Shooting Stars: Q&A with Actor Caleb McLaughlin and Director Chris Robinson on LeBron James Biopic

Shooting Stars: Q&A with Actor Caleb McLaughlin and Director Chris Robinson on LeBron James Biopic

Even the world’s most celebrated and accomplished athletes must rely on their friends, families and coaches for support in the early years of their careers as they build their legacy of excellence. That’s certainly the case for LeBron James, who’s considered to be one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the NBA.

James’ rise to prominence before he was drafted to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 during his senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary high school in Akron, Ohio, is chronicled in the upcoming biographical drama, Shooting Stars. The movie chronicles how he and his closest friends from his youth basketball teams promised each other that they would attend high school together, so that they could continue playing together.

The project stars real-life high school basketball player, Marquis “Mookie” Cook, in his feature film acting debut as James. The biopic’s ensemble cast also includes Wood Harris, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalie Paul, Algee Smith, Dermot Mulroney, Khalil Everage, Sterling “Scoot” Henderson, Katlyn Nichol and Avery S. Wills, Jr.

Shooting Stars was written by Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor. The movie is based on the 2009 book of the same by James, who also served as a producer on the feature. The athlete, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, collaborated with the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger, on the book. The screen adaptation was directed by ATL helmer, Chris Robinson.

Shooting Stars tells the inspiring origin story of a basketball superhero, revealing how James and his childhood friends become the number one high school team in the country. Their success launched James’s breathtaking career as a four-time NBA Champion, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

In the 1990s, James (Cook) and his three best friends — Lil Dru (McLaughlin, Stranger Things, The New Edition Story), Willie McGee (Wills) and Sian Cotton (Everage) — who called themselves the Fab Four, after the famed Michigan Wolverines’ Fab Five of that era. The group of friends, under the guidance of Lil Drus’s father, coach Dru Joyce (Harris), are connected by more than basketball, however.

So, when the coach at the top basketball high school in their district threatens to separate them by putting Lil Dru on junior varsity, the Fab Four decide to switch schools to be able to play varsity together. So they join the team at St. Vincent–St. Mary, which is a predominantly white Catholic school. Their community takes this as an insult, but the boys’ dedication to each other is more important than anything else.

With their new coach (Mulroney), a disgraced former college coach seeking redemption of his own, the boys, along with former rival and new teammate Romeo Travis (Henderson), will face battles not only on the court but also in their personal lives. In their quest to become national champs, they must rediscover that what matters most about the game is the people playing beside you.

Robinson and McLaughlin generously took the time last week to attend a special screening of Shooting Stars at AMC Lincoln Square in New York City. The director and actor participated in a post-screening Q&A to discuss the making of the biographical film.

Q: Chris, you’ve made a lot of great coming-of-age movies. What drew you to Shooting Stars?

CR: It was never planned for me to make coming-of-age stories – it just kind of happened. My son calls me the Black John Hughes!

But I think what it was was that when my son was about 9 or 10, we all coached him and his cousins. They were on teams, and those were some of the best times of our lives and my son’s life. It was all about family and team.

So when I read the script for this movie, it reminded me of that. I knew about those experiences and what it means to build young men. My son’s 30 now, but he remembers those times, and reaches back to them to continue inspiring himself.

So that’s what attracted me to the film. It was about LeBron, and there was also the generational conversation about him versus Michael Jordan.

Also, SpringHill Entertainment (which served as one of the film’s production companies) is really forward thinking. But it was mainly the script.

Q: Caleb, you were two-years-old when LeBron burst onto the national scene. So what did you know about LeBron and his friends and team, especially Dru and his father, when you signed on to star in this film?

CM: I remember when I was about nine, I saw the documentary More Than a Game, which is about LeBron and the Fab Five. Then I was introduced to this project by some of the producers at SpringHill. They said, “We would love for you to play Dru Joyce.” But it was still in the development stages at that point, so we didn’t know if I was going to be in the film or not.

They also said that Chris was going to direct it, so I thought, I’ve got to get this. For those of you who don’t know, I previously worked with him on (BET’s 2017 biographical music mini-series,) The New Edition Story (which Robinson directed, and McLaughlin played the younger version of one of the titular group’s founding members and singers, Ricky Bell).

He made that project a classic, so I wanted to work with him again on this film. I wouldn’t have done it if it was anybody else.

Q: Caleb, you had to have gotten into hoop shape for the movie. You star alongside Marquis “Mookie” Cook, who’s going to play for the Oregon Ducks (for the University of Oregon this fall) in the project. So what was some of your training regime like while shooting this film?

CM: I still have shin PTSD from this movie! But we had two weeks of boot camp and training before we started filming. But Mookie helped me during the training.

I knew I could hoop, but the process during the auditions was hard. They didn’t want a good actor who was terrible at playing…so the boot camp was intense.

