How Former Alabama Player Caleb Castille Came to Star in 'Woodlawn' Movie

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistOctober 14, 2015

Caleb Castille takes direction while filming the movie "Woodlawn" in Birmingham last fall.
Caleb Castille takes direction while filming the movie "Woodlawn" in Birmingham last fall.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

It was just three days before filming was set to begin when Caleb Castille got the phone call that would dramatically change his life.

It was from Andrew Erwin, who, along with his brother Jon, made up the creative force behind the movie Woodlawn, for which Castille had been hired to serve as the primary stunt double for the main character, football player Tony Nathan.

It was a role that Castille had auditioned for and thought he was perfect to play, especially since both he and Nathan were from Birmingham and had played for the University of Alabama, only to be rejected.

That is, until the phone rang and he heard: “I think you’re going to be our guy.”

“The next thing that you know I’m the lead star of this movie,” said Castille while getting ready for a whirlwind premiere weekend as the movie opens in theaters on Friday.

“It’s like winning the $50 million lottery for the third time,” he added with a laugh. “You know, happens all the time.”

Set in the early 1970s, the movie centers around a high school football team dealing with desegregation, but especially Nathan.

Jon Voight plays Paul W. "Bear" Bryant in the movie "Woodlawn."
Jon Voight plays Paul W. "Bear" Bryant in the movie "Woodlawn."Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

It’s about racial tensions, faith and perhaps most importantly, hope.

The cast includes Jon Voight playing Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, Sean Austin (who starred in the football classic Rudy), C. Thomas Howell, Sherri Shepherd and Nicholas Bishop.

It was also supposed to star up-and-coming British actor Osy Ikhile, whose film credits include Victim, School Without Walls and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. He had been cast to play the part Castille coveted.

“I just fell in love with the characters and the story, it was something that was purposeful, life’s giving, role,” Castille said. “You know there’s not tons of that in Hollywood so I was all over it.”

If you’re a Crimson Tide fan, you already know the Castille name, which is one of the most heralded in program history. Caleb’s father, Jeremiah, was an All-American defensive back and the most valuable player of Bryant’s last game at the Liberty Bowl. The community leader remains involved with the team and UA’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Non-Alabama fans may recognize Jeremiah from his NFL days, when he played five seasons for Tampa Bay before being traded to Denver. During the 1987 AFC Championship Game, he stripped the ball away from Cleveland running back Earnest Byner on the play known as “The Fumble.”

Caleb’s brothers, Tim and Simeon, preceded him at Alabama and went on to play professionally as well. Caleb, though, felt a different calling. After wanting to attend UCLA, he walked onto the Crimson Tide as a defensive back and was on the 2011 and 2012 national-championship teams, only to give up football to pursue his acting dreams.

Before Woodlawn came along, he had mostly done some commercials and music videos and had been a fitness and apparel model. His agent turned him on to the project, and Castille went all-out for the Nathan role, growing his hair out and working out to look like a football player again.

Although disappointed at not landing the lead, he attended the tryouts for extras who would primarily be used for the football scenes.

“By the Grace of God I was able to crush that,” said Castille, who was hired to wear Nathan’s No. 22 until Ikhile had visa problems and other issues crop up.

Castille was beyond excited but, in a way, not surprised. Some of that had to do with the Nathan role always feeling right to him, along with his faith and years of seeing inexplicable things fall into place. Part of it came from his football experience with the Crimson Tide.

“If you’re a backup quarterback you prepare as if you’re the starting quarterback, and if that guy goes down you sub into the game,” he said. “You’re not really surprised, but you step into that situation and you’re ready.

“I think I learned that from Coach [Nick] Saban.”

To complete the perfect scenario, Castille got to work in his hometown and had a lot of support from the cast and crew. The football sequences were filmed at Hueytown's Gilmore-Vines Stadium, Berry Middle School and one of the places where his father used to wear crimson and white, Legion Field.

The university had no direct involvement in the film, but the football team was privileged to see an advance showing starring one of their former teammates.

“I could play football standing on my head,” Castille said. “The drama part was the challenge for me. An honest performance was what I wanted to bring to the table.

“When my father watched it for the first time he said that he got lost in the movie and about 10 minutes into the film he wasn’t looking at me and seeing his son on the screen. He got into the movie to the point that he was thinking of me as Tony Nathan. That sealed it for me, that’s exactly what I wanted people to do.”

It’s the ultimate compliment for an actor, although here’s another that’s pretty close:

“I thought he did an outstanding job,” Nathan said.

Tony Nathan was the Dolphins' starting running back in Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XIX.
Tony Nathan was the Dolphins' starting running back in Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XIX.Uncredited/Associated Press

Previously, the high school part of Nathan’s life was probably the least known outside of Alabama, where the 1974 Woodlawn-Banks showdown depicted in the movie still holds the attendance record for a state high school game (42,000).

One of the key players on the Crimson Tide’s 1978 national-championship team, Nathan went on to play in two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins, and recently published the book: Touchdown Tony: Running With a Purpose.

Although the film did take a few liberties, and Nathan said it was a little “weird” to be watching a movie and suddenly realize the characters were talking about you, Nathan was pleased with its depiction.

“I was very impressed with the way they did it, and it was pretty much true to what had happened,” he said. “It moved me.”

Which was the whole point, and it's why Castille is especially proud to have his name attached to the movie.

“It was funny, they actually bought a $9,000 wig for the guy who they had initially hired,” he said. “Never used it.”

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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