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It’s somewhat hard to believe, but Adam Sandler — the guest on this edition of The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast, which was recorded in late 2022 in front of an audience at the Newport Beach Film Festival, where Sandler received the fest’s performance of the year award — has been a star for more than 30 years now.
Hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live in 1990, the Brooklyn-born comedian soon began appearing in his own sketches and won over audiences with his madcap man-child characters. He then transitioned to a film career, co-writing and starring in movies about lovable losers who win the day, like 1995’s Billy Madison, 1996’s Happy Gilmore and 1998’s The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy.
While Sandler, now 56, has continued to consistently pump out unabashedly goofy comedies to which audiences have flocked, he has also, with increasing frequency, taken aback critics by deploying serious acting chops in artier fare like 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, 2004’s Spanglish, 2007’s Reign Over Me, 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, 2019’s Uncut Gems and last summer’s Netflix basketball drama Hustle, in which he plays an NBA scout who makes the discovery of a lifetime, and for which he has received some of the best reviews of his career and, this week, the first SAG Award nomination of his career, for best actor.
You got into stand-up at 17. How did that happen?
I was filling out applications for college. I really was very stupid. All my friends were talking about what major they were going to be, and I was like, “I don’t even know what the majors are.” So I said to my brother Scott, “What should I major in?” And he said, “You should be an actor.” I go, “Oh, yeah? OK.” And he said, “You should be a comedian. You’re like Eddie Murphy.” I said, “Oh, OK. Yeah, I’ll do that.” He was going to Boston University, and he told me there was an open mic night there for comedians. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Comedians come down and do five minutes of material.” I said, “Yeah, let me do that.” He said, “I’ll get you a spot.” So I came onstage, I had a retainer in my mouth, and I was telling stories. Nobody was listening, they all hated me, and I heard one guy go, “Is that a retainer?!” I drove home with my brother that night, and he was like, “How do you feel? Are you all right?” I said, “What do you mean? That was great.” He goes, “Yeah, they didn’t like you. They didn’t like you at all.” I said, “No, I know. But it was exciting. I think I want to do that.”
While you were a student at NYU Tisch, you were doing a lot of stand-up in New York, and you were already getting professional work — you were on a few episodes of The Cosby Show and you were Stud Boy on MTV’s Remote Control. When you graduated and moved to L.A., what was the plan?
Budd Friedman, who started The Improv in New York and L.A., happened to be in the crowd one night and came up to me after my set. I had just gotten out of NYU, I was 21, and he said, “You plan on coming out to L.A.?” I said, “For what?” He goes, “Well, there’s much more work in L.A. if you want to be an actor.” I said, “Yeah, I guess I could do that.” He said, “Well, if you come out, I’ll put you on at The Improv on a Saturday night,” which was like, as good as it gets.
I’ve heard that Dennis Miller saw you performing in L.A. and urged Lorne Michaels to check you out.
Yes. Dennis saw me, he thought I was funny, and he was just great to me. And he called Lorne up and said, “You’ve got to see this kid.” Lorne saw me at the Chicago Improv — me, Chris Rock and three other comedians that were better than us — and for some reason, Lorne hired me and Chris.
Some say that, after several years at SNL, you and Chris Farley quit the show. You’ve said you both were fired. What actually happened?
It was kind of like them asking us to quit. There were new people at the network, and apparently they didn’t like me and Chris, so they kind of said goodbye to us in a nice way. Lorne was great to us, he wanted to protect us.
Your first big film vehicle was Billy Madison, about a guy forced by his dad to go back to grade school. Where did that idea come from?
I always thought it would be funny for a grown man to be in first grade again. It was kind of like Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School — we were ripping off Rodney a bit — but anyway, I would pitch it to people, and they’d be like, “I don’t know about that one …” No one wanted to do it. And then Bob Simonds, who did Problem Child — I loved Problem Child when I was younger — calls me up. He’d produced a movie I did, Airheads, and he said, “You know that script you and Tim [Herlihy] wrote, Billy Madison?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Do you still want to do that?” I said, “Of course I want to do that.” He goes, “I think I can get that made at Universal.”
A common theme that connects many of your movies, from Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy all the way through to Hustle, is your love of sports …
My friend Kyle McDonough was a great hockey player. His brother, Hubie, played for the Kings, and Kyle was a pro in Norway. Anyway, we were in ninth grade or something, and my father, who was a great golfer, took me and Kyle to a driving range in New Hampshire, and I was trying to hit the ball as far as I could to make my daddy love me. Kyle would go up there and just smack the crap out of it, and my father the whole time kept going, “Man, those hockey boys. They know how to hit.” And I was jealous. Then I was in my last year of college and went, “Man, that’d be a pretty funny movie idea: a guy with a hockey player mentality, being able to smack a ball pretty damn far and going on to become a golfer but not wanting to be one.”
Paul Thomas Anderson said that even in your funniest movies, like Happy Gilmore, he’d noticed a simmering rage to your characters that he wanted to bring out in this film that he wrote for you, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.
Yes, he would say that a lot. He’d say, “At the core, it’s an Adam Sandler movie, but just written differently.”
In the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, for which you earned widespread praise, you played a jeweler in New York’s Diamond District who’s also a gambling addict. I believe you weren’t going to do it until your wife intervened.
Yeah. She told me to do that one. I was scared in the beginning, just of being that big of a dicky human being, a guy who only gave a shit about himself. But Jackie read it, and she was just like, “You’ve got to do that movie. It’s so different for you.”
You and the Safdies will soon be reuniting, right?
They’ve been writing this movie we’re supposed to do together for a couple years. They just write hundreds and hundreds of pages. I’ll read them and I’ll say, “I like the part when this …” And they’ll be like, “Oh, that’s not in it anymore. We did a whole other thing. We’re going to send you a new draft.” They just don’t stop writing and thinking and coming at every angle they can, and this movie we’re going to do is pretty amazing. The first draft of the new one was 340 pages! It was insane and it was great.
For a hoops obsessive like yourself, shooting Hustle must have been like going to fantasy sports camp. What did you find most interesting about your character, NBA scout Stanley Sugarman?
I loved being a guy who cared about someone else so much. Yeah, he wanted to make a mark for himself — he’s been involved in the NBA for so long, and everybody in every job wants to say, “I was here too, man. I did a lot of stuff and I hope you noticed it.” But I just loved getting to be somebody for Juancho [Hernangómez, who plays Sugarman’s big discovery] who was fatherly and brotherly and just like a pro, a man who’s been around and is just trying to set a guy straight. I enjoyed being that character.
Do you see any thread that runs through all of your films?
I guess I connect to underdogs. In real life, I’ve always rooted for underdogs. When I go on a basketball court and I play people one-on-one, if someone says, “I’m going to kick your ass,” that’s usually a game where I go, “Oh, I’m going to win this time.” Because I’m an underdog and I’m very comfortable being an underdog.
Which line from your movies is most often quoted back to you?
I get a lot of different ones. “The price is wrong, bitch!” I hear that a lot. People like talking to me about Bob Barker.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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