BOSTON — After former Cleveland Cavalier all-star point guard Kyrie Irving got word he was traded to Boston last year, he did a happy dance — literally.
He was on location in Atlanta, shooting an exuberant dance club scene in the new basketball comedy, “Uncle Drew,” in which Irving and his co-stars — NBA greats Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller and Nate Robinson — school some “young bloods” on the finer points of busting a move.
“It was just an energy shift,” Irving said. “I had been dealing with that (the trade uncertainty) outside of the movie. Emotionally, it was a lot to deal with. Once I found out, nothing else mattered but being in front of the camera.”
And it shows. Irving draws laughs in the movie, and nails buckets on the court. Outfitted in white hair and prosthetics, Irving plays Uncle Drew, a cantankerous septuagenarian driven to show up younger basketball players on the playground. The character, you might remember, debuted in 2012 in a 5-minute Pepsi Max commercial that quickly went viral. Could a movie not be far behind?
In the jump from little to big screen, Uncle Drew — “the man, the myth, the legend” — is an enigma, but when Dax, a sad-sack hustler (“Get Out” scene-stealer Lil Rel Howery) comes calling, the script sends the pair on a road trip to reunite Drew’s old team so they can compete for one last chance at glory in the Rucker Classic, a famed Harlem streetball tournament. Chuck Stone III (of Bud Light “wassup” fame), directs the movie, which calls on Irving to juggle broad and slapstick comedy. He also delivers wry zingers, as well as dole out wizened platitudes: “You only miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
With an assist from an on-set acting coach and an all-star cast of comedic actors that also includes Tiffany Haddish and Nick Kroll, J.B. Smoove and former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, Irving lets it rip. Full of heart, humor and family-friendly themes, “Uncle Drew” scores a triple-double.
“I don’t even think of myself as funny,” Irving said during a recent interview at Boston Harbor Hotel. The comment triggers a couple of snickers from Irving’s two friends sitting in the room. Their reaction makes me think these guys know something I don’t. The Irving across the table from me is in post-game press conference mode — polite, for sure, but poised and guarded. I wanted him to loosen up, drop a “young blood” in character and only had 12 minutes (really, that’s all the time I was allotted) to get the job done.
But first, Irving, a five-time NBA all-star and a first-round draft pick of the Cavaliers in 2011 (winning rookie of the year), admits it was one thing to shoot a commercial, but another beast altogether to make a feature film. “I was really scared,” he said. “I felt like being in front of the camera, some things were going to be natural and some things were going to be tough for me to convey,” he said.
Making the shorts “was about eight or nine minutes, delivering a few lines, that was pretty much it, and I had kind of free range to say whatever I want on camera,” he added. “As the movie progressed, I got a lot more comfortable in front of the camera, remembering my lines, delivering my lines and being emotionally connected to the scene. That was pretty fun to see that evolution”
It took four hours each day in the makeup chair for him to transform into his geriatric alter-ego, a look that was inspired by Celtics great Bill Russell. Irving recalls falling asleep in the makeup chair and waking up as Uncle Drew. That was the easy part. Much harder was how does a then 25-year-old play a 75-year-old? Irving needed to find the feeble voice, the slouchy shoulders, gingerly gait. He needed to carry his 6-foot-3 athletic frame like a creaky old man who has a stiff back and bum knees. In order to work, it had to be full immersion.
“I didn’t know how that transition was going to happen,” Irving said, loosening up a bit. “I really just started diving into that role of ‘I got to really prepare myself for this scene that I’m about to shoot.’ So I started to get old and slow and a lot wiser. After a while I got used to it. It just took some time.”
As Drew and Dax hit the road and round up the old crew, a past beef threatens to derail the whole pursuit. The script, written by former collegiate player Jay Longino, also deals in themes of family, friendship and not ducking challenges — all ideas that resonate with Irving.
“Facing your problems head-on is the theme that spoke to me most,” he said. “As individuals, we do a great job of suppressing a lot of emotion. Sometimes an apology can go a long way or really just taking responsibility for what you should. As Uncle Drew I had to do that, and that applies to my regular life as well. There’s a lot of hurt that you can hold onto for a long period of time. I think that in the movie we just really attack it, sometimes with a physical beating from Sh...,” Irving said, stopping short and smiling ear to ear at almost revealing a spoiler. He’s cracking himself up. Maybe it’s a Sour Patch Kid sugar rush?
“It is fun to see how we can remain authentic with bringing life lessons into the movie,” he added.
“Uncle Drew” is packed with details (not including Shaq’s naked butt) that will really appeal to hoops fans, such as when Drew says “I’m a Duke (University) man myself,” to John Calipari, making a cameo. Or, when a character says to Shaq: “It’ll be the first free throw you’ve ever made.” Irving said he especially enjoyed the “freedom of improvisation” on Stone’s set.
There’s a lot of talk about how the upcoming season might be Irving’s last year with the Celtics due to a knee injury and contractual considerations. For now though, I tell him it’s serendipity he landed in Boston, since his parents, Drederick and Elizabeth, fell in love-at-first-sight on Commonwealth Avenue. Both Mom and Dad were all-American in basketball (under ex-Celtics coach Rick Pitino) and volleyball, respectively, at Boston University. Elizabeth died at age 29, when Irving was 4-years-old.
Now 26, the irony that Irving is the movie’s real “young blood” doesn’t escape him. That’s why he said he set out to make the most of his time with the film’s cast of NBA legends.
“It was a learning experience because I’m actually the young one,” Irving said. “They’ve gotten the chance to see the evolution of the game of basketball. Lisa Leslie, Shaq, Reggie, Chris, Nate, they’ve really seen the culture shift and the way basketball has changed over time and to talk to them about the game is something I love to do.”
With all those greats together on one court, all slam-dunk and swagger, you can imagine how competitive those basketball scenes became, despite the scripted choreography. “It got heated a few times,” Irving said, laughing. “Yeah, at some points it got really competitive.” Pause. “But they all knew their limits.”
“Because they’re all older?” I ask.
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Irving, laughing more. “It was fun to see them back out there enjoying the game, because that love of the game just never dies. It just never, ever, ever, ever, dies.”
Irving said he fell in love with basketball when he was 13. And then, “I just took it to the ultimate level, and from that point on it’s just been perfecting that.” A new love, however, is show business and he said he has aspirations to pursue acting, writing, directing and producing. He even presented an award at last weekend’s MTV Movie and TV Awards. “I’m definitely one to start building something,” Irving said, adding that Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg is one favorite. The last film Irving saw was “Ready Player One.” He also digs the ’90s sitcom “Friends.” He’s got a tattoo of the show’s logo on his forearm. His two best friends also have the same ink. “It’s just something we did to represent our friendship more than anything,” Irving said.
Along with his father, Irving will walk the red carpet on Tuesday at the official premiere of “Uncle Drew” in New York City. He’s said he’s hoping this isn’t his last premiere and that he’d be game for a sequel. “I’m thinking about the timing of it, but I hope the reception of ‘Uncle Drew’ is going to be warm, and depending on that, I’d love to do it.”
By the end of the interview, Irving is all laughs and smiles and he doesn’t hesitate to oblige a request to get into character. He clears his throat, lowers his head, slides down in the chair, hunches over and adopts Drew’s gruff tone: “All these boys out here talking about how they want to do all that ... these young bloods have no idea.”
But Irving sure does.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.