How Christine Sinclair inspired ‘21 Thunder’ star

TORONTO — As she stepped into the cleats of a seasoned player turned coach for CBC’s new TV series “21 Thunder,” actress Stephanie Bennett looked to Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair for inspiration.

“I watched a lot of interviews. She’s so humble and she’s so kind, but she’s very strong — effortlessly,” Bennett said of Sinclair, a two-time Olympic medallist and captain of the senior women’s national team.

“She has this presence. You can tell when she walks into a room that she just really owns how hard she’s worked to get to where she is, and I can definitely relate to that.”

Debuting Monday, “21 Thunder” stars Bennett as Christy Cook, an Olympic soccer hero brought in to coach the Montreal Thunder men’s under-21 team. Despite her credentials, the newcomer must contend with the skepticism of gruff head coach Albert Rocas (Conrad Pla) and a squad of up-and-coming players whom she’s been tasked to help lead.

“She’s sort of a woman in a man’s world and she has to really prove herself…. I think it really says a lot that Christy is taking on this … leadership role at a place where women don’t normally get that opportunity,” Bennett said.

“She cares — she cares a lot. And I think it’s a great representation of the fact that women can do anything.”

The series explores the complex lives of Thunder players and team leaders contending with off-field challenges. Rising star Nolan Gallard (RJ Fetherstonhaugh) is a former gang member whose dad (Colm Feore) is behind bars. Meanwhile, brash player-coach Davey Gunn (Ryan Pierce, a former Scottish footballer who played under his birth name Ryan O’Leary) is fleeing from the paparazzi as well as his own past.

New recruit Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo) makes the journey from the Ivory Coast to Canada to suit up for the Thunder, but packs his own excess baggage for the journey.

“He’s on a secret mission that his teammates and coaches don’t know about. The only people that have this information are himself and his family,” said Kabongo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raised in South Africa and grew up playing the sport.

“He comes with these high demands, but really deep down inside he’s a broken soul.”

If the pilot episode is any indication, the racy hour-long drama promises to push the envelope with provocative language and love scenes featured in the debut.

“I think we wanted to try to give a snapshot of what that world was like, and it’s sexy and it can be profane,” said showrunner Malcolm MacRury. “There’s certainly lots of trouble brewing in relationships among the players and those they’re attached to and families — but also with the underworld in Montreal.

“There’s all different sides to it and we want it to make it as realistic as possible as fun as possible.”

Series co-creator Kenneth Hirsch said having “21 Thunder” chronicle the lives of athletes who are a step away from the big leagues will resonate with viewers beyond the sports realm.

“I think all of us can relate to that dream of making it to the pros, whether it be in sports or whether it be as an actor or a dancer or a singer,” said Hirsch. “Very quickly, we realized the soccer pitch was a kind of perfect lens through which to tell great Canadian stories.

“I coached soccer for 10 years. I played for 10 years when I was a kid. I (refereed.) And there’s no better reflection of the diversity of this country than a soccer pitch.”

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