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By Derek Lawrence
March 08, 2021 at 10:30 AM EST
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What happens when you put an Oscar nominee one-on-one with a four-time NBA MVP on a basketball court? You get Space Jam: A New Legacy and the occasional unexpected challenge.

It's hard to find an actor with a more diverse and distinguished résumé than Don Cheadle. He's been directed by Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh; he's acted opposite the likes of George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt (and that's just in the Ocean's Eleven series); he's a 10-time Emmy nominee; and there's his role in this little thing called the MCU. But he's now in uncharted territory as a rogue A.I. and LeBron James' nemesis in the highly-anticipated new Space Jam film.

"First of all, I've been wanting to work with Don Cheadle since I got in the business; ever since I saw him as Mouse in [1995's] Devil in a Blue Dress," says New Legacy director Malcolm D. Lee. "Don is brilliant, and it's not easy to display artificial intelligence in a way that is kid-friendly and going to cross as not human and still have human characteristics and emotions. Your antagonists have to be as interesting as your protagonists, like Darth Vader, Hans Gruber. You've got to have somebody who's formidable, that you want to watch, that you want to engage with, and be a little bit scared of."

Space Jam: A New Legacy
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Speaking to EW in January just hours after scoring another Golden Globe nod (this one for Showtime's Black Monday), Cheadle, 56, is still unsure what he can say about the top secret project and his character, Al G Rhythm, who sucks James and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) into the WB Server-verse. "I feel like I can talk about it and then I see the red dots show up on my forehead and I'm like, 'Oh, no, can't talk about that!'" he says with a laugh.

Thankfully, Cheadle doesn't block any of EW's questions on New Legacy, dishing on everything from whether Al G is a true bad guy to the new LeBron and Michael Jordan debate he hopes to start.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As someone who was already working in the business when the original came out in 1996, what is your relationship to Space Jam? You weren't the direct demo, I'd say.

DON CHEADLE: I mean, only a love for Jordan, and the Warner Bros. characters were always fun and cartoons I did grow up watching. So seeing that mash-up was super cool, although, yeah, I was not the target audience when it broke.

I like doing the math and imagining you were probably filming Boogie Nights as Space Jam came out. Just over on the complete other side of the spectrum.

[Laughs] Exactly. It made us think, "Oh, maybe we should animate Boogie Nights."

So knowing you weren't some diehard Space Jam fan, why was this an opportunity you couldn't pass up when it came your way?

What was pitched to me, what they wanted to do with my character, what was going to happen with LeBron, the conceit of the film and the opportunity to take a classic title like that and do another spin on it with the latest GOAT, being LeBron, I just thought, "Hey, this is cool." To get to play this really innovative character, which I don't even know how much I can talk about, or what you know. But I just thought it was going to be a cool family story with LeBron and a cool character to play opposite him.

Luckily I know enough now, because I went in thinking you might just be doing a voice, similar to Danny DeVito in the first one. But, no, there you, Don Cheadle, are in the flesh. Well, kind of. So tell me about your character, Al G Rhythm, or as much as you think you can.

I feel like I can talk about it and then I see the red dots show up on my forehead and I'm like, "Oh, no, can't talk about that!" [Laughs] Al G Rhythm, I guess we can say in some ways is LeBron's nemesis, but I don't think he sees himself in that way. People are like, "Is he the bad guy?" and I'm like, "I don't know if he's the bad guy." But he and LeBron do find themselves on opposite ends of the situation.

What was it like trying to figure out how to play artificial intelligence? Visually, he appears so advanced that he looks just like a human, but in your performance you surely still need to convey that he's not.

Right. I think it's something even into post-production we were still trying to figure out and tweak and understand really what makes this guy tick and what motivates him. Half of the fun is going into the mind of an A.I. What are their priorities? What do they think about themselves? What do they want everybody else to see? And he's an A.I. with a chip on his shoulder, so that was a lot of fun to figure out.

Space Jam: A New Legacy
Credit: Scott Garfield/Warner Bros.

I previously saw you mention doing 14-hour days during production, so definitely not a light gig. While you're no stranger big-budget, CGI films thanks to the MCU, what was filming like here?

It was really interesting. Obviously, a lot of it was highly technical, in dealing with blending the worlds of animation and live-action and CGI and just all the different things that we were trying to implement to tell this story. As you mentioned, the MCU, these worlds that are generated and these things that are created and you're really having to use a lot of your imagination. You see these preview storyboards and a lot of the animatics that they're going to do, and so much of it relies on your ability to put yourself in these environments that are not around you, that you're not seeing. And in that way it was very similar [to the MCU films], but it's always different when you're doing it with the different people who are tasked with creating that and the different actors you're with.

