Being in front of the camera doesn’t bother Coach Phillip Fulmer. Playing himself in a movie based on a book he liked sounded like an OK pastime to the former University of Tennessee coach.
So when the call came to appear in “The Blind Side,” the coach had an easy decision to make.
“It wasn’t a real hard decision from the standpoint of being able to go hang out with Sandra Bullock for four days,” coach Fulmer said.
Fulmer and Maryville actor David Dwyer are both featured in “The Blind Side,” a movie that opened at No. 2, then moved into the No. 1 slot in its third week, and has grossed more than $129 million since Nov. 20.
The film depicts the true story of NFL Baltimore Raven offensive lineman Michael Oher played by Quinton Aaron. Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, and Tim McGraw plays her husband, Sean, the well-off Memphis family who take Oher into their home when he is a homeless 17-year-old. Oher is enrolled in a private Christian school where the Tuohy children attend, and he is having a difficult time. The Tuohy family helps Oher, gets him a private tutor and encourages him in his football career.
Fulmer praised both Bullock and McGraw. “They were great. I didn’t work with Tim, but we met on set, and he was great,” the coach said. “They’re just normal people who have chosen a very high profile and interesting profession. I made that same choice, so we had that in common.
“Sandra Bullock made you feel comfortable. She wasn’t intimidating,” Fulmer added.
Dwyer echoed Fulmer’s praise of Bullock. “I think Sandra Bullock is a wonderful person and a great actor. Most everyone wants to know if she is really the nice person she seems to be. She is,” he said. “She’s very focused on what she does. She’s a go-getter.”
Fulmer’s role was a natural for him because he was heavily involved in recruiting the real-life Oher to come to UT to play football. Oher is recruited by a slew of Southeastern Conference football coaches and eventually signs with the University of Mississippi, where the Tuohy’s went to school. After a successful college career, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft.
Current and former Southeastern Conference football coaches Ed Orgeron, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz, Houston Nutt and Tommy Tuberville are also featured playing themselves in “The Blind Side.”
Fulmer said he was first approached about being in the movie in February. “I know Fred Smith who has Fed Ex and actually is owner of Alcon, the company that produced (the movie). He explained to me they had done the movies ‘Marley and Me’ and ‘P.S., I Love You,’ and they were experienced at what they do. I knew the book, and I was pleased to play myself,” he said.
The coach said being he wasn’t bothered by the pressure of being in front of the camera. “I’ve been around enormous pressure situations and that didn’t seem like a major hurdle to me. I didn’t know to what degree I would be involved,” he said. “I was pretty prominently involved in the recruiting process with the youngster so I figured I would have a reasonable part in the movie. As it turned out, I thought they did a great job of telling the story.”
Fulmer said the movie is a great story, a feel good story. “Being true makes it feel even better, and the fact they told it so well in film. Sometimes they change things from book to movie, but this was very well done,” he said.
The movie is written and directed by John Lee Hancock and based on the book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” by Michael Lewis.
Fulmer said his portions of the shoot happened in Atlanta the first two days of June and the last two days of June. “The first day was all the coaches, and we shot all that same day. It was a lot of fun to see those guys, and it was a lot of fun to see how a movie is done,” he said. “It’s a big-time business and very well organized.”
Fulmer said the coaches were able to ad-lib to a degree. “There was a framework they wanted you to stay in,” he said. “I tried to be comfortable during the practice field (scene) and when sitting in (the Tuohy) home. I was doing what I would normally do (when recruiting). It seemed to work for the situation.”
Fulmer said he knew of Oher at the beginning of his junior year at Briarcrest Christian School - known as Wingate Christian School in the movie. “I was working with a couple of high school coaches in getting him established better through some of the human welfare programs in the community,” the coach said. “It was a real blessing he was able to find the Tuohy’s. Even though we didn’t get the young man, it turned out as well as it could for him.”
When asked if there was any part of the movie that wasn’t as close to reality as Fulmer remembered, the coach said the part of the Tuohy’s young son, Sean Tuohy, Jr., known as “SJ”, was made more dramatic for entertainment purposes. “Little SJ was not at all that dominant in the real life. It made for a better part of the movie,” Fulmer said.
Fulmer said Oher was a rare college prospect who only comes along every once in a great while. “He had great athleticism and speed and work ethic and tremendous desire to be successful and be good. He was physically gifted and had those intangible things you look for in a young man when you are recruiting. He was a very, very special person,” the coach said. “He and I hit it off really well early and remain friends today.”
