The draw for HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty was inevitable: it’s a nostalgia-powered series charting one of the most fascinating periods in the history of one of sports’ most celebrated franchises. On top of that, criticism from major players in the Showtime-era Lakers’ ascent sparked additional intrigue (vociferous displeasure is, more often than not, a form of promotion). But the aspect of Winning Time that should stick with viewers long after the first season’s conclusion is Wood Harris’s performance as Spencer Haywood, the Hall of Famer who challenged the NBA’s eligibility rules and, by way of a 1971 Supreme Court decision, created a path for future players to enter the league early.
Harris plays Haywood, who also struggled with drug addiction and was married to Iman, with a balance of bravado and vulnerability. Beneath his ego are lingering wounds which he attempts to treat through self-medication. It would’ve been easy to turn Haywood into a caricature in a series that takes such pleasure in making light of itself and the past, but the care and nuance that Harris pours into his performance preserves Haywood as a three-dimensional person who viewers can feel empathy for, even if they’re as frustrated with him as his teammates and coaches are. “My main thing was to avoid doing a disservice to the great Spencer Haywood, who deserves to be understood,” Harris, 52, told GQ.
Harris’s best-known performances came in 2002, when his seminal role as Baltimore drug lord Avon Barksdale on The Wire began alongside his interpretation of former Harlem drug dealer Azie “AZ” Faison, in the cult favorite Paid in Full. But even the Chicago native’s smaller roles, like in the Creed films or 50 Cent’s BMF series, provide a jolt of realism and credibility that can be traced all the way back to his performance as the derisive Motaw in his first movie, 1994’s Above the Rim. Through the years, Harris has appeared alongside Tupac, Denzel Washington, and now Adrien Brody en route to becoming one of the more reliable character actors in the business.
Just days after The Wire’s 20th anniversary, Harris spoke to GQ about the show’s impact, the challenge of portraying non-fictional characters, growing up playing basketball in Chicago, and making sure that more people get the full scope of who Spencer Haywood is—even in a series that plays it loose when it comes to the facts.
How familiar were you with Spencer Haywood’s story prior to portraying him on Winning Time?
I’d heard his name before, but I didn’t know any details. He was sort of blackballed and his name was familiar, but I didn’t know the details of his life. I didn’t know about the Supreme Court and all of that. It was pivotal. And it wasn’t just him, it was a couple of kids who were outstanding athletes and were trying to overturn that, and were successful.
Winning Time took some liberties in terms of historical accuracy, but what type of research did you do into that iteration of the Lakers and Spencer Haywood, specifically?
All of the information is available, so it was basically looking at documentaries. Looking at any writing about him or photos, because you want to see who the person is and how you feel about them. And then actually talking with them is something you do throughout the whole process, but early on, I like to get my own idea before I have someone tell me about themselves. So rather than do that, I was curious as to how he felt about certain things more than anything else. He lives in Las Vegas and he’s still a youthful guy; very intense. So you really have to pick the right moments to get information from him and use it wisely in the portrayal, because the last thing you want to do is a disservice to somebody that’s alive when you portray them. That’s the worst thing.
What did you two spend the most time talking about?
We’d just talk about life. One of the strongest pieces of information I got from him was how he was affected by the Supreme Court decision. It’s kind of hard to understand how unique of a situation that is for a young man to go through. That really thrust him into the dark world where he ended up. It wasn’t basketball, it was really how he was deemed, socially, how he was treated professionally by the NBA, and how that affected his personal life. It really pushed him into a dark place. And you might not understand that until they tell you about it. You need to learn that from the source, because there’s a victory there—they won the case. But it changed his life in such a way that it did damage.
What you want to do when you portray people who go through things is make people relate to something they might not have done before, but still find something in that person that you care about. So I just want people to care about Spencer and his story, and to remember it. That’s what drove me the most: to be honest in the portrayal. It’s still art, but we’re dealing with people who are alive and whose stories are important.
Beyond that relatability, is there a particular characteristic that you wanted to make sure came through in your performance?
I wanted people to see his insecurities. Now that you know where they came from, it’s OK to show them in a heightened way. The self-medication is problematic, but if you can care about the person, then you’re less likely to be judgmental of them. People judge others when they use drugs or struggle with addiction of any kind, so I just wanted people to care about him enough to try and understand. Then, if you understand, you can care about him and see that he made it through tough times, and allow that to be a positive story at the end of the day.
A lot of the real-life people associated with that Lakers team are not happy with how they were portrayed in Winning Time, but Spencer is. How does it feel knowing that he’s satisfied with your interpretation of him?
