“Anything is possible.”
Those famous words from NBA legend Kevin Garnett after his team won the 2008 championship could also serve as the unofficial motto of Uncut Gems. Directors Benny and Josh Safdie’s 10-year mission to cast Adam Sandler in the lead role finally succeeded; Sandler took a break from critically demolished comedies to turn in the best performance of his career; Julia Fox casually decided to try her hand at acting and subsequently jumped off the screen in her debut film; and as on the basketball court, Garnett proved to be a magnetic force, playing himself in a major supporting role.
In fact, it was something of an upset that Garnett, who was just named a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame, even ended up in Uncut Gems. As New York natives and diehard Knicks fans, the Safdies originally had Amar’e Stoudemire in mind to portray the NBA player who becomes obsessed with Howard’s (Sandler) opal. But that didn’t work out, and neither did Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant or current Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid. So in stepped Garnett, an NBA champion, MVP, 15-time All-Star, and — worst of all in the Safdies’ minds — a Boston Celtic. It was difficult, but the Safdies would put aside the New York-Boston rivalry to cast Garnett, who rewarded them by delivering one of the great athlete screen performances of all time (Shaq in Kazaam just missed the list).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There were a lot of NBA players who were going to be in the film at one time or another, but can you take us through the process of how two hardcore Knicks fans cast a Celtics legend in Kevin Garnett?
BENNY SAFDIE: Being Knicks fans, we always wanted to work with Amar’e Stoudemire, because had that insane run, and then as we couldn’t make the movie, we just shifted with the times, and we were like, “All right, let’s just make it contemporary at this point.” And we wanted to do it with Joel Embiid, and he was attached. Then when production pushed back into the fall, we couldn’t work with an active player, and they gave us a whole list of people who we could work with, and we saw Kevin on the list and at first it was tough, because we didn’t even think about him because he destroyed us as Knick fans and it was so hard to kind of get over that. But then you realize he plays with such passion and energy that of course it’s going to work. And so we got on the phone and just immediately vibed and didn’t want to get off. I know Kevin had seen Lenny Cooke, a documentary that we had made, and he respected that, and I think from there we met in person and we just didn’t want to leave. The energy between us was incredible. There was a long process to get to where we are, but to tell you the truth, it totally disappeared and I can’t imagine this movie any other way.
Kevin, what was your first reaction when this opportunity was presented to you? Was acting even on your radar?
KEVIN GARNETT: Not at all. I kind of drilled my agent a little bit about what the opportunity was and asked them, “Why me?” To tell you the truth, I tried to talk myself out of it. We had a phone call that we took and the first thing Josh says to me, “I hate your f—ing guts, man, I’m a Knick fan,” and he just starts going in. I was like, “First off, get over it.”
BENNY and JOSH SAFDIE: [Laugh]
KEVIN GARNETT: And then secondly, they were so adamant about Amar’e and did he have time left on the clock [for an infamous near-buzzer-beater against the Celtics in 2010]. I was like, “These guys are mentally ill, like, they need help. They are not all together.” And then I talked to a friend who is in filmmaking and he said, “Actually, in dealing with people in Hollywood, you’re going to deal with more sick people who have these same type of consistencies that these guys have. This is Hollywood.” I was like, “Okay, that makes sense. I see why they can’t let this s— go.” There was definitely some synergy there. The second conversation I think went better than the first, and then it was undeniable after that. It was about how to implement all of this, and I think they did a great job of just capturing all this synergy and wherever they put it, in like bottles, whenever they were serving it, it was just perfect, because everybody who was a part of this project, I can’t see it without them in it. So it’s not a surprise that this film is doing so well. With the synergy in this, we all knew we was a part of something special.
The film is set during the second round of the 2012 NBA playoffs and focuses specially on the seven-game series between the Celtics and 76ers. As a Celtics fan, I remember this series well, but what was it about this period and series that made it the perfect one for you guys to use?
JOSH SAFDIE: When we met with Kevin and he was just such an electric storyteller and we realized that the passion was going to work really well for the role, then you start to go back and find the games that are going to work for this movie. And we had very strict confines: We had to find a good game, followed by a bad game, followed by a good game, all in succession. And Kevin is a pretty consistent player, every once and a while he has an off night, so we basically went through every game on Basketball-Reference.com from 2011, because the Weeknd was a part of the movie and that was as early as we could possibly go, all the way through. Like if we had some games like that in Brooklyn [Garnett was traded to the Nets in 2013], then it was going to be Brooklyn, and it would have been geographically easy. But we ended up seeing those couple playoff games, and allowing a playoff series to be the center of the movie felt so much more appropriate. So it really all just came down to the numbers and statistics. Brooklyn might have been harder than being a Celtics fan. Now I feel like when I’m watching that game, I’m rooting for everybody just as hard. When we saw [Garnett’s Celtic teammate] Paul Pierce at the screening, I was like, “Paul Pierce, I love Paul Pierce!” Because he was a part of that win.
