Dream Team: LeBron James joins the Tune Squad in Space Jam: A New Legacy first look
For years LeBron James blocked questions about the most animated — and top secret — moment of his career. But now he's wide open.
"It's one of the biggest games, if not the biggest game, I've ever played in," he says. "The Goon Squad is probably the best team ever assembled in basketball history."
James, 36, is speaking one night in February after casually racking up 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists in a decisive victory. No offense to the Denver Nuggets, the most recent victim in James and the Los Angeles Lakers' title defense, but the four-time NBA champ is discussing more intimidating circumstances, raising the question: With 16 All-Star appearances, four league MVP awards, and two Olympic gold medals, what adversity has King James not faced? What superteam has he not defeated, what stadium full of booing fans has he not conquered?
Hollywood royalty like Batman and King Kong courtside, for one. Not to mention the Goon Squad's powered-up roster of pros. Enter Space Jam: A New Legacy. James' well-received supporting roles and production empire aside, the film is a pricey test of both the athlete's crossover appeal as a leading man and a changing industry model: It's set to be one of the first event movies to welcome audiences back to theaters this summer, while its box office receipts battle the draw of a simultaneous July 16 streaming release on HBO Max.
"If you say theatrical movie, Space Jam is it," director Malcolm D. Lee insists. If James can overcome those odds, and save himself and his onscreen son from being trapped in the digital world of a rogue A.I. with an uncanny resemblance to Don Cheadle, he can add "A-list movie star" to his lengthy list of achievements.
The Space Jam franchise has been here before. Twenty-five years ago, the original was more than a surprise slam dunk — it was a pop culture juggernaut. Inspired by Nike's "Hare Jordan" ads, the film followed Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and Looney Tunes frontman Bugs Bunny as they teamed up with the rest of the Tune Squad to take down the Monstars, a squad of undersized aliens who stole the mojo of Jordan's fellow NBA greats. The result was a win for everyone involved: Warner Bros. scored a $230 million hit, not to mention a billion-dollar merchandise empire; the soundtrack went six times platinum; and Jordan cemented his status as a global icon. "It felt like a real cultural moment," says New Legacy producer Ryan Coogler, who proudly recalls performing the film's track "Hit 'Em High" at his middle school talent show.
Warner Bros. hoped to follow Space Jam with a sequel. But Jordan wasn't interested, and attempts to move forward with other celebrities, such as Jackie Chan and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, stalled. The studio eventually delivered 2003's Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a commercial failure that halted any future big-screen adventures for Bugs & Co. That is, until a new potential star emerged.
Ever since James was a teenager, landing the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17, he's heard the Jordan comparisons, from the similar on-court dominance to the shared jersey number, 23. "Michael Jordan transcended sports," says Lee, who, like his cousin Spike (who allegedly was approached for a script polish on original Space Jam), is a die-hard fan of Jordan's favorite '90s punching bag, the New York Knicks. "LeBron is arguably in that category. Now, there's probably no LeBron without Jordan, and I'm sure he would admit that. But he's a once-in-a-generation player. I love who LeBron is as a man, as an athlete, as an activist."
That last bit is where James has carved out a unique legacy. While Jordan famously let his game do the talking — once joking, "Republicans buy sneakers too" — ahead of last year's election, James cofounded More Than a Vote, an organization that pushed to increase voter registration in the Black community. In 2018, through the LeBron James Family Foundation, he opened the I Promise School in his hometown, Akron, Ohio. "I understand how difficult it is for someone to get out [of] where I come from," says James. "These kids have the same aspirations I had, and the only difference at times is someone believing in them." As his longtime friend and business manager, Maverick Carter knows firsthand what makes James a true King: "The greatest thing he does is empower others, including myself, to achieve their dreams."
