Filming Olympic Dreams was 'unlike anything I've ever experienced before,' the actor says.
You may think you know the Olympics, but it turns out there’s a whole other world happening behind the scenes at the games that we’ve never seen before. That is, until now.
Olympic Dreams (in theaters now) is the first feature film ever shot on location at the Olympics — at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, to be exact — and writer-director Jeremy Teicher and stars Nick Kroll and Alexi Pappas were there in athletes’ village to capture a never-before-seen look at the games and the people whose entire lives are shaped by them in an intimate and unexpected love story.
Pappas, a real-life Olympian, plays Penelope, a first-time Olympian and introverted cross-country skier who, after finishing her event early in the games, finds herself spending time in athletes’ village with a gregarious and outgoing volunteer dentist, Ezra (Kroll). Both are at important crossroads in their lives, and their connection couldn’t have come at a more complicated — or perhaps perfect — time.
“Alexi was a summer Olympian and competed in Rio, and she and Jeremy got this grant from the Olympic committee, like an artists-in-residence grant,” Kroll tells EW of how they pulled off making the scripted feature Olympic Dreams. “I was very much trusting in their ability to deliver on what they were saying, which was they were going to have access to all these things. It was a bit of a blind faith that I trusted them, and they did it.”
Below, Kroll breaks down what it was like filming at the Olympics, the challenges they faced as a three-person film crew, how being at the Olympics has changed his entire perspective on the games, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like filming a movie at the Olympics, and in the athletes’ village?
NICK KROLL: We had no crew, it was just the three of us. Jeremy was the cameraman and sound guy, Alexi and I were responsible for our own makeup and wardrobe. We really had to do everything ourselves because the Olympics would only grant us three passes to everything. We had to fight through every obstacle that presented itself to us and think a lot on the fly and push our way into a lot of spaces that people weren’t sure whether we were allowed to film there, and we would just start. All the stuff in the dentist’s office, that’s the actual dentist’s office at the Olympics. It was hustling and taking a lot of chances and doing whatever we could to tell the story we wanted to tell.
What kinds of challenges or benefits did you encounter filming while the actual games were happening all around you?
We were actually sitting in the dining hall rather than on sets, and everyone around us was going about their actual day. I was wearing one of the jackets that actual volunteers at the games were wearing, so many times while we were shooting someone would come up to me and ask for directions. There are moments in the movie where we’re in the middle of having this very dramatic scene and all of a sudden someone will be like, “How do I get to the bus terminal?” That’s all real moments, we didn’t have extras, and that helped me feel more like the character. That’s so different from other movies where you have hair and makeup touching you up before a scene and everyone’s all focused on you and the director yells for everyone to be quiet and it starts rolling and it’s very stop-and-start. The very low-fi run-and-gun aspects of this movie made it easier to really feel like these characters in this world.
What was it like shooting all those scenes where your characters are interacting with other athletes?
I play a volunteer dentist in the movie, so you see me interviewing a bunch of athletes while I’m giving them dental exams, and I’m not a dentist. I watched one YouTube video of how to give a dental exam and really relied on that to be as authentic as possible, giving TMJ and thyroid cancer exams. It felt very silly, but I was holding these very pointy dental equipment pieces in athletes’ mouths who were about to compete in the actual Olympics. So I was like, please don’t maim someone or pop someone’s tooth out or scrape their tongue the day they’re competing in a gold medal event.
Wow, that’s a lot of pressure.
Did you ever try to film a scene but only to be interrupted by the actual games?
We would go to events and shoot during pair skating events and the skeleton and luge stuff. We had free rein to shoot during rehearsals. We shot during cross-country events. It was more shooting out in the world where everyone was living their lives at the Olympics that we wanted to capture, showing how everyone lives at the Olympics. We’re telling this smaller love story set within that world.
How did the experience impact your perspective on the games?
It had a tremendous effect on me. Generally people think of the Olympics as all we see are the races and events, and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. What you don’t realize is there are all these moments in between. Some are boring, some are exciting, some are romantic, because there are all these people living together in athletes’ village. The story we’re telling is what happened to Alexi in real life: You spend your whole life training for this thing and you compete and you’ve done it. Now what? A lot of athletes don’t think about what happens once you’ve competed. You’ve spent your whole living worrying about this one event, so what do you do now? We wanted to speak to that, the moments in between, being in the lounge or getting out of Olympic Village and exploring the city you’re at, all the time you’ve spent in the dining hall or parties in the rooms, getting your hair done, going to the doctor — all of those things that are part of the Olympics experience that you don’t get to see because the Olympics is very mindful of what they allow access to for people to see.
It’s rare to see a movie about the Olympics telling a small, personal, human story about connection and life, as opposed to some huge victory or defeat.
Yeah, not only are they not having this incredible victory, they’re also not having the total disappointment and shame of being the favorite and losing. It’s really this in-between that most athletes experience there. As we spent time there we hung out with actual Olympians, and the last night we went out with a group of skiers and I was asking them about their games. There were so many that had a similar experience to Penelope in the movie: They had a personal best or did well but didn’t win, and now they don’t know what they’re supposed to with the rest of their life. And there are all these other volunteers who spend so much time at the Olympics, like doctors, chiropractors, dentists, all because they just love the games so much and want to be there and help these athletes in any way they can. Nobody had really heard that story before, and it felt like a great opportunity to speak to all the different versions of people’s experiences who are actually at these games and what their lives are like and how people connect there.
What surprised you most about what life is actually like at the Olympics?
The dining hall is open 24 hours a day and there is constantly food there, because people are on such different schedules and constantly competing and need to eat after or before their events. There are so few passes given out to each country for the Olympic Village — like, some only get like six passes and if their country’s president comes, that’s one of the passes. These people in the village, it’s really isolating for the athletes and their coaches and the doctors and dentists and volunteers. I was so struck by that. [Pauses] And I was so cold there. I was freezing cold shooting that movie.
What areas of the Olympics did you love visiting or shooting at the most?
We got to go to the opening ceremony and we were in the holding pen for all the athletes getting ready to go into the Olympic Stadium. We got to shoot in there, and it’s like 1,000 athletes from countries all around the world and they’re meeting each other and taking pictures with each other. It’s their opportunity to be together. And we were walking up with the Americans as they walked out, and I realized they were about to walk out to the opening ceremony in front of a billion people around the world. There was something about that experience that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It was so exciting. There was something so special about that moment I’ll never forget.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.