Shooting Stars might be labeled a sports drama, but at its core, the biographical film released on Peacock June 2 about Lebron James’ high school basketball team from 1999-2003 is about hard work, perseverance and triumph over the obstacles life throws at you.
Chris Robinson (ATL, The New Edition Story) is the director who was tasked with showcasing the talent and tenacity that made James (played here by Marquis “Mookie” Cook) and his teammates — Drew Joyce III, Willie McGee, Sian Cotton and Romeo Travis at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio — successes on and off the court. And more importantly, lifelong friends.
“Can you imagine being 15 and the whole world is having a conversation about you?” asks Robinson as he reminisces about the hype around James and his core teammates known as the Fab Four in junior high, and eventually the Fab Five as Travis joined their crew in high school.
“How did he keep his head? That’s stuff that, exploring it, learning it, figuring it out, and having an opinion on it, was important in the filmmaking process.”
How did you become a part of Shooting Stars?
I got connected through one of the executives at SpringHill. His name is Jamal Henderson. We’ve known each other for a long time and he kind of slipped me the script. Usually, scripts come through agents in an official way. But he was like, “LeBron really loves The New Edition Story. We’ve got a script. Check it out. Let me know what you think.” And when I read it, the reason I said yes was because it was beyond the basketball. What resonated with me were the relationships and the representation. So many times, for us, stories about young Black boys are connected to trauma. And some of those are my favorite films. But this is a true story. These guys are still friends. They support each other. So, I was like, I gotta be a part of this.
People who watch basketball or who are fans of James most likely already know some part of this story. What was most important for you to get right on screen?
To be as authentic as possible. It’s tough because there’s a part of this story that people know through the documentary and the book, which were amazing. But to tell this, I had to still get it right on the point of tone; who these people are, what their values are, representing the Midwest and Akron, Ohio. Because all of those pieces are part of that village that made this possible. It’s like how you’re not allowed to skip steps in life, so to speak, to create a solid foundation. To create a solid foundation for this film, we could not skip any steps.
Is that why you chose to shoot on location in Akron?
Absolutely. Early in the process, I was able to fly into Akron, go to LeBron’s apartment building, go into the house that he grew up in, the tiny bedroom he grew up in; go to the schools and the Salvation Army and see all these places where he was nurtured, where he struggled. Everything that he went through was in this city.
And I think for me what was really important is that I never had the opportunity to meet LeBron. We didn’t talk until we were at the premiere together. In the beginning, I was really pressing my production team and my producers like, “I’ve got to talk to the man.” But what happened is that it was a gift, because it really informed the way that I approached the film and shot it because I spoke to all the people around him. I got an opportunity to go to a rec game and go to his rival school, and just kind of be a fly on the wall or ask direct questions. Maybe if I talked to LeBron — he’s such an icon — I would want to please him. You can get into that headspace as a filmmaker. And although the whole time I kept going, “When am I going to meet him? When am I going to meet him?” Not meeting him made me understand that everyone’s story in this overall story is just as important as LeBron’s.
Did you spend time with any of the other Fab Four/Five?
I did and it was great because I was in their world. When I met Willie McGee, the athletic director at his old high school, I went to his office and sat down with him, and I watched him mentor and talk to young people. Then I went across the hallway to Coach Dru’s office — he’s still a coach — and they’ve had this relationship of him being at his house since he’s 9 years old, but now he’s ostensibly his boss.
Meeting Romeo, I’m thinking to myself, Man, I’m a little nervous, I know this guy’s tough. How is he going to receive this conversation with the director? But he’s a good brother and he’s lovely, like all of them. Sian was the same. And I got to talk to his father who was just so involved in his son’s life, and all these boys’ lives as well. It was great to spend that time off the record and have a conversation, because they’re all nervous too. But what was interesting is they didn’t ask too many questions as it applied to filmmaking; “Who’s going to play me?” or anything like that. They just hoped that the story could be told in an authentic way, which I really respected.
What was their reaction to the finished project?
