“The timing is auspicious,” André Holland admits with a mischievous yet welcoming smile. On this busy Thursday morning in February, the NBA is wrought with tension of an impending trade deadline and the NBA All-Star draft being televised that night. Holland’s Netflix film High Flying Bird tells the story of an ambitious—if not desperate—sports agent named Ray Burke, who's trying to keep his head above water during an NBA lockout. One of his clients is an anxious rookie named Eric Scott (played by The Land’s Melvin Gregg), who has yet to set foot on the court but has already landed himself into some off-court drama. Holland is a fan of the game and even balled out a little in high school, but even he couldn’t have scripted the timing for his film’s release any better. His eyes widen as I tell him about Harrison Barnes being traded from the Dallas Mavericks mid-game the night before. The 39-year-old from Bessemer, Alabama, is not on Twitter, so he also hasn’t seen Kevin Durant berating the press for asking about his impending free agency in a post-game interview. He hovers over my laptop as I pull up the video of the Golden State All-Star fuming into the mic. “That’s a conversation you all have. I don’t think about that kind of stuff. It’s not necessary.” It’s the kind of real life drama that his character Ray would salivate over, using the discontent of the athletes to spark a revolution in “the game on top of the game.”
Five years ago, when Holland first got the inspiration to make this film, former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was being banned from the NBA for making racist comments in a private phone call. The contentious relationship between the vastly white team owners in professional sports and their mostly African-American players is at the heart of High Flying Bird’s story, and one which Tarell Alvin McCraney (co-writer of Moonlight) and director Steven Soderbergh capture in a very slick and minimalist way. Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto and Bill Duke round out a smart and entertaining ensemble who tell a compelling sports story that even non-sports fans can enjoy.
André Holland spoke with BET.com about reuniting with Steven Soderbergh, who directed him in the Cinemax drama The Knick, and McCraney, whom he worked with on Moonlight, to shake up the games of both film and sports.
BET: How would you rate your basketball skills on a scale of 1 to 10?
André Holland: That’s a tricky question, man, because I can’t say one. I played pretty good. I played point in high school and could keep up with just about anybody. But I ain’t gonna take over a game. I can pass pretty good. I’m a pretty good shooter. This was John Carol in Alabama. They won the State Championship the year after I left, so I like to say that I was foundational to that. [laughs].
So when did you first get the idea to make High Flying Bird?
It was about five years ago when Steven and I were working on The Knick together and I was looking for projects to do and I wasn’t getting that many scripts. I found myself getting frustrated about that. So, rather than get frustrated, I thought, what if we make something? So I started to pitch him some ideas that I had and out of those conversations came this idea. Then I brought Tarell in. We go back to ’06, we did a bunch of plays together. This was way before Moonlight. We were both in grad school at the same time. He was at Yale and I was at NYU. So we got introduced through a mutual friend. I did his first play in New York, pretty much all his plays. The first one was called Wig Out. Tarell wrote it, I was in it, Sterling K. Brown was in it, Brian Tyree Henry was in it. Rutina Wesley was in it. It was strong. We had a strong group.
How long did that run?
We did it first at Sundance at the theater lab. That was like a three-week workshop process and then we brought it to New York for like six weeks.
So this is a double reunion for you. What was it like bringing Soderbergh and Tarell together?
It was amazing. Me and Steven had been meeting regularly, and then Tarell came in and I arranged this dinner for us. It was really cool to sit there and see the two of them, who both have these big brains and great minds, just going at it, and I got to be a fly on the wall. It felt really good to bring those two worlds together.
How much of Algernon’s (the surgeon you played in The Knick) spirit is in Ray?
That’s a good question. A lot. I think. I like those characters… I think they both have a bit of a chip on their shoulders. They both have some trauma from their past that is a bit unresolved, and they both are determined to leave something good in the world. They’re both a bit arrogant. A little bit. [laughs]. But I think they have a lot in common, and that probably says something about me. That I have… there is a part of me that’s always felt—and I think part of it is coming from Alabama—a bit like I have something to prove. We all grew up hearing that you have to be twice as good…
Did you model Ray after any agents that you know?