In the movie, Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, dislikes the University of Tennessee. “I think the Tuohy’s didn’t so much despise Tennessee as they felt threatened about Michael not going to Ole Miss,” Fulmer said. “I don’t think they disliked me as coach of Tennessee, but Ole Miss was 15 minutes away and was the school they both attended. We were sort of the enemy by default.”
Dwyer and Fulmer didn’t work together on the film but knew of each other.
“Yeah, he kind of looks like me,” Fulmer said of Dwyer. “We did a commercial together.”
Dwyer was returning from shooting commercials late this spring in Nashville for the Tennessee Lottery when he got a voice mail message from his Atlanta agent asking if he wanted to be part of the movie even though he hadn’t auditioned for it.
Dwyer said the movie was shot in two months in Atlanta because the state has a good incentive program for production companies making movies. Dwyer was scheduled to shoot the first and second week of June.
Dwyer said he played the character known as “The Milford Dad,” who has a lineman son who played against Oher for the Milford football team. In the movie, Dwyer’s character is a racist, and he and his son both make racist comments about Oher.
“My character is most assuredly taken to an extreme that would never fly in high school football today. What I was saying and my son in the movie was saying - you have to pump it up - Hollywoodize it - to get the story told quickly enough. You have to combine characters, streamline story lines,” he said. “You only have two hours to tell a fairly complex story, so you take artistic liberties. I represent all that’s wrong in the racial situation in the city at that time. The character is necessary. Surely it’s not my favorite, but I had a good time.”
The scene is a turning point in the movie. “One of funny things was, I was trying to figure out what my feelings would be because my son is wearing out Michael Ohr, and when Michael does figure it out, he drives him across the field and over the fence,” Dwyer said. “What I’m thinking is that my son is a Division I prospect, and this guy just man-handles him. I suddenly I realize I’m looking at the future of football in what have I just seen. That’s the video all the college coaches see.”
In that scene, Bullock’s character faces down Dwyer’s character. Because he knew their characters were going to be against each other, Dwyer said he saw Bullock on set and in make up, but he didn’t try to get to know her. “The cool thing is I had met her but we didn’t pal around, I didn’t want her to like me. It just makes it harder to treat me like the guy I’m portraying,” he said. “It’s easier to not hang out, and I did that on purpose.”
Originally Dwyer was hired for a week, meaning he would work for three or four days spread out over seven days. “I got down there on a Monday to a four-star hotel in Buckhead. The weather was funky, and I found out I was not working on Tuesday, but they wanted me at 4 o’clock on Wednesday to shoot on the field and in the stands,” he said.
Dwyer said he showed up looking scruffy with a long beard. “It was wild. You’ve got to bring the full pallet of hair, and they can trim it anyway they like,” he said. “They said ‘perfect’ when they saw me. I went in at 4 o’clock for make up and hair, they didn’t do anything.”
Because of the weather, the producers and director opted to film all night long. “We had a lot of extras, and we worked all night long. When it was dawn, we were done,” he said. “I shot one day - all night - and then I was done. We had a great time in Atlanta the rest of the time.”
Dwyer said he has never read the book the movie is based on, but he is excited about being in a movie that at least for one week was the No. 1 rated movie in the country. “It’s exciting to be in a No. 1 movie. I don’t think I’ve ever been in one, and I’ve been in close to 100,” he said. “They’re talking it might be on its way to being the highest-grossing football film ever. I’m grateful for chance to do it. I brought everything I had to it to help tell the story. It was a good story, and they told it well.”
Dwyer said Bullock was amazing. “She nailed the tough, wily, sexy Southern belle. Tim McGraw did a good job, and the kid who played Michal Oher was nice. He gave a good, understated performance. The guy that played SJ was a scene-stealer. There were host of extras. I was up with the extras all night long, and we had a good time,” he said.
Dwyer said he has been lucky to have been in several movies based on true stories, including “October Sky,” “We Are Marshall” and “Remember the Titans.”
The actor said there’s something about a true story. “If you do it right, and you give it what it needs, it’s better than just a fictional piece that comes out of someone’s imagination,” he said.
“We’re telling true stories that deserve to be told, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that we have somehow furthered humanity by bringing people together. That’s what a true story does to me.”