From Real Life To Reel Life: Bringing Pelé To The Big Screen

A great storytelling adventure!

It is rare for two legends from two different worlds to join forces in the telling of a single story. In 2012, the greatest soccer player in history tapped one of Hollywood’s most iconic and celebrated producers to tell his story.


Pelé with Leonardo Lima Carvalho, who plays 9-year old Pelé, and Kevin De Paula Rosa as the young Pelé. PELÉ tells the miraculous story of the legendary soccer player’s rise to glory from a young boy, to the 17 year old who scored the winning goal in Brazil’s first ever World Cup victory in 1958. From a life full of disadvantages and an impoverished youth in Brazil, Pelé used his unorthodox yet authentic style of play and his unbeatable spirit to overcome all odds, find greatness and inspire a country that he changed forever.

Brian Grazer and Pele

Pele and Brian Grazer

Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment has long been responsible for crowd-pleasing and award winning films, including, as it turns out, several of Pelé’s all-time favorite films. 

Academy Award® and Emmy® award-winning producer and New York Times bestselling author Brian Grazer, has been making movies and television programs for more than 25 years.  As both a writer and producer, he has been personally nominated for four Academy Awards®, and in 2002 he won the Best Picture Oscar® for A Beautiful Mind.

So when Pelé and his team at Legends 10 looked to add a feature film of his life story to his legacy project (which also includes the re-launch of the documentary Pele Eterno, as well as the publication of his autobiographical book Why Soccer Matters), Pelé immediately approached Imagine Entertainment.

Brian Grazer and his team at Imagine had long felt that Pele’s story, one of the most inspiring sports stories of all time, deserved a life on the big screen. Once the two modern icons connected, there was no question that this would result in a great storytelling adventure!

Jeff and Mike Zimbalist

Jeff and Michael are Emmy Award nominated writers, directors, andeditors whose films have been broadcast on HBO, MTV, PBS, ESPN, Channel4 UK, the BBC and BET, as well as theatrically distributed worldwide.the brothers co-directed, co-produced, and co-wrote The Two Escobars.This film was part of the series ‘ESPN 30 for 30’ and has played togreat responses at the Cannes, Tribeca, and LA Film Festivals. The film was released in theatres and broadcast in North America by Disney/ESPN Films and was sold internationally by Wild Bunch. Jeff previouslydirected the critically acclaimed documentary Favela Rising. Currently,the Zimbalists are directing Pele, the story of the Brazilian soccerlegend, in Rio. This feature film is being produced with Imagine.

In partnership with Legends 10, Imagine Entertainment recruited the young writer/director team, Jeffrey and Michael Zimbalist to scribe the screenplay and helm the film project.  Their successful background in documentary films where they previously had explored soccer as well as Brazil and Brazilian culture, would ensure the film would have a unique perspective and truthful tone.  After months of interviews with Pelé and his close friends and family, the first draft of a screenplay emerged.

The partnership grew with the addition of Peruvian producer Ivan Orlic.  Originally from Peru, Orlic grew up playing, living and breathing soccer, and of course surrounded by stories about the legendary soccer player.  The opportunity to be a part of the telling of his idol’s story was as irresistible as the opportunity to work with Imagine Entertainment, the company responsible for many of his favorite films and television series.  After a few weeks in additional development in collaboration with Orlic’s Seine Pictures, the final screenplay was approved and embraced unanimously, and Orlic was able to arrange for the film to be financed and “green-lit”.

Grazer, Pelé, Orlic and the filmmakers met in Cannes to announce the project to the global marketplace in partnership with international sales agent Exclusive Media.  The project was met with great enthusiasm, and the filmmaking team quickly proceed to the next phase: to build the production and creative team charged with telling the Pele story.

An incredibly experienced and accomplished creative team was assembled, including Academy Award nominee Matthew Libatique as director of photography, renowned production designer and art director Dominic Watkins, award-winning casting director Mary Vernieu, PGA Award winning line producer Colin Wilson, some of Hollywood’s most exciting editors in Luis Carballar and Glen Scantlebury, and Academy Award winning composer A.R. Rahman, who’s musical score truly brings the film to life.

Casting the role of Pelé would require two actors (one to play him at age 9 and a second to play him at ages 16-17), who would not only have a similar physical appearance to the legendary player, but also possessed extraordinary natural talents for both soccer and performance.  In addition to being English speakers, of course!

This casting effort proved to every bit the challenge that one would expect it to be, and to rise up to that challenge the producers and casting directors organized one of the largest casting endeavors in recent film history.  Production set up casting offices in London as well as in several cities in the United States, South Africa, and of course, Brazil.

Actors were brought in from all walks of life, whether they be trained actors, experienced soccer players, or charismatic school kids.  First to be cast was a young boy from Brazil to play 9-year old Pelé: Leonardo Lima Carvalho, whose magnetic on-camera presence and natural charisma were immediately reminiscent of the legend himself.

The search for a 16-year-old Pelé for the character of “Older Dico”, however, was even more difficult.  Where some actors had the requisite resemblance, they were often lacking either the soccer ball or the language skills, and conversely those who had the necessary skills lacked the resemblance.  Desperate to find the perfect actor for this role, the filmmakers and casting directors took to the streets and even beaches of Rio, where locals are known to regularly demonstrate their soccer skills, tricks and elaborate juggling techniques.  One day, when reviewing a video of several young men playing soccer near the beach, the directors a young man in the background of the clips with a strong resemblance to Pelé.  He had not been the intended subject of the video clip, but the uncanny resemblance and demonstrated soccer skills were undeniable.

Immediately, they set out to the beaches, but only to find that the group of young men had already dispersed and left.  Believing that they had found the perfect actor to play Pele, the directors returned to the beach the following day to discover a semi-professional team playing a match on a field near the beach.  As they watched the game, they noticed something amazing—the young man they had seen in the yesterday’s video was playing on the semi-pro team!  After the game, they approached the young man and asked him to audition for the role, Kevin de Paula gave a phenomenal audition despite having no previous acting experience: he possessed Pelé’s energy, heart, and playing skills.  The filmmakers had found their Pelé!

Both the producers and the filmmakers describe the film as a love-letter not just to the legendary player and his legacy, but also to his home country and culture.  In order to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the story, it was decided that the film would be shot entirely in Brazil, which also offered the filmmaker the opportunity to showcase the natural beauty of the country, its people, and their culture.

This decision also presented the team with the challenges of a language barrier, a different industry culture, and different local laws and regulations, in addition to the challenges of producing a period piece, with the intellectual property issues of a film based on a true story, and the added complications of both crowds and choreographies for the soccer sequences.


To navigate the process, producers Ivan Orlic and Colin Wilson traveled to Brazil several months in advance of principal photography to begin to assemble the local partners and crew that would be necessary to overcome all the challenges ahead.  Inspired at every turn by the story they were making possible to be told, they were able to do just that.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of working in Brazil was the dedication of the local people.

And as production moved forward, the Brazilian crew’s talent became undeniable.  Hundreds of people joined the effort, with local hiring and local casting.

Casting locally also gives the film an authentic feel and was one of the great ways in which this film serves as a love letter to the people of Brazil. The dedication of the cast and crew to this film and this story is what truly allowed the artists to elevate the film in service of the legacy of the legend whose story it tells.