Growing up in the Midwest in the '90s, it was impossible for James to not aspire to be the next MJ, which made Jordan's team-up with the Tunes "a big part of my childhood," he says. He was intrigued when first approached to star in a new Space Jam 15 years ago, but like the great assist man he is, he passed. "I didn't think I was ready to do anything of that magnitude," James admits. "I wanted to continue to focus on my game and give it as much as I could."
While doing that, he also expanded his footprint as a businessman and media mogul. In 2007, he hosted Saturday Night Live with charming ease; two years later, he appeared on Entourage; and in 2013 he launched his own production company, SpringHill Entertainment, with Carter, backing Starz's basketball dramedy Survivor's Remorse and hosting HBO's talk show The Shop.
The game changer in terms of acting, though, came when Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow cast James in 2015's Trainwreck. Imagine the classic rom-com best friend, only as a goofily earnest (and comically thrifty) version of LeBron James. "Amy wrote LeBron into the script almost as a joke, because he was the dream person we thought we'd never get," Apatow says. "Bill Hader said he was really funny and a great guy when he hosted SNL. One weekend, Bill and I took him to lunch and pitched him the idea for his character. He got it immediately. I thought if he wasn't funny we could get something out of him, but then he shows up and his acting is very strong and he has this hilarious take on how he wants todo it. He's funny from take 1."
After his movie break, James felt ready to step into Jordan's famous shoes, and years of rumors (often fueled by James on social media) started becoming a reality. SpringHill signed a production deal with Warner Bros. in 2015; a year later, New Legacy was officially a go. "In my younger days, part of my thinking was 'Space Jam was so good, how can I top this?' " James says. "There's always going to be conversations about LeBron trying to do everything Michael [did]. But I've gotten older, and you know who you are. You know what you stand for."
In a twist of fate, the project truly came into form thanks to Michael Jordan — but not the one you think. Michael B. Jordan introduced Coogler, his Fruitvale Station director, to Carter in 2014, and a friendship developed. That led to Carter making a perfectly timed call just as Coogler was wrapping Black Panther and initiating his new production company, Proximity. Lee (Girls Trip) would later sign on as director. According to Coogler, whose brother Keenan is one of New Legacy's screenwriters, the project's long gestation period gave them time to find their own take. "The general idea was the examination of Black fatherhood and how fatherhood could be unique to LeBron James specifically," he says. James, a father of three, adds, "There are parents who want to push their kids to do certain things because this is what they do, but sometimes you have to look into a kid and be able to have an open mind and ear to help them become the thing they've dreamed of."
As a lifelong James fan and an L.A. native, 16-year-old Cedric Joe was ecstatic when his favorite player signed with his favorite team in 2018. "That was the greatest thing in basketball history for me," he says. "I was like, 'What more can happen?'"
How about being cast as James' son? "I cried tears of joy," Joe remembers. James' onscreen family would be rounded out by Ceyair Wright as older son Darius, Harper Leigh Alexander as daughter Xosha, and Sonequa Martin-Green as wife Kamiyah. The Star Trek: Discovery actress says the group quickly bonded over James' favorite food. "When we were still in prep, we all went to the house we shot in and made tacos," says Martin-Green, 36. "We didn't know where anything was in the kitchen and were just making a complete mess, but were getting to know each other and feel what it's like for us to be a family in this story."
Oh yes, the story! Playing a heightened version of himself, James struggles to relate to Joe's Dom, who's much more interested in creating games than playing them. When Dom's tech skills draw the attention of a CGI humanoid named Al G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), the father-son duo get sucked into the Warner 3000 entertainment "Server-verse," with the A.I. kidnapping Dom in the hopes of stealing some of the King's followers (IRL he has about 80 million on Instagram). Cheadle doesn't consider Al G a bad guy (what bad guy does?), but rather "an A.I. with a chip on his shoulder," says the MCU veteran.
