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By Derek Lawrence
March 05, 2021 at 12:30 PM EST
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King James is ready to build his New Legacy.

Ever since Space Jam became a pop culture juggernaut and cultural touchstone upon release in November 1996, there's been talk of a new installment. But once star and Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan blocked a return, a very odd and diverse list of possible successors were rumored, from Jackie Chan to Jeff Gordon to Tony Hawk. And just like all of the NBA debates over who would be the next Jordan, there seemed to be no one fit to wear the crown. That is, until LeBron James emerged as the answer to both.

After initially passing on the idea of starring in a Space Jam follow-up early in his career, the four-time NBA champ and MVP found Hollywood success off the court, between his scene-stealing turn in Trainwreck and a budding production empire in The SpringHill Company. And it all prepared him to make a position change: Space Jam: A New Legacy's leading man.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip) and produced by Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), James, and his longtime friend-business partner Maverick Carter, the new film (don't call it a sequel!) finds the Los Angeles Lakers star playing a heightened version of himself and struggling to relate to his young son Dom (Cedric Joe), who's more interested in creating games than playing them. When Dom's tech skills draw the attention of Don Cheadle's rogue A.I. character Al G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), the father-son duo get sucked into the Warner 3000 entertainment "Server-verse." To save his son and escape this virtual reality, James must round up the Looney Tunes, including a banished Bugs Bunny, to defeat the formidable Goon Squad.

As part of EW's April cover story, we chatted with James about turning the film down the first time, creating his own Space Jam legacy, and showing acting range that even surprised him.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going back to the very beginning of your relationship with Space Jam, you were 11 when the original was released, which is kind of the perfect age for it. So was it always one of those key films for you?

LEBRON JAMES: There were a lot of films for me, but Space Jam was definitely up there. Just growing up and loving the NBA, and obviously loving Michael Jordan, and loving the Looney Tunes, it was an automatic and a very organic blend between the two worlds. And it was fun to see what MJ and Bugs and Taz and all those great toons were able to go through in that first movie. It was pretty cool, man, as a kid, wanting to see inspiration from movies and from people that you look up to, and people that you watch on a day-to-day basis. So it definitely had a big part of my childhood.

Do you remember the first time you had the thought, "Could I maybe one day do a Space Jam movie?" Maybe not even when it was real conversations, but just a passing thought for a kid with dreams of playing in the NBA.

Nah, I can't remember the first thought. Because as a kid I had thoughts all the time about trying to be a better me, getting myself, getting my mother out of the situation we were in. If I was watching Space Jam, or if I was watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I was wanting to be the Fresh Prince and get my mom to Bel-Air. There was always shows or movies that I thought to myself, like, "And if I could be Batman, how cool would that be?" That's just the imagination of a kid.

When I talked to Maverick, he said the idea of you starring in a new Space Jam was originally floated to you guys about 15 years ago. Why did that timing not feel right? I'm sure it being so early in your NBA career had to factor in.

It's just like you said, it's all about timing. When it was brought to us 15 years ago, at that point in time, I didn't think I was ready to do anything of that magnitude. I wanted to continue to focus on my game, dedicate myself to the offseason, and give to the game as much as I could. I felt like I owed it to myself, to the game. When it was brought back, the timing was right for us, and we were able to dive into it. And now we're months away from the world actually seeing what we were able to create.

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

At any point throughout the process, whether the first time or this time, was there ever any apprehension about following MJ? Obviously you're already used to, and probably tired of, hearing the LeBron and MJ comparisons and debates. Or is that just something you couldn't let affect the decision?

In my younger days, part of the thinking, besides focusing on the game of basketball, was, "Space Jam was so good, how can I top this?" There's always going to be conversations about LeBron trying to do everything that Michael [did]. So when I was younger, you'd give in to those. But I've gotten older, and you know who you are. You know what you believe in, and you know what you stand for. Those type of conversations are going to happen anyway. They don't really get to you as much as they [would] when you're younger.

That makes sense. Have you had a chance at all, even in passing, to talk to MJ about you doing this? I don't know what kind of communication is allowed since he's the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, like that might be considered tampering or something.

