Behind the Scenes of 'Space Jam: A New Legacy'

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" is now the No. 1 movie at the box office. Here is what it was like to be on set with LeBron James.
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There’s a thing that happens when you spend time around an NBA player: You get tempted to play basketball in front of him. This is something you should not do. You are not an NBA player, and no good can come from showing off your alleged skills. Especially if that player is one of the greatest of all time.

But there’s a thing that happens when you spend time around LeBron James: You get comfortable. Because James is warm and easygoing and fun to be around. You become friends and texting buddies. You get a supercool personalized LeBron handshake. And you end up shooting hoops, even though this is something you definitely should not do.

“Ummm, it didn't go quite as I expected,” says Cedric Joe, who plays James’ son in Space Jam: A New Legacy, which opened nationwide Friday.

He says this sheepishly, with a chuckle, because Joe—who was 14 when the movie was filmed in 2019—is just young enough not to be overly self-conscious and just old enough to see his error.

LEBRON JAMES and Director MALCOLM D. LEE on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release

LeBron James and Director Malcolm D. Lee on the set of “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

When the contest was free throws, Joe says he “matched” the four-time champion and four-time MVP. The three-point shooting? It went well for maybe one round—“and then all the other rounds, he would just beat me,” Joe says. “So I was like, I'm just going to stick to acting.”

The good news? Joe, now 16, is a sharp actor, and quite convincing as James’ son in the film. Also, he was a huge James fan even before they met two years ago, so getting this role was one of the greatest moments of his young life. And the actual job of working with James? Highly enjoyable, and surprisingly easy.

So said Joe, as did the film’s director Malcolm D. Lee and veteran actor Don Cheadle, who plays James’ nemesis “Al G. Rhythm” in the film. By all accounts, James was as committed to his fellow actors on the set as he famously is to his teammates on the court. And just as coachable.

“He was very directable,” said Lee, “and could make adjustments and things that actors have to do all the time. … We were never waiting around for LeBron. He never acted like a diva. Even though he was dealing with a lot of stuff during that time.”

This was, after all, the summer of 2019, when James was still rehabbing a groin injury that cost him much of his first Lakers season. Meanwhile, the Lakers front office was busily reworking the roster and acquiring Anthony Davis—who is represented by James’ agent Rich Paul—while James himself had been active in recruiting other NBA stars to the film, including Davis, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson.

James was no rookie actor, of course. He’d played himself, in a cameo role, in 2015’s Trainwreck. And his catalog of commercials (for shoes, soft drinks, insurance, cell phones, headphones, meditation apps…) is fairly lengthy, dating back to his rookie season in 2003-04. But his role in the new Space Jam is by far the biggest he’s played.

“I think people are gonna be pleasantly surprised,” Cheadle said. “He was really funny and `got the assignment,' as they say. And there's a lot more on his shoulders, as far as what he has to convey and the character that he has to portray. Although it's supposed to be him, you know, he's acting.”

The film is vaguely patterned after the original Space Jam (1996), which starred Michael Jordan—though it draws considerable inspiration from 1982’s Tron, in which a person is pulled inside a computer game and forced to fight/play his way back to reality. In the new film, it’s James who has to win his freedom from the virtual world, and repair his relationship with his son, Dom (played by Joe). The film is packed with inside jokes that NBA fans will appreciate, including several at James’ expense.

“When it comes to comedy, you can't rely on people who aren't naturally funny,” Lee said. “And he's a funny guy. And he loves to laugh.”

That James had a knack for comic timing surprised no one who had seen him in Trainwreck. But this role also called for taut emotional scenes between James and Joe.

“For somebody who's not a trained actor, he did very well,” Lee said. “And he's very believable. And people say, `Oh, he's playing himself.' But it's kind of hard to play yourself.”

When Lee offered directions or tips, or asked for reshoots, James went with the flow.

