Chris Webber didn’t need to do much studying to get his role down in Uncle Drew. The Preacher, whether a character in a movie or the real ones behind the pulpit at church, is something he’s very familiar with. The NBA great took his first acting role in Uncle Drew along with a bevy of former and current NBA and WNBA players, putting him in a comfortable, if maybe a bit unfamiliar, place.
The movie, which started as a Pepsi commercial, was another example of athletes getting into the entertainment world and finding success on the silver screen. But Webber said he had prepared for the role long before his NBA career ended. He took acting classes in anticipation of a future in the field post-retirement, and his character in Uncle Drew came from the many Sundays he spent in church pews hearing the Good Word.
Webber sat down with Uproxx to talk about the success of Uncle Drew, his experience getting into acting and the importance of the film’s exploration of the church and the street ball scene in New York. He also explained why college basketball’s talent drain has made broadcasting more difficult and how he stays connected to the game of basketball a decade after his NBA career ended.
Dime: You’re no stranger to movies and the entertainment industry, but this was the first real acting role for you. Now that you’re through the filming and it’s release, what was the overall experience like for your?
Chris Webber: It was a great experience for me. It was a lot of fun because I did it with guys that are friends of mine, and so I was very comfortable with that, and then the set was just an environment that you wanted to be in every day. With the different personalities we had, the director, the writers the producers and so, besides the tedious task of putting on makeup on for three hours a day, there’s nothing that I can say I didn’t enjoy about it. So it was a great experience.
When you’re sitting in that makeup chair, what are you doing to kill that time? Did you listen to podcasts or something? Could you read or do you just have to sit there and be still?
You just kind of sit there and be still. You sleep. The music is great. The guys did all the makeup, they were great with smoothies and jokes and things like that. So you just kind of sit there and make the best of it and hopefully you get to play DJ, or hopefully whoever’s playing DJ is doing a good job, because you just kinda got to sit there and take the music as you take turns day by day. But it was a great experience.
I’m sure you had to make some custom Spotify playlists or something just to make sure it wasn’t too repetitive.
By like the second week everybody was like “OK, can you change the songs?” Because everybody likes playing their favorites so after you hear their favorites for two days you’re like, “OK we need to get to something else.” But it was a lot of fun.
Acting is new for you. What did you do to prepare for the role of Preacher? Did you talk to pastors or maybe other players?
I was familiar with the role of the preacher from my history in growing up, and so there was inspiration I took from some people. I talked to several actors and worked on acting over the years, believing that there may be an opportunity when I was done playing to concentrate on that.
I just tried to be as authentic as I could be, and the church we used was a lot like the church that I went to growing up. So in some scenes, in some areas, it wasn’t a far reach. It was as if it was deja vu in a lot of scenes.
So I just tried to do my best and get as much information and learn and grow. Take from the greats that have done it before me and take in some good conversations with them.
I was wondering about the scene where you first show up in the movie. You’re in a church and there’s a baptism of sorts happening. How long did it take to film that scene? It’s pretty involved.
I believe that’s the first scene that I shot. That was the first day of filming for me, and reading the script I felt “Wow, this is a wonderful opportunity because this guy’s like the heartbeat of the crew.” And just coming in, how funny I thought that scene could be with certain preachers that I knew that I could mimic, and they’re funny just in real life. I could bring that to the screen, so that didn’t take long. That was something I was very comfortable and confident with from the beginning because I knew that environment. I knew that environment like the back of my hand because that’s what I was raised in.
You worked very closely with Lisa Leslie in the movie. How close were you to her before shooting, and how did your relationship change during this process?
I knew Lisa just from being around the game, but we definitely became close friends during the process. Me, her husband, her kids, it was a lot of fun helping her get acclimated to small churches, letting her know the nuances of the praise and worship and the pulpit and the actual church. I’ve had a lot of people from churches come up to me and say they liked how funny it was but also how we respected and stayed in the lines of church etiquette.
So it was a lot of fun. And what was really special was that the baby that I was holding was my daughter, which was just born. Three months old, and my father was also the tall gentleman in the back sitting next to Lisa Leslie. So she made him feel comfortable by being in the back and being able to act a fool and jump up and down, those type of things.
Being able to start the movie that way with someone like Lisa and having my father and nephew and daughter in that scene it was really something cool. That was something that kind of set the tone for the environment from day one.
Was it important to you that this movie showed places in America that maybe aren’t represented enough? The street ball scene and small churches aren’t really explored in big movies like this that often.