But, also, a lot of just straight acting, with LeBron and his family and getting to act opposite LeBron. He really took it seriously and was really funny and really smart and completely committed; during that same time he's trying to put the [Lakers] together and nursing an injury and going to practice, sometimes before shooting, sometimes after shooting. It was a lot.

You mentioned being a Jordan guy, and I remember previously talking to the original Space Jam director and he expressed skepticism of anyone else starring in a Space Jam film because of how transcendent MJ was at that point in time. You called LeBron is a new GOAT, so why is he perfectly suited to be the right person for this?

Well, I think in a way it is a logical handoff from one GOAT to the next. But also LeBron having to do some acting in this, some emotional stuff. I mean, he had more acting to do [than Jordan]. It's something that I don't think people anticipate. Like I said, he takes it very seriously and it was really important for him to get it right, and he could have obviously phoned it in and been like, "I'm LeBron James, deal with it." But we rehearsed a lot, running lines off to the side, discussing what these characters want, all the stuff you would do with any actor. So I was pretty impressed. At one point I was like, "You know you can be much more of a diva than you're being right now?"

LeBron has now played himself a few times, whether it be in Trainwreck or New Legacy, and he's proven that he has some comedy chops. If he wants one, what do you think his future is as an actor?

I think he's absolutely down for it and wants to work hard at it. I would tell him if he got too good at it, he needs to stay in his own lane. [Laughs] He's got enough shine!

The previous Space Jam "villain" stuck to sitting in the owner's box, whereas Al G seems to be possibly stepping on the court opposite LeBron. What can you say about being more in the action?

I'd say that I get to do a lot of stuff in the movie. I absolutely got to be on the court with LeBron and live out a lot of those fantasies vicariously through this A.I. and have all the best toys in the digital world. But, yeah, it was something that continued to change throughout the course of the movie as we were figuring out a lot of stuff on the fly, like who these guys are and how they related to one another.

Another real cool discovery in this movie is going to be C.J., who plays LeBron's son. He's amazing and a really sweet kid. And, again, somebody who came aboard a tough shoot and just really wanted to get it right.

Space Jam: A New Legacy
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

A big part of the legend of Space Jam's production is the pick-up games that took place on the Warner Bros. lot, which we even got a peek at in The Last Dance. With there being a bit of that on New Legacy too, were you trying to get in on some on it?

What was cool was one of our sets was a court, so we were filming on a basketball court a lot of the time. So it was pretty easy in a down moment to just pick up a ball and throw it to LeBron, like, "Check up." And he'd throw it back, like, "Okay, let's go." He was always game for that. And he and C.J. went at it all the time; they were always competing and him telling C.J. moves to work on, and it was just such a cool vibe. He's such a big kid in many ways.

For whatever reason you saying you'd tell LeBron to check up made me think of Denzel Washington and Ray Allen in He Got Game, with Denzel surprising him with a few moves.

Yeah, you always get away with a couple [baskets] because they just underestimate you and don't think you're serious. I'm like, "You know I played the GOAT, right? You really have to D up." (Cheadle played Earl "The GOAT" Manigault in 1996's Rebound) And then [he] shows you that you have no chance.

But I got that one bucket!

Exactly. You didn't block that one!

With the first Space Jam so clearly geared specifically towards kids, does this new film feel like it will be more in the sweet spot where all ages can appreciate it?

Every film hopes to hit a wide demographic of people that will enjoy it. Even if it's a kids movie you don't want the parents just are sitting there and blanking out, you want them to be able to have something to connect to as well. And I think this is more of a family movie than just a kids movie, and a lot of what is happening inside the movie is about what it means to be in a family, what it means to be yourself, and what identity is about. A lot of people can connect to all of those things, not just kids that are trying to figure that out for themselves.

As you mentioned, you were maybe the initial GOAT, followed by these these latest GOATs. But with there already being so many MJ and LeBron debates, do we worry that New Legacy will start up a whole new category in those conversations?

Worried? I think we're hoping. As long as they're talking about you. [Laughs] Let's get it poppin: Who's the better actor? Who is going to be the first to get an Oscar? Or an Emmy or Golden Globe? Let's have that debate. If you put them both in Lawrence of Arabia, who would win?

Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max.

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