBT-friendly football team Soho FC, the Just A Ball Game? campaign, Pride In Football and the wider LGBT fan movement, to get the attention they deserve."
Beyond the UK, Chapman is also conscious of the power of football to make a difference around the world. "The Premier League has a global audience of 450m, many of whom are from countries where being gay is illegal and can even lead to death," he says.
"If enough people around the world see this film and football makes this change, we can give LGBT people in less fortunate countries an inspiring role model, to let them know that they're OK and give them strength to carry on."