Inspiring Athletes

Friday Feature: Ryan Merriman

Some of the hardest films to watch are those that deal with real life tragedies. Such is the case with the new film The 5th Quarter starring Aidan Quinn, Andie MacDowell and Ryan Merriman. The 5th Quarter tells the true story of the Abbate family and how their teenage son Luke’s untimely death inspired the Wake Forest University football program to accomplish the unthinkable.

Check out the movie trailer below:

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Ryan Merriman is best known for his roles in such movies as Final Destination 3, The Ring Two, Home of the Giants and The Deep End of the Ocean as well as his current role in the TV show “Pretty Little Liars.” As one of the lead actors in The 5th Quarter, Merriman plays former Wake Forest football player Jon Abbate. In an interview with Inspiring Athletes, he talks about his Oklahoma roots, why Hollywood hasn’t changed him, and how being a part of this film had a profound impact on his outlook on life:

Bonham: Tell me a little bit about your new movie The 5th Quarter.

Merriman: It’s a football movie but really it’s a story about the Abbate family and the loss of this son and how they come back from it. Then it switches to the football thing. It’s a good old Rudy kind of football movie. But our film dives into a more emotional thing that comes with the loss of a son. My character Jon (Abbate) really goes to a pretty bad place. He deals with alcoholism. He’s not in a good place, but he overcomes it through his faith and through his family and coaches and teammates. He also gets with a trainer who changes everything for him. This trainer puts him on a different kind of workout using boxing and circuit training. It switched it up for him and when he came back, he changes his number to #5 to honor his brother.

Bonham: Talk about the unusual circumstances that surrounded Jon’s team at Wake Forest.

Actor Ryan Merriman

Merriman: That year, Wake Forest was ranked last. They weren’t even supposed to win a game in 2006. Within the first couple of games, their starting quarterback got hurt and then the starting tailback got hurt. Jon really fought through that. His parents sat in seats four and five in the fifth row. It was all about playing for two. That’s what my trainer (Steve) Uria (who played himself in the movie) told me. You’ve got to play for you and for Luke. Every fourth quarter, Jon would hold up five fingers along with his mom and dad. They kept winning in these weird ways like punt returns or interceptions or blocked field goals. Towards the middle of the season, the teammates started holding up five fingers for Luke. Towards the end of the year when they went to the ACC Championship, every one in the stadium was holding up five fingers for Luke. It was pretty amazing. The director (Rick Bieber) got all of the rights to the ESPN footage so a lot of the game footage is the actual players and the actual fans honoring the Abbate family at that moment.

Bonham: What did you learn about Wake Forest football and how a smaller school competes against such difficult competition in a tough conference like the ACC?

Merriman: The team was more of a team. It wasn’t some juggernaut. They really depended on each other. They had meetings and talked it out with parents each week about what was best for the team and what was best for the school. Everybody is personally involved over at Wake Forest and they were all personally involved in making the film. We got to use their facilities. We used the field. We shot some footage during halftime of the games. It was a very special project and I think it’s going to do really well.

Bonham: Having been in a couple of basketball movies, how did you prepare differently for your role as a big time college football athlete?

Merriman: I was actually training for a rugby film prior to this, which worked out perfectly. God works in mysterious ways I guess. That fell through and then I got this audition and I was already in pretty good shape. I packed on about 10, 15 pounds and they put me through it. I had a trainer every day, a meal plan and I was lifting big. You’ll see it in the movie. I got pretty darn big. It was fun. I ate a lot of steak and drank a lot of Guinness.

Bonham: How did vicariously living out the Abbate family’s tragic circumstances inspire you?

Merriman: We tried to honor their story. It was tough for them to see it, but it was also therapeutic in some ways. I sat with Jon in North Carolina and it was the first time he’d watched the whole thing. The first 20 minutes of it are so hard (to watch). It’s hard on everybody. It’s the car accident, the funeral, everything. It put life in perspective for me. When you meet a family that’s been touched by something so terrible, you kind of step back for a minute. You call your mom and dad and tell them you love them. That’s how I felt. I got a richer outlook on life after working with them and meeting them. But I didn’t want to know them too well when I was working. I wanted to be my own. Rick knew the family but I didn’t really hang out with Jon that much when we were working. It can get confusing. They’re still affected. It just happened in ’06. There’s not a day that goes by that they don’t think about Luke and I don’t know if there ever will be.

