Twenty years ago, Michael B. Jordan — who next plays U.S. Navy SEAL John Clark in Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Paramount feature was acquired by Amazon, where it bows April 30) — got his big-screen break in the 2001 Keanu Reeves film Hardball.
Jordan, 34, was just 13 when director Brian Robbins auditioned him to play Jamal, the eldest of a group of Chicago boys who make up a hopeless baseball team.
“I remember him coming in the room and being super charismatic,” says Robbins, 57, director of Good Burger (1997) and Varsity Blues (1999) and now president of Nickelodeon and Kids & Family Entertainment at ViacomCBS. “He was very confident — but not arrogant — and extremely likable.”
The team becomes a lot less hopeless after Reeves’ character, a ticket scalper and gambling addict, agrees to coach them to pay off a $6,000 debt. In the great tradition of The Bad News Bears and The Mighty Ducks, the fun of the film is in watching the group of trash-talking underdogs discover their inner champions. Hardball went into production a year after The Matrix‘s 1999 release, which had turned Reeves into one of the biggest stars in the world.
“The Matrix was such a big thing,” Robbins says. “The kids would goof around with Keanu, re-enacting scenes, like dodging bullets in slow motion. They were in awe of Keanu. All these kids were new and raw and had never made a film before.”
Recalls Jordan: “While we were in production, Keanu took the whole cast out to dinner and we had a chance to meet [his Matrix co-star] Laurence Fishburne. To this day, I still remember thinking to myself in astonishment, ‘I guess this is what movie stars do — take their casts out to dinner with other big actors.’ So much respect for Keanu and Laurence. It really was such a cool moment with two of my heroes.”
Hardball had the bad luck to be released Sept. 14, the first weekend after the 9/11 attacks. “There was a lot of debate,” Robbins recalls. “But Paramount still opened it. It opened at number one.”
This story first appeared in the April 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.