John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah talk Winning Time, and playing icons Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson

by W. Andrew Powell
John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is Adam McKay’s brand new HBO series, and it’s a wild redemption story about one of the NBA’s greatest teams, winning their way out of the lowest point in their history at the start of the 1980s.

John C. Reilly stars as Jerry Buss, the acclaimed owner who bought the L.A. Lakers when they were struggling, and turned the team into one of the best in the league.

The new series by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, with McKay directing the first episode, is a golden slice of the 80s, right down to the music and all the drugs. It’s funny and honest, smart and heartfelt, with a peek behind the curtains at a time when the NBA was in serious trouble.

The league was managed by former players who didn’t always know how to lead, with owners who had egos and money, but no vision. And that’s where Jerry Buss came in with his rising star, Magic Johnson, played by breakout star Quincy Isaiah.

Winning Time has an incredible cast, including Jason Clarke, Solomon Hughes, DeVaughn Nixon, Adrien Brody, Hadley Robinson, Gaby Hoffmann, and Jason Segel, to name a few, and it’s one of the most addictive series I’ve seen on TV in ages.

I recently sat down with Reilly and Isaiah to talk about this unique time in Lakers history, their real-life characters, and working with the series’ impressive team. Read the interview below.

Winning Time premieres on Crave in Canada and on HBO Max in the U.S., Sunday, March 6 at 9:00 PM (ET).

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss
John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss

W. Andrew Powell: This story is filled with real people, and icons, but at the same time you have to play them as characters. How did you deal with that? Do you prepare in a certain way, or is it just something at the back of your mind?

John C. Reilly: “You know, in some ways that was a burden, actually, because we get into some very private aspects of my character’s life and Quincy’s character’s life also. And the tendency as an actor and film is like, well, the character is just what’s written in the script. You know, but knowing that, this guy has a family with people who are involved in the story that are still alive and that was in some ways kind of a sombre responsibility to take on.”

“I know that I would feel pretty conflicted if someone were to tell the story of my father and all of his triumphs and tragedies and flaws and attributes. So it was definitely something I thought about every day because I really feel for people when their private stories are being shared. I’m a very private person myself, and I think I would find that difficult.”

“That said, Jerry and Magic were both public figures, and they are a part of our public story; the history of the world, the history of entertainment. So, the way I personally dealt with it, Andrew, is that I didn’t find out what was real and what wasn’t on purpose. I never knew whether something was artistic license taken by the screenwriters or whether it was something based on a historical fact, because I knew I had to play all of it as if it is real.”

“And I didn’t want that lack of confidence underneath things if I knew that it didn’t really happen. And another way I dealt with it was by not reading the scripts until right before we shot that episode. So if it looked like things were going really bad for Jerry in episode four, that’s all I knew, you know?”

“And so, obviously, I knew that the team went on to great success later in the years, but in terms of a beat by beat of the plot, I didn’t actually know, ‘Will this person make it? Do I pick this person? Like, what do I decide here?’ I didn’t know.”

“So I think that really helped me to keep it very much in the present tense. And all that said, I also would try to say as many times and as publicly as possible, I really appreciate the chance to play someone, and I really have a lot of respect for Dr. Buss and have a lot of feelings of compassion towards his family at this very public moment in their family’s life.”

Quincy Isaiah: “Yeah, and I would just echo everything that John said, you know. It started with respect and you want to bring respect into playing your character and you acknowledge you are living out some private moments, but you want to make sure that you lead the character with love.”

“And… you don’t want to judge your characters. You know, [it’s about] having empathy with your character and really just playing a person. You want to play a full, complete character. I think we get the opportunity to do that. So I’m forever grateful to be playing this role.”

John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, and Jason Clarke in Winning Time
John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, and Jason Clarke in Winning Time

How do you relate to this era of basketball and the L.A. Lakers, and what did it mean to you personally?

Reilly: “Well, I was in Chicago and I was in eighth grade in 1979, and I was doing plays and I wasn’t interested in basketball. So I knew nothing about the L.A. Lakers of this time. When I was a kid, when I moved to Los Angeles… it’s almost like the Lakers are more of a presence in L.A. than the L.A. city government is.”

“It’s such a dominant presence. And Jerry was the King of L.A. all those years. So it definitely was his name that you would hear over and over again. And that said, I didn’t realize what a fascinating person he was, and what a fascinating life he had. I mean, to go from poor in Wyoming to eventually getting a doctorate in physical chemistry to teaching at USC, to becoming a massively successful real estate tycoon, to trading the Chrysler Building for the Los Angeles Lakers. I mean, that is such an incredible story.”

“[Speaking of Jerry Buss], that’s why he wore a fringe on the bottom of his jeans for his entire life, because when he was a boy it was cheaper to buy unhemmed jeans than it was to buy hemmed jeans. So he had these fringy jeans all the time when he was a kid because his mother couldn’t afford properly hemmed jeans. And he wore that as a badge of honour; like a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life.”

Isaiah: “Yeah, my mom, she was born during that time, so I asked a little bit to her. But I think just being able to see how much people put into creating the time period for us, really understanding like the music and the sets and what that was like during that time.”