[Laughs] No, I haven't had a conversation with Mike about Space Jam, but I hope to if he gets an opportunity to see the movie. I did my best to continue it. I think one thing that we will show the viewers is that it's not a sequel. It's its own movie and twist. But to be able to just be in the Space Jam world, it's something that Mike created and is his. I respect that, and I held that with lot of responsibility.

It feels weird to ask you of all people about possibly feeling pressure, given the big games and hostile atmospheres that you've dealt with in your basketball career, but were there any nerves when it came to starting Space Jam: A New Legacy? While you were great in Trainwreck and the other small acting things you've done, being the lead of a Space Jam movie is a different beast.

Oh yeah, there was definitely nerves leading up to it, just not knowing what to expect. This would be my first time being the lead of a movie, so definitely a lot of nerves, knowing that I had to carry the majority of the movie. But I prepared, and I was very focused on just being myself, and also giving myself to the film and to the cast, so we can make a very good movie for the viewers, for families. I think the families of the world are going to go out and see this, and be like, "Wow, this is a great family movie for all ages to be able to sit-down and relate to and enjoy and laugh." But as I got into it, and the days and weeks and went by, I started getting more and more comfortable.

Now that you're removed from production, was there one moment from it that will forever stick with you? As a Space Jam fan, I'm sure there was a bit of pinching yourself early on.

I think the first time I put on the uniform and the court was laid down. I don't remember if it was week two or three, but I had that wow moment, like, "Mama, I'm doing this. [I'm] really shooting Space Jam." It was definitely a proud moment, just to be in a position where Warner Bros. and everyone would feel confident in my abilities to be part of Space Jam. I'm very humbled by that.

SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

What was filming like on this? Sounds like it was long hours, not to mention it took up your last two offseasons.

It's definitely different from basketball, that's for sure. A lot of long days. I would start my morning pretty much around 3 a.m. Warner Bros., they built a gym for me and a weight room, so I would go there early, because I wanted to make sure I continued to prepare myself for the upcoming season. I would go train around 3:30 a.m. for about two hours. And then I would go on set around 7 a.m. and start preparing. There were some days that would go into the wee hours of the night. There were some days you would not have to go as long, but you never knew. You always had to be ready.

You mention the gym that Warner Bros. built for you on their lot in Burbank, just like they did with MJ. A lot of the legend surrounding Space Jam's production were those pick-up games that we always heard about and finally got little glimpses of in The Last Dance. It sounds like you guys had a little bit of that going on here too. How fun was it get to have that level of competition with your peers and costars during breaks?

Obviously MJ set the standard for that, to be able to have that gym there on set to get your workout in. So I took that from him. And to have a lot of my colleagues, a lot of my friends that are in the NBA come and be a part of the training and the runs that we had there, it was wonderful. It was beautiful and something I will never forget.

Speaking of your NBA colleagues, the non-MJ players were such a big part of Space Jam, from Charles Barkley to Muggsy Bogues. With New Legacy, how did you all decide on your supporting roster, which reportedly includes both NBA and WNBA players? Was there a lot of campaigning to be cast? I'm picturing your phone blowing up and guys whispering to you after games that they'd love to be in it.

[Laughs] Absolutely. 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. LOL. Asking for a friend." A lot of people my age or even younger just remember the classic. They remember Space Jam the original, and people want to be a part of it, because it's something that lasts forever, something that's timeless, and something that you can tell your kids and grandkids about.

So here we don't have the Monstars, instead the Tune Squad is facing the Goon Squad. What would be your scouting report of the Goon Squad? Is there maybe an NBA team comparison to be made?

No, there's no NBA team that compares to this team right now. The Goon Squad is probably the best team ever assembled in basketball history. Let me just tell you, between myself and the Tunes, we had our work cut out [for us].

You've essentially played in every possible big game, from the Olympics to the NBA Finals, and still this one has to rank high up on the list, right? As a Laker, you're accustomed to A-list actors in the stands, but the fans here are allegedly at another level. Then even throw in the stakes for you and your movie son.

