JB Smoove is a quintessential “that guy.” You know the type, the actor who pops up anywhere and everywhere, always gives it his all, is memorable, but you just can’t place him sometimes. Talk to your friends, and mention his name, and you might get a blank stare. But do a Google image search, or pull up one of his clips, and they instantly recognize him and you see that look register on their face (you know the look) of recognition. A sudden realization mixed with a bit of embarrassment that they weren’t able to make the correlation before that in their mind.
And that’s a shame because Smoove finds a way to meld work ethic and an easygoing nature better than a lot of other people in Hollywood. He always seems genuinely excited to be working on whatever project he’s currently working on, and chances are he’ll leave everybody in his path laughing.
Uproxx spoke with Smoove while he was filming the latest Uncle Drew spot for Pepsi, along with Baron Davis and Ray Allen, and he gave us the lowdown on everything from playing in the NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game, doing improv, and just how close Larry David’s character from Curb Your Enthusiasm is to the real Larry.
How are they transforming you for the Uncle Drew shoot?
You know what man? I’m getting a little bit of transformation. Not a whole lot. My guy is a little younger than these guys. I’m old, but they’re older than I am. They’re old as dirt. But I’m old as hell. It’s a little different. A little different age range. We all know our basketball, we all have our basketball knowledge. So it’s good.
Who’s the character you’re trying to get into?
I play Angelo, one of the basketball aficionados who knows a whole lot about nothing. I branch off into weird stories and weird experiences of basketball, but I know my stuff. I just have my opinion about stuff. There’s people who know basketball, and there’s people who have the opinion about basketball. I have to balance my opinion about certain players, and my knowledge of basketball kind of coincides with that. I kind of like where I’m at because I’m riding that little balancing act between knowing what I’m talking about and telling these amazing stories from my own experience and what I’m seeing through my own eyes. I’m talking about Wilt [Chamberlain], Walt [Frazier], [Bob] Cousy, Iceman [George] Gervin, Spud Webb, and all these amazing players who I feel didn’t get their just due, who I grew up loving. It’s one of those things.
Baron had said to get into his character he was pulling from the Coming To America guys, sitting around the barbershop. What’s your relationship on and off set?
Man, I love Baron. I run into Baron every once in awhile, and we just stop and talk. He’s one of those guys I think could still play right now. He’s just an amazing player. We actually have a friendship already, which is great. A lot of times athletes and actors, we kind of have this thing where we want to exchange lives. We want to exchange lives sometimes. A lot of celebrities want to be athletes, and a lot of athletes want to be comedians or actors. I think this amazing gift we have to give to our audience is one and the same. We’re both the same people in our way. We both have to have a life on stage, in front of our fans, and we have to balance that with the things we do off the court and off the stage too. We have a lot in common. We don’t necessarily have to talk basketball. We don’t necessarily have to talk acting. It’s kind of cool we have the same kind of motivation and background. We both have to work at it to be great on the court, to be great on stage. It’s still the same thing. I consider getting on that stage being in the gym. It’s the same thing.
You need reps. You have to practice. You have on days and off days.
Yeah, man. You have to get your timing right. That’s all part of it, you know.
What’s it like working with Kyrie Irving? He’s done a couple of these now, and I think the first one people were a little surprised at how dynamic he was and how funny he really was. Are you surprised by that, or were you expecting it?
Here’s the thing I love about the element of surprise. A lot of times you really don’t get to see the personality through the on court stuff. You don’t get the chance to see that. That surprise of seeing him take on this character and have fun with it, that happens sometimes. We’re at our best when we’re not ourselves. When you’re behind a character, that character with the makeup, the gray wig on, the beard, the full prosthetics, you have this amazing platform to take on something else. So you’re not even Kyrie anymore, you’re somebody else. Whoever you’re pulling from, as far as your motivation, and who you want to be in front of the camera. This really lets your hair down. It’s so easy when you can stand behind another character. He’s Uncle Drew. That’s Uncle Drew. I haven’t even been calling him Kyrie. He’s Uncle Drew. It really works. It really lets you have fun, and you only say things the character would say and do things the character would do because you’re taking on this persona. I think he’s doing a great job, man. I watch the videos, and he’s so funny. Drew is back to the Little Penny days, and Grandmama with Larry Johnson. This is what makes it fun.
It makes you think back to the ’90s. So many people consider that the golden age.
Yeah man. It is the golden age of basketball. It really was, man.
Do you have a favorite character you’ve played? You’ve been able to capture so many different roles. Obviously you’re still JB, but people can’t really tell the difference sometimes because you pull yourself into those characters.
I love a lot of the characters I’ve portrayed. I guess my Curb Your Enthusiasm character, Leon, was the most fun for me because Larry David sets you up so well. It’s hard to not have success in a character when he allows you that open door. It’s improv, but he gives you so much leeway to create your own storyline, which is what improv really is. Every time that camera comes on, I like to give him something new about my character that he didn’t know, which keeps my character growing.
They tell you in classes that’s giving your partner a gift, right? And you’re able to give Larry these gifts.
Improv is just as much a balance between listening as it is speaking. It’s a very tight balance. Where are we going with this? And giving a direction, a new direction, just as much as you are attaching yourself to your character and listening to the topic of conversation. Everything is broken down.
Is there something about Larry that people would be surprised to find out?
One of the questions I always get is, “Is he the same guy on camera as he is off camera?” And the only thing that is for sure, exactly, is the wardrobe. I followed Larry one day. I wanted to see if Larry was Larry. And he came out of his trailer wearing the same style clothing in a different color, and he said, “See you tomorrow.” Larry is Larry, you know. As far as his performance, and who he is on Curb, he turns it up so much. He’s a soft-spoken, funny guy. He has his interests. He loves his golf, and other certain things he loves, and we’ve become friends. I love that guy.
You get some time to hoop it up with a couple really good players in this shoot, but you’ve played in those All-Star Celebrity Games too. What’s it like playing in those? Everybody looks like they’re having so much fun. Are any players sneaky good that you wouldn’t expect?
There’s a few guys who I didn’t know were that good. Michael Rapaport, he’s pretty good. I think he even won the MVP one year. Kevin Hart surprised me. I didn’t know he was that fast. Common is a really good player. You know who is really good? That young baseball player, Mo’ne Davis! She school Kevin. I told him, don’t let this kid school you like this. But she is really good. Once an athlete, always an athlete. It’s one of those games that’s fun, but when it’s time to win the game, then it gets real serious.
It’s just as competitive as the athletes are. It’s hard to separate athlete from entertainer, like you were saying. You want to win. You want to get a part. You want to be the best at your craft. It’s just a different kind of craft.
It’s a different kind of craft, man. You’re exactly right. It all has to pull energy from somewhere, and that’s motivation. You find that heart to do something fun and do something amazing. That’s why it works for us.