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"It was the roar of the crowd, something that I'll never forget."
"I don't think enough people knew about the game or cared about the game."
"Everything that's on film was absolutely the real deal. And everyone has scars to prove it."
"People never get tired of seeing a good sports film."
"My personal opinion is that there are not enough people to look up to."
"It's that camaraderie that you miss when you leave the game."
Richard Jenik  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
May 2005

It must be serendipity when a former All-American soccer star at Old Dominion University, leaves soccer to pursue a career in acting, only to stumble upon a soccer movie. And not just any soccer movie. "The Game of Their Lives" relays the story of the 1950 U.S. soccer team and their miraculous upset over England in the World Cup tournament. It's a pivotal game that changed the future of soccer in the United States and it's a film that will no doubt, change the future for Richard Jenik.

Born in the little town of Delanco, New Jersey, Richard starred in a school production of "The Big Bad Wolf" at the age of five, overcoming a speech impediment to develop performance fever. Says Jenik, "It was the roar of the crowd, something that I'll never forget." But acting proved a difficult talent to develop as his soccer skills took center stage instead. After all, it was his soccer skills that earned him a full scholarship to Old Dominion. Still, Jenik never forgot his true love. After graduation, he began performing in community theaters. And from community theater, he landed a supporting role on the popular daytime soap, "Port Charles." Later, he found parts on hit shows like "Home Improvement," "The District," and "7th Heaven." And in 2002, he arrived on the big screen in the suspenseful thriller, "Hidden Agenda."

Today, Richard lives in Los Angeles with his fianc?e, Allison Janney, the Emmy Award winning actress of "The West Wing." The two are busy juggling schedules while trying to plan a wedding for later this year. Yet, in spite of all the chaos, Richard seems calm and collected. In fact, he's so calm and so friendly, I feel like I've known him for years. Candid and personable, Richard Jenik is one class act.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

You went to Old Dominion and were an All-American soccer player. Very familiar with the game. But how familiar were you with the 1950 US World Cup team?

Well, I had gone to soccer camps, growing up in the South Jersey area, and Walter Bahr's name was always mentioned frequently. Because he's from the Pennsylvania area, he grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. So I always knew about the game. But never any details about it. I just remember hearing that the U.S. beat England in 1950. And you almost thought it wasn't real because there was nothing printed. Also, with my generation, I don't think enough people knew about the game or cared about the game. But I knew it was out there. Even though it wasn't something that we talked about.

In the film, you play Joe Maca, a Belgian defenseman. What can you tell me about him?

What I know most about Joe is what I heard from Walter Bahr. And from the other guys, Frank Borghi and Gino Pariani, when we were in St. Louis. I had a lot of discussions with them. And my communication with them was mostly along the lines of: 'Did he have an accent? What were his character traits?' Because I wanted to represent him to the best of my ability.

But it was so strange because so many guys remembered different things about his accent. Some said they could barely hear an accent and then Walter Bahr said he had a strong French accent. So I actually studied up on a French slash Belgian accent. But they decided, in the end and after talking with the other guys, 'let's not even go with an accent.'

So I focused on the other things. Joe was a very fun loving guy. He loved to sing songs, like a lot of soccer players do after games. And he would always sing this one song, 'Mimi,' a French song. He also loved to eat a lot. And they told me this funny story about how he chewed on this steak, but didn't eat the meat. He just sucked out all the juice! (laughs) Which was all-important to me because my role was a supporting role and I needed to grab on and be true to anything I could hang on to! So I concentrated on all those character traits that those guys remembered, the funny stories, and things like that.

As for soccer, I knew that he was really a hard-nosed midfielder that got pushed to the back. They wanted him on the team, but they already had their midfield lined up. So he got forced to left back.

How did you first become involved with the project?

I first became involved with the project when they were having an open call. And tons of actors turned out for this. My agent called me and said there's a soccer film and you're perfect for the role. But it's an open call and generally, I don't go out on open calls. Then I thought, I just kicked the ball around that weekend so why not go down and screw around a bit. And so I went down and while they were assessing people's soccer talents, I saw a friend of mine, Eric Wynalda, who I played against in college. And he said "you don't need to do this, just come and help us out with the tryouts." So, I just helped them assess the soccer talent.

From there, it was just a long process. The film got delayed a couple times. And they were constantly putting different people in different roles. First, they tried me out as Harry Keough and Walter Bahr as they were trying to put together their team. But it was really Eric Wynalda who played a big part in getting me involved with the film. And he did such a great job of putting the team together.

Our team was actually very good because all the guys they cast were very good actors. And some of the guys who weren't actors like John Harkes and Nelson Vargas - they were very good soccer players. So they put together quite a cast and team, which was evident when we beat several Brazilian teams that were very good. The Mandylor brothers, Gerry actually became a very good goaltender, Wes came into his own, and of course, playing with Harkes (who I played with on the New Jersey State team) again was a blast.

How realistic do you think the film is in depicting soccer?

I know from working on it, we were playing live soccer. And I think what you see is extremely real because we lived it. Guys were going down with knee injuries. And I had to have knee surgery after the movie for a slight meniscus tear. But while shooting, I refused to come out because I didn't want to have any kind of body double. There were no body doubles. And pride takes you a long way. You might want to go in there and say 'we can't get hurt and this and that,' but then you play against these other players who are playing live. And I knew for a fact that no one was going to put the ball between my legs. I wouldn't let it happen on film. And the pride factor would just come up with the guys as we came together as a team. So it's all live.

I mean, there were some nights when I couldn't walk. A lot of us were absolutely incapacitated. And what was really tough about it was that you'd shoot live soccer for 15 minutes. And then you'd cut, rearrange all the cameras and then go 110% for another 20 minutes. And then stop for 45 minutes and rearrange the cameras. And then go for 10 minutes. So, you know how that is on your muscles and shooting over a 10-hour day. A lot of guys were just gimping around at the end of it. But I knew, no doubt, that they had the best soccer film ever made on their hands just by how much effort the guys that played, the 11 players on that team put forth on the field.

It was amazing but it actually got us into a little bit of trouble as far as shooting goes because we became so good, we gelled so much as a team, that the people they cast on the opposite teams had a difficult time playing against us. Because in the games shot, we were supposed to be dominated. And in the England in Brazil game, we really had to give them the ball back when we would regain possession. So, we would actually pass it to the other team and let them come down on us again.

But you have to cast a good team in order for it to be realistic. Everything that's on film was absolutely the real deal. And everyone has scars to prove it.

The only really difficulty with the film was these period style shoes they had us in. Mark, they were awful! My God, when we were shooting in St. Louis they just hurt so much. They had us in these high top, leather shoes. And you know Anspaugh and those guys. They're very true to the period. And all I can say is that soccer players don't know how lucky they have it now. I don't even know how those guys ran up and down the field with their high top leather shoes and only six spikes on the bottom. But that was the hardest thing about it. It really was a dream piece for me and couldn't get much better.

This is an improbable story, one that's almost hard to believe if it were not true. I mean, before their World Cup qualifier, the U.S. lost seven international matches by a combined score of 45-2. With films like "Hoosiers," "The Rookie," "Miracle," even "The Game of Their Lives," do you think amazing sports stories have become too much of a clich??

Well, it's important that they really stick close to the story because in this story specifically, it's so outrageous that you really don't need to over-dramatize it at all. And that's where the sports enthusiast gets frustrated because they go to sports films and see things that are over-dramatized when they don't really need to be. Hollywood sometimes takes on things that are just too much, i.e. 'what do we need to do to bring the fans in here? What do we need to do bring more money to this film?' And I think that's what happens in some films.

But there are some great sports films out there. I just saw "Remember the Titans" and the Billy Bob Thornton movie, "Friday Night Lights." Any time anyone has played a sport, they've been involved in some kind of upset. I mean, when I was in college, we beat the number one team in the nation when I was a freshman - Evansville at Evansville. They hadn't been beaten at home in the last 34 games! And I remember they hit the cross bar at least 15 times! They dominated the game, but we got the goal and we won!

So, there really doesn't have to be a lot in the script to punch that up. On the other hand, you also have to attract different audiences as well. But I don't think it's getting clich?. If it's a good film, it's a good film. I've seen some bad sports films and I've seen some great sports films, but that goes along the line for every genre. People never get tired of seeing a good sports film.

Even with the miraculous World Cup run in 1950, the sport still failed to catch on in the States. In fact, it was almost 40 years before the U.S. was able to make another World Cup appearance. Why do you think soccer hasn't caught on in the States like it has the rest of the world?

My personal opinion is that there are not enough people to look up to. I mean, who were your idols? Who did you emulate when you were younger in your back yard? You would emulate your favorite baseball player, your favorite football player because that's what was on TV. Even though I grew up watching this thing called 'This Week in Germany' which was just sports highlights of German soccer, it wasn't enough. There just weren't enough people on TV that you could look up to, that you emulated.

And I think that's going to happen now with the MLS. It all started with people like Johnny Harkes and Tad Ramos with the league starting. I think kids can look up to them and then that's when it will happen. I know people have been saying it for a long time, that soccer is going to be the biggest thing. But if the MLS continues to make it, I think then indeed, within the next five years, kids will be emulating players that they see on TV and it will help immensely.

Do you still enjoy watching soccer today?

Yes, yes I do. But gosh, I wish I would have known then what I know now about the game. It's what I hope to eventually give back, once I have kids, and get involved in youth soccer a little more. Because it's really a beautiful game, a simple game. And I think people will appreciate that more in the States as the MLS gets better and better and people tune into it and the level continues to get better each year. I really do enjoy watching the MLS and they've made huge strides. And I'm really excited for them because there are many more professional opportunities that I didn't have when I graduated from college.

What is the one thing that you'll remember most from the making of "The Game of Their Lives?"

Just like in sports, the true friends that I got from making the movie. We were all in battle together and I'm best of friends with Louie and Costas Mandylor, Wes Bentley, and Gerry Butler. We all have remained tight and will remain tight. It's that camaraderie that you miss when you leave the game. And it really shows on screen, the heart that we put into the movie, especially the soccer games. That's what I will remember most from it.

It was such an amazing experience. St. Louis is a beautiful place and they were so nice to us there. I just love the Midwest. And we made some great friends. With most of the films you do or any time you work on a show, there are not a lot of times that you keep in touch with people once you leave. But we've all kept in touch, the people that live in L.A. And we see each other quite frequently.

Now, you've appeared on many television shows over the last few years from "Home Improvement" to "The District" to "7th Heaven." And now your film career is starting to pick up. What are your current and future aspirations?

Well, "Desperate Housewives" has come calling. And I'm going to be on an episode of that. And the future looks good for more episodes next year. Then, I have a movie premiering this June that I'm very proud of called "Our Very Own." It's a nice little piece that I actually worked on with my fianc?e.

But my current aspirations are just to continue to grow as an actor and create. I've created some of my own short films as a writer and an actor. And I have some parts that I'm up for now that we're trying to figure out when they're going to go. All in all, things look very good for before the end of the year. So I'm very, very excited.

Richard Jenik Interview (CONTINUED)

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