Kyrie Irving talks missing the Eastern Conference finals, staying in Boston and his new movie ‘Uncle Drew’
‘What I really want is to bring our team, all of us together, to a championship’
Kyrie Irving is not a one-and-done.
Not in Hollywood, anyway. His first take at a starring role in a movie comes soon with Uncle Drew, a full-length feature film based on the insanely viral internet shorts that he’s been doing since 2012 as part of a Pepsi campaign. The Celtics All-Star point guard filmed the movie last summer. Irving learned of his trade to Boston from the Cleveland Cavaliers right before a big choreographed dance scene that happens in the middle of the film. And as Drew co-star Lil Rel Howery joked earlier this year right before the 90th Academy Awards, Irving’s exuberance you see on the dance floor is real. But Irving can actually act. He’s good in the movie — even from under layers of prosthetic makeup and a gray beard and mane. We talk.
I asked Lil Rel at the Oscars if he had to coach you at all as an actor for this movie, and he said no! Turns out acting has been a longtime dream of yours.
My appreciation for film and actors has been [building] since I was a kid. I took a chance, playing in High School Musical my senior year of high school. [This was] to overcome a fear of public speaking. I had a deep passion for musical theater. I used to sing Rent songs all around my house and listen to it before games. …
You actually did the musical High School Musical in high school?
Yeah! I actually played Corbin Bleu’s part — I was … trying to break free of the mold of just being an athlete. It was an incredible experience.
What was that like being both a jock and thespian at the same time?
Well, my personality’s been pretty quirky for a while, so I felt if anyone could get away with it, I probably could. I mean, what athlete is saying that their favorite musical is Rent?
This is the first movie starring a current hoops star of this magnitude, certainly, in 20 years. He Got Game would be the last one. Were you worried that people wouldn’t take you seriously?
I was nervous about leading the movie. My cast members would remind me, like, ‘You know you are Uncle Drew, right?’ I was more or less happy to be part of this project regardless. I really hope the reception is well in terms of the life lessons in it, the comedy, the romantic scenes, the humor. We had some … comedy scenes that we just kind of had fun with.
From where did you start creating Uncle Drew the character? Do you know a guy like this? He feels very familiar.
I got my inspiration from watching my dad [Boston University star Drederick Irving] still loving to play. He still has a passion. Even though his body necessarily can’t go, his mind is just as sharp as ever. Talking to past athletes, older-generation athletes … they still have a competitive edge. They know … where their respective sport took them and the life lessons that came with it and the relationships they’ve built. I thought that it would be awesome to pay homage to that generation by embodying someone who has a youthful exuberance still. I just tried to do a great job of just conveying that.
The cast is great. Did you have a hand in which real-life athletes you wanted to be a part of this film?
Yeah! They fit together pretty perfectly. I thought it would be great to have Nate Robinson. And I thought it would be great to have Reggie Miller, Lisa Leslie, Shaq and C. Webb. Because those four legends, they really embody different historical moments in the league. … They’ve evolved in the game as well, through their voices; now they analyze the game for a living. I thought that would be great, for audiences to see their personalities outside of what you see in them analyzing the game of basketball. I did have a role [with regard to] who is in it, but they really just spoke to me — it just made sense.
It’s so smart to have Lisa Leslie’s character in the film suit up and play basketball.
In my own Uncle Drew shorts, I had Maya Moore playing Betty Lou, as well as Lisa playing Betty Lou. I didn’t necessarily have to try for inclusion. It was organically going to happen anyway. … The respect for the WNBA is something I’m an advocate [of] always. The game of basketball is universal. Obviously, there are male and female [leagues], and the respect should always be the same for how great we are as players and athletes.
Who are your role models in Hollywood?
One of my favorite directors is Spike Lee. He has really tapped into the realm of addressing pressing issues in a creative manner. I took a film class at Duke, and he actually came and talked to me after I got drafted. I told him I was going to give the Knicks 40 that year — that was just a little trash talk when he came to this film class!
Do you have a favorite genre of film?
I love how music is incorporated into film … [it] is just one of the purest forms of expression. Rent. The Greatest Showman. I’m in love with how certain musicals are produced. I look up to that. I love all the different genres, but more or less, musical and drama are probably my thing.
Did Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar inspire you? Surely this film isn’t going to be a one-and-done for you.