What was great was bringing certain cultures to the mainstream like that. I went to church after and it was a rather large church and I got a standing ovation for playing that preacher. It was hilarious. I was just sitting there laughing, thinking “you guys are ridiculous, cheering Uncle Drew in church like that.” It’s funny, but I understood it. Everyone respected it.
And then at the same time, I work at Wake Forest in a storytelling class, and our students, some of them are foreign exchange students, could not believe the basketball setting there in New York and the type of things that happen and how immersed the crowds are in the game.
It’s fun bringing out. I mean, I played in the Rucker. It was important to me to do it justice and the producer and director and writer did do it justice. The setting did it justice, the crowd did it justice. We all, from Reggie [Miller] to everybody, kept saying we wanted the authenticity of the basketball, the plays, the dialogue and the action to be authentic because we represent the true game of basketball.
That’s one of the things that I really appreciated about the movie. It has origins in a commercial for a brand, but this was really lovingly done, and the finished product was really true to the street game.
Very honestly, when I got the script I thought to myself, “Here we go, let’s see what this is about.” I thought this could be really good or really bad, and I couldn’t believe the heart that was written into the script. That’s why I really wanted to be a part of it, and I worked really hard for my audition and really hard to bring a character through that would be warm, sensitive and funny in those situations. That’s why it was a special project to me. It is our passion: basketball, and we get to spread the good news of basketball and you’re never too old to shoot a jump shot, man. I hope everyone can see that.
You’ve been involved in a few other projects in entertainment lately. Tell me about Charm City and what that documentary means to you.
I’m so excited about Charm City. It’s a documentary about the relationship between community and our police officers and the responsibility of individuals, those that work for the government, of those that want to make a difference, of those that criticize but don’t act, of those that do act. I’m just very happy that it’s been accepted very well — especially in the city of Baltimore where we filmed it — by citizens and police officer community alike. So Peter Gilbert and myself, we produce documentaries and films and this is one of those special ones that have heart. It’s going to be on PBS this year, we just partnered with PBS. So we’re so excited about it.
Your broadcast career keeps you busy, and you do both NCAA and NBA broadcasts. I’ve talked to a lot of broadcasters recently who have said the immediacy of playing recently has helped them talk about the modern game. You retired a decade ago now, so how do you stay connected to the game you’re broadcasting as the NBA evolves?
It’s not the same these days, but the first thing is my rookies are still playing the game. Kyle Korver, Lou Williams, Andre Igoudala, so these guys that you played with and you have relationships with mean you’re never really too far from the game, and the top players in high school, top players in college, they reach out and call and ask for advice, so you have relationships with their families. You’re never really out of it doing basketball camps and speaking at camps. Hopefully, I can never get out of it. I don’t think you ever get too old for the game or have a disconnect. As long as you stay in the gym and stay in the know, I think you’re OK.
Is it more challenging to broadcast NCAA games of NBA games?
I think NCAA games. I think because NCAA games, very honestly, college players are not as good as they used to be. The teams are not as good. You’re no longer familiar with players. For instance, when I played if you watched basketball maybe you heard Bobby Hurley’s story four years in a row. He was a brand himself. Well how do you introduce a player who’s a freshman this year and maybe you didn’t have any experience with, how do you connect him to passionate fans who want someone to root for? There’s less of a narrative.
And to me, college basketball is only about the story. this kid, this is his last game ever. And can I make it plain to the fans that this kid is crying because he’s not going to be hanging it the manager anymore? Or that those pizza nights on Tuesday are over? Or he knows he’s about to get a real job? To really know what goes on in the mind of a player. It may be easier in the NBA because those that are listening know what [James] Harden is like and how hard he works. You know that [Kevin] Durant did this and you know the great speech he gave about his mother and [Steph] Curry and how special he is. But do you know this kid on this team that lost by 30 that nobody cares about now, that nobody will remember tomorrow. His pain cuts just as deep. So college is tougher at times.
So Space Jam 2 is finally happening. Do you have a list of players you’d like to see get their powers stolen by the Monstars in the movie?
I have a couple. I know Curry, I think he would be awesome. Of course LeBron. But I tell you what, I was at the premiere of Uncle Drew in New York and Kevin Durant told me he wanted to be in Uncle Drew 2 so he’s off limits. Besides him, they can have everybody. Non-negotiable. (laughs) But that should be fun. I can’t wait for that.
Uncle Drew is now available on DVD, Digital, and 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack.