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Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Marlon Wayans and Alex Convery – How Is the Air Up There?

Updated: May 20, 2023

Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Marlon Wayans and Alex Convery

How Is the Air Up There?

By Jay S. Jacobs

Air Jordan has conquered yet another facet of pop-culture. The biofilm Air has gotten some of the best reviews of the year since it was released to theaters last month. The film, about the pursuit of future sports icon Michael Jordan by a third-rate sneaker company called Nike, in a deal which ended up making them all insanely rich, seems like an odd subject for a hit movie. But somehow, it works.

A passion project for long-time friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (Affleck co-starred and directed, Damon plays the lead), the story was always about more to them than just the production of a shoe. It was about dreamers, family, innovation and belief.

The screenplay – by first-time screenwriter Alex Convery (who was not even born when this story was taking place in 1984) – attracted not only Affleck and Damon, but a cross section of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina and Marlon Wayans. Like the filmmakers, they did the film for love of the subject and the script.

And the fact that it was – at least loosely – about one of the biggest names in sports history was just gravy.

This Q&A was derived from one of two virtual press conferences that we attended a few weeks ago, when Air was about to premiere in theaters. (Another one, with Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker and more, was published in time with the theatrical release.) Now that Air is getting its release on Amazon Prime, here is the second conference.

I will have to say from GOAT to GOAT – what must it be like to get a cold call in which the greatest basketball player in the world says you are the only person who can play his mom? Talk about that phone call.

Viola Davis: I didn’t get that phone call. I just got the trickle-down message. Listen, I wish it were my style to like to get into best, great… it doesn't help me at all. But it is flattering. Because I do go in with a sense of “do I belong?” imposter syndrome. So, it's nice to feel wanted. But then the next thought is, now I got to step into the role. If you watch videos on Deloris Jordan, she is a study in Zen neutrality. The woman is very, very steady and quiet. I would imagine that even when she gets mad, she's probably very, very, very steady. (laughs) So, to really just envelop that spirit and everything was a challenge for me, because I'm the woman who always has a chip on your shoulder. I go on in bombastic. It was both flattering, challenging, and then just a joy to work with Matt and Ben, and all these terrific actors. Me and Julius still talk about it to this day. One of the greatest experiences.

True. Everybody just comes and joins and makes I feel there's a family affair. I think it comes from Matt, you and Ben, the way you guys went about assembling this group of folks. Talk about all of the high priority that you have this film; honoring the sports, honoring the artists that you brought along to it, honoring Michael Jordan. How did you guys balance that as you were trying to tell the story?

Matt Damon: It all started with the script, really. That's down to Alex at the end of the table. I just thought it was so great. I didn't know the story. Then it was step by step, I’d say, because the first step was getting the blessing of Michael Jordan. Before we got too excited, Ben said, “we should go see him.” My kids were out to something in New York, and I couldn't go. So, Ben went to Florida to see Michael. Michael said, “It's fine to make the movie. It's okay with me.” But Ben said, “Well, what I really would love to know is what's most important to you.” It was out of that meeting that he said, George Raveling, Howard White and then he started to talk about his mom. Ben called me afterwards and said, “Mike was very intimidating guy.” (laughs)

Yeah. He told us about it.

Matt Damon: He's an intimidating guy. He's an icon and he's all of these things. He has all this meaning for all of us. Ben said, “He had this look on his face when he spoke with his mom that I’d never seen before.” So, we felt like well, now we know what the movie is. He said, “The only bad news is, we have to get Viola Davis. If we don't get Viola Davis, we can't make the movie.” So, that was when we started thinking about how to expand Deloris. That's really one of the great things about this cast, that everybody is really a filmmaker. These two sitting next to me [Davis and her husband Julius Tennon] are A-list producers. The Woman King, anybody? Marlon, Chris, they're writers as well as actors. They're filmmakers. Jason Bateman is a director. We really lean on our actors. Part of our process has always been – from Good Will Hunting all the way through today – to lean into what your actor is bringing. The actor always is in the moment and always knows. We had these conversations with Viola, like “If it doesn't feel right, what did you feel like here?” That's always the way to the best scene.

One of the things I loved about this is it's subtle with all of the very big statements that it makes. One of my favorite subtle moments was when you walk into the Jordans’ home, and Julius, your character, James, greets him, and he just lets him walk on back to where Viola Davis was going to sit him down, and just keeps working on the car. Talk about the subtleness of your character.

