Winning Time is only three episodes into its first season, but its strategy —puncturing NBA lore to uncover the insecurities, doubts, and struggles haranguing the men we now know as Lakers legends — is firmly in place. “The Best Is Yet to Come” brings in a 34-year-old Pat Riley, retired from the game and struggling to find something to do with his time. Adrien Brody plays Riley, who returns to the Forum looking for a commentating job and butts heads with the dismissive, homophobic Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett), with a charming wink and a self-deprecating shrug. He’s a “glutton for punishment,” Pat tells former teammate Jerry West (Jason Clarke), and he wants to get back on the court any way he can, even through a pickup game on the beach that leaves him bruised and battered. When Pat’s wife, Chris (Gillian Jacobs), tells him to “work harder” after discovering he’s destroyed their memorabilia-filled garage in a fit of discontent, he commits to proving himself as a color commentator. But the end of the episode hints he’s about to find his way into coaching — a career turn that will lead the Lakers into their Showtime era.
Brody spoke with Vulture about stepping into Riley’s swagger, finding “humor in defeat and tragedy,” and his climactic scene chain-sawing through his past in “The Best Is Yet to Come.”
Winning Time really prioritized peeling back the layers of NBA icons in their youth to show their humanity off the court. As you prepared for your introduction as Pat Riley, what were you hoping to find?
The beginning of Riley’s story in the series starts at a pretty low point in his career. He had a successful career as a ballplayer and this was a big transition for him. The challenge for an athlete is that you are retired at a relatively young age. If you’ve given so much to the sport and lived so competitively for so long and so obsessively about it, it’s very hard to put that down and not feel a sense of purpose. That is very relatable, and it’s an unpleasant emotional space.
Pat Riley has written several wonderful books that were very helpful for me. He’s referenced that time as a period of mourning, and I think the challenge for him was to find a place for all that drive. The doors weren’t open for him. All of those frustrations, they’re very, very relatable, to anybody who has aspired to do anything meaningful in their life. [Laughs.] Or has had the good fortune of having some success at some point, and then not having it flow for whatever reason. It was an interesting thing to discover about Pat Riley. I knew of his past as a ballplayer, but I didn’t put my feet in his shoes. I think that’s what’s going to be most interesting for the audience: to see, as you mentioned, all of these things these people have to overcome to get to this place and become these iconic characters we know.
Your performance as Pat in this episode has a sort of a bittersweet undercurrent throughout, with lines like “I’m not some honky off the street” and “Now I got a strange woman crying on my chair.” There’s a level of self-deprecation that surprised me. When you read the script, what was your reaction to that humor?
It’s very well-written and it’s very insightful. There’s humor in defeat and tragedy. [Laughs.]
The line between them is very thin.
I just took a big fall yesterday, and I was in agony. [Laughs.] I was laughing at the absurdity of it. That is life. You have to find a way to come to terms with feeling good, and then you get the rug pulled out. They’re very talented, Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes; they’re wonderful writers. So much of it speaks to the time and to greater things that affected the team and the world around them. You just have to look around and see how commonplace human suffering is, and obstacles for everyone. It’s daunting, but there’s a sense that we’re all in this together, right?
I read a quote of yours that said “There’s no swagger without damage.” I’m wondering how you applied that to your portrayal of Pat Riley. How do you maintain the balance between that swagger and the kind of suffering you just mentioned?
Most people who have a degree of swagger, it had to be earned. It had to come from overcoming many things, and sometimes may even be an affectation to conceal certain insecurities. If you look at hip-hop, so much has to do with being in a battle and outshining the next person. That’s a big part of the vibe, and a lot of that comes from growing up not having those things that you brag you do have, and a desire for them, and a desire for being respected and appreciated. You have to earn it. Pat Riley has come from a working-class background, he’s struggled very hard to get there, he’s worked very hard — he’s talented. To be successful, you do have to have a self-determination and a belief. That’s not necessarily being egotistical; it’s being driven, and having a sense that you can achieve what you’re setting out to do. If you’re not gonna believe that, why would anybody else?
That’s what was really interesting to me about Pat’s garage. It’s full of these reminders of past successes. He goes from working on his audition tape inside the garage to taking a chain saw to the vines and ivy covering the roof — and then to the garage itself. Can you talk about the filming of that? How much did you actually destroy?
Oh yeah, I destroyed a lot of it. As much as they let me. A lot of that is the past staring at you. Your past achievements don’t hold you up, necessarily, if you’re still craving to achieve more in life. And part of it was also his father [Leon Riley], and his relationship with his father, and his father’s inability to achieve a level of success in the direction Pat was going in. His father was a ballplayer and tried to transition into the management side of things and it didn’t pan out. If you’re surrounded by past glory and feel a sense of emptiness in your current path, that’s deeply frustrating.
How long did the destruction of the garage take?
They had to dismantle portions safely. [Laughs.] If it was an independent movie and they left me in charge, I’d say, “Just stand back, let me go to work!” I did clip myself a few times and was smashing into things. Those roots were very resilient. [Laughs.] You would hit it just right, and it would bounce back. They were very nervous with me on the roof with the chain saw, and I was like, “No, I got it.” They were trying to start it; it was an old-fashioned chain saw with a two-stroke, really-difficult-to-pull start. I was like, “I got it, I got it” — halfway pulling myself off the rooftop.
Was there a specific moment where it felt like you inhabited Pat? I asked Jason Clarke this, and he said the Cuban heels helped him feel like Jerry West.
I don’t know if it was a specific article of clothing. There’s a zone. I know when I’m emotionally connected and I know when I’m not. Certain things definitely help. I am just used to kicking into gear. I know how to rile myself up. But I don’t know what it is in particular. Definitely the costume had an effect, and certain pieces definitely either bolster your confidence or diminish it, so I used that. [Laughs.] I’m not really a huge fan of brown two-tone ties, very wide ties, and lapels.
Very wide and very short.
Well, they were two-tone. I think they weren’t even that short — they were like another color, which gave the impression that it was shorter than it was.
You commuted to set every day because Winning Time was filming in Los Angeles. Did you have a routine to get yourself into the zone?
Sometimes I would revisit segments of Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime, on audiobook, which would be nice tonally, to hear anecdotes and references of the time. But it was usually very early. If I have a bit of dialogue, I’m just running lines in my head as I go. Before I get out of bed, I will see how much I know before I even do anything, and that’s a good indicator of what’s sticking. Then I’ll make a tea to go, grab a piece of toast or something, and drive. Try not to wake up the neighbors with my loud exhaust system. [Laughs.] Start the car in the garage, with the door shut, so that it doesn’t alert the neighbors, and then kind of coast down the block in neutral. That was my morning ritual.
At least you’re not driving Pat’s flame-covered van.
No, but I’m that crazy. I did a pilot years ago and the character lived in Venice, California. I moved to Venice and got a year lease, and then the show didn’t go and I got stuck in this year lease in the ’90s. I just tend to go for it.