“No insecurities, no kind of backtalk about it, no resistance,” Lee said. “He was game for pretty much anything, especially if it was fun. Even when it came to some of the emotional stuff. … I think LeBron just wanted the movie to be great. And man, look, there’s tremendous pressure on him just as a human being, as a basketball player, as certainly following in the Space Jam legacy. He wants it to be great. And he took it very, very seriously.”

(L-r) Cedric Joe, Director Malcolm D. Lee and LeBron James on the set of  “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(L-r) Cedric Joe, Director Malcolm D. Lee and LeBron James on the set of  “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

For the most part, James was said to be lighthearted on set—except when it was time for the heartfelt father-son moments.

“I remember during those scenes, it did take some time,” Joe said, “because we had to build up to that emotion. I remember a lot of the fun scenes, we would knock through them. It was much easier. But during the more emotional (scenes), we had to really lock in.”

First, Joe had to shake off being star struck. He grew up idolizing James, wearing LeBron shoes and LeBron jerseys and papering his bedroom walls with LeBron posters. His favorite? A Heat-era poster with three images of James dunking. When he was assigned to write a biography in school, he chose James as his subject.

Joe was 13 when he got the part in Space Jam. His parents delivered the news one night after he returned from performing a play at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse

“That was probably one of the most emotional moments of my life,” Joe said. “I was happy. I was excited. I was crying. It was a lot going on.”

Any nerves subsided soon after filming began, he said. “He's such a fun, funny and humble person, so it was really easy for me to get comfortable around him. … He's not stuck up or stubborn or cocky. Like, he's very humble, and just an outgoing person.”

Working with James comes with unique perks—like getting a personalized handshake. Cheadle said he and James developed theirs on the day the film wrapped, over a bottle of Don Julio 1942 tequila (Cheadle’s gift to James).

“`I know you have it with all the teammates, so we got to have one,’” Cheadle said he told James. “So we came up with a handshake. It’s pretty intricate. It's several moves. Everything in it is for a reason. Each part of the shake means something.”

Joe said he too has a secret, elaborate handshake with James, though he insisted his is “more swagged out” than the one between James and Cheadle. (Joe, a burgeoning trash-talker, also said he handily beat Cheadle in a game of “H-O-R-S-E.”) “LeBron is big on handshakes,” he noted. “So making a handshake with LeBron was huge for me.”

Cheadle came away with something even greater: a genuine new friendship. He and James have become texting buddies and have occasionally hung out in the two years since the film wrapped. They’ve bonded over politics and pop culture, music, fatherhood and whimsical memes sent after playoff games.

“It's nice to, and rare to, make another friend that sticks as an adult,” Cheadle said. “Often when we do these projects as actors, we like form these kind of satellite families that. You're on set 14 hours a day, and spending a lot of time together on set. So that bonding happens. But often then we all go off and do our own things. … But he and I, like I said, it's rare, but we were able to stay in touch and that's kind of cool.”

And of course, there was the basketball. By virtue of his role, Joe spent more time with a ball in his hands than anyone else in the cast, and considerable time with James on the court. So he picked up a few moves, which he’s been unleashing on friends in pickup games ever since.

“Now when I play, they always talk about the summer I filmed with LeBron, like `What did I get taught there?’” Joe said. “Because before I was not playing like that.”

Cheadle had few chances to shoot hoops on set, because he spent so much of it wearing a CGI suit. Anyway, he thought playing with James might be risky, lest he be the one responsible for another pulled hamstring.

But Lee, the director, a native New Yorker who grew up a hardcore Knicks fan and later became enamored of James’ game, couldn’t resist the temptation to shoot occasionally on set—though he made a point of only doing so when James wasn’t around. Except once, during a lull in filming, when he picked up the ball on an impulse and started draining long jumpers.

“I must have hit like eight in a row, right? And LeBron says, `Oh, hey, you can shoot.'” Lee recalled.

He’d broken the cardinal rule of working with one of the greatest basketball players ever to lace up. There was only one thing to do.

“I stopped shooting after that,” Lee said with a smile. “I said, OK, that's it. He's never gonna see me shoot again. Because I'm never gonna get a moment better than this.”

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