Adam McKay is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb. 17 — that is, if his demands can be met.
“We’re negotiating because I want mine to be one giant star in the middle of the whole intersection and they’re kind of fighting us on it,” McKay says. “So we’re going to see what happens.”
McKay is kidding (we think) and the Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy winner will soon add the star to his long list of accolades. It comes at a prime time for the filmmaker and producer; his latest movie “Don’t Look Up” just secured four Academy Award nominations, while his new HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” hits the air next month. That should help fill the gap left until the next season of his other hit HBO show, “Succession,” which just wrapped its third season with more buzz than ever and is going into the SAG Awards with a record five nominations for the acclaimed cast.
McKay admits it’s a humbling moment. “If you had told me when I was 13 I would have a star on the Walk of Fame, there’s no way I would have ever believed that,” he says. “The other thing that’s fun is how excited people around you are. My relatives are doing backflips. It’s one of the coolest, goofiest things that has ever happened to me.”
If anyone understands the intersection where the serious and absurd collide, it’s McKay. He established himself in the world of comedy writing for “Saturday Night Live” from 1995-2001, including a three-season stint as head writer and two years as “coordinator of falconry” when Lorne Michaels allowed McKay to choose his own title in an effort to keep him on the show. After finding massive success with films that he describes as “finding the comedy in doughy mediocre white men” such as “Anchorman,” “Talledega Nights” and “Stepbrothers” and the website Funny or Die, McKay surprised some by moving in a different direction. His previous three films — 2015’s “The Big Short,” 2018’s “Vice” and this year’s “Don’t Look Up” — have maintained the comedy, but also tackled larger social and political issues, from the financial crisis to a corrupt presidential administration to nothing less than the end of the world.
It’s that combination of humor and scathing commentary that has attracted some of the biggest names in the business to work with McKay. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy in “Don’t Look Up,” says he had been looking for a film about the environment and climate crisis for years. He was won over by McKay’s “brilliant approach,” in which Mindy and others try to warn the U.S. president (Meryl Streep) and the world about an incoming comet that will destroy the Earth.
“To see how mankind sort of reacts to this crisis, that the whole issue becomes politicized, that inaction starts to take place,” DiCaprio says. “And people start to unravel when they hear news of that caliber. So that was the brilliant hook in Adam’s screenplay that made me go, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ Because it’s very difficult to do a film that’s overtly about this issue.” Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a student of Dr. Mindy’s who finds herself a modern-day Cassandra when she tries to warn the world, sums up the script as both “hilarious and devastating.”
But to hear McKay tell it, these films are a continuation of the work that has always interested him. Even on “SNL” he was sharply skewering the Bush administration or mocking the media’s focus on the wrong stories with sketches including “The Hulk Hogan Talk Show” in which Anthony Edwards plays a hostage survivor whose traumatic tale is constantly interrupted by loud music and obnoxious graphics and cutaways to segments such as “Hulkster Trivia Slam.”
John C. Reilly has worked with McKay from the start (“Talladega Nights,” “Stepbrothers”) and will now play Lakers owner Jerry Buss in “Winning Time,” and agrees it’s a natural progression for McKay. “To my mind it’s not really a style change but more a deepening of the material and a willingness to follow ideas wherever they lead, be that funny or deeply disturbing,” Reilly says. “He’s always been one of the most subversive minds out there and his ability to toggle between comedy and drama is very rare. He’s also a real smartass, which I relate to.”
McKay says that he’s not trying to disguise his stories as if they’re medicine — he genuinely finds them to be “really fascinating subjects that I think we’re told are boring.” And there is humor to be found everywhere.
“I find myself on a daily basis laughing really hard at certain things while also being terrified or dispirited. So this is a very natural outgrowth of just thinking about these times and how do you tell these stories?”
To hear his collaborators tell it, the laughter and joy extends to the set, as well, even when dealing with the most serious of subjects.
Rob Morgan was cast in “Winning Time” as Earvin Johnson Sr. and McKay was then prompted to write a role for the actor in “Don’t Look Up” as the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
“You would imagine on his sets you’d find a hectic environment where everybody is on edge for perfection to the point that you can’t even enjoy your work,” Morgan says. “But to my surprise, working with Adam was the complete opposite. Adam runs a very relaxed and laid-back set that makes you feel completely comfortable to do your job. He always manages to make everyone feel included with charm, humor, and out-of-this world creativity.”
Concurs Reilly, “Adam is one of the most inventive enthusiastic improvisers in the world. His sets are ridiculously fun and the possibilities are literally endless.”
It’s one of the reasons his projects are filled with talent behind the scenes and on camera. “Winning Time” boasts a cast that includes Reilly, Jason Segel, Sally Field and Adrien Brody, not to mention Quincy Isiah, a young actor making his television debut in the role of Magic Johnson. McKay first read Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” shortly after its release and attached co-creator and showrunner Max Borenstein, co-creator/writer/EP Jim Hecht and writer/EP Rodney Barnes.
A longtime basketball fan, McKay says he had long been looking to take the sport and tell a story in a specific style the way “Pride of the Yankees” did for baseball and “Raging Bull” did for boxing. Elaborates McKay, “This is really the story of a team that changed American culture in a lot of ways. Before that, you had white culture and you had Black culture. Going into the 1980s, the two started to fuse. And a lot of that was the Lakers, the way they played, the way they carried themselves.”
Like “Succession,” McKay is an executive producer and directed the pilot, but he says the two aren’t similar in tone at all. While “Succession” is Shakespearean and filled with “dry, lush string music and natural lighting,” McKay says “Winning Time” is more playful and loose and will mix media format. “It’s colorful and it’s lively, but it’s also got very dramatic scenes,” he notes. “And it looks so good. You want to take a bite out of it.”
WHAT: Adam McKay receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m., Feb. 17
WHERE: 6767 Hollywood Blvd.