8:45pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Survivor's Remorse's' Jessie Usher on Season 2 Finale, 'Independence Day' Sequel, LeBron James' Acting
It was a season of maturation for Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) on Starz' Survivor's Remorse.
Still just a kid reveling in his first multimillion-dollar basketball contract and an even more lucrative shoe deal, Cam dealt with romance, sexually transmitted diseases, people from his past and even a potentially career-threatening injury as well as the eccentricities of his loud and ubiquitous family.
Out-of-nowhere stardom and recognizability is a process that Survivor's Remorse star Usher understands as well. The 23-year-old actor is enjoying his first high-profile starring role on the basketball comedy. Not to say that Cartoon Network's Level Up didn't have fans, but there's a different between the audience watching that show and being recognized by NBA superstars in Las Vegas.
Just as things are only getting crazier for Cam, Usher's got another leap in stardom ahead of him as one of the leads in Independence Day: Resurgence, which will open June 24, 2016, and shot in the hiatus between the second and third seasons of Survivor's Remorse. Usher, who calls Will Smith an idol, plays the son of Smith's character in the blockbuster sequel.
The Hollywood Reporter talked with Usher about Cam's maturation, his own growth and the growth of the show in its second season. The interview was conducted before Saturday's finale, so it has no spoilers for that big episode, though Usher does weigh in on Survivor's Remorse executive producer LeBron James' chops as a comedic actor.
There's also a little talk about the Independence Day sequel and how Will Smith-y his character actually will be.
Season one of Survivor's Remorse was short, only six episodes. Season two was a fuller 10. What was it like getting more and more into this character and this cast, and the rhythms of the show with more episodes? What was it like in Season two to really get into it on a more full level?
It's a learning process, like anything else. Fortunately, we were able to come back soon, so we were well-rested and everybody was ready to go. When we got back on set, it was like we picked up exactly where we left off. I think that was also because we had a lot of the same crewmembers back, fortunately. Coming back, we just continued to develop, what is Cam Calloway? Who is he, other than what he does? What kind of person is he? Whenever something comes up and he has to deal with the situation, we get to break it down and figure out how he does it compared to anyone else.
That's where we still are. Even now, when we come back, it'll be the same thing: How do we make sure we stay true to who Cam is?
Has the creative process changed from your point of view? You have a cast with a lot of comedy veterans who I assume are probably prone to improvising, ideally. Has it gotten to the point where the writers know your voices, and maybe there's less improv? Or does that mean there's more?
The writers have learned our voices, and that helps out quite a bit. From the page, we just understand each other. I know what they're trying to write when I read something. I know exactly how they want me to read it and throwing in whatever from the heat of the moment because that's the money right there. Sometimes I'll sit back and I'll watch episodes, and I can remember, "That was something that was to make each other laugh, and I guess they loved it as well," and they put it in the show, and then our audience ends up liking it. That's just kind of how it works, you know?
For you, as you've had the chance to do more and more of this, do you feel more comfortable in those make-each-other-laugh moments than you did when you started?
Oh, yeah. Clearly. In season one, [creator Mike O'Malley] was very, very strict about, "Can you guys make sure you learn your lines and everything is to the T, and as long as we have that down, then we can have room to play and experiment." Now, we understand him and how he writes. We understand all the writers, for the most part, and it just makes it a lot easier to improvise. Now that we worked together for so long, we know each other. Now, we kind of just trust each other more, and that's what makes the big difference.
This season, I like how Cam's maturity has really been this work in progress. Some episodes, he seems like he really is, as the premiere title said, a grown-ass man. In other episodes, he's absolutely and completely this kid out there in a candy store. Where do you see him as being in his journey?
If you think about it, between the first and second season, this hasn't even been a year that's gone by yet. This is all super, very, very new to him. Fortunately for him, he learned from mistakes he's made in his past. That's where the maturity comes in, and you start to see Cam growing up a little bit. He's going to learn from the mistakes he made in the first season in the second season, and he's going to make more mistakes, just different mistakes, in the third season. As he learns things, the maturity will grow.
It seems like the grown-up episodes are nice, but is it more fun to play Cam when he's at his more immature, like say, "The Injury" episode?
I don't know if I would say fun, but that was one of the most challenging episodes we've done. I think "The Injury" was either the most challenging or the top two. I don't know. I was stressed, and there was just so much dialogue for Cam, but we got through it, and everybody's always there to help. Honestly, I think it's more fun when Cam's in control. When he's in more control, then I feel more in control as him, and I'm able to just relax a little bit.
Is that because you understand or relate to the controlled side of him more?