We’re happy to have you as a Celtic fan.
GARNETT: I don’t think they’re ready for that.
JOSH SAFDIE: No, I’m only a 2012 Celtics fan.
GARNETT: I like that. It’s better than having this Knick-itis that these guys got. I told them to go get some treatment for that s—. Get a shot in the ass and get rid of this Knickness.
Kevin, you’ve been retired for a couple years now, so what was it like getting back into that 2012 mindset?
GARNETT: It wasn’t hard. I haven’t been that far removed from it. Every time you go to the playoffs and you start a series, you have an attachment to it. The possibilities are all there, it could go either way, and it’s probably the most uncertain time of the year. When you start to face a team for seven games, you know each other, there’s nothing new, and it’s a different type of mindset. The script took me back in a time warp. I remember watching some of the game with everybody, and it felt like we were watching a real game and didn’t know the results. I’ve played in so many series and you forget how intense and how some of the series ended up being. So it definitely took me back a bit, and it was fun to tap into those memories. For the most part, it was just about delivering. They were giving me this direction, and I was just trying to deliver.
BENNY SAFDIE: I do remember when we settled on that series, I was saying to Kevin, “It was hard to find a bad game in that one.”
GARNETT: Yeah, I was hitting. I will never forget, we were watching film, and I don’t think people really understand how teams watch film for playoffs: It’s like 12 hours, just in there all day, you’re taking a nap, you’re waking up, [Celtics coach] Doc Rivers is in your ass about something. He’s like, “K.G., look what you can do in this series, you’ve got to shoot this every time! I don’t care, shoot it.” And I did just that — and I couldn’t miss.
You’ve repeatedly come through and performed on the big stages of basketball, but were you a bit nervous as you prepared to step into this new arena?
GARNETT: I didn’t know what to expect. In the league, you kind of get a buildup and you come in from taking a nap and you’re rested, and you feel like you know what you’re doing. And you had shootaround that morning, so when you actually come into the arena, you put your jersey on and it gets more real. But when you come out of your trailer and they’re like, “Okay, they’re ready for him,” now it starts to hit you and you see everybody kind of get in their own zone and you’ve got people clearing out the set. As you build up to that point, it had a lot of parallels to sports. The walk out there, the anticipation, the buildup, all that. And for a second, when you have to be yourself and we’re in the jewelry joint, just talking, being guys, it was easy. But when I had to sit in front of Adam and go back and forth with him, that’s when I felt it a little bit, like, “Okay, you’ve got to bring it, you’ve got to deliver it. And you’ve got to be believable with this speech and be confident.” So I can say that I was chill and relaxed, but when we had to go back and forth, I was really locked in and I wanted to do well, and I wanted to follow the direction of Josh and Benny to a T, so much so that I could tell that I was different. I wasn’t so chatty, I was trying to focus. And that was probably the only time that I was a little nervous, if I’m being honest. Not nervous, but a little bit more anxious to deliver this, and put this pressure on myself to be able to do this. But they were giving me such great direction that it was very simple to follow that direction.
BENNY SAFDIE: And I remember during that scene I looked at Josh and said, “Wow, we’re getting so subtle, it’s incredible.” We were changing things so slightly, and Kevin would just nail it.
Josh and Benny, what was it like filming that first scene with Kevin when he shows up to Howard’s shop and Adam is just running around, coming in and out of the back room, throwing NBA questions at Kevin? That had to be surreal for you guys.
BENNY SAFDIE: For us, it was incredible to try and get as much insight into the game from an inside point of view. We were asking so many questions, and that scene in particular was just so much fun to hear Kevin riff with Adam. I think we did it like 15 times, and Adam just kept coming in and out of the room and it was just so awesome to see the two of them together. I remember at one point I said, “What are we thinking about this Lin character?” And he goes, “I think he’s legit,” and he like gave me hope there, it was exciting. It was just fun. And it was like Kevin mastered something new, like he was approaching it the same way he approached the game, which was trying to be the best at it, and you could really feel that, and the openness was incredible. He came totally ready to do something great.
JOSH SAFDIE: And last night we showed the movie to [former Knicks coach] Pat Riley, and meeting Pat was the same as meeting Kevin; I just had a million questions that you have to ask these people, because they’re titans, they’re gods, so you’ve got to ask. I said to Pat Riley, “The play was to dump it down to Pat for a jam when Ewing stepped out to guard the three?” And he goes, “That was the play. He was going to shoot it, but once he switched, you got to throw it to Pat.”
KEVIN: See how he couldn’t let that go? He’s still holding it.
JOSH SAFDIE: I can’t do it, it’s the Knickness.
Uncut Gems is in theaters now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.