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Viola Davis is 'glad' she didn't know Michael Jordan chose her to play his mother

LA Times logo LA Times 3/20/2023 Christi Carras

The world found out last week that Michael Jordan personally selected Viola Davis to play his mother, Deloris Jordan, in the new movie, "Air" — and apparently so did Davis.

In a red-carpet interview with People magazine at the South by Southwest film festival, the EGOT winner reacted Saturday to "Air" director Ben Affleck's recent revelation that Jordan instructed him to cast Davis in the historical drama about the basketball legend's culture-shifting brand deal with Nike.

"I'm just hearing about it now," said Davis, who told People she was "flattered" upon learning that Jordan requested her. "It blew my mind. I'm glad I didn't know about it before."

The "Woman King" actor attended the "Air" screening at SXSW with her onscreen and off-screen husband, Julius Tennon — who plays Jordan's father, James. "It's pretty awesome that he wanted her to play his mom," Tennon added.

Earlier this month, Affleck revealed in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that he asked Jordan who he wanted to portray his mother in the film, and the star athlete replied, "Viola Davis, that’s my mom.”

"And that was it," Affleck said. "Discussion was over. However it happened, it wasn’t his problem, but it was going to f—happen. And I was like, 'OK, Mike.'"

Affleck — who also stars in the feature as Nike co-founder Phil Knight — remembered worrying that it would look as if he "ignored" Jordan's wish if he wasn't able to honor it. Despite Davis' surprise at SXSW, Affleck recalled "begging" and persuading her to take the role by telling her about his conversation with the former Chicago Bulls player.

"I’m sure [Davis accepted] because I said, 'Michael Jordan wants you to play his mom,'" he told THR.

"It certainly wasn’t 'Ben Affleck wants you to be in his movie.' She’s not comfortable with sycophancy or obsequiousness. You can tell it chafes her. I just treated her with respect, which is to say, 'When you’re ready, let me know. We’ll be here.'"

Both in his THR profile and at SXSW, Affleck showered Davis with praise. He said he sensed that Jordan was going to choose her because she was already someone he had "wanted to direct for so long."

"I don’t think there’s an objective best actor," he told THR.

"But I do think there’s a group of people who you can say, 'These are the best actors in the world.' And Viola’s quite obviously among them. ... by the way, there’s one line for the mother character in the movie at this point — and I’m thinking, 'Oh, my God, he wants me to offer this to Viola Davis. How am I going to offer Viola Davis a movie with one line? That’s not going to happen.'"

As the script evolved, however, Davis' role in the picture grew. At SXSW, Affleck deemed the "How to Get Away With Murder" star the