“Just be yourself and you’ll come in first.... When you try your best, then you are the best. You’re a loser who’s a winner.”
Such is the message expressed throughout Speech & Debate, the forthcoming independent film from Sycamore Pictures based on the hit Off-Broadway play by Tony winner Stephen Karam.
The plot follows a ragtag trio of high-school oddballs, each with their own individual quirks, who band together to revitalize their now-defunct school speech and debate team, as a way to, as the film advertises, “find [their] voice and change the world.”
Fresh off the announcement of the film’s April 7 release date, the three main cast members—Sarah Steele, Austin McKenzie, and Liam James—in addition to Karam (who adapted his play for the screen), and producer Tom Rice gathered on the BroadwayCon MainStage to discuss the making of the film and the relevance of its message. Soon after the official trailer for the film hit YouTube, and the panel allowed us new insight into the anticipated release.
Karam was actually a member of his high school speech and debate team. Speaking of what specifically drew him to the club, he said, “I didn’t quite fit in in any particular specific way. I was a gay teenager who was into drama... but I wasn’t getting very many parts, and didn’t [consider myself] a very good actor. Speech and debate, I found, allowed me to be impossibly weird and I was accepted for all those eccentricities.”
McKenzie (who starred in the recent revival of Spring Awakening) found out about the project from Spring Awakening choreographer Spencer Liff, who also contributed work on the film. But Rice recalled the moment he and Skylar Astin spotted McKenzie: “We were actually at the opening night of Spring Awakening at the Wallis [Annenberg Center in L.A.] and looked at each other at intermission and said, ‘This is the guy!’” McKenzie also revealed on the panel that he was “very, very poor” at the time of the audition. “I was actually living out of my car in L.A.,” he said.
Steele has found her own richness in her character, Diwata. “When you’re a female [in the business], often you’re playing the straight sidekick to the funny male role. It’s just so delicious to be able to reverse that,” Steele said. “She was a strong character and so funny,” McKenzie added. “[I liked] playing a character that supported that great comedy. Not that he stood in the shadows, but he lifted that character up.” Praising Steele’s performance, Rice added that during a recent screening of the film, Diwata’s numbers received applause (a total of five times)—“Yes, they stopped and clapped during the movie, as if it were a show,” he said.
When they first arrived on set—before all the mutual admiration—the cast broke the ice through dance. Divulging only that it involves George Michael and a body stocking, BroadwayCon moderator Darren Criss nudged the cast to share stories about their experience shooting the film’s big musical number. “We all met two weeks prior to filming [to rehearse the number], which I had never experienced before,” said Liam James, who plays sidekick Solomon in the film. “In the process of doing two weeks of musical numbers, we got to know each other really, really well.” Steele added, “You feel very vulnerable to just meet people and immediately dance.” James added, “It really helped our chemistry, onscreen and off. [We] all felt more like a team.”
The cast can’t stress enough the importance of the film’s message. Karam mentioned that he specifically aimed to create characters who “push through their pain,” he said. “I think that’s what we do in our lives. [We] try to find some laughs and love.” He also said he’s been blessed with actors who live in their truth, stating, “All comedy, even when it’s zany, is based in truth.” James agreed: “When these [characters] initially come together it’s a little bit of kicking and screaming.... I just felt this gut feeling [for them] of ‘I should see this through.’ That’s their journey, and I think it’s a great lesson. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. When things get tough, just hang on and see it through.”
Speech & Debate will be released in theatres, VOD, and on iTunes on April 7th. Use the hashtag #speechdebatefilm on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.