Yeah, I think it's a bit of being able to understand that character and how he's gotten to where he is. It's also, when he's real worked up, being able to tap into those kind of emotions on-camera are more difficult. I have to focus on that more so than things that just come naturally, like being around the family and being able to just joke around, all those kind of things are just willy-nilly. I just walk on the set, everything is like, "OK, this is easy breezy." On the days when I'm coming in, and [Cam is] stressed out and acting on edge, then I'm working just that aspect the entire day, and it becomes more of a working process than just showing up and having fun.
As your own career is ramping up, does it feel like you have a better or different understanding of what Cam is going through?
Absolutely. (Laughs.) The things that I'm going through are all very new to me. There's all of a sudden a much higher level of fame that I'm having to deal with. There's so many Survivor's Remorse fans, even just in the second season compared to last season, the amount of people I run into has tripled, maybe even quadrupled. I'm having to deal with that, and then of course there's the family that's finally caught on like, "Oh, he actually does have his own show," having to deal with that, and friends and everybody who doesn't really know you starts to look at you differently. It's a process. It's something that takes some getting used to. No one can ever prepare you for it. You kind of just have to go through it and then be able to adjust accordingly.
When people approach you about loving the show, what do they seem to be responding to? Is it one of those, "Oh, I have a mother like that. I have a sister like that. I have a best friend like that" or do they relate to Cam on some level do you think?
It really depends. Everyone has a different story when they come up to me. Some people want to just keep it real short and sweet and say, "Hey man, I love your show, keep doing what you're doing." Sometimes, we'll get people who come up and say, "Oh my gosh. I can't believe you guys talked about ..." you know, like "beating a kid. That's exactly what my childhood was like." That's the best part. Or some people say, "Oh man, I hate hospitals, too. I love your show because you talk about specific things that occur in my life." I get a lot of that. That's what I like the most to hear, when they say that our show is relatable to them, because that's what we work so hard to ensure.
That has been one of the most interesting things about the second season. You had the domestic abuse episode, you talked about HPV, you talked about a lot of issues. Are there conversations that you guys have with the writers to make sure that certain important messages, as it were, get out in the episode? That certain themes resonate?
Absolutely. Before we went into the second season, they have a writers room where they sit down and brainstorm and come up with these stories and these ideas. We kind of all just went over there and threw stuff out at them, things that had been happening to us since the show started or things that had been occurring throughout our lives. Then they take that and they can make it happen to the Calloways. When that happens, then we know, "OK, this is something real at this part," this isn't just them coming up with whatever they think a professional athlete would come up with. They're talking to guys who are living the life that Cam is living and they're asking them, "What is the big problem? What are you guys dealing with? What's the common issues?" A lot of that makes it into the show, and then it's not just so much about them because this is just a regular family who just so happens to have a very talented basketball player.
Then we make it a much smaller scale, and we just start talking to everyday people and stories we hear, stuff like that. That's mostly how we get the material for this show. We want it to be real. It has to be authentic. If it's not, then we don't want it.
I know that in the past, Mike has talked about, and some of the actors have talked about, meeting actual NBA players. What contact have you had in the past year, or during season two, with basketball players about the show?
There was one weekend when me and my buddies decided to just pack up and go to Vegas, and every year tons of NBA players come to Vegas and they do a league thing there [during the] offseason. It just so happened to be that weekend. I was walking through the lobby of the hotel, and there was a ton of basketball players, I don't know where they're coming from, doesn't matter, but they all just stopped and was like, "Yo! Is that Cam Calloway?" (Laughs.) I'm looking at them like, "Is that James Harden?" I'm looking back at them the same way they're looking at me, and we get to have a little conversations like, "Hey man, we really love your show. There's a lot of things in there that people don't really get to see or don't hear about because no one wants to talk about it. Or people are too embarrassed to talk about it. [It's great] to be able to watch an outlet of things that's happening to us, that only we know about, that only we talk about."
It's great because sometimes you only hear about the glitz and the glamour of being a basketball player or you only hear about the major downfalls, and there's so much more involved that make them who they are. It helps explain why they had to go through these things or how they deal with it. To be able to get that kind of response, not only from professionals — college basketball players reach out on social media and say specifically, "Hey man, this episode from last week hit home for me. It's exactly what I feel in terms of" —whatever — "domestic abuse, or how I feel about some of these team owners." It's a very, very good feeling to be able to get that kind of response.
Have you gotten any consistent responses of things that you guys are maybe doing wrong or that they want to actually see from you, that they want to make sure that you guys get right in the future?
