Adam Sandler talks bringing his passion for hoops and heart to basketball drama Hustle

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Adam Sandler is playing a different game in Hustle. This is no Happy Gilmore for basketball: The Netflix film stars the comedian — and sometimes highly-praised dramatic actor — in an emotionally charged story set against the backdrop of the NBA.

“I knew this movie was a different feel for me,” admits Sandler, 55, “but it’s kind of a combination of stuff I’ve done in the past and a newer version of who I am.”

Directed by Jeremiah Zagar (who Sandler recruited for the project after watching his acclaimed 2018 indie We the Animals), produced by LeBron James, and packed with cameos from NBA players and coaches, Hustle Marks Sandler’s return to dramatic territory, and a basketball milieu, after 2019’s nerve-wracking thriller Uncut Gems. The actor plays Stanley Sugerman, an unlucky scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who stumbles upon an undiscovered talent, Bo Cruz (played by Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangómez), while abroad in Spain. Without approval from his team, Stanley decides to help the untested player take his shot at going pro, hoping to revive his own career in the process. In basketball terms, he’s trying to sink a half-court shot as the clock runs out.

Hustle

Scott Yamano/Netflix

“It’s very much a rocky story,” Sandler says. “And I’m not Mickey in it — there’s never gonna be another Mickey — but I like being that kind of guy, getting to talk to a young man and getting him fired up.”

Ahead of Hustle‘s June 8 debut on Netflix, Sandler spoke exclusively with EW about bringing his love of basketball to the project, hanging (and shooting hoops) with pro athletes on set, and why he can’t publicly root for any NBA team anymore.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re obviously very passionate about basketball, and your movies have integrated it before, but this is the first time you’ve done a proper basketball movie. Why was this the right project to finally do that?

ADAM SANDLER: LeBron’s company and [producer] Joe Roth sent over the script, and I was like, “Wow, this is definitely something I could get excited about.” I liked the feeling of it, the father-son relationship that comes out of it, and I just connected to a lot of stuff in it, [like how] having to go on the road and missing your family hurts. And some of the advice my character gives Bo Cruz in the movie is: “If you’re gonna go after it, that’s got to be the thing you think about the most. You can’t stop thinking about it.” When I was younger and coming up in the comedy world, that was kind of my thought process at the time. If you’re dying to do something, that’s got to become the focus, and you’ve probably got to not think about too many other things.

How did Juancho end up starring in the movie?

The whole process of finding Bo Cruz was done during the quarantine. Me and Jeremiah and [writer Will Fetters] would be on zoom, working on the script and getting these videotapes of basketball players that were auditioning. We saw a lot of great players, and a lot of guys who were good at acting too. Juancho, I don’t think it’s been a dream of his [to act]; I just think he had some time to himself when he was hanging out like everyone else, and he made a tape. We were like, “Boy, this guy is a natural.” And the fact that he was a great player, and a young guy, and still passionate about making a name for himself — it all connected.

I really got close with Juancho, and I really feel like family with that guy. I could not believe how good of an actor the guy was, and how effortless it was, and how little it meant to him. At the end of the day, I would tell him, “Man, that was some good stuff!” He’d go, “Oh, it was? OK, great, thanks, man.” And then he’d just move on. He wouldn’t talk about it. It wasn’t his first passion, you know? He’s just kind of like, “I gotta go practice my basketball, man. I gotta get out of here.” I think it helps a lot to not have that part of your brain that goes, “Oh my God, I hope I’m doing this right.” [Acting] isn’t his life, so that kind of put him more at ease.

Hustle

Hustle

Scott Yamano/Netflix

How did this role compare to some of the other dramatic work you’ve done in the past?

It had a lot of deep scenes that connected with me, playing a guy who’s just been working hard his whole life and not getting exactly what his goal was, being overlooked and people at work getting in his way. A lot of people have dealt with this in their life. I knew this movie was a different feel for me, but it’s kind of a combination of stuff I’ve done in the past and a newer version of who I am.

How much were you shooting hoops with Juancho and the other NBA players on the set?

Oh, my God, it was so many great moments for a guy like me who watches these guys. I played a little bit — they slowed the game down 90 percent so I could actually play with them. But I just loved talking to the guys. I got to meet a lot of coaches, and talk a lot of hoop. I know hoop, but I don’t know it like these guys. They know every historic moment and everything that’s going on. And now when I watch the games, I have literally like 15 teams I can pull for, because we all became friends.

The cameos in Hustle are insane — it’s a feast for fans, both in terms of current players and legendary ones. Were there any players who worked on the movie that you were particularly excited to meet?

All of the guys did us such favors, so I don’t want to single anybody out, but I’m sure they all would agree that [working with] Julius Erving, with what he’s done for the game and what he did for all of us, was truly an honor. Shaking hands with the guy, talking to him and laughing with him, was something that my father would have been baffled by. We talked about Dr. J a lot in my house, and I had a poster of him in my room growing up. He was a sweetheart, and I can’t thank him enough.

And I can’t thank everybody who was in the movie enough, honestly. They did these long days, and there was no part of them that was like, “Let’s hurry up and get this over with.” We were all just hung out and had a great time talking. A lot of them would talk about how to make movies, and then a lot of the guys who helped put the movie together were big hoop fans, so we talked hoop with them. It was just a massive hang. It’ll be hard to have a set that feels like that ever again in my life.

Who are you rooting for in the NBA playoffs right now?

That’s a good question. I can’t tell you who I’m pulling for. Now that I’m buddies with everybody, I’m happy for them all. I text all the guys after games, and if I said one team, there’d be 14 guys who want to kick my ass. So I can’t say nothing. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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