In HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Los Angeles coach and former star player Jerry West, played by Jason Clarke, is not a happy man. The Lakers are in an exciting period of growth: New team owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) offers up a seemingly limitless budget to transform the team’s image, and burgeoning megastar Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. (Quincy Isaiah) is their No. 1 draft pick. But West, plagued by self-doubt from his own numerous losses in the NBA Finals, takes himself off the court.
West’s decision to quit three weeks before the start of the Lakers’ 1979–1980 season comes at the end of Winning Time’s second episode, “Is That All There Is?” and sparks immediate chaos. The melancholic smile Clarke wears as West resigns captures the character’s contrasting states; though often resentful and angry at what he sees as Buss’s gaucheness and inexperience, West provides many of the fourth-wall-breaking series’s funniest line deliveries (the snarl and pursed lips with which he delivers the phrase “Your sphincter puckers”) and physical humor (lying on the floor of his home office in tighty-whities, swearing, “Fuck you, I love my job” through a mouthful of chips).
On a Zoom call from Los Angeles, before returning to his home in Australia, Clarke talked about embodying the “towering figure in American sports” whose silhouette provides the NBA logo, perfecting the bemused stare and foul mouth that define his performance, and the transformative power of slipping on a pair of Cuban heels.
What kind of research went into becoming Jerry?
His book, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, was the first place. It’s a very interesting book, and it also has the benefit of him narrating the prologue for the audiobook and his son Ryan narrating the rest of the book. Writers aren’t necessarily the best readers of their books, but it gave a real indication of the pace and tone. Then videos. There’s the actual Jerry work, of all the facts and figures and watching him and looking at pictures of him coming off those bone-crushing losses — literally, where he got beaten by Bill Russell again and again and again. And hanging out with the guys. I trained with the young basketballers, and just feeling their energy, feeling their vibe, feeling the way they game, and learning the way they talked and spoke and sweating with them. Then Rob Morgan of Mudbound came in, and we hooked up again after a long time apart. You start to build it into place.
Then the dialect work with Tim Monich. If you’ve never interviewed Tim Monich, track him down and interview him. Like, really. A fascinating man deeply connected to a lot of amazing people in this business. We put the dialect together: Jerry’s own voice, but also finding other people with West Virginian accents to exaggerate it. He’s older now, and there’s not a lot of [audio of] the really early stuff when it’s really strong and thick. Putting it together was wonderful. A fascinating trip through America. Jerry spanned the ’50s to now.
West is the NBA logo, and he has always seemed very paternal and grandfather-like. In Winning Time, he’s nearly frozen by self-doubt. Did you feel like you were puncturing an illusion?
It’s funny, because he frames his book as that: an examination of “my charmed and tortured life.” It was unlike anything I’d read before. It examined and acknowledged that he was deeply tortured and never took time to understand it. You start at this particular time in the ’80s where the ball is torturing Jerry: He can’t let it go, but he can’t use it properly. He has raced through a lot of his life as this athlete, and now it’s over and he feels like a loser. He’s trying to reconcile all these demons because all he has wanted to do is put that ball in the net and win. That’s where you find him in the show, so I guess it is a puncture for a lot of people.
The day I flew back to America was the day Kobe Bryant died. There was a massive fog flying in; I’ve never seen it in L.A. like that. We landed, and it was like, shit, wow. We saw Jerry, as you said, as this paternal grandfather, this guiding light, particularly for Kobe and a lot of young players. He wasn’t always just Jerry the logo — he went through the wringer with sports and fame. The man has been living publicly since those high school days when he was adulated in his hometown, and it never sat with him. But he learned to love the ball, and now you can say he’s someone like Ian McKellen for me, an actor who has been doing this his whole life and he’s happy. You see his eyes and they’re alive. You see Jerry now and he loves what he does. He’s one of the most immensely knowledgeable and generous people of that age.
In an interview about another role, you described finding the “circle of energy your character exists within.” What was Jerry’s circle of energy?
Ooh. [Revolves index finger.] Beating, beating, beating, beating, beating. I would, in between a scene or during a scene, really get my inner monologue going: Come on, fuck. Come on, Jerry. Come on, Coach. Come on, fucking logo. I would try to make myself serious but not too serious. I found a couple things from Jerry’s book: “I care so much it hurts. I care too much, and I can’t stand the people who don’t care as much as me.” It was finding the little things. Because I never met Jerry. If I ever meet somebody I’m playing, or somebody around them, people think you’re after facts or figures, numbers, or tell me about this. But it’s not, really. For me, it’s just trying to feel their energy.
And it happens all the time, even now with you and me. We’re sitting, we’re finding a pace to relate to. That’s what you’re after: What is that metronome ticking at? And Jerry, particularly in episode two, is ticking really, really fast and hard. He’s having an existential crisis that he doesn’t realize is happening. There’s a manic-ness to him. Jerry is also outside the energy of everyone else, particularly Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar, played by Solomon Hughes]. Jerry’s, in a way, out of his mind. He doesn’t know how to stop himself. And because he’s Jerry West and he’s the coach and the season’s about to start, nobody was going to stop him. It’s a train wreck.
