(Featured image courtesy of Josh Fritz)
In Depression-era America, camaraderie and hope was pretty hard to come by. However, pockets of optimism were still to be found in unexpected places all across the country, and one of those places was the Masonic Home and School of Texas, an orphanage for young boys. During the 1930s and 1940s, the school’s football team, known as the Mighty Mites, began to capture the hearts of people all across America as they exhibited the tenacity of the human spirit in a dark time. The team has become the basis of the new sports film 12 Mighty Orphans.
Leading the titular orphans in their victories both on and off the field is quarterback Wheatie, played by Slade Monroe. TV Wasteland had the opportunity to speak with Monroe about his first time filming on a professional set, the team-building that occurred off screen as well as on, and his experiences as a college student in the industry.
Growing up, Monroe was a self-described “socially awkward dude,” without a lot of confidence in himself, and used acting as a way to compensate for any possible uncomfortableness, joking that “forced chemistry is better than no chemistry at all.” The seed was planted in a production of Charlotte’s Web (with Monroe starring as Wilbur the pig), and soon, the hobby that started out as a way to build up his self-assurance developed into a deeper love of performing. The Lord of the Rings franchise has always been a favorite of his, with both its gorgeous visual landscape and ensemble cast still being a source of inspiration to this day, especially after his annual rewatch marathons (where the extended versions of every film are always required). However, “it wasn’t until I was eighteen when I decided to go for it professionally.”
Right after starting his first semester of college at Chapman University, where he is earning a BFA in Screen Acting, Monroe booked the role of Wheatie in 12 Mighty Orphans. Nicknamed after the record-breaking nine bowls of Wheaties he ate as a child in a competition at his orphanage, the character becomes the quarterback of the Mighty Mites. “He’s a very stout person in personality. That being said, he’s got an extreme sweet spot for his fellow orphans.” With one of the longest residences in the Fort Worth orphanage, his “enhanced maturity” made him a sort of older brother figure to the rest of the team. “He’s always willing to be the first in defense.”
Monroe named 12 Mighty Orphans as the first script he’d ever read where immediately after finishing, he thought to himself, “I need this.” The fact that he grew up in a town not far from the Forth Worth setting of the film was likely a factor, but that personal connection was only a part of the flame that the heartwarming story lit inside him. “Being a native Texan… I definitely felt like there was a pressure to get this right.” A strong family orientation, being a protector at heart, and that classic Southern hospitality identified Wheatie as “a character that holds a lot of Texan values” to Monroe. Even though he did feel that pressure to live up to what he knew the character could be, he felt confident that he knew how to get the job done correctly, along with his seven years of football experience as an added bonus. Academic scheduling conflicts forced Monroe to drop the sport at the beginning of high school when he realized that theater was his true passion, but he found 12 Mighty Orphans as a lucky full circle moment that brought him back to his roots.
Digging into the original Jim Dent book that inspired the film, Monroe took a look into Wheatie’s highest and lowest points, and once that groundwork had been laid, he “filled in the blanks with everyone [he] knew from the locker rooms,” along with his own personal experiences. “As an actor, it’s up to me to be adaptable.” Even with a role that’s so close to home (literally and figuratively), not everything is so relatable or comes quite so easily, but Monroe has found that a strong relationship with the director is the best way to reach that full embodiment of the character. “One of the best qualities about [Ty Roberts] as a director is that he’s always willing to receive ideas, but he’s also just as willing to give ideas.” In the moments that didn’t feel completely natural, Monroe and Roberts collaborated on ideas on how to play with scenes to find the sweet spot for each moment. “Forget what you had as a preconceived notion and just dive into it with a fresh new mindset.” As Monroe’s first professional set, 12 Mighty Orphans felt like “a totally different beast” than the stage of his local high school, namely due to the structure of the filming process. The biggest obstacle he encountered was “coming to the realization that I really did have to analyze the character and understand where his mentality was on a day-to-day basis.” Monroe had to develop a holistic understanding of Wheatie’s entire arc in a short amount of time and be prepared to drop into any point of that journey on any day.
To freshen up on their sports skills and build a genuine sense of camaraderie behind the scenes, the cast of the movie enrolled in a two-week football boot camp. When asked about his experience during that team-building exercise, Monroe immediately began highlighting how much pure fun that time was. Screenwriter Lane Garrison admitted to Monroe that the group’s knowledge of the sport (or lack thereof) worried him at first, but as the “dynamic duo” of coach T.J. Troup and assistant Josh Moody got them into a groove, they became quite the formidable team. “On screen, you’re going to be seeing a chemistry and a camaraderie that’s very legit, because we had to form a football team from scratch, basically just like these kids did.” The cast came out of the camp having not only improved as players but having built strong, lasting friendships that naturally bleed through in the movie.
In his ongoing college education, Monroe is focusing on developing his talents and challenging his acting habits with his professors “to form [himself] into a more comfortable actor on screen.” His schooling has helped him to become more versatile and adaptable to any director or cast member’s style he might end up working with. To other students looking for their own industry opportunities, he underscores the importance of “surrounding yourself with the right people,” and not just in a networking way. “If you want to be successful… you have to surround yourself with people who want you to be successful. That comes from genuine friendships.” He also highlighted the difference between people who will tell you what you need to hear and what you want to hear, identifying that peers and mentors of the former category are the best connections to make.
Monroe is currently searching for the perfect role to follow up Wheatie (his dream role would look something like Breaking Bad’s Walter White), and he feels that “the blocks are starting to align” in terms of his career and academic life. He is excited to return to the on-campus college experience after missing the majority of pre-COVID teaching due to filming. “Going out and everywhere being a ghost town is a little hard on the psyche, so I’m most excited for the vibrance of life.”
You can see Slade Monroe and the rest of the Mighty Mites in theaters right now in 12 Mighty Orphans, currently playing in theaters nationwide.