This being a Space Jam movie, a basketball game settles things once and for all. To save his son and escape this virtual reality, James must round up the Tunes, including a banished Bugs, to defeat the formidable Goon Squad. Much of the early discussion on New Legacy centered on the reintroduction of Bugs, Lola Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety, and the rest of the Tune Squad. "Kids are [now] more likely to watch other kids' YouTube channels than cartoons," Coogler says. "It was a bit challenging to think about, but we were reminded very quickly why the Looney Tunes work. When we watch the parts of the film [featuring] the Tunes, you have a smile come over your face because, if you're from our generation, you miss them."
They will be in good Warner Bros. company. When James is sucked into the WB server, he drifts through some of the studio's most famous films to track down his underdog squad. "It was a tricky thing just in terms of what you may want, like, 'Oh my God, look, there's Mad Max, and there's Casablanca!'" Lee explains. (James also mentioned The Matrix and Wonder Woman as part of the WB look back, though no title is confirmed yet.) In addition to entering these worlds, "we have a lot of the WB characters at the game, watching like they do at Rucker Park," Lee says, referencing the historic NYC street court.
Basketball courts were never lacking on the Space Jam set, between those used for filming and, as the studio did for Jordan 25 years ago, the one Warner Bros. built for James on the Burbank lot, allowing the star to work out and hold some legendary pickup games during production. Such runs included James' NBA and WNBA peers, many of whom hadn't been shy with their campaigning to be in New Legacy. "The phone would ring, the texts would come in, and then on social media a lot of people were tweeting at me saying, 'Hey, I'm available for Space Jam if you need me," James says with a laugh. "People want to be a part of it, because it's timeless." (Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, and Diana Taurasi are among the hoopers reportedly costarring.)
New Legacy, filmed over the last two NBA off-seasons, forced an oft-grueling schedule for James. "It's definitely different from basketball," James says. "A lot of long days. I would go train around 3:30 a.m. for about two hours. And then I would go on set and start preparing. There were some days that would go into the wee hours of the night. You always had to be ready." Including for some muscle-memory tests. "It was pretty easy in a down moment to pick up a ball and throw it to LeBron, like, 'Check up,'" Cheadle says. "You always get away with a couple [baskets]. And then [he] shows you that you have no chance."
While James' basketball prowess is expected, the New Legacy team believes audiences won't see the film's emotional depth coming. "We go deeper and attempt to tug at the heartstrings," says Lee, who admits to "getting a little misty" thinking about a particular scene where James "just delivered." And even if James was playing himself, the rookie leading man knew it wasn't going to be as simple as rolling the ball out. "There were definitely nerves leading up to it, just not knowing what to expect," James says. "I wanted to dive into the character, even though I was playing LeBron James." Cheadle was impressed by his costar's dedication, noting he has "more acting to do" than Jordan did. "We rehearsed a lot, running lines off to the side, discussing what these characters want, all the stuff you would do with any actor," Cheadle says. "At one point I was like, 'You know you can be much more of a diva than you're being right now?' "
Although James opted against an acting coach on Trainwreck, Lee and Cheadle schooled him on New Legacy. "Just like in the NBA, I like to be coached by my coaches," James explains. "I was the same way on set." Cheadle sees so much onscreen potential in James' future that he feels the need to issue a warning: "I would tell him, if he got too good at it, he needs to stay in his own lane. He's got enough shine!"
Everyone involved is quick to stress that this is no sequel, that New Legacy will stand on its own. Cheadle, however, wants to start a new argument about the two basketball — and Space Jam — GOATs: "Who is going to be the first to get an Oscar? Let's have that debate." Don't take this personally, MJ, but for Lee, there's no debate. "Space Jam: A New Legacy is a better movie than Space Jam," he declares. "LeBron's got that going for him."
James admits that he's yet to have any conversations with Jordan about their now-shared universe, and if his predecessor sees New Legacy, he hopes for his approval. "It's something Mike created and is his," he says. "I held that with a lot of responsibility."
So to recap: James has to follow in his idol's footsteps, breathe new life into a beloved franchise, and rescue the moviegoing experience? That's all, folks!
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