Julius Tennon: What I wanted to do was bring dignity and levity to Mr. Jordan. Obviously, I've seen video of him. I've seen him with his son. The father that is proud of his son. A man that's protective of his wife. That's when I said that whole thing about Deloris, call me if you need me. Let her go do her thing because I know she could do her thing. I wanted her to know that I'm there. I'm just going to do what I normally do in the course of a day. He was just a simple man. A blue collar guy. I just wanted to depict that.

Viola, talk playing that dynamic of a couple on screen.

Viola Davis: Well, let me tell you something. That is our dynamic in real life. Julius has told me since we got together, he said, “V, when you come home and it’s late at night, you make sure you don’t get out of that car until the gates close. If someone’s following you, you lay on that horn and I’m going to come out with my baseball bat, and I’ll drop their ass.” (Everyone laughs.) I laid on the horn once by accident, coming home at three o'clock in the morning. I counted to five. Julius came out with the baseball bat. I knew. I was like, “That’s it! I'm going to marry him. That’s my dude.”

Marlon, I loved you in this. It was such a great portrayal. What was crazy about the man that you're portraying in real life, is it was like learning about Hamilton. He did that? He did this? He was there? What was it like for you? Was that all their baked into the script? Did you go on a discovery journey of your own?

Marlon Wayans: I was the first one to shoot. I got the call on Friday, and we were filming on Monday. So YouTube was my friend. (laughs) Crash course on YouTube on George Raveling. I learned a lot about him. I learned he was a fantastic man. He himself was the first like black coach to win a national championship. He coached the Olympic team. He's from Jersey. There was a lot that I picked up. When I read the monologue, and the fact that that was real, and that he still has the “I Have a Dream” speech in his possession, I thought that it was an amazing character to play. The more you research, the better you can do in terms of your performance. I love that when we went on set, Matt and Ben were like, “We’re not impersonating. You can bring you to it.” That's always to an actor the best thing you can do, when I can mix that person with my emotions and what I bring. The script was already written so beautifully, but we got to play. I could get out of my head and really have fun. That's what it was. When I left the set, I just felt like if every day on that set felt like the first day, that's going to be a magical movie.

Alex, was this a story you knew so much about already? Are you even an ‘80s baby?

Alex Convery: No, I’m not. I’m a ‘90s Chicago kid, which is where the Bulls and Michael Jordan and that connection comes from. I came to the story… Like everyone else I was locked up during those first couple months of quarantine watching The Last Dance and there's a little five-minute clip about Nike and just how Air Jordan came together. I was at a point in my career where you're trying to write a script that gets noticed. When you can explain the movie in one sentence, right? It's a story of how Nike got Michael Jordan, it just it has that ability to go to the top of the pile. People will give it a bit more of a chance. But like everything comes down to character. So, the question was, who can be the protagonist and the engine of this movie? Finding both Sonny and Deloris was really to me what elevated above just a movie about a shoe and Michael Jordan. Finding the human elements in a very big movie. I kind of call them big little movies. The little being: this is just a movie about a shoe deal, right? It takes place over a week or so. It's small in scope. But the big part is when you say it's about Nike and Michael Jordan. You could talk to 100 people on the street and all 100 of them are going to know who Michael Jordan is and what Nike is. To me, that's what elevates it above just a movie about a shoe.

There is a certain pigheadedness needed to achieve a dream. Sonny Vaccaro could be rude to people, how were you able to make him lovable?

Matt Damon: A lot of it was really there on the page with what Alex wrote. Sonny, we were really trying to capture the spirit of these people in this time, more than anything. Not exactly who said what, at exactly what moment. All of these people on the Nike side independent of one another have talked about this time was such nostalgia. That's what we were trying to create. Remind people they were the underdog, which is such a weird way to think of Nike now. Before this incredible deal, they really were, these renegades, outsiders. That was really what we were trying to get. The characters all had this incredible, infectious energy that was really jumping off the page. The script was really quite something.

Viola, Ben Affleck told us that he felt directing you is one of those impossible, aspirational dreams.

Matt Damon: He didn’t feel that way about directing me. (laughs)

What was it like working with Ben? Also, It feels like you had to undo your experiences in Juilliard to be less expressive as Deloris. She’s just so focused.

Viola Davis: That's who she is. Once again, Zen neutrality. That's what I see with this woman, this incredible woman. I wonder if she plays poker.

Matt Damon: She did. With this deal. (laughs) She played the greatest hand of poker of all time.