I had to show a lot, so I’m so happy that he’s pleased with what I did. But I do understand the opinions of Jerry West if that’s not how he is and everyone says that’s not how he is. So I feel like, in a sense, you are doing a disservice to him. But the actor is at fault for being so committed to his idea of the portrayal. So if there’s anyone at fault for making Jerry West feel the way he does, it’s the actor—and, of course, the writers and producers—but it’s sort of the actor’s job to be close to the personality of Jerry West. If that’s not how Jerry was, and everybody says that’s not how Jerry was, I think that’s a problem.
But the other side of the coin is that this was based on a true story. You could also say: “Jerry West, take it easy. It’s just TV.” [Laughs] There are so many examples of things that are inaccurate and harmful—we could go crazy with that stuff, right? There’s the Jerry West side: “Man, you did me wrong. That’s not me and I don’t like it.” And if he says that, he must mean it. You can’t really argue that. Then there’s the other side, where you could say: “Even though you have that opinion, you’ve probably enjoyed lots of things that are inaccurate portrayals.” But having played a lot of real-life people in my career, I learned that early. Even Azie in Paid in Full—I didn’t want him to feel like I did him a disservice, because people love him and love that movie. That’s how I want things to go.
Even Jimi Hendrix [who Harris played in the 2000 TV movie Hendrix]. You can’t get that wrong.
Oh, especially Jimi Hendrix. That’s where it started, because I think that was the first time I played a real-life person. And it’s super-challenging, but it set me up to portray real-life people like Julius Campbell in Remember the Titans. Ace in Paid in Full. Even Spencer. At this point, I’ve probably played more real-life people than most actors. But starting with Jimi Henrdix set me up for it, and it’s a lot of hard work, but I think I’ve been fine-tuned to do it.
I want to talk about Above the Rim. Your character, Motaw, was extremely antagonistic, but did you, Pac, Duane Martin, and Marlon Wayans hang out while you were filming?
Nah, we didn’t really hang out. I hung out with Marlon once. I can’t say I hung out with Tupac, but I was there the night that he was at Nell’s when he got in trouble. But that was the very first movie that I ever got, so it was a surreal thing to me. And Tupac wasn’t the iconic Tupac at the time; even though he had music out, that was only like his second or third film. But during the time that we were shooting Above the Rim, it was really the heyday for hip-hop. It felt good to go on set and work with people. It was fun, youthful, and upbeat. We felt like rockstars; filming a movie in New York will make you feel like that. I’m a hooper, so I was able to show out all the time. I met cool people and pre-9/11 New York was really poppin’ back then. It was like a renaissance of artistic energy.
The tournament scenes in Above the Rim are pretty well-regarded for people who are in-the-know or really appreciate basketball. How competitive was the level of the play?
Super-competitive, bro. That’s real basketball. A lot of those players were from pro-am leagues and back then, I thought I was Michael Jordan for real. I thought that if I wasn’t there, then I would’ve been in the league—which probably ain’t true at all, but I had that much ego on the basketball court [laughs].
Well, you’re from Chicago. I understand how serious people take basketball there. You went to St. Joseph’s High School like Isiah Thomas and William Gates from Hoop Dreams. So for people who don’t understand, how competitive is basketball in the Chicago area?
Basketball was everything. Literally, your life was on the line. The competitive spirit that gets inside you as a young person…it’s so important in Chicago that people see how you compete. In Chicago, you can end up in the streets because that same energy manifests there; you’re competing in a dangerous way. But in sports, when you find that love and you’re satisfied by just winning something, it matters so much because it cultivates your competitive nature. You need to be able to compete for things as a human being, on some level. Basketball became that for me. I felt satisfaction from winning something. I’d play all day, go home, and feel good. It gave me an understanding of myself, too. I think sports challenges the youth and gives you an opportunity to see what you’re made of. Will you quit? Will you play with this coach yelling at you? Can you play when you see favoritism because the coach’s son is on the team or when there’s some outstanding player who’s so much better than you? I couldn’t imagine what I’d be like without the feeling of waking up and thinking: “I think I’m gonna be somebody at the game today.”
So who were you a fan of as someone who grew up in Chicago during the ‘80s?
Well, of course I grew up as a fan of all things Bulls. But I went to St. Joe’s and there were a lot of ball players who came out of there. Isiah [Thomas] is the most notable because he’s a top-50 player of all time. I also went to the same grade school as him and he grew up in my neighborhood. My older brother, Steve, is close with Isiah’s family. So because of that he—and to a lesser extent, myself—spent a lot of time at Isiah Thomas’s mother’s home. He was just a big influence. That’s why I went to St. Joe’s: because of basketball and because Isiah went there. The folklore around his life was so great that it made everyone walk towards the direction of the light, because he was just so amazing.
