Sixers fans should probably hope that Uncle Drew opens to Avengers type box office next weekend – just in case it hastens a career change for star (and Boston Celtic point guard) Kyrie Irving.
“He’s kind of a representative of his millennial generation, in that he has his eyes set on many things. He has multiple passions and interests. He has said he’s interested in pursuing creative interests, creating his own TV network. He can sing, he loves acting, and obviously he loves basketball,” said Charles Stone III, the movie’s other local rooting interest. Stone is a Philadelphia native, Central High grad, and son of legendary Daily News columnist Chuck Stone.
The comedy Uncle Drew, based on a viral video and Pepsi commercial, is an apt choice of material for Stone, whose career began when his short film True became the basis for the famous Budweiser “Whassup” campaign, leading to music video work (several for the Roots) and feature films (Drumline). Uncle Drew also started as a series of shorts, some written and directed by Irving, about a mythical playground star (Irving, in old dude makeup) who shows up younger players during pickup games.
After several million online views, Uncle Drew became a fairly hot movie property, attracting stars like Girls Trip‘s Tiffany Haddish. But there was a catch: It had to be shot between NBA seasons. It meant a short schedule and long, tough days. On one occasion, Stone said, Irving was on set 24 straight hours, beginning (as he did each day) with three hours of makeup to give “Drew” the look of a 70-year-old man. Irving handled it the way he handles a basketball.
“I actually like working with athletes,” Stone said. “They are usually extremely disciplined. They understand long hours and the commitment necessary to get a certain result.”
The plot has Uncle Drew recruited by a coach (Lil Rel Howery) trying to round up players for a last-minute, make-or-break entry in Harlem’s Rucker Park basketball tournament. Stone encouraged the men to improvise, to find a buddy-comedy rhythm for their characters. Irving was eager to learn, to soak up advice, and Howery (Get Out, Tag) obliged.
“I told him, just bounce off me. Most people don’t realize that most of the time, less is funny,” said Howery. “You can be broad or go big, but you have to be a Jim Carrey or Robin Williams type talent to pull that off. Once he figured out he could be soft-spoken Uncle Drew and still be funny, he was all right.”
Stone said Irving picked things up quickly.
“Kyrie has a stillness about him anyway that’s perfect for the role. He’s playing an old guy, and old people, if you notice, don’t expend a lot of energy trying to convince anybody of anything. They figure you should be listening already. I wanted to lean on that stillness, and it worked.”
The characters squabble about ’70s soul music and rap samples (among other things) as they gather other graybeard legends (played by Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal, Nate Robinson, Chris Webber) to round out the squad.
Webber is a former Sixer.
Did Stone, the Philadelphian, want one on the team?
“Originally I had Kevin Garnett in mind for the role,” he said.
Again with the Celtics!
“But someone suggested Chris. I didn’t see it right away, but in the meeting he was great,” said Stone, who cast Webber as the team’s power-forward/preacher. “It’s a tricky role, kind of James Brown meets Al Sharpton, but he got it right away. He was amazing.”
Howery said he likes the way Stone filmed the basketball action – the camera follows players as they shoot and complete the play, giving the action credibility, important even in the realm of comedy.
“You don’t want the Teen Wolf thing. Guys shooting and then cut to a shot of the ball going in. We had to make shots,” he said.
Howery, who played a little on the streets of Chicago growing up, had to demonstrate skills himself – the movie has flashback scenes of his character playing in a youth league.
“I eventually went three for 30, but the first one went in.”
Stone said he was most concerned about the emotional scenes. He wanted the movie to work as a story of a man (Howery) without a father or family who finds a band of surrogate dads among the aging players. The passion for basketball evident in Uncle Drew comes from Irving and screenwriter Jay Longino, who played pro ball in Mexico and for the defunct USBL.
“I like basketball, but I’m not really a fanatic,” Stone said. “Jay is a fanatic. His script is a love letter to basketball. He played international basketball, and he put so many Easter eggs in the movie it will play especially well to basketball fans.”
Watch for the “Fab Four” reference, for instance, when Irving reminds Webber the team is out of timeouts.
Stone said he’s amazed how well the former NBA players did in front of the camera.
“I thought this movie will either be Showgirls bad or it will be really good. You’ve got these nonactors dressed up as old men, which is just a weird concept, and a whole motley crew of elements. But the chemistry between everyone just really worked. Especially between Kyrie and Rel. The father-son things. It really works. It’s believable and charming.”