We went to Akron to screen it for them, and we did it in this beautiful facility that LeBron created in his hometown for the community. It was amazing. More than as a filmmaker, just as a human being, it was like the guys who really lived this are about to watch this and that was probably the most nervous I’ve been. But I was very, very happy that they all loved it. They all came up and gave me a pound or a hug, and we kind of hung out that night and that’s when they showed their vulnerability. Like, we were afraid. We knew you were good, but we didn’t know what was going to be said. I love the fact that little Dru was like, “Wow, that sounds just like me.” These are their experiences and they’re going to be the most critical of the film and they felt it, which made me happy with the work that we as a crew and producers did because we were diligent. We wanted to be diligent in authenticity.
You reunited with Caleb McLaughlin, who you also worked with The New Edition Story, for this movie. What has it been like witnessing his growth as an actor?
He’s simply a pro. Because of his experience on the stage with The The Lion King on Broadway and prior projects that he’s done, he understands the gravitas. He understands being a pro. But simultaneously, he’s truly an artist. He asks the questions that a director wants an actor to ask.
The real growth that I see in him is his leadership. We worked with some amazing young men who weren’t actors, they came from the athlete side of the world. And he was open with them and giving. The best part of this was watching these young men develop a camaraderie and a relationship that mirrored the real one of these guys who are almost 20 years their elder during this process.
Mookie Cook, who portrays LeBron James, is one of those actors who comes from the court versus acting class. What was it like working with him on his first role?
Mookie’s great. We spent a good 18 months trying to find the needle in a haystack. We were scared. If we don’t find him, there’s no movie. Kim Coleman, our casting director, is amazing. And we were going through the traditional Hollywood way. We saw every actor in LA and then I connected with a friend of mine named Jerome Hipps who ended up being a part of the basketball coordinator crew. He played college ball and he’s into the basketball world. So one summer, we started going up and down the East Coast, going to AAU tournaments, and we found Mookie. We were so excited, and then we found out he goes to school in Arizona. I’m in Maryland, we reached out to his parents who live in Oregon, and we have a conversation. You can imagine, you’ve been working for 17 years with your son for his dream to play basketball, and these guys call you out of the blue and say, “Hey, we’re making a movie about LeBron James. We think your son could be him.” They’re like, “What?” I don’t think acting was on his list of priorities. I think his attitude was kind of like, “Okay I’ll do it.”
Mookie did the audition and he didn’t know all his lines, and he didn’t really know how to project. But his energy and who he is, it was like we have to put our arms around this kid because he’s the one. We’ve seen, you know, 200 people and some people studied LeBron and studied his walk and studied his vocal tone. Mookie just was Mookie and he was touching on it in a way that you got goose bumps through the Zoom. It was after a practice, he was sweaty, he was in the locker room trying to look at the script, then he’s like, “Oh, I gotta go back to the fax machine.” Everything that could possibly be wrong in an audition, he did it. But it was all so right.
Thinking about your work on ATL and The New Edition Story, you’re somewhat of a connoisseur of ensemble casts and allowing everyone to shine. No one is ever a forgettable character. What’s the key to your approach?
It’s funny, my son always says, “You’re the Black John Hughes. And I go, ‘What?’” And he says, “Yeah, really, like you’re into these stories,” and I am. I look back and I say “Wow” because I loved certain films that touch on your experience: Stand by Me, Breaking Away. I have a big family; my mom had 12 brothers and sisters. So I’ve got a myriad of cousins who all live in the same town. We grew up supporting each other, going to each other’s games. My big cousins were my heroes. When I watched basketball or football, I wanted to be like them. If a cousin was into acting, we’d go to their plays. Everybody was so connected and every Sunday we were at my grandmother’s house, so I didn’t know anything different.
I heard a quote one time, “In your art there’s always a piece of yourself in it.” There are certain movies that I really wanted. I wanted a Marvel movie or, I wanted some other opportunity and the film gods kind of point you in a direction to let you know: When you get your Marvel movie, it’ll be about family. Or it’ll be about this thing because you understand it intrinsically. From the outside looking in, these scripts are like letters from your family, so to speak. So I thank God for SpringHill, Universal, LeBron James and Jamal Henderson, because he first put this script in my hand. And all I can think of in the wake of the premiere and the movie releasing is gratitude.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Shooting Stars is streaming on Peacock.
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