There’s this really effective blank stare you use to convey how dumbstruck Jerry is by success. How did you perfect that look?
Thank you; I appreciate that. It was something I thought about. He doesn’t realize what he holds in his hand. You’re working toward the end of that thing — with that scene on the floor, with the glitter, with everything. What’s in my hand? I think I can keep holding this water, but I can’t. It hasn’t really occurred to him. And then you get to the end, and he’s like, Well, what am I going to do now? He doesn’t fucking know. I had a similar thing when I played Ted Kennedy. You’re there, but you’re not. Your body is giving you away. Your body is signifying something that hasn’t landed but that resides in you, that you understand.
The stare is very existential, like you said. But I also think Jerry is the funniest character on the show. He has these great cutaways and smirks. Was the character always intended as comic relief, or was that incorporated through your performance?
I did really go for it. You gotta serve the story. I’m there to play Jerry, but I’m also there to serve this story, and I need to bring it. I need to take the Spinal Tap thing. I want to turn it up to, if not 11, then ten and a half, ten and a quarter. It really helped that the series had Jonah Hill, who directed episode two; Adam McKay, of course; John C. Reilly. For the bigger stuff to come, I needed to make the earlier stuff — even though it’s deeply emotional — bigger but real. I think we all love seeing the lunatic within ourselves. Jerry’s letting it all hang out, even on the golf course. He can’t even fucking enjoy his golf. He can’t do anything at all, you know what I mean?
Certain things just came out. In the premiere episode, which we watched for the first time the other night, the guy who comes up and says, “What are you looking at, Jerry?” And he says, “Pictures of your sister.” He’s at war and he can’t help himself. On some radio show, you’d hear him swear, and that was a real key for me. This man has lived his whole life in front of the camera. He’s very well brought-up and very well mannered, but there’s this other side of him just swearing. So instead of saying, Oh fuck, I said, Oh shit, fuck, fuck that, fuck this, fuck you. I’d wait for the tap on the shoulder with, “Jason, you know, this is” [makes “slow down” gesture], but it didn’t come. A couple times we worked with some guys who were extras who worked for Jerry most of his career, and they said, “Yeah, Jerry swears a lot.”
Jerry has some of the series’s more colorful lines. I’m thinking of “sphincter puckers” and “fuck you, I love my job” and “these Boston Irish motherfuckers.” How do you formulate your deliveries?
You talk yourself well the fuck into it. The crew is wonderful for that as well. It’s hard because you’re using that space to get comfortable in front of 100 people so you can be open in front of one, when it comes down to it. I’ve always been an intensely shy person, but I’m comfortable now with getting to know the crew and allowing them in, because it’s such an intimate place. A great crew knows what you’re doing. I start referring to myself in the third person — I’m not afraid if people laugh at me. I don’t have to be the funny guy, but I think it’s nice to allow people to laugh at you.
John has always had a strong fourth wall, like in Talladega Nights: [mimics Reilly’s voice] “I posed nude for Playgirl under the name Mike Honcho.” We’re filming the part in the pilot when I’m on the phone, before Jerry comes in with that deep, meaningful conversation about the Lakers, and I’m pretending to book a tee-off time at the golf course. [Slips into West’s accent.] “Don’t use my own fucking name.” “What name do you want to use, Jerry?” “Honcho. Mike fucking Honcho.” “What do you mean?” “H-O-N-C-H-O. Mike Honcho, dude!” The crew is out there laughing, and John’s out there waiting to come in, not knowing what’s going on. You find a way to circle your way into being what you want to be. It struck me that when Jerry was at work and around people he trusted, he really went hard. My wife the other night said, “Oh, now I understand why you were swearing so much at home, Jason.”
There’s a lot of physicality to this: fist clenching, pointing, slamming. At what point in preparation do those flourishes come in?
All the time. You gotta get them going. I had a lot of pictures of him on the court with his expressions. You gotta find it and release it. It has its own memory. Everybody has a Jerry West story in this city, from valets to restaurants to basketball people to people in the crowd. It just kept getting reaffirmed, and I loved it.
How much does the costuming help you?
[Laughs.] Dude! You’re right.
The wig was great.
It takes a lot of work to get the wig right. There is so much work that goes into a good wig.
So the wig, the championship ring, the outfits — does one take primacy over the others to help you get there?
The big one was the Cuban heels. That just changed my posture; I’m no longer standing like Jason. We saw him in Cuban heels and we found the right pair of Cuban heels. Wardrobe was amazing on this show. You have so much access now with buying the original Missoni sweaters he was into, the colors and original knits, off eBay. Of course, the gold chain. And with the ring, it really occurred to me, Is he wearing the ring now? But then it’s, He’s always wearing the ring. You’ve got one ring, but you always wear it. That ring is huge. They also made it properly, so it was heavy. The art department brings those in, and all of a sudden other people are helping you build your character. I love letting those people in. As an actor, you don’t know everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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