Interview – Viola Davis, Jason Bateman and the cast of ‘Air’

From award-winning director Ben Affleck (Argo, The Town), AIR reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This inspirational story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son’s immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.

Leading up to the release of the film, I was lucky enough to attend the press conferences for Air, in which stars Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Julius Tennon and Matthew Maher discussed how they became involved of the retelling of this iconic story.

Viola [Davis], what was your reaction to that initial phone call that told you Michael Jordan himself wanted you to play his mother?

Viola Davis: It was flattering. I do go into roles with a sense of imposter syndrome, thinking “do I belong?”. So, it was nice to feel wanted. But then, the next thought was about now stepping into the role. Watching videos on Dolores Jordan, I found she was a study in Zen neutrality. The woman is very, very steady and quiet. I would even imagine that when she gets made, she is still steady.

To really envelope that spirit was a challenge to me because I’m a woman who always has a chip on her shoulder. I go in bombastic. It was both flattering and challenging. But it was a just a joy to work with Matt and Ben, and all these terrific actors that I still talk about to this day. It was one of the greatest experiences.

And Julius, your character (Michael’s father) is the first to interact with Matt Damon’s character, but you know straight away that it is Dolores Jordan who is going to be the one to sit down and do the dealing. What aspects of your character were important to you?

Julius Tennon: Well, what I wanted to do was bring dignity and levity to Mr. Jordan. I mean, I’ve seen video of him with his son and how proud he is of that man. He’s protective of his wife. You know, he tells her in that scene: “Call me if you need me”. But he lets her do her thing because I know she could do her thing. He was a simple man, blue collar guy. But he wants his wife to know she’s there for him and I just wanted to depict that.

What were the draws for you to do this film, Jason [Bateman]? Was it the sports aspect, or perhaps the script?

Jason Bateman: Well, to be honest, the draw was really the subject matter. It was a big deal for people my age, when we were 15 or 16 and Jordan came into the league. Then with the shoes and everything.

But it was also the people involved. It’s 12 hours a day of work. You spend more time on set than you do at home, so the people was a big pull for me.

The writing was really great. They did all the tough work getting it together. I just got the lines right and stepped on the right marks!

Chris [Tucker], what was the collaboration like with Ben to bring your character of Howard to life with the amazing energy you give this performance?

Chris Tucker: It was so much fun. Ben told me right up that we’re making a movie about friends who are just out there having fun. And I knew Howard White, so I had access to talk to him for hours. I learned all about the people he meant to, like Charles Barkley, or people from his childhood, teachers and coaches. I thought we were having a quick conversations and he’d tell me about all these people that I needed to then go talk to. I got a lot of information together to really embody his spirit, his dialect and put it into the character. He was a glass half full, not a glass half empty kind of guy.

Ben and Matt are legends in their own right. When I heard they wanted to work with me, that’s a good thing. That’s a compliment! I wanted to work with them. I’d never been on a set with these big dogs who are ready to rock-and-roll. It was a lot of fun. Ben and Matt made it so comfortable. They’d come hang out in my trailer and it just felt like friends having fun.

Michael Jordan told Ben Affleck that George Raveling was an important person to him, and Marlon [Wayans], your performance as him is scene stealing. What was the research process like of finding more about who George was to Michael?

Marlon Wayans: I was the first one to shoot. I got the call on Friday, and we filmed it that next Monday! So, YouTube was my friend. A crash course on YouTube about George Raveling. But I learned that he was a fantastic man. He was the first black coach to win a national championship and he coached the Olympic team.

When I read his monologue in the script, finding out that him having the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech was real and in his possession, I just thought that was an amazing character to play. You know, the more you research, the more you can do in terms of your performance.

But what I love about when we were on set, Matt and Ben were adamant that we weren’t impersonating these people. That’s always, for an actor, the best thing you can do when you mix that person with my own emotions. The script was already so beautifully written, then when we got to play, I got out of my own head and really had fun. It felt like that every day on set, like it was going to be a magical movie.

The crowd were cracking up every time you were on screen, Chris [Messina]! You do ‘angry on the phone’ so well! But in some ways your character is separated from what is happening, but so essential to the outcome. What was that experience like as an actor?

Chris Messina: When Ben [Affleck] calls you up, you don’t even need to read the script. I’ve got to work with him three times and it’s always an amazing experience. You’re always surrounded by great artists in front of the camera and behind the camera. When I read it, I loved it, but I did think “oh, shit! There are a lot of phone calls”. And that was something I’d never really done in my career.

Normally, you make a phone call, the phone disconnects and you read the lines with a script supervisor. But for this, Matt and I were down the hallway from each other. We each had cameras on us and Ben would back and forth from room to room. We had a blast doing it. The script was amazing, but we could play with it and improvise.

The hardest part of doing this job is going on to the next one. Leaving these guys behind. Because the way he [Ben Affleck] puts the team of people together is phenomenal. You get very spoiled.

Matthew [Maher], your character is basically the sneakerhead GOAT! There is such a comfort in your character in the way he talks philosophically about the shoes. How deeply did you dive into the world of shoes and Nike for this role?

Matthew Maher: Peter Moore passed away a week before I was offered the movie. But I got read a lot about him. I watched a documentary that featured him and what struck me looking at his designs and his ideas, which were so amazing and ahead of their time, was how he was just a regular guy. He was very direct and would talk about his craft like pro athletes talk about what they do.

A genius is not always going to express himself very well, and that was hard in a way. So I decided not to get inside his genius mind, but really play the character that was written, which was a guy who was at a crossroads in his life. He’s having a mid-life crisis and he’s waiting for something to come along.

It was apparent in the script, but also in that documentary, that he’s a brilliant collaborator and he’s not precious about his ideas. He got an idea that was bigger than he is. And that’s what drew me to the script. It really felt authentic, the way they all worked together and solved problems. I appreciated the energy in those scenes.

Thank you to the cast of Air and to Warner Bros. for the access to the press conferences. Air is in cinemas April 5.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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