Viola Davis: Here's the thing with Ben… and Matt. But Ben, you trust him. There's a lot of times you go on set, you don't trust anyone. Because truth be known, there's a lot of people in our profession who don't know what they're doing. (laughs) I'm not saying that from any place of condescension or giving anyone shade. Everyone sees the result of a movie or a career, but they don't see the journey. It's the journey, it’s the process where you see the artistry. The people who actually know what they're doing and know how to piece it together. Know what they want. Know what they're seeing in the camera. It's not working. Knowing how much, how little. I've had a 40-year career where I trusted certain people, and they have done me wrong. Because you don't always see it. You do need help sometimes. I trusted him. I trusted what he saw. I trusted his process. I trusted this choice, even in the actors, that they were going to deliver. Then you have to ultimately trust that he chose you for a reason, because that's the one thing that training school beats out of you is any sense of competence and level of mental health. But yeah, trust is what I’ll say.

Matt, as a producer, was it hard to make the film feel like a big crowd pleaser, even though it's a smaller story?

Matt Damon: Yeah, I mean, I'm bringing my kids to the premiere. It's totally appropriate for them. It really is one of those stories that comes along, and you go, “Wow, this is really for everybody.” We used to call them feel good movies. That's really what you know what it is. You should leave the theater with a skip in your step.

I know the reception down in Austin (the premiere at SxSW), was just off of the charts. That wasn’t your first Austin premiere? You've obviously been down there before?

Matt Damon: No, that was my first one.

What was it like?

Matt Damon: It was incredible. I knew we were in good shape when Viola walked on screen and the crowd went crazy. I was like, “Oh, this is good. This is going to be good.” Yeah, it was really cool. I've been to so many film festivals, and that one just felt like everyone was so excited we were there. So excited for the movie. There was just a great energy in the room. I'll never forget it.

I obviously have been cheering for you like that as just a journalist. But I have never imagined it's not very often that you can feel like what's like to be a Beyonce-like superstar, Taylor Swift-type reception. What was that like for you to experience?

Viola Davis: Awesome. Julius is an Austinite.

Julius Tennon: I’m an Austinite.

Viola Davis: Born and bred. A lot of family members

Julius Tennon: It was cool being back at the place. I didn’t see many of my family members, but the reception was awesome. It was incredible, electric.

Marlon, you said you did this in just a weekend of studying for it. The Martin Luther King aspect of it, was that part of it too? George’s activism? He was more than just a coach; he really was somebody that was an advocate for those athletes and professionals that straddled both.

Marlon Wayans: Raveling is an amazing dude with an amazing story. He actually was at a young age down there at that rally. He had a long, long career of that. Just to be able to know you're doing a movie about… I mean, it's such a small part, but they say there's no such thing as small roles, only small actors. With this one, it was a small but pivotal role. You feel it when you look at the script. You go, “I got to do this.” So many times you think about a scene but then you look at the meat within the scene and the character that you're portraying. Then you look at the whole picture and you just go, it’s something I have to do. There's no way you don't do something like this. An opportunity to play with all these legends and just go bring your best you. There's a great scene. I'm very, very proud to be a part of this picture.

What would you say is something about this film that will surprise people?

Matt Damon: Well, if you don't like Viola, me, Michael Jordan and Ben, you probably shouldn't go. (Everyone laughs.) No, I really do think there's something for everybody in this one. It's not a strictly sports movie. I think for the sports aficionados, they'll love the behind the scenes, behind the curtain type of stuff that's in here. But I think it surprised a lot of the people who weren't expecting it. It sneaks up on you. Because of the role that Viola plays and how she takes over the movie. I do think there will be something for everybody in this one.

Marlon Wayans: You just feel good. You leave the movie, and you feel good as a human with an everyday story. We all have dreams. We all have something that we want to do. Everybody tells us we cannot do it. Just the fact that this man made that happen and look at the iconic thing that was spawned from Michael Jordan signing with Nike. This shoe. This brand. This thing that changed pop culture. In a huge way, I just think it's a very powerful movie. It started with something small; a person with an idea and a gut feeling to make something happen. We all as people, every artist up here, had an inspiration, a gut feeling about what we wanted to do in this lifetime. Everybody [was] telling us no. We every day make it happen.

Julius Tennon: Absolutely.

Matt Damon: Well said.

Julius Tennon: That was awesome.

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: May 12, 2023.

Photos #1 & 2 © 2023 Jay S. Jacobs/ All rights reserved.

Photos #3 – 8 © 2023 Ana Carballosa. Courtesy of Amazon Studios. All rights reserved.


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