He’s inspired me throughout my life in general. He speaks four or five different languages. He’s a really, really special intellect in the way he answers questions and the way he converses, and talking to him has been incredible in terms of getting a new perspective of expressing yourself artistically. Some individuals think of athletes … it just feels like you’re subjected to a box at times, and you want to break free and show people you have different passions. I love playing basketball, and I love putting the ball in the hoop. It’s one of the best things in my life. But when I leave it, I love human interaction and capturing content and being a part of it. … It’s part of the evolution of me.
Kevin Durant recently said he could see himself retiring at 35. Do you see yourself retiring at around that age?
What’s funny is, I’ve actually talked to him about that. Basketball really is a great vehicle to get to different places in your life, and I think that the value … for some individuals would change over time. It gets really redundant at times, answering the same questions every time you go into a season. The same things over and over again. After a while, you just become dedicated to the perfection of the craft rather than being enthralled with the lifestyle of being an NBA player. I think that’s part of not necessarily wanting to be subjected to just being an NBA player anymore. Business interests. Art. You can go into real estate. You can dive into so many different avenues, and once you aren’t necessarily committed to the game anymore, you’re afforded that time. For me, I want to go back to school. I want to really, really be engaged with the culture and society and effect change.
What were you thinking about when you were on the bench watching the Celtics take the Cavs to seven games? Were you frustrated that you couldn’t contribute?
For me, not being able to play, it completely sucked. Admiring these guys, awarding them for their efforts of what they accomplished is … that was the gratifying part for me. I was grateful to see that the identity that we were trying to form throughout the season was coming into full force, at the right time on the biggest stage. The young guys took the reins. They took advantage of the opportunity. I was nothing short of proud of them. Obviously, not being able to play, you have to put yourself aside and separate yourself emotionally from that, because it becomes tough. As an athlete, that I really, really … I don’t even know how to explain it to you … how much I enjoy being on those type of stages. Since I was a kid. Those are the biggest kind of rewarding experiences for me, because you learn so much from them. I tried my whole life to play with the best of the best, and that right there is like the best of the best. … Playing in the playoffs is like … woof! The feeling of it, preparation, the mental stimulant of it, is awesome. I love it. You challenge yourself to unbelievable heights to get a championship. I definitely wanted to be a part of that, but I was definitely there supporting the guys as much as I could be. Just giving them my affection. My knee … it was a rough two months.
How confident are you that you’ll be a Celtic long term?
We have an incredible organization. I think we’ve positioned ourselves for the future, and we’re taking steps in the right direction. I’ve been transparent with [Celtics general manager and president of basketball operations] Danny Ainge. Transparent with the ownership of what my intentions are going into this season. And after the season, what conversations are going to be needed to have in order for us to get on the same page. What I really want, which is to bring our team, all of us together, to a championship with us all being healthy. That’s where my focus is, and when that time comes, I’ll be ready to answer.
What’s your summer going to look like?
After Uncle Drew comes out, I’m back to my scheduled reality, which would mean getting back on the court and preparing for next year.
How much of Kyrie Irving is in the character of Uncle Drew?
A lot. I have an old soul to begin with.
I’ve heard that you guys had moments where you were playing basketball out of character when the cameras weren’t rolling. You and Nate Robinson were playing against your stunt doubles. What was it like just playing basketball for fun and not under the scope of NBA watchers?
I grew up playing outside, so being out on the court, playing streetball, is what I love to do. It wasn’t really a hard transition for me to go out there and want to school some youngbloods out there on the floor. It really wasn’t. That’s the purest form of basketball for me. You have the utmost freedom to try and do things that I necessarily wouldn’t do in a game. It was awesome.
Are you going to be Uncle Drew when you’re in your 70s?
Absolutely! For sure! I probably won’t be moving the way Uncle Drew is moving right now, but I definitely will be the s—-talker — just comedy. Like, ‘I’ve been through the world and back! What do you know?!’ I can only imagine, friggin’ what is it, 54 years from now? Just thinking about it is crazy.
I walked away from Uncle Drew feeling like it was a big love letter from you to the game of basketball.
It absolutely is that. I probably could be a little bit more poetic, if I wrote it down, but if I had a film that could really convey my love to the game, it would be Uncle Drew. I’ve been longing to be able to share that passion with a lot of people … the Uncle Drew [character] is just really simple. He lives life on his terms, free, just figuring out how to be a better man. And through that comes basketball, the love that I share with everyone else. It has enabled me to connect with my friends and other people, all through my love of the game. … And I think the most important thing is how much I’ve learned about myself through playing basketball. And how much I love it. So, yeah … it’s definitely what I was going for.