A bit. There are some agents that I met with, and I kind of took parts of each of them. This one agent hipped me to something I wasn’t aware of. He’s been in the game for a long time, and the way he relates to his players, it’s not just as an agent. It’s much more like a family member. [He was] the guy who went in very early on, before any contracts were signed, and sat down with their families. He’s an agent, friend, mentor. So I felt like that kind of relationship is the kind of relationship Ray would have with his clients, especially as a Black man working in this largely white agency bringing in these Black players. He would want to be as close to his guys as possible. And yet, his own trauma of having lost his cousin keeps him from getting too involved. There is this distance that he tries to keep. When he’s lecturing Eric he clearly loves him and wants him to do well, but there’s a distance he wants to try to keep.
You got two great young talents in Melvin and Zazie. What was it like working with them?
They were both dope. Melvin I really admire because I didn’t know him before. But I’ve come to know his [story]. This cat has been telling his own stories and shooting his own short films. He has his own production studio in L.A. He’s making stuff all the time. We shot the movie on iPhone, and in a way, he was more experienced than anybody. He really got into it. A lot of his stuff tends to be comedic, so it was cool to see him do something more dramatic. Then with Zazie, I think she is a star. Flat out, no question about it. Go as far as she wants to go star. She’s smart as a whip, obviously beautiful, talented, a kind person. So cool to hang out with. I think she’s amazing.
What was your relationship like with the NBA while making the film?
I personally didn’t have a relationship. It was Steven’s idea to intercut the player interviews. So I’m curious to see what other players think about it, the NBA thinks. I hope they don’t take it as an attack. Because it’s not meant to be. I think the NBA has done really great things for their players as say compared to the NFL. We just use this as an opportunity to pose the question: What if there was more Black ownership? And that applies not just to the NBA but to the NFL, the NCAA, to corporate America. Just everything.
Any hopes for a series?
We definitely want to do a sequel. I have an early idea about that. If this goes well and people really respond to it and Dr. Edwards and I have been talking about a sequel.
How did you meet Dr. Edwards and become familiar with his book The Revolt of the Black Athlete?
I have a friend Onaje Woodbine, he was there last night, he wrote a book called Black Gods of the Asphalt. Which is a dope, dope book around the spirituality around street basketball. In talking to him he educated me about Dr. Edwards, and I reached out to him. I read his book and we talked even more. To me, his involvement was everything. He helped us to understand that this idea was not a new idea. He’s been doing this work for 50 years. From the Olympic protests in ’68 all the way to now with Colin Kaepernick. The first draft of the script he read he was like, “Not that, not that.” He helped us a lot.
Can you specify one thing he felt you got wrong?
There was one thing he talked about. For example, I was concerned about not making the Eric Scott character feel two-dimensional. I didn’t want him to come off like a “dumb athlete.” So what would he say here? How would he express himself here? But when I spoke to Dr. Edwards, he said, "Just because he ain’t talking don’t mean he ain’t thinking. A lot of these guys have very, very active brains. He might not be saying much, but it’s about how he’s taking information in." That’s what we kind of went for. In that first scene, he doesn’t talk much. He listens a lot. But we see him examining and evaluating. So by the end, when he finds that book, it feels like the birth of an activist, a guy who is on the cusp of discovery.
With your film coming out on the same day as Taraji’s sports agent film, What Men Want, is this speaking to a growing diversity in the choice of projects for Black producers and actors?
I hope so. It seems that there are more interesting projects being done, and places like Netflix have made that possible. It’s certainly an exciting time for me to be in this position, because there are so many other things I want to do. My hope is that my production company can have an on-going relationship here at Netflix as we continue to produce more and more content.
High Flying Bird is streaming on Netflix now!