How much of an honor was it for you to narrate the 30 for 30 Benji, which is about [the Chicago high school basketball legend] Ben Wilson?
That was unbelievable, man. I grew up with Coodie and Chike, who directed that as well as the Jeen-Yuhs doc. It was surreal to be working with cats I grew up with about a super-famous piece of Chicago history. Now, prior to that, there was a script that Coodie and Chike had been trying to get made into a film for so long. It didn’t get made and they ended up doing a doc, and I’m glad it went like that. They talked to me about being in the movie. It was many years after that when they called me back with ESPN saying they wanted me to narrate it. And I learned so much from it. There was a lot I didn’t know.
Who was the best basketball player on the set of The Wire?
We didn’t play that much, but it was probably me. Idris don’t hoop. He’s athletic—he’s a kickboxer and a soccer player—but he doesn’t play basketball. And I can’t think of anybody else who played basketball. Remember the Titans had an athletic set because everyone kind of needed to be. Kip Pardue, who played Sunshine, was amazingly athletic. He was the fastest of us all, he could really throw the football like a missile, and he played football at Yale. But in general, we used to have the NBA E-League. It was sponsored by the NBA for entertainers, managers, or producers. It was so much fun: We got genuine uniforms, we got rings, we went to all of the All-Star games, we played in the celebrity games during All-Star weekend. I forgot why that went away, but it was so much fun. I won two championships and they give you diamond NBA rings. So on The Wire, it was me. On Remember the Titans, I wasn’t the most athletic, but I was probably the best at basketball. I know Cam’ron could hoop, too.
It’s easy to hype up how good you are. I did an interview with Matt Barnes and Steven Jackson and man, the NBA is no joke. I had an opportunity to play where I was the only person not in the NBA. It was during the ‘99 lockout and I was in Philly filming something. All the Philly cats showed up to this gym and I was like, “Yeah, I’m about to go and try to serve these mufuckas. One thing they’re gonna know is that I can hoop.” I had to guard soon-to-be-in-the-NBA Cuttino Mobley. Man, listen bro…I learned a valuable lesson. I thought I was literally going to have a heart attack [laughs].
Back to The Wire. What did you and Idris do to make Avon and Stringer’s relationship feel authentic?
As far as me and Idris, it’s just a natural bond. We also literally made music together. Idris is a producer and so am I, so we produced songs together. You know how some people you just click with? That’s Idris and me. We’re similar in the sense that we’re private people and more to ourselves. But we’re also similar in that we’re creative outside of acting. I’d say we have a brotherly connection—and you don’t have to talk to your bro every day. We’re both similar in that way. But I have a lot of love for my Wire alumni.
One of the reasons I really enjoy season three is watching the destruction of that relationship. For example, in the rooftop scene at the end of the season, Avon and Stringer both know they’ve betrayed the other, but they don’t know that the other has done the same. What was the mood like when you filmed that scene?
Some of the stuff we shot on The Wire is tough, because it’s not like we were given a whole lot of heads up—which was actually really good. Back then, I think The Wire was shot on film and we weren’t really told what was going to come next. And in real life, you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s probably better that you don’t know so you aren’t predictable and don’t give anything away. A lot of the times when we were shooting The Wire—or at least for me, for sure—I knew what I needed to know for the moment you saw. So the mood stays the same. I kept how I would deliver things to Idris to myself. It’s not like we sat there and rehearsed it like, “Yo Idris, let me show you what I’m gonna do.” It wasn’t that type of show. He had to listen to me to know what I was going to say, so me and Idris were probably just shooting the shit right up until we heard “Action!” We just knew that we had to listen. The Wire was put together with scripts coming fresh off the press; it wasn’t like all 10 scripts were written already.
David Simon and all the writers and producers are all amazing. The casting was amazing, too. Michael K. Williams. Idris. Myself. Andre Royo. Hassan Johnson. Larry Gilliard. Chad Coleman. Snoop—and I’m mostly naming the “bad” guys, but it’s so many extraordinary talents. Michael B. Jordan, too. They had good taste, they knew what they wanted, and they didn’t negotiate. There were no celebrities on the show. There were celebrities made from the show, but it wasn’t made by celebrities. And it took a long time to catch on. Remember that when The Wire was out, it was maybe critically acclaimed, but it wasn’t the most popular show. But it got the love as time went on, and that’s so strange.
