[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty episode six, “Memento Mori.”]
Jason Segel understands that. When a project is based on actual people, there will be some degree of pushback from 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 documentary series; rather, he sees it as a superhero origin story for the legendary 1980s Lakers team.
And it is with that understanding that Segel set out to play Westhead, whose most consistent episode to date is “Memento Mori.” The friendly but meek Westhead is thrown into the top job after Lakers head coach Jack McKinney, played by Tracy Letts, is nearly killed in a bicycle accident.
Segel tells The Hollywood Reporter that Westhead’s deep insecurities in himself can certainly be related, and that playing such a version of the actual man was possible because he ultimately knew it would all work out for the coach and his team.
In addition to being an LA native and former high school basketball player nicknamed “Dr. Dunk,” what was your research for? Winning time and this character?
(Laughs.) I was not that familiar with Paul Westhead and I do not think many people are our age and younger. So it was really cool to learn about him. What a fascinating story to be thrown into head coaching before you are ready for it, while grieving over this injury to your best friend.
This version of Paul lacks painful self-confidence. How has it been to play that type of character?
Not believing in oneself is something hugely related. And so to be called to lead when you suffer from fraudulent syndrome, it’s like everyone’s fear of speaking in public, “Oh my God, do not let 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 that I thought was really interesting. And I think that’s right for Paul Westhead in the beginning.
Did you get a chance to talk to Paul, or was your preparation exclusively literature and TV recordings?
I read books, e.g. Showtimewhich the series is based on, and Paul’s book [The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball]. Paul and I had a brief exchange on Twitter where they said how excited we were mutually. But the show is not a documentary. I’ve always thought of it as a superhero origin story. It’s about these guys becoming Showtime Lakers, and each of them finds their individual superpower. And this is where you get the elevated moments and increased arcs in the story. You see a fable in many ways.
It is interesting that you notice this as there has been some decline over certain portraits, such as Jerry Wests. Does it fit in with such a business area?
I’m not thrilled when someone says something about me in any way. (Laughs.) But I understand it completely. I think the series is made with lots of love. And what always gave me confidence when I played against the weak sides of Paul Westhead is that by the end of the series, I knew I was bringing Paul to a place where he hoisted a championship trophy, literally and metaphorically.
Quincy Isaiah (Magic Johnson) and Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) are just phenomenal. What has it been like working with such talented up-and-comers?
The biggest joy of doing a show is seeing the guys who are early in their careers get it so fast. There is one thing about acting that one clicks into; you are not intimidated by the camera, you are not afraid to deviate from your plan you made the night before. And things that took me a decade made these guys within an episode. It was really cool. And I do not mean that in any condescending, old-fashioned way. It was like, “Holy shit. They get it.”
You and Adrien Brody (Pat Riley) are having some amazing moments trying to keep the wheels on the Lakers carriage. What was it like working 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 guys. Tracy and I look more stylistically similar. And the stylistic differences between Adrien and I are what really make these 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 these men, Paul and Pat, were in a power struggle.
Other cast members have noticed for me that the production process for this series, such as footage on actual movies, is unique to say the least. How has it been for you?
I want to be in the middle of the play, and suddenly a guy on roller skates will whiz by with a camera. (Laughs.) And then there will be some steampunk-like equipment, and they record on some obscure movie repository. And it just felt cool. You never know if something will work, but we certainly knew we were in for something special.
The interview is edited for length and clarity.