Yeah, I've played in a lot of big games, as you mentioned, and this game, when you see the movie and the consequences of this game, you'll understand how huge it is. So a lot of pressure for the Tunes and I to be able to come through, because there's a lot riding on it. So, yes, it's one of the biggest games, if not the biggest game, I've ever played in.

We don't yet know the outcome of the Tune Squad and Goon Squad battle, but I couldn't help realize that if you win that one only a year after your Lakers became NBA champs when the season was concluded at the Disney World bubble, you'd be the first person to have a Looney Tunes title and a Disney title. Have you had a chance to consider what that will do for your legacy? I think that combo would be hard for anyone to ever top.

Absolutely. That's something that has crossed my mind a lot. [Laughs] We'll see what happens. I'm so excited. We've been talking about [New Legacy] for quite a while now, but it's almost here. We're sitting in February, and July is right around the corner, so I can't wait.

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

I have to get your comment on your costar Don Cheadle, who mentioned to me how he wasn't shy during filming about throwing a ball your way and saying, "Check up." He made it clear that you definitely beat him, but it sounded maybe like a He Got Game situation, where he surprised you early on and then you ran away with it.

Man, I love that guy. He's become one of my really good friends. He's an unbelievable guy, unbelievable professional, just great energy, great chemistry. And he already knows how to play basketball. Don't let him fool you. Don't let him tell you that he just picked it up fresh and he'd never seen the game before. But I was so delighted and happy to be able to work with him and to grow a relationship over the month that we had together. It was an incredible time.

In addition to Don, you have a couple costars that people may have heard of before: The Looney Tunes. Earlier you mentioned being a fan growing up, so was an intriguing part of the New Legacy appeal, to have the opportunity to reintroduce them to the world and a younger generation?

That was one of the biggest things for me, and for everyone that was a part of the film, to be able to reintroduce the Looney Tunes cast back to the world, back to the kids, back to the younger generation, back to even my generation. We all grew up with the Tunes and how funny and how loony and how crazy that gang was. That definitely gave me a lot of excitement, to be able to basically give them life once again, and into the world that we see it as today.

While we don't want to go full spoiler, our cover story did confirm rumors that New Legacy is cracking open the WB film vault. Without saying too much, as a fan of cinema, what was it like getting to dive in and explore and have fun with some true classic films and franchises?

You can look at the WB catalog and just see how many things they have in the archives. And for me to be able to travel through and be part of Wonder Woman, Casablanca, The Matrix, it was incredible. We were able to dive into some of those worlds, along with some other ones that… I gave you a couple, but I want to save some for the film. I couldn't believe it, to see some of the live footage that we were able to shoot, along with some of the digital and animation stuff to just bring it all together.

Space Jam: A New Legacy
Credit: Justin Lubin/Warner Bros.

Everyone involved with the film that I've talked to has raved about what you did on New Legacy as an actor, and really going to some emotional places that people maybe aren't going to expect from both you and Space Jam. Did you even surprise yourself a bit?

I wanted to dive into the character, even though I was playing LeBron James. And if there were times where I needed to be emotional, I wanted to dive into that. If there were times where I needed to be more outspoken or funny or whatever the case may be, I wanted to become that. It was fun to be able to be coached. Just like in the NBA, I like to be coached by my coaches. I was the same way on set, either from Don or from Malcolm, and just tried to tap into some things that maybe, like you said, surprised me as well.

Like for you, Space Jam holds such a special place in the hearts of so many of a certain age. So, as we're approaching the release of New Legacy, what would be your message to those diehard fans?

This is not a sequel. The movie stands on its own. But, more importantly, this movie is going to surprise a lot of people, because it brings up a lot about family and the dynamic between a father and son. 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. There's a lot of father-son moments that people are going to relate to, and I'm looking forward to people just getting the raw emotion out of it, and understanding and seeing what it's all about. It's a huge family movie, and I can't wait for people to get together and have their popcorn and everything that comes with it. It's going to be exciting.

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

To read more on Space Jam: A New Legacyorder the April issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning March 19. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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