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How ‘Swagger’ Raised Its Game

How ‘Swagger’ Raised Its Game

The first season of “Swagger,” a sports drama set in the high-stakes world of high school basketball in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Seat Pleasant, Md., was released in fall 2021 to moderate critical acclaim. The creator, Reggie Rock Bythewood, and his cast and crew were proud of what they had accomplished.

But for the show’s second season, which premiered on Apple TV+ last week, Bythewood’s ambitions were much bigger. He wanted the narrative to be more complex. He wanted the basketball to be more exciting. And he wanted to use the story of a prep school sports team to make a statement about the country.

“There is that athlete mentality of wanting to be challenged,” Bythewood said in a recent video interview. He put the challenge like this: “How do you take Season 2 of ‘Swagger’ and hold up a mirror to America?”

The series is about Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill), an elite high school athlete who is ranked among the top basketball players in his region and is expected to land a college basketball scholarship and, eventually, a spot in the N.B.A. Over the course of the first season, Jace both clashed and bonded with the people around him, including his single mother, Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh); his lifelong best friend, Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis); and his demanding but supportive coach, Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). The second season jumps ahead to Jace’s senior year as the demands of budding fame and the pressure of mounting expectations reach a fever pitch.

Carson is based loosely on Kevin Durant, the Phoenix Suns power forward and multi-time N.B.A. champion, All-Star and M.V.P. who has been one of the league’s best players throughout his 16-year career. While “Swagger” is set during the present day — Durant attended high school in the early 2000s — much of Carson’s biography is inspired by Durant’s own, including his having been raised by a single mother and having been a top prospect coming out of Seat Pleasant.

The concept of a show based on Durant’s life originated with the man himself, along with Rich Kleiman, his manager and business partner. “Rich Kleiman and I had had the idea for a while to do something that was based on my earlier years and centered around the world of AAU basketball,” Durant wrote in an email. “We got connected with [the producer] Brian Grazer a few years back.”

When Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment first approached Bythewood with the pitch, “It didn’t really sound like something I wanted to do,” Bythewood admitted. But at that time Durant was still playing for the Golden State Warriors, based in the Bay Area, and Bythewood, in Los Angeles, figured it couldn’t hurt to hop on a plane and take a meeting.

“I met with the guy and talked to him about his life, and I found my own emotional connections to his story,” he said.

Bythewood first developed an interest in acting as a high school student in the Bronx — in his senior year, he landed a part in the NBC soap opera “Another World.” His soap stardom offered a window into some of the pressures a top athlete thrust into the spotlight from the middle of Seat Pleasant might face.

“It was this idea of being an environment where suddenly all eyes are on you,” he said. “I really related to the plight, the joy, the challenges, all of it.” Bythewood added his own perspective to Durant’s story, and from there “Swagger” was born.

The show’s contemporary setting has allowed it to address modern political issues. In the first season, the characters dealt with Covid protocols and participated in Black Lives Matter protests; this season, Bythewood wanted to touch on “the shift in the country” away from the “reckoning with racism and people wanting to re-examine themselves” that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, he said, “critical race theory is seen as one of the biggest enemies of the country.”

He used the season’s predominately white upper-class prep school setting as a microcosm of the nation, depicting imbalances of power and the unique hardships faced by the Black students.

Bythewood’s north star in “Swagger” has always been authenticity, he said. Given the serious nature of the subject matter off the court — which also touches on a broad range of social issues including sexual assault, violence and homophobia — he wanted to make sure that the sports action was as compelling as the drama.

“When you do something that heavy, the basketball’s got to be dope,” he said. “You can’t tell the truth about society and then lie about the basketball.”

From the beginning, Bythewood has refused to cheat or make compromises when shooting the game sequences in “Swagger.” When somebody dunks, they’re really dunking on a regulation hoop; they don’t lower the rim or let the actor jump on a trampoline. Season 2 includes even more high-level, athletic court action. “You will never see somebody on our show shoot the ball and then we cut to the ball going through the rim,” Bythewood said.

That commitment to realism was demanding on the cast, which mixes veteran actors with amateurs from a basketball background. The actors had to learn to play convincing ball, and the ballers had to give convincing performances.

Wallis, the youngest best-actress Oscar nominee in history (for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” in 2012), said in a recent interview that she “didn’t really play basketball before working on this show” and couldn’t do much more than dribble the ball. Her role as a top female basketball player with hopes of becoming a McDonald’s All American required Wallis to do months of “intense training, always in the gym, training with the boys, training by myself, doing free play, playing for realsies,” she said.

Jackson said that while he had grown up playing basketball and remained a dedicated N.B.A. fan, he still underwent considerable training to “sharpen my tools a little bit and get my handles right.” As a coach, his character isn’t asked to play as much full-on basketball as some of the younger players. But his skills were still regularly put to the test, as in a striking long take in the Season 2 premiere — shot without the aid of invisible edits or C.G.I. — in which Ike and Jace have a heart-to-heart while shooting free throws and making every one.

“Reggie was like, ‘Please let it work,’” Jackson said. “I’m like, ‘Reggie, we got you man.’”

For Hill, who came from a basketball background and had never acted before being cast as the star of “Swagger,” the test was reversed: Dunking came more naturally to him than dramatic monologues. He said in a recent interview that seeing the other cast members “work super hard giving it all on the basketball court” was what had kept him motivated to work hard on his acting.

“Some of them didn’t know how to dribble three weeks before shooting, and in Season 2 they’re doing reverse layups and Euro steps,” he said. “Seeing them raise the stakes on the court every day made me want to raise the stakes on the acting side.”

Bythewood noticed the effort. “Isaiah did a great job in Season 1,” he said. “But at the end of Season 2, he’s no longer a basketball player who can act: He’s an actor who happens to play basketball. The level of growth he’s shown has been exciting.”

Durant, too, has been impressed by the progress of the series.

“It’s cool to see how the relationships between the characters have evolved so much through Seasons 1 and 2,” he said. “The story has taken on a life of its own. I can definitely still see a bit of myself in Jace, but his character is absolutely his own person going through his own challenges in today’s world.”

Content Source: www.nytimes.com

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