John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah on Saving Time and Becoming Magic Johnson
From co-creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hechtand with a pilot directed by the executive producer Adam McKaythe HBO series in 10 episodes Buying Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty follows the intertwining of the professional and personal lives of the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s. What has become one of the sport’s most revered and dominant dynasties began with a vision set in motion when Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) took over and reinvigorated the franchise, bringing together the flashy characters and unsung heroes who forever changed the NBA and what fans have come to expect from basketball.
During this interview with Collider, co-stars Reilly and Quincy Isaiahwho has the daunting task of taking on Earvin “Magic” Johnson with more than enough brilliance for everyone, spoke about the contradictions of Jerry Buss and what made him such a rich character to play, finding that first version of Magic Johnson, finding the swagger on and off the court, and the unusual approach of playing moments directly in front of the camera.
Collider: John, we see Jerry Buss in warts and all, not always flatteringly, in this series. He’s rude, but he’s inspiring. He doesn’t seem to have enough of young women, but he also gave women job opportunities they weren’t getting anywhere else. What did you find most interesting about the man he was at that time, especially with all these contradictions?
JOHN C. REILLY: You’re always looking for a character that has contradictions because it makes someone interesting. Jerry, definitely, was a man of contradictions in some ways. He definitely had a hedonistic lifestyle, like a lot of guys in the late 70s, early 80s, especially in the NBA. There is this expression: “If you want to know what someone really is, don’t listen to what he says, watch his feet.” What do they do? Where are they going? What are the movements they make? The moves that Jerry made were all pretty feminist, in my opinion. He really liked hanging out with him. But for all the hedonism of that lifestyle, at Jerry’s memorial there was no conflict, “Well, he was this, but he was also awful.” He was a beloved character, on every level, from all the women he dated, to all the players and people he worked with, the women he empowered in his organization, Claire Rothman, and his own girl. He made this business a family business. When a lot of the teams became these corporate entities with boards of directors, he made it a family business, and it still is to this day. I just thought he was a really rich character to play.
All that, along with the open shirts and party lifestyle, was just a hallmark of 70s LA for men. It was like that. He was friends with Hugh Hefner, and that says it all. This was the scene he was involved in. But in the end, this stuff was really just the tip of the iceberg. That’s what you would see from his public persona, but what Jerry really did, the moves he made, what he did for the black players on his teams and the fact that unlike a lot of owners at the time, who were basically racist. in their practices – I don’t know if they were personally racist, but in their practices they were often racist – Jerry would say, “None of that means anything. I want the best players. I don’t care what color they are.
For someone in a position of power in 1979 to take that view was very impactful in the world. I felt really proud to play Jerry Buss. Obviously, I’m very sensitive to the family of someone you play. One of my constant concerns was how difficult it would be for me to see my own father represented in his triumphant moments and his less than triumphant moments. In the end, I felt like the guy was such a brilliant and compelling character and a real, amazing American success story, that I thought it was worth doing, even if we had to show some of the less noble sides of the guy. At the end of the day, I hope you agree when you see all 10 episodes, that we approach all of these characters from a place of love, respect, and admiration.
Quincy, you went through the ups and downs of Hollywood until you got this role. You got bitten by the acting bug, came to Hollywood, then thought about quitting, when you weren’t cast in projects. When you auditioned to play Magic Johnson, what was your state of mind? Did you spend a lot of time preparing and practicing for the audition, or did you just go to the audition thinking it was going to be another role you wouldn’t get, then you didn’t not thought too much?
ISAIAH: I think the latter. At that time, I had done a lot of auditions and hadn’t booked any. I always approach all my auditions with, “What can I do? What can I bring? Can I do something different? I didn’t know I had the sides. I thought it was a cold read. The morning of the audition, I realized the sides were attached. I walked in and I guess I was freer in how I spoke the lines. I was reading on the sides and didn’t think much of it. But then, once I got called back, that’s when I saw the source material and really realized how big this could be, and it was in HBO. I went back and read the book and I read the Magic book. I started watching all the clips online I could, to really start to understand who Magic was back then. I knew him as a businessman and this great entrepreneur who made money after he finished playing basketball in the early 90s. For me, it was about really tapping into all the resources that I could find and go from there.
Did you feel like it was harder to find the swagger and confidence he had off the pitch, or was it harder to understand his style on the pitch and how he played?
ISAIAH: As an athlete, I practiced a lot, before we got into team basketball and passing. I got to practice with our basketball coach, and he really helped me find that swag on the court. I do not know. It came naturally to me, honestly. I love basketball. I like to play too, but I’ve loved basketball since I was three years old. That being deep rooted, I feel like the bluster just happened. The game was a journey, to find the right approach. For me, Quincy, to be comfortable, as an actor, and to be comfortable with myself, and to be free enough to try things around these other amazing actors on this HBO show that Adam McKay directed and was executive producing, everyone being so personable, I was finally able to get comfortable and really start to understand who this character was. I really fell into it and just started integrating it into my daily life on set.
John, you weren’t playing basketball in those scenes, but you were there for some of those moments, and it looks like they were shot like never before. What was it like being in those moments, even though you weren’t on the pitch playing?
REILLY: I went into that, “The hard part of it is going to be watching a piece of tape off camera and pretending someone just scored the winning basket.” There is a certain amount of green screen that is necessary when playing sports. The real learning curve was learning to be the storyteller directly in front of the camera, directly in front of the audience, and then coming back directly into a scene. Often I had to go back and forth, to the audience, to the stage, to the audience. I found it really fun. It was a new way of working. It works really well in Adam McKay’s style of cinema.
Also, even though Jerry has all these major insecurities and setbacks behind the scenes, he still projects that confidence. It’s what got me through those days of thinking, “I’m not a hot guy with an open shirt. It’s not who I am. I’m not an ultra-rich team owner. That confidence gave me enough cover to get through it all. It was really that, every day. It was about motivating me by putting on the gold chain and those glasses and getting my hair done. It was like putting on this armor called trust.
winning time airs Sunday nights on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.
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