Ben Affleck is riding high on the critical acclaim of Air, which turns out to be the big feel-good, sports-based movie of the year so far. This is in spite of the fact that there’s not a whole lot of basketball in the movie, and there’s also not even a lot of Michael Jordan in the movie.
This may be a bit interesting to some, given the fact that the film is about Jordan’s historic shoe deal with Nike. But as Affleck, who directed and also co-stars in the film, told Shadow and Act in a recent interview, there’s a reason why the film is what it is, and why Jordan himself is not even seen by face in the movie.
“I’m aware, as I hope everybody is, of how important Michael is, what he means to people, what he represents and who he is,” Affleck said exclusively to Shadow and Act. “And because I have so much respect for him, I read the script, which was kind of about the shoe deal, and I felt there was more to the story. I just didn’t even want to fool around with it, out of just respect and regard for the man, without going to him first and saying, ‘Hey look, I got the script. I think it could be cool, but if you don’t want this story made or if you have some objections…because I’m going to have to compress it and combine things and stuff and take some liberties, but I don’t want to do anything that is fundamentally not true to you. I’ll just stop.’ Because there’s just no reason in the world to make a movie that is, not about Michael per se, but it wouldn’t have happened without him. And when you know somebody, it doesn’t mean that you also know what’s meaningful to them, know their voice, and really should even take on that story without really having other contributors bringing research, other actors and really hearing from people directly.”
Affleck met with Jordan and began to understand the story that he could tell with Air, even stating that his respect for Jordan is what “really made the movie happen.”
“Even in the brief time that he was kind enough to give me– and this is a guy who does not do anything he doesn’t want to do,” he explained. “He’s all good. He doesn’t need anything for me or anybody else– yet he was gracious and generous and sat down with me. I thought it was telling that Michael, probably the most confident man I’ve ever come across, has a tremendous presence and power to him. And so you kind of respect that right away. He was like, ‘Look, these are the other people that need to be acknowledged in this story. I can’t speak to what I didn’t see or don’t know. I’m not interested in that. This is what I’ll tell you was significant from my point of view.'”
The director and star explain how Jordan talked about Howard White, played by Chris Tucker in the movie, and how he was significant and his life and still works at the Jordan brand now. White was instrumental in his going to Nike. Jordan also talked to Affleck about Peter Moore, played by Matthew Maher, and George Raveling, played by Marlon Wayans, who wasn’t even in the original script.
“He talked about how he wouldn’t have gone to Nike had George Raveling not earlier on, while he was on the Olympic team and George one of the coaches, really lobbied for Nike because he was friends with Sonny Vaccaro, was his best friend, his best man at his wedding,” said Affleck. “And he [Jordan] wanted that respect to be shown [in the film]. He’s just a very classy guy who was about making sure everybody else got their respect and their dues.”
Next, Affleck spoke with Jordan about weaving his parents into the film.
“I said to him, ‘Look, your parents appear [in the script] kind of briefly,’ And I was like, ‘Look, I can take that out. Or is there anything that you want to share or say about your parents that you remember that you would like to be reflected in the movie? Or just tell me what you want to do because I don’t have an agenda. It’s like your thing, obviously.’ And he took a minute and he said, ‘My dad had the best personality of anybody I knew.’ And he kind of had this smile and it was beautiful. I was very touched. Obviously, he was close to his father and his father meant a lot to him when he passed away and everybody knows [it] cost him a time of grief and crisis from which he rebounded quite spectacularly. And then he started talking about his mom and I immediately felt like, it started dawning on me. Why didn’t I see this? Why wasn’t this so obvious to me?”
As seen in the film, Jordan’s mother, Deloris, played by Viola Davis, was instrumental in Jordan signing with Nike.
Affleck explained, “He was like, ‘My mom wanted me to go to Oregon. She made me go. I just wanted to hang out for the weekend. My mom made me go and she put that deal together.’ He said, ‘I would’ve signed my rights away for life for a red Mercedes. So, as a kid, my mom did it. My mom worked at a bank.’ And he was very clear right then [about] the regard with which he held his mother then and to this day. He said, ‘This whole thing was my whole life. I was cared for by my mother and protected. And she was somebody who I really esteemed and was incredibly important to me.'”
At this point, Affleck realized what the film had to be about. “I was like, ‘That’s the movie.’ It’s his mom’s story. It’s the story of these moms in the world out there instrumental in raising their children. And in particular, when you have a kid that’s going from basically high school in North Carolina and one kind of life, and then college, even into the NBA, there’s that transition and [knowing] they’re going to be a big star. He talked about how critical that guidance and support was. I thought right away that could be a great story. You think the protagonist is one character. He’s going along in the movie and you are rooting for like, ‘Oh, I want this person to succeed.’ He comes across another person who in a normal movie, that person would be an obstacle. They’re making it more difficult. And then you realize, ‘No, that person’s not an obstacle. That person is actually the star of the movie. That person is the protagonist, that person is right.'”
From that point on, Affleck though about the actress that would be in the role and Jordan suggested the EGOT winner, Davis herself.
“It wasn’t like a suggestion,” Affleck said of what Jordan told him. “It was like, ‘This is who’s doing it.’ I was like, “OK,’ that’s like saying, ‘Can I get a basketball team together? Yeah…if you get Michael Jordan.’ You’re setting the bar real high.”
But for Affleck it was also an opportunity to work with Davis, someone he’s always wanted to collaborate with.
“There’s a group of people I consider best actors in the world, and there’s no question that she’s there, but [it was] going to be hard because I got to write something worthy of Viola Davis,” he continued. “But then it made sense to me because this part had to be worthy of the best actor in the world, because it had to be an incredible role in order to really tell this story and really be a larger tribute in many ways. And I think a lot of the reason why Viola agreed is because I was like, ‘Hey, you know, Michael Jordan wants you to play [this role].’ I was like, if I just say it, that might not be enough. But then her husband, [Julius Tennon], who I really liked, looked a lot like Mike’s dad, and he’s also the nicest guy in the world. He is that guy with the best personality. He’s funny and fun and everybody loves him. And they had this dynamic that sounded to me a lot like what [Jordan] described with his folks.”
The conversation between Affleck and Jordan ultimately steered the film to what we got on screen.
“I didn’t talk to him for but about an hour or 45…I don’t know how long it was. I didn’t want to take up the guy’s time and I was starstruck as hell. But it made all the difference in the world, and I am very grateful to the man and his family for permitting me to make this movie, deeply grateful..”
Air is in theaters now.
The above interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.