'Ballers' Boss on 'Entourage' Comparisons and Making NFL Players "Relatable"

Showrunner Evan Reilly hopes to squash the "spoiled millionaire athletes" label with the new HBO comedy.

A half-hour HBO comedy geared toward guys and centered on the rich and famous. Sure, freshman series Ballers sounds a lot like the long-running hit Entourage — and even hails from Entourage executive producer Stephen Levinson — but the similarities end at the quick overview.

While Entourage centered on Vincent Chase's rise to the A-list, Ballers looks at life after football for new money manager Spencer Strassmore (Dwayne Johnson). Although he's no longer on the field, he serves as a guide to those still in the game professionally, personally and, most importantly, financially as he tries to make a name for himself in the finance world.

"Certainly I understand the comparisons might be drawn because Steve Levinson was executive producer on the show and it was on HBO, but to me they're two completely different things," showrunner Evan Reilly tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Ahead of the show's Sunday premiere, Reilly spoke with THR about the Spencer's "high aspirations," football players' "traumatic" rise to the top and how the show has changed how he watches football.

What intrigued you about the project?

I knew that we could do something special and very unique in a half-hour format. I hadn't seen a really great sports comedy in awhile.

The NBA Finals broke ratings records, and Sunday Night Football is consistently one of the top broadcast shows, so why did it take so long for a scripted sports series to get made?

I had tried to get a sports show up and going but it was more of a one-hour drama so that, again, is why Ballers really appealed to me. A better way to handle the type of material and the type of experiences that these guys go through is with some humor and with some comedy. Not to say that there's not a lot of dramatic elements to the show and a dramatic foundation to the show. These are real problems that these characters go through so to be to handle it with humor is an easier way to get the message across that these guys' lives are not as easy as we perceive them to be. It becomes a lot less like grandstanding and easier to swallow.

Coming from hourlong dramas like Rescue Me and The Walking Dead, how has the transition to a comedy been?

Growing up as a writer on Rescue Me, I learned everything that I know about comedy and about drama from [co-creator] Peter Tolan and [co-creator] Denis Leary. Peter obviously has a vast track record when it comes to comedy, as does Denis, but that show was a one-hour that had very, very dark dramatic elements. So I was getting to work both muscles all the time in the same show. … I applied so many of the things I learned from Peter and Denis on Rescue Me, which is that the comedy is always going to land a lot better if you have real traumatic stakes, and that's sort of the message that I try to apply to what we do on Ballers.

From the outside, these guys appear to have pretty easy lives. So what are the stakes for these characters?

They come from very meager beginnings, and they work their asses off for their entire lives to get to the highest level. … The problem is once you go from college into the pros, you go from being somebody who doesn't have any money — any wealth and a limited amount of fame or recognition — to being rich real quick. That's a very traumatic experience. It may seem like you have hit the lottery, but you see what happens to lottery winners; you see how that shock of overnight wealth has an effect on that person and the people around him: their families, their friends, people coming in and trying to pick off the spoils of the players' hard work. Ten years ago, I may have had that same point of view about it — why should I feel bad for these guys? They have all the money in the world. The problem is that they don’t necessarily have the tools to manage that, and that is what makes Spencer such a compelling character because he's the guy who’s going to step in and help them understand what's going on in their lives and what's going with their finances. It's goes further beyond just their money. It's really about trying to help mentor the guys and give them a better understanding of the thing that they're going through because Spencer has gone through it himself.

What keeps Spencer in the world of football and close to these guys even though he's not playing the game anymore?

He's a great looking guy, he's got a lot of charm, he could go on television but he doesn’t want to do that. He could possibly coach, but he doesn’t want to do that. Spencer has a bigger picture trajectory in his mind. He has really very high aspirations, and finance is the beginning of that bigger journey.

How will we see Spencer evolve over the first season? What are some of the obstacles he faces?

When you see him in the first few episodes, he's just finally starting to get activated and get his footing and starting to feel a sense of momentum and confidence. But his trajectory is not just in that business world, there are a lot of personal things that he's wrestling with and there are some demons that need to be put to rest. He needs to redeem himself for some things that he did in his past, mistakes that he's made. The guy went through his entire football career playing a sport and maybe not having an opportunity to really grow up and mature. He's growing up a little bit now that he's outside of the game. He still likes to have fun; he still likes to get out there on the town. He's maturing in a way that maybe he wasn't able to when he was actually in the game and living the life.

What research did you do to get a better sense of these guys?

The most valuable asset was speaking to professional football players both current and retired face-to-face. We've had the benefit of having Rashard Mendenhall, who retired early, in our writer's room. We have guys like Terrell Suggs, who's a current player, come into our writer's room and talk to us. [There are] numerous other players that we have access to: coaches, front office people. A really, really important part of this show is authenticity. The thing won't land nearly as well if you don’t have all the information and you're not telling the story as honestly as you can, so thankfully through HBO's contacts, Steve Levinson's contacts, [executive producer] Pete Berg's contacts, we've managed to really speak to a lot of people and get a lot of different people's points of view.

What feedback have you gotten from these players about the show?

The reaction from the guys who have seen the show has been nothing but positive. They really feel like it's a very honest portrayal of the things that they go through. Certain things are heightened at times, maybe certain things are more dramatic, but if nothing else, it's a very honest portrayal of what these guys go for.

Do you have cameos from real players on the show?

Victor Cruz is probably the guy that we used the most. He expressed interest early on. Unfortunately, he had an injury that made him available. One of the issues with the show is that we filmed during the football season so it's not like guys can just jump on a plane and come down. We try not to lock ourselves into cameos. If we get opportunities, we'll do it … but the show is not built around cameos. They're a nice added sense of reality but the story is really about the characters that we created for the show.

What is the biggest thing you hope viewers take away from the show?

I hope they get a better understanding of what these guys put themselves through, what they sacrifice, that people stop seeing them as the rich, spoiled, irresponsible knuckleheads and get a sense that these are really relatable guys. These are regular people who are at the top of their game and we should appreciate the fact that they go through some pretty heavy stuff in their lives and not just label them as spoiled millionaire athletes.

Now that you've started working on this show, has it changed the way you watch the game?

When I watch the games, I'm more affected by the physicality of the play. I watch that more closely, and I feel it even more. It's enhanced the game for me because I know what the stakes are. I know how much these guys sacrifice of themselves, mentally, physically, emotionally, so it draws me deeper into it. It also sometimes makes me wince a little bit more.

Ballers premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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