There was one thing directors Josh and Benny Safdie knew for certain about former Celtics star Kevin Garnett when they cast him in Uncut Gems, now a critically acclaimed film: They despised him.
"The problem is, Benny and I have a sickness. It's called being a Knicks fan," Josh explains. "I got to admit, Kevin as a player, I hated him more than anyone, because he was so good. He always killed us."
"It made me jealous of all the people who got to love Kevin as a player," Benny says of the film, which comes out Dec. 13. "Because as an actor, he was amazing to work with."
Garnett is a central figure in Uncut Gems, playing himself in the relentless, anxiety-inducing thriller starring an excellent Adam Sandler. In his supporting role, Garnett seeks to acquire an Ethiopian black opal from Sandler's character—a jeweler and compulsive gambler—a fixation that drives the movie's plot, which takes place during a 2012 postseason series between Garnett's Celtics and the 76ers. Garnett holds his own during his scenes with Sandler, adding dramatic heft to what could otherwise be seen as stunt casting.
"The first day we were all around each other, it was like we were all superheroes," Garnett says of the energy on the set. "And everybody had a superpower, and we were all sitting around learning each other's powers. I'm not surprised at the noise this movie is getting, because it felt special."
The Safdie brothers typically give their actors detailed character biographies before filming begins. That process was different with Garnett, who plays a heightened version of himself. Instead, the directors pushed Garnett—starring in his first feature film—to dig deep into his past to determine why his character would be obsessed with the movie's titular gems, which come to hold superstitious value for the Celtics' forward and end up creating trouble for Sandler's character.
Garnett, according to the directors, approached his role with the trademark intensity he was famous for during his career, going so far as to chide people for being on their phones while on set. "Obviously the one thing everyone knows about Kevin as a player is that he's serious and there's a passion involved," Josh says. "He brought that on the film set."
KG, who landed the role after it was briefly attached to Amar'e Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant and Joel Embiid at various stages of production, described Sandler, the film's star and antihero, as a childhood idol. (Garnett's favorite Sandler movie is Billy Madison.) "A couple times I messed up. Adam picked it up and kept going," Garnett says. "The brilliance in Adam—I was able to see that through this. I'm just trying to soak it up."