‘Winning Time’ Star Quincy Isaiah Dreamed of Playing Shaquille O’Neal, but Says Magic Johnson ‘Might Be a Better Role’

Adrien Brody, Quincy Isaiah and John
John Salangsang for Variety

The scene at Wednesday’s premiere of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” at the Theatre at Ace Hotel was nearly as fast-paced and celebrity-packed as the 1980s Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers the series depicts — and even had a few gilded basketball hoops.

Executive producers Adam McKay, Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht welcomed a deep-bench of the series’ performers, including both an all-star lineup of veteran pros — including John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Sally Field, Jason Clarke, Jason Segel and Michael Chiklis — and a slew of impressive newcomers. And despite playing roles that ultimately became godlike sports icons, the actors told Variety they were surprised by how much they related to their real-world humanity.

“There’s not a single sports organization in the whole world that doesn’t emulate the style that he created with the Lakers and the opportunities that he realized were there,” said Reilly of his role, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. “I was really honored to play the guy. My emotional life became really invested in his. I realized we had a lot in common: We really believe in the powers of positive thinking; we come from humble backgrounds; we came out here to L.A. to try to make a mark, and people underestimated us along the way. I really felt a real close kinship to Jerry Buss… It’s an extraordinary American story, and it’s such a rollercoaster.”

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Max Borenstein, John C. Reilly, Chairman and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group Ann Sarnoff, Adam McKay, Quincy Isaiah and Chief Content Officer, HBO and HBO Max Casey Bloys. FilmMagic for HBO

Adrien Brody revealed how playing the scruffier, struggling incarnation of pre-victorious Lakers coach Pat Riley allowed him to tap into his own ups and downs.

“Portraying someone in flux is you have to delve into your own moments in your life and career that you were in flux,” Brody said. “Longing for an opportunity to give what you knew you could give to the game, and for whatever reason, it wasn’t connecting. And that makes the moments when you do have those opportunities something to really cherish, something to really grasp onto and put your heart and soul into. So there are parallels that I relate to. That’s the beauty of acting: it reminds you of all these things, your good fortune and misfortune, and has a purpose for it.”

Quincy Isaiah, who delivers a breakout performance as Laker legend Ervin “Magic” Johnson, said with a laugh: “I always thought my dream role was Shaq, but I ended up playing Magic — I was like, ‘This might be a better role!’” Isaiah added he had to amp up his own already considerable charisma factor to match Johnson’s signature effervescence, “trying to tap into it myself first and then also, man, the people around me, the directors, letting me know ‘Nah, we need you to pick it up a little bit more! That’s not enough energy!’ And just knowing in some moments I got to bring it more.”

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Sally Field and Lorenzo Davis. John Salangsang for Variety

“He’s a mind-blowing individual,” said Solomon Hughes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who he plays with a mix of cerebral zen and brooding intensity. Hughes drew from his own experiences as a college and pro basketball player, “in locker rooms, within team cultures, team dynamics, really trying to put forth your identity but also be a part of the whole for sure. And then also his Sky Hook, the most unstoppable offensive shot in the history of the game! So I felt like I at least had somewhat of an on-ramp to attempt to honor that shot.”