It’s an early Saturday morning in Santa Monica, and 22 soccer players, half of them in red shirts, the other half in white, race down a field of artificial turf. The clusters of men, most of them in their thirties and forties, huff and pass their way toward the white team’s goal, shouting encouragement and venting exasperation to their teammates. A defensive midfielder in a white shirt with long dreadlocks rushes to guard his team’s goal, turning just in time to block the red team’s shot—with his face. After a wince, he shakes it off and starts running again. “Balls are going to hit you in the head!” the shirtless
referee with an Australian accent yells out to him. “Welcome to English football!” To the average bystander, these guys look like the kind of cool dude collective assembling all over the Westside on a summer weekend. But to a nosy entertainment reporter (like me), they’re recognizable as some of the hardest-working screenwriters, directors, and producers in town—nearly all of them Brits who left the United Kingdom to establish successful careers in show business yet yearn for that connection to home: the footie match.
In 2010, director Rupert Wyatt (best known for 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes) invited a handful of his fellow transplants, including actor Jamie Harris (who appeared in that film), an up-and-coming actor and director named Russell Simpson, and film and TV director Phil Traill (The Middle), to kick a ball around as they’d done in their school days. Within a few years word spread among the small group of movie industry mates, and the loose band expanded into a 90-plus crew that was cheekily dubbed the Untitled Football Project, with an e-mail list of soccer aficionados from the entertainment realm and beyond.
That defensive midfielder who got beaned in the face, for instance, is American film executive Franklin Leonard, creator of the Black List, an online database of unproduced screenplays in need of financing. Leonard joined the soccer team in 2011 and shows up just about every weekend to derive the kind of swift satisfaction he seldom does from his day job. “Filmmaking requires an extraordinary amount of capital to do anything,” he says. “Soccer is the diametric opposite of that—it’s the respite to my Hollywood life.”
The Untitled Football Project is also the antidote to Hollywood’s delicate hierarchy. “What you do from Monday to Friday has zero relevance in the context of the game and the social relationships,” says Leonard. “It’s very rare in any social context in this industry that stuff doesn’t impede on relationships.”
For director Wyatt, the soccer matches allow him to enjoy a role unlike that on a film set. “I don’t have to be in charge here,” he says over a postgame lunch. “In the rest of our lives—if we’re lucky enough to be in a position to call certain shots—there’s something wonderful about being kept in order. But I can also let my hair down, if I had any.”
Hollywood has a long history of famous people hosting amateur sports events as a VIP release valve. Every Sunday he’s in town, comedian Garry Shandling puts together a basketball game on his home court in Mandeville Canyon, where folks like David Duchovny, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Nealon, Judd Apatow, and Billy Crystal go to shoot hoops, not talk shop. Bill Maher, who used to play three-on-three at Shandling’s place, now hosts his own pickup game on his Coldwater Canyon property. For 22 years Jerry Bruckheimer has sponsored a Sunday-night hockey match at the Los Angeles Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo. Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and producer Barry Josephson are regular attendees.
The difference between those games and the Untitled Football Project speaks to the entertainment industry writ large: access. You might dunk like Kobe, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever squeak sneaks with Shandling. Members of the UFP proudly view their hobby as a singular meritocracy. “The game is driven by how good you are on the field and how gentlemanly,” says Leonard, “not whether you just closed a multimillion-dollar deal.”
That philosophy is reflected in the group’s eclectic roster. Lord Frederick “Freddie” Windsor, 44th in line for the British throne, connected with team organizer and screenwriter Matt Wheeler at the Soho House in West Hollywood through Windsor’s wife, British actress Sophie Winkle-man. Artist and former pro soccer player (and Zoe Saldana’s husband) Marco Perego was looking to meet new people, so Windsor had him tag along one week. Renato Santos, the former headwaiter at Capital Grille, was brought into the game by Wheeler’s chiropractor, Helmer Velez, who met Santos on a plane heading to Brazil for the World Cup. Writer and publicist Andrew Dubbins happened to roll by on his bike one Saturday when they were short a player, and he joined in. The league does have a ringer: Another pro soccer player, Tunde Benson, is a regular. (There are no women on the team at this time, which is par for the course in Hollywood.)
These matches aren’t an excuse to network, either. The UFP has a strict “no pitching on the pitch” rule. Any trash-talking, ball-hogging hotdoggers are kicked off the list—no matter how famous. “No one really cares who you are,” says Wheeler, “especially if you’re a dick. I won’t name names, but we had an actor who played at club level in England, and he had such a bad attitude that we didn’t have him back.” The games can get rough. Body slams, broken ribs, concussions—one actor left the team after an incident on the field nearly damaged his face.
When it comes to mining new material, the rules are more lax. English comedian Kevin Bishop, a cast member on Rebel Wilson’s canceled sitcom, Super Fun Night, uses the games as character fodder. “I impersonate pretty much everyone on the pitch, sometimes even during the game,” he says. The club also gives him perspective. “As much as I love L.A., the constant pole climbing puts a lot of stress on my simple mind. I can’t meditate. I’ve tried it. I’m useless. This game presses the reset button and gives me 90 minutes of meditative football bliss.”
Like Bruckheimer’s rink time and Shandling’s pickup sessions, the ritual of a weekly soccer match builds the kinds of friendships that are elusive in the industry and in life. “I was ringing up 30 steaks at Ralphs,” says British producer Nick Osborne, as he recounts the team’s second annual steak-dinner party. “The checkout lady looked stunned and asked what I was doing. I told her I was having a steak party for friends. She said, ‘Who has 30 friends?’ It struck me: Men lose friends as they get older. I’ve always said the best thing about this game is that we’ve become such good ones.”