I had to have the IQ of a point guard, and be able to pass the ball and shoot it. But the handling was already there; that’s the thing that got me the role.

CR: He showed up. For The New Edition Story, I watched him learn how to dance. He’s been Simba (in The Lion King) on Broadway, and he’s amazing. He learned how to do these steps for The New Edition Story.

For this casting, we took him and the cast to a gym, and the actors would do their lines together and audition. They would also play ball together. Then Caleb came out with crazy hands…he’s amazing, and can hop for real.

Q: Caleb, you’re an actor who came in and learned how to play basketball for Shooting Stars. But some of the other cast members – including Mookie, as well as Avery S. Wills Jr. (AJ) and Scoot Henderson, play basketball in real life. As athletes, how did they approach the acting side of this movie?

CR: Caleb was such a leader to the cast. They saw him and they were like, “Oh my God, Caleb from Stranger Things.” So they were nervous, as they didn’t know if they could do a scene with him.

I would always see him talking to them and engage in conversation with them. There was a brotherhood between them that began in the beginning.

These kids were very dedicated in all respects of the film. Some of them are trained basketball players and are planning to go pro or are going to play in college. But we still made them practice the plays, and I’m sure some of them got tired of that.

Then we would also rehearse the lines. So we put a lot on them, but they delivered. My experience working with younger actors is that once they’re comfortable, they naturally fall into their own pace and become those people.

Khalil (Everage) is relatively new, but he’s got some acting chops. AJ was great, too, and he plays, too. They’re still seniors in high school and haven’t graduated yet. We shot this movie a year ago.

Whatever that osmosis process was like for them to learn about filming really worked. By the end of the shoot, they were like, “Oh, that’s a 50mm lens” and “Oh, you’re doing a close-up.” They would talk to me that way, so it was good.

CM: We were really teaching each other. They would ask me for help with acting, and I would ask them for help with playing basketball.

That was really helpful when the coach was screaming in my face, “Dru, you’re not doing what you need to do.” I thought, how would you listen to your coach in that moment?

I’ve played basketball, but I’ve never had anyone scream in my face besides my parents. So if someone else is going to scream in my face, I wonder, am I going to do something about it?

There was one point early on when we did a camera test. We were practicing my passing, which was bad. If I don’t pass proficiently, they’re going to get mad

But with acting, we can do it again. There was one time I was passing it to Mookie, and I was throwing it to his hip and his legs. He was like, “You have to pass the ball to me,” and I said, “Relax, we can do it again.” Dru came out, and I became really method!

So we were teaching each other. But that was good though because we were able to be students.

Even though they’re younger than me, they were still able to take everything all in. I didn’t tell them how to act, but I’d tell them, don’t do this or that. They would also have to tell me things about basketball, and I would have to listen.

We were all students, which was why the chemistry was great. We didn’t get in our heads or say, “I don’t have to listen to you; I can do whatever I want.”

Q: Caleb, one of the big central stories in this film is the relationship between your character and his father, Dru Joyce Sr., who’s played by Wood Harris. What was your experience like working with him in order to create that father-son relationship, both on and off screen?

CM: It was amazing. Wood also played a father figure to me in The New Edition Story. So to have that transition into Shooting Stars at an older age was great, but it was also different.

We had different conversations on and off screen. The conversations we had when I was younger was basically him just telling me to do my thing. But when we were making this film, I was 20, and we were talking about life, our careers, money and girls. He really gave me good advice.

I don’t really ask questions – I’m more of an observer. So to be able to watch him was really helpful. We were able to really talk about the scenes. He said, “You’re a great actor. Anything you do, even if you feel you aren’t going to do great. If it’s not amazing, it’s still going to be good.”

He basically told me not to beat myself up. He’s one of the greatest actors of all time, so to hear that from him made me think, okay, I’m good.

Q: Lebron James is now in the twilight of his career, so it was great to see what led him to the NBA. What did he think of Shooting Stars?

CR: Well, here’s something interesting: I have not met LeBron yet! So at first I was like, “Oh, I’m going to talk to him. I don’t want to have this conversation.”

But the longer I didn’t meet him, the more I said, “Oh, maybe this is a gift” because I have my thought process of who he is. It’s embedded in me.

I’m going to hopefully meet him eventually. But it was great to not meet him because I didn’t have anything that would make me change my thoughts on the story.

But I was just in Akron for a screening, and Willie told me they got the rough cut on the computer. He said that all of the real Fab Five, LeBron, Anthony Davis and a couple other guys from the Lakers were all huddled around a little computer, where they watched the whole movie because LeBron couldn’t cast it to his TV!

He said that LeBron loved it. They loved it. So when the real guys loved it, that was good enough for me.

Shooting Stars will begin streaming exclusively on Peacock this Friday, June 2.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.


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