Not yet, no. Not yet. The only thing that I have heard sometimes, a lot of people will say — not even basketball players, these are just fans that have run into me — will be like, "Hey Jess, I love your show," this and that, "I wish Cam was funnier." (Laughs.) I always tell them, "If everybody's just cracking jokes 24/7, you probably wouldn't want to watch the show because you'd get tired of seeing the same thing over and over." Then they go, "Ah, I guess you're right." I'm like, "Yeah. You can't have five Mike Epps — it's too much."
You guys did finally have LeBron James on this season, but you didn't get to share any scenes with him. Is that the kind of thing where when LeBron shows up to shoot, everybody kind of coincidentally happens to have to be on set that day?
We know weeks and weeks and weeks in advance when he's going to come in. And of course everyone wants to be there. A lot of times, just to say hey. It could be for publicity or anything like that, when he comes through, so it's always a good thing. They always bring in people from Starz, and they want to make sure they get some good media coverage, all that kind of stuff. Unfortunately, I was not able to actually work with him on set, but we did get a chance to sit behind the scenes and watch a couple of other scenes that neither one of us was in together and kind of just throw out ideas and that kind of thing, to laugh and enjoy being on this show.
LeBron has been doing a lot of acting this year, it seems like. How would you rate him as a comedic actor?
(Laughs.) How would I rate him? Should I give him constructive criticism or ... (Laughs.) I don't know. For the most part, LeBron has been playing LeBron in the things I've seen him in. I kind of want to see him just play a different character. I think then we could actually say, "OK, this is the rating that we can give LeBron on his comedic acting." Don't get me wrong. I loved his performance in Survivor's Remorse, and I wish I could talk to him right now and let you talk to him about it. I think maybe after he does a few more things and comes out with a well-rounded collection of characters that he's played, then I can give him an adequate rating. (Laughs.)
Do you have a clear sense of the logistics for how LeBron James and Cam exist in the same universe. Are they peers? Do they play against each other sometimes? That confuses me a little bit.
It's not something that we've really touched on. In a sense, the timeline is now. So yeah, they would be peers and they would be guys in the league at the exact same time and they would be playing against each other because they obviously play for different teams. There's that, but we never actually said, "Hey man, you've got a game against LeBron, so you'd better be ready." We've never done that. That might be something interesting to throw into the third season. I'm glad you brought that up. I have to call Mike right now and talk to him about it. Maybe put Cam through some extra training or something, so he can be ready to play against LeBron next year.
How big a production-scale shift was it for you to go from this to the Independence Day sequel?
It was an entirely different animal. It's not like Survivor's Remorse is a small-scale show. It's a very well put together production, but it seems like Independence Day was another world. It was an entirely different process. When we shoot Survivor's, we do sometimes four or five scenes a day, and we're really just knocking it down. It's all about timing, and that's television. When we get to Independence Day, sometimes we wouldn't even finish one scene in a day. It would take two or three days to finish one scene. That was blowing my mind. I'm used to having to learn five to 10 pages of dialogue; I get there, and I'm learning one-eighth of a page.
It's completely different, but in the end, it turns out to be the same amount of work because that one-eighth of a page has so much happening when you're doing a film like Independence Day that the preparation is almost the same. It takes the same amount of time, you know what I mean, to be able to grasp everything that's going to happen when you're in an alien fighter ship is like some next level. (Laughs.) It's crazy.
Talking about Cam as a kid in a candy store, but for you as an actor, how much is that a candy store experience being, as you say, in an alien space ship or something like that?
I can't even explain it. I was excited for stuff that everyone probably thought was the lamest thing ever. I was in fittings like, "Oh, I get to wear this bomber jacket?" Everything that happened in that film was like being a kid in a candy store. I love sci-fi movies, so the fact that I was able to be a part of one and then one on this scale, of course, was like a dream come true. It's hard to explain. Everything that happened, every day that something new was coming up, I got that same feeling again, which made it a lot of fun.
You've talked about Will Smith being a role model or idol, and you're play here his character's son. How Will Smith-y is this character you're playing, and how much did you think of him as being Will Smith-y, I guess?
It was always in the back of my mind every day. When I got the character breakdown and I read the script a few times, it didn't call for it to be Will Smith-y. It said, you can imagine, someone growing up in the household where your father just saved the world. All of a sudden, you're world famous, and then, of course, now everyone is looking at you like, "Well, your dad saved the world, so what are you going to do?" It becomes way more serious than the vibe Will Smith had playing Steven Hiller. Now all of a sudden, this kid, he's very prestigious, and he's looked upon in the way that everyone expected him to carry himself a certain way since that happened. That was at a very young age, so he's grown up with all this pressure. Although every once in a while you'll see a little bit of his father come out of him, but not so much. It's not very Will Smith-y.