New from Jon Espino on The Young Folks: Lil Rel Howery On His Love of Basketball (and Hannibal Buress) and Working With Legends in ‘Uncle Drew’ [Interview]

Breakout roles can come from any film or from any character. Lil Rel Howery’s came in the form of a dreaded TSA agent that quickly turned into one of the best comedic characters in one of the best films of 2017. After his role in Get Out, Howery has more than proven he is a force to be reckoned with. He has several upcoming shows, including his own sitcom airing in the fall called Rel. Lil Rel Howery has several films in the works but has already shown great promise in his first starring role in Uncle Drew. We talk with Howery his love of basketball, the importance of projects that are socially conscious, and about meeting legends like Shaq, Lisa Leslie and even Jay Z and Beyonce.


2017 was a fantastic year for you. You were in a TV show I love, Insecure, had a breakout role in Get Out, and you were even in Jay Z’s music video for “Moonlight”. Now, in 2018, we get to see your full range as an actor in Uncle Drew.  How does this role compare to every other character you’ve played?

Lil Rel Howery: The difference between this and everything is the responsibility that comes from being a lead. I wanted to make sure that I passed the ball well to everyone else and provided all the assists and the alley-oops so that they can do what they do. It’s really what makes this film work.

So it was basically like a real basketball team?

LRH: Yeah, it was basically like a real team. It’s so funny, one of the speeches they give in the movie they actually gave me outside of the movie, and it’s from these legends so I don’t know if I’ll ever experience this again. I’m going to do a bunch of movies and shows, but this was a once in a lifetime type of thing. As a kid who loved Space Jam with Michael Jordan, this was such a surreal experience.

This was kind of, unofficially a sequel to Space Jam.

LRH: This was my Space Jam. If I told little kid me that I was going to be in a movie with Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, and Shaq, he would have said, “You’re crazy. Please get out of here, sir.”

How much freedom were you given when creating your character? Did you get to improv some of the comedy?

LRH: Oh yeah. Any project you see me on I’m going to hit you with a couple of freestyles. It’s so funny too because I tend to forget what I freestyled or played with. I tend to have so much fun with any scenes I do in movies or TV, like Insecure. The directors and writers let me go on my own thing.

Were there any jokes or gags that you wished made it into the final cut?

LRH: The Uncle Ben joke, but then we all started laughing so we couldn’t really use it. It’s in the credits though, in the gag reel.

I loved the Kazaam joke Shaq made. I teared up I was laughing so much.

LRH: The thing about it is that it’s just him talking. (in Shaq voice) “I’ve come a long way since Kazaam.”

How was it like working with a cast of professional basketball players like Shaq and Lisa Leslie?

LRH: Lisa is a sweetheart, but when she gets on that court, it’s like a switch goes off. That was the crazy part, watching those guys. They haven’t played in a while, but as soon as they hit the court it was like a switch went off. It was real basketball played in the movie. Watching Reggie Miller hit a 3-pointer, and seeing Lisa Leslie post-up and do a fade-away, was kind of insane. Then, when you see Shaq, you’re just left there thinking, “Who guarded you?!”

The film is pretty evenly comedy and drama. Between the punchlines, there’s an earnest message about family and just an overall love of the game. The older characters represent the humble beginnings of the game, and the newer teams are more of a stylized version of it. Do you think basketball has shifted its focus, becoming more style over substance?

LRH: That’s a good question. Yes and no. You look at a team like Golden State, and their chemistry is insane. I enjoy watching this team play like a family. All of these dudes were drafted into the team, and they just all made themselves better. When I think about those Bulls championship teams, they were just built from the draft and they learned how to best work together, like a family.

What’s your history with the game?

LRH: I love basketball. I started playing when I was 7 or 8, and I was really into it. Even though I don’t play as much, I’m still addicted to the game. I have the NBA app on my phone, so no matter where I am in the world, I’m watching basketball. It’s such a beautiful game to me and I think it’s the team aspect that I love about it, and what I loved about the movie. No matter how many other movies I do, Uncle Drew will always be dear to my heart.

Photo Credit : Quantrell D.Colbert; Courtesy of Lionsgate.

What I loved about Uncle Drew is how it’s not only about family but about how a family is not limited to who you are biologically related to. Even though it focuses on family and basketball, it isn’t without its own social commentary, much like Get Out had. How important, especially now, is it that films like these are being made, and stories like these are being told?

LRH: Whether it’s tv or film, you can’t run away from how the world really is. There will always be a chance to put some social commentary in there. I try to pick projects that aren’t scared to do that. Even if it’s only minimal, something has to be in there for me to want to do the project. Especially as a person of color, we can’t run away from anything. This is our reality and we can’t ignore it.

While we’re talking about TV, tell me a little about your upcoming TV show, Rel.

LRH: I’m so excited for it. One of my dreams was to have a sitcom because it puts me in this new class, like the legends I look up to who have each had their own shows. Comedians like Redd Foxx, Martin Lawrence, and Bernie Mac. We’re doing it the old school way with multi-cam and a live studio audience. It’s fun to lead a show, and I was able to bring back Sinbad, who is amazing and hilarious. I can’t wait for people to see this show. Sure, there are a lot of great comedies out now, but they’re all mostly dramedies. I just wanted to make something that is funny right away. I want people to tune into the Rel show and be able to get a laugh right away. I think we all need that kind of show, especially right now.

But like you said, it’s still going to have a bit of social commentary in it, right?

LRH: Like I said, you can’t run away from real. There are so many different things we can talk about. It’s not going to be overly political, but it will deal with real family issues, like with my character being a long-distance dad. Showing that different family dynamic, how I still love my kids, even though I don’t live with them. There are so many issues that we can do. Like you mentioned, I did the Jay Z music video last year, but I also did the 4:44 footnotes too. We touched on a lot of things that most men don’t talk about, like when you’re hurting and when you make mistakes. On my show, you’re going to see a man rebuild himself, and own up to his BS.  

You’ve already been able to work with so many legends. How was working with Jay Z?

LRH: He’s dope, man. I think Jay is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Him and Beyonce. They have a beautiful family. I hosted Beyonce’s mom, Miss Tina’s, Wearable Art Gala this year and it was honestly one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. They’re such a beautiful family, and they’re not perfect, but they’re dope. People tend to put celebrity couples on a pedestal, and they forget that they’re still human.

Aside from Rel, are there any other projects we should keep an eye out for?

LRH: I have Bird Box, a movie I did with Sandra Bullock, that should be coming to Netflix sometime this year. I’m in a beautiful film called Brittany Runs a Marathon, and I’m going to be in The Bobby Brown Story TV series. I’m in the movie Tag. That movie is hysterical. Hannibal kills it.

He definitely steals the movie.

LRH: I know. I was about to say, “That’s what we do, we steal movies.” (laughs) It’s such a funny movie, and I’m so happy for him. That’s been his best performance on screen. I’m like, “This is your Tiffany Haddish movie. This is your Girls Trip!”

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