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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty episode six, “Memento Mori.”]
Jason Segel gets it. When a project is based on actual people, there is going to be some level of pushback by the subjects or those who know them.
And Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty has been no exception. But Segel, who plays former Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Paul Westhead, notes that the HBO program is not a docuseries; rather, he sees it as a superhero origin story for the legendary 1980s Lakers team.
And it is with that understanding Segel went about playing Westhead, whose most consequential episode thus far is “Memento Mori.” The kind but meek Westhead is thrust into the top job after Lakers head coach Jack McKinney, played by Tracy Letts, is nearly killed in a bike accident.
Segel tells The Hollywood Reporter that Westhead’s deep insecurity in himself is certainly relatable, and playing such a version of the actual man was possible because, in the end, he knew it was all going to work out for the coach and his team.
Beyond being an L.A. native and former champion high school basketball player with the nickname “Dr. Dunk,” what was your research for Winning Time and this character?
(Laughs.) I wasn’t that familiar with Paul Westhead, and I don’t think many people are who are our age and younger. So, it was really cool to learn about him. What a fascinating story, to be thrust into head coaching before you’re ready for it and at the same time be grieving this injury to your best friend.
This version of Paul painfully lacks confidence. What has it been like to play that type of character?
Not believing in yourself is something hugely relatable. And then being called to lead when you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, it’s like everyone’s fear of public speaking, the, “Oh my God, don’t make everyone look at me!” I recently interviewed a therapist for another project I’m working on, and he said, “The human instinct is to avoid.” And I thought that was really interesting. And I think that is really true of Paul Westhead in the beginning.
Did you get a chance to speak with Paul, or was your preparation all literature and TV footage?
I read books, like Showtime, on which the series is based, and Paul’s book [The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball]. Paul and I had a brief exchange on Twitter saying how excited we mutually were. But the show is not a docuseries. I have always thought of it as a superhero origin story. It’s about these guys becoming the Showtime Lakers, each of them finding their individual superpower. And that is where you get the heightened moments and heightened arcs in the story. You’re watching a fable in a lot of ways.
Interesting you note that, as there has been some pushback over certain portrayals, such as Jerry West’s. Does that go along with the territory of such an undertaking?
I am not thrilled when anyone says anything about me in any way. (Laughs.) But I totally get it. I think the show is made with a ton of love. And the thing that always gave me confidence when I was playing the weaker sides of Paul Westhead is that I knew by the end of the series, I was bringing Paul to a place where he was hoisting a championship trophy, literally and metaphorically.
Quincy Isaiah (Magic Johnson) and Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) are just phenomenal. What’s it been like working with such talented up-and-comers?
The biggest joy of doing a show is watching the guys who are early on in their career get it so fast. There is a thing about acting that you click in; you’re not intimidated by the camera, you’re not afraid to deviate from your plan you made the night before. And things that took me a decade, these guys were doing within an episode. It was really cool. And I don’t mean that in any condescending, old-guard way. It was just like, “Holy shit. They get it.”
You and Adrien Brody (Pat Riley) have some fantastic moments trying to keep the wheels on the Lakers wagon. How was it to work with him and also Tracy Letts (Jack McKinney)?
I got to do most of my scenes with Tracy and Adrien, and I fell in love with both of them. Two wildly different dudes. Tracy and I are more similar stylistically. And the stylistic differences between Adrien and I are what really make those scenes come alive. It was exciting with Adrien because neither of us knew what the other was going to do. We are both confident in what we do. And both of those men, Paul and Pat, were in a power struggle.
Other castmembers have noted to me that the production process for this series, such as shooting on actual film, is unique, to say the least. What has it been like for you?
I will be in the middle of acting and all of a sudden a guy on rollerblades will whiz by with a camera. (Laughs.) And then there will be some steampunk-looking piece of equipment, and they’re shooting on some obscure film stock. And it just felt cool. You never know if something is working, but we definitely knew we were in something that was attempting to be special.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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