“I would say the production really did a great job of like helping me understand what it was like. And obviously, with the research and everything else, that made it easier, but actually stepping into the production, [did a] really good job of helping feel the period, whether it was the clothes, the hair, music. I [also] watched movies, documentaries.”

“Just trying to recreate it as much as possible without being there, you know.”

What did you think of Magic Johnson and did you talk to him for this role?

Isaiah: “Well, I did not speak with him, but of course, Magic is an icon, and being from Michigan, it definitely factored into me knowing who he was and hearing these stories about who he was in college and knowing somebody who knew somebody that knew him. It was always like six degrees of separation.”

“So, yeah, it was something special. And just knowing [of] him as a business man, before I kind of knew he was as good of a basketball player as he actually is. I knew he was great but I didn’t see; I didn’t go back in until I booked this role, really saw and dug into his archive of how great he was.”

Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson
Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson

“[Before that] I understood he had movie theaters, he had a Starbucks; I knew him as that person, the one who made over $500 million after he became an NBA basketball player. So I knew him later and I had to kind of almost put that aside and relearn who he was as a 20 year old so I could try and play him at that age.”

“But because, you knew it was coming, you could kind of see that in the pilot, and see his business acumen… and these other little nuances.”

How do you think this story fits in the world of storytelling that Adam McKay is creating?

Reilly: “I think it’s such a natural fit that it’s the reason that Adam wanted to participate in this story and take it on as a project.”

“Adam, from what I understand, was not looking to produce another big television show. He certainly wasn’t looking to direct an episode of a big television show. And then the script arrives and he realizes, ‘Oh, my God, I have to do this.'”

“Number one, it’s already kind of written in McKay’s style. You know, this direct to camera address, making fun of the social norms of the time, especially the way men behaved. You know, if you look at Anchorman, it’s the same thing. He’s just looking at Ron Burgundy and it’s this certain kind of like male exceptionalism or something, you could call it.”

“The original script already fit very much in the type of storytelling that McKay loves to do, and then it only became deeper and deeper and more like McKay’s style once he got involved. I mean, having Adam involved really made it like, I knew I could do it. I knew I could do it.”

“I mean, I loved the character when I read it and I thought, ‘Oh, this is a fascinating guy to play.’ I mean, I have so much fun doing this, but having McKay there as my sort of captain was what made me realize like, ‘oh, no, we’re going to pull this off because we’ve had a lot of fun together and a lot of great success together.'”

“And even though I was offered the part seven days before we started shooting; the reason I was able to do that in seven days is because Adam McKay and I already have this long history together.”

You’re breaking the fourth wall a lot, especially in the first episode. How do you think that helped with the storytelling?

Reilly: Well, that’s another one going back to… you know, that Adam McKay style of going right to camera. I had some experience with it playing Oliver Hardy in the film Stan & Ollie, because in a lot of ways, looking at the camera is like the mortal sin when you’re filming. People are constantly saying, ‘Don’t look at the camera. Don’t look at the camera.'”

“And then when you’re given the freedom to do that, it was so fun. It was so exciting to be able to just level with the audience and be like, ‘okay, we know this is a show and you’re watching me and look at this crazy thing that’s happening right now. Isn’t it amazing?'”

“There’s a playfulness to that, and there’s an inclusion, you know, including the audience in that way, as if they were co-conspirators in the story. I think that it’s different than watching something that’s just presentational. Being able to directly connect to the audience I think is one of the secret weapons of that type of storytelling and certainly of this show.”

“I loved also, I haven’t watched the show, but I love how sometimes when we would be filming; so the camera’s here behind me filming you, and you’re doing your scene, and all of a sudden I get an idea and I would turn into your camera, so there’s this sense of, like, anything can happen. The actors might start talking to the camera. That gives us this kind of a wonderful, unpredictable energy to the whole thing, I found.”

Quincy, what is the impact on a community when people are plucked out of them, particularly considering someone like Magic Johnson? How does it affect kids with the idea that there is a route not just to something but to something quite extraordinary.

Isaiah: “Yeah, it’s so interesting ’cause, a few years before I got this, a kid from my high school, who was a couple of years before me, he actually went to the NBA. And that was the first real taste of like stardom that we got for the city. So to be able to see him and his process and just how much pride we have in the people that come from where we come from, that’s doing something positive. It was always just reassuring to me that people really do want to see their own succeed, you know.”

“And once I booked [Winning Time], the outpouring of support and just excitement and everybody wanting to do a watch party, and… it felt like, I don’t know. It felt like, I did it for me and my family, but also I did it for my community and the younger people that didn’t know that this was something that people could achieve where I’m from, especially where it is outside of sports; this is art.”

“Just being able to do something in this lane and then come back and tell them like, I’m an actor, but there are so many other positions behind the camera, that we just don’t know exist, you know. Hair, makeup, costume, gaffes. You know it is so much and I just I really appreciate the fact that the position that I’m in; I don’t take it lightly.”

Quincy Isaiah and Tamera Tomakili
Quincy Isaiah and Tamera Tomakili

All images courtesy of HBO.

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