So how does it feel to see The Wire go from something that was ignored by the masses while it was airing to this litmus test for taste and cultural awareness, as well as something that’s taught in classrooms?
That’s crazy. I never thought anything like that would happen. That’s bigger than you dream to be. When you’re making it, you just want the story to be told and that’s kind of it. And that was when TV shows aired once a week and you’d have to wait another week for the next episode. There was some anticipation and we would catch that buzz on the street, and that’s when we realized, “Oh man, we got a show.” But it wasn’t until probably a couple of years after The Wire was over that it became seen as one of the best—if not the best—show. I’m just proud to be associated with something ranked like that.
You’re in the Creed films. What’s it like being directed by Michael B. Jordan after knowing him as a child 20 years ago because of The Wire?
That’s so bizarre, dog [laughs]. But just watching it, I also realized that Michael is meant to do that. I’m part of the blueprint for this journey, having done these other things and having known him since he was a kid. Even Jonathan Majors, who I like a lot, is really into Paid in Full. I find that to be so cool. I’m at a point in my career where younger talent likes me the way I like Denzel and Laurence Fishburne. I’m into the young talent and I want to see what they do with their opportunities. Michael B. is very special, though—I always ask him how he got to be called Michael Jordan and have a career [laughs].
I feel like 2002 was a big year for you with a certain audience after The Wire and then Paid in Full, which I know was filmed around 2000, finally came out. How did it feel in the moment to know that, even if the masses weren’t paying attention, you’d made an impact within Black culture and hip-hop culture?
It’s always kind of surprising to see something you do step into another world, or when it stands out to the point that it resonates for a long time. I’m honored by it, but I’m also shocked. There’s a whole world of people, because of Paid in Full and The Wire, with me tatted on them. Paid in Full has a huge cult following—and somehow, it continues to grow. It’s become one of those movies where, if you haven’t seen it, you need to. It’s a coming-of-age movie where, if you’re 17 and you haven’t seen Paid in Full, how is that possible? And it’s cool that it’s staying with the youth. That’s amazing. As time goes on, there’s a certain age bracket that maintains knowledge of Paid in Full. I guess it’s that movie that people like to say: “I put you on to that.” Because you’re right, it had a small following. Number one, I think Dame Dash and Harvey Weinstein made for a terrible tandem as it relates to releasing a film. Also, the R. Kelly tape came out around that same time. Paid in Full was bootlegged in New York. Why? For money. How? I don’t know. All you heard about on the street was the R. Kelly tape and Paid in Full. I hated that it got sideswiped by that, and that hurt the box office numbers.
Once I’m done with a project—and I mean the day I’m done with it—I’m really done with it. I haven’t even seen every episode of The Wire. I’m so close to the cuff with it that I’m disenchanted with even watching some of it. I might watch myself at the premiere and that’s it. I’ve only seen one episode of Winning Time, but I can tell it’s really good. I’m gonna catch up—and I always tell myself that, then a year goes by.
But what I’ve learned to appreciate is when people come up to me and like what they saw. It makes me feel so good. I’m not opinionated about my own material because I don’t really look at it, so what I get is an honest response from people. Now, I will see some of it sometimes. You just mentioned the balcony scene and I just posted that the other day on my IG, so I’ve seen some of The Wire. I’ve seen Paid in Full, so I know what people like. Paid in Full is a special movie. I saw it on TV kind of recently and I was like, “Wow, that’s a good movie!” That was like my first time seeing it since the premiere, decades ago. Now, when I watch it, I see what people like about Wood Harris. And I’m glad I’ve been that way, because it let me focus on the work and not on creating a persona. I feel like people do that a lot of the time: they use marketing to make their personality. I want to be myself, so I tend to not do a whole lot of interviews.
Paid in Full was Cam’ron’s first acting gig. I heard that he took the role very seriously—perhaps too seriously at times. For example, I understand that he really socked that dude when he pulled him out of the car.
Oh yeah, that’s a fact. There’s a scene in the movie where I guess it’s getting dry on the streets. The guy driving that car is a stunt man from Canada, because we shot part of Paid in Full in Toronto. He pulls up, says his lines, and it’s scripted that Cam’ron opens the door, pulls the dude out of the car, and shakes him down. But Cam’ron pulled him out of the window and was sockin’ him for real. And that’s what we used, which is why it’s edited in jump cuts. It’s cut together out of one take. But I remember Charles [Stone lll] being happy about that, because that’s gold for a movie. And the stuntman just played with it. Sometimes people are like, “Man, don’t do that.” He just rolled with the punches, no pun intended.