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Noëlle Gentile, a onetime public school theater teacher in Brooklyn and upstate New York, spent months working with athletes-turned-actors Juancho Hernangomez, Anthony Edwards, Kenny Smith, Boban Marjanovic and legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving to prove their skills on and off the court. The film centers Sandler as Stanley Sugarman, a down-on-his-luck basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. After discovering a once-in-a-lifetime player with a rocky past (Hernangomez), Sugarman brings the phenom to the U.S. where, against the odds, they have one final shot to prove they have what it takes for the NBA.
Gentile got the shot after making her acting coach debut on his 2018 critically acclaimed indie, We the Animals. At the time, she was working with Youth FX, a film organization for young people of color, and a friend connected her with Zagar, who was on the hunt for someone to help with casting. She initially wasn’t interested due to a full plate with a pregnancy, teaching and directing a show. Zagar ended up coming to Gentile’s school for a scouting mission, and she wound up stepping in to help coach some of her students’ performances.
Zagar, impressed by what he saw, offered her a gig as an acting coach on We the Animals, a film that cast first-time performers in three lead roles as young brothers. The film was praised by critics for its authenticity, and it snagged a slew of nominations and special prizes including a NEXT Innovator Award for Zagar from the Sundance Film Festival.
Recalled Zagar to the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The kids never acted before and they had to do deep emotional work for the film, so I brought in an acting coach named Noëlle Gentile, and she brought out amazing work.” But once the ride with We the Animals was over, she resumed normal life. “I went back to teaching, directing multimedia theater pieces and working on original works,” she explained. “But when Adam and Jeremiah teamed up for [Hustle], Jeremiah reached out to me.”
Zagar, again to the Inquirer: “When Adam [Sandler] told me they wanted to work with real basketball players, I decided we needed to bring on somebody who could bring out what was deep inside of them. So we brought Noëlle on. There is a scene between Juancho and Adam, and Juancho is shaking and crying in the car — it was incredible. He put himself in that space, and it was Noëlle that helped him get there.”
Gentile says she tailors the process to the specific performance by using a combination of methods including script work, world-building, improv, guided meditation, exploring scenes and backstories, etc. “NBA players are incredibly disciplined because of what they do,” she explained. “The thing that’s the same is that all of us respond to having a space where we feel seen and respected and loved and a space where we can be vulnerable and explore. That is common in all spaces that I’ve worked and with all the different artists that I’ve worked with. You pay enough attention to somebody to see what their spark is and then just create space for them to drop in and be authentic.”
By the end of it, Dr. J called her “Coach” and she was in tears having to say goodbye to Hernangomez and Edwards. “I don’t think people can become vulnerable unless there’s a level of comfort there, and I don’t think you can make art without love being involved. For me, the biggest takeaway is that there was so much joy, bright spirits and love on this film,” she explained, even if it’s been surreal to now be able to say she’s got friends that play in the NBA.
“I grew up watching basketball with my dad. The level of respect they gave me was very humbling. I feel like I walked away from this with friendships that will last a long time,” she says, adding she’s already flown to Minnesota to see Edwards play for the Timberwolves and seen Hernangomez in action for the Utah Jazz. “They’re my friends now.”
Recently, she’s made a few more. Gentile segued to Chris Robinson’s Shooting Stars, about the life of LeBron James (a producer on Hustle), and also worked on another basketball-themed film, Jingyi Shao’s Chang Can Dunk. There’s maybe another project for Sandler’s Happy Madison on the horizon, and Gentile is also eager to direct a short film from a script she just finished.
In the meantime, she’s relishing the experience of carving out a new career path by following the art where it’s being made. “I love being on set and working with actors,” explains Gentile, a fan of Schitt’s Creek (“It got me through the pandemic”) and films like Drive My Car. “Sometimes life just happens and something appears and you follow it. I went from teaching high school to being on a massive movie set. It’s been a complete game-changer.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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