Bonham: What did you take away from the family’s unshakeable faith in God?

Merriman: This kind of tragedy can fracture a family’s faith. But the mom (Maryanne Abbate) had her Bible and her preacher there. The first thing she did in the hospital room when (Luke) was in a coma was start praying for him and reading his favorite passages. My character took a different route. The family leaned on their faith but my character rebelled a little bit. But then he comes back through the love of the mother and the father. Jon did go to a dark place. That’s what makes the movie so good. It’s real.

Bonham: Some filmmakers succumb to the temptation of watering down a true story’s faith element. Are you pleased that this didn’t happen in your film?

Merriman: The family had a huge part in this and that’s what Rick wanted. The story was so rich as it was. There was no need to Hollywood it or sugarcoat it. That’s what we all tried to do. And with some of the stuff we did, we were like, “Did they really do this?” Yeah. They sat in this room for 24 hours straight and prayed. We were like, “Wow! That’s crazy.”

Bonham: So this is a fairly accurate portrayal?

Merriman: Yes. Definitely. I would say 98 percent of it.

Bonham: What was it like working with seasoned actors like Andie MacDowell and Aidan Quinn?

Merriman: It was great. It was a breath of fresh air. I could just walk in and do the work. Andie is so sweet and so beautiful. She’s such a great person. Aidan has always been someone that I’ve looked up to. I know his work and he’s worked with the best. That was really cool. We hit it off really well. We’re both big golfers. When we weren’t working, we were doing the father and son thing on the town. I spent more time with Aidan than anybody on the whole crew. We’d go out to eat or walk around downtown. If we had a free couple of hours, we’d go play some golf. We really formed a friendship that I’ll probably have forever.

Bonham: Did your Southwest roots and strong family background help you dive into this role?

Merriman: Of course. I think it was definitely a perfect role for me. I come from a good family. I come from a faith-based family. I played football growing up in junior high and high school. That gave me a step ahead of everybody else. If I was some surfer kid from Malibu with a single father, it might not have worked out so well. But it was definitely a good place for me to be.

Bonham: Why do you come back home to Choctaw, Okla., so often?

Merriman portrays Jon Abbate in The 5th Quarter

Merriman: It’s what makes me happy. I live out there but I love coming home. I love all my friends here. My family is here. My dogs are here. I come home once a month probably. It’s kind of sad actually (laughs). I’m like a little kid. “Mom, I miss home. I miss the dogs.” I still stay in my old room or I stay with a buddy. Now I’m grown up and I know who I am in the world, but living here is what’s helped me stay true to who I am. I graduated from public high school. I went to the prom. I did it all. But I also worked on 30-million dollar movies with roller coasters and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s been a very interesting and blessed life for sure. I think a big part is that I was normal. When I wasn’t working I was cutting down trees on my dad’s land and going fishing with my buddies.

Bonham: On the flip side, is there a danger to getting too caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle?

Merriman: I guess it all depends on how you’re brought up. Some people just like to chase that stuff and I could care less I guess. That’s pretty much it. And everybody that meets me is like, “You’re like a real person” and I’m like, “Yeah!”

Bonham: Have you had people try to convince you otherwise, that you should buy into the Hollywood thing more than you do?

Merriman: I’ll tell you how I feel and anybody that knows me knows that you’re going to know who I am and what I’m about within about 10 minutes. A lot of people either figure that out real quick or they know not to even bother with it.

Bonham: So that laid back approach isn’t hindering your career?

Merriman: No, no, no. I’m all good. I’m having a great time. I’m hustling and doing little projects here and there. The TV show is doing really well and I’m just waiting for the next big one. That’s just how life goes.

Bonham: You go back and forth between television and film quite regularly. That used to be pretty unusual but it’s obviously working well for you.

Merriman: That line got washed away a couple years ago. When the economy dropped, the stability of TV really attracted a lot of film actors. It just changed. Now there are no lines. Heck, I just did a “Funny Or Die” with some big actors. It’s all about doing work, being creative and staying true to who you are and having fun. That’s what us actors are all about.

Next week on Inspiring Athletes: the Inspirational Sports Report, interviews with Albert Pujols and Darrell Waltrip, a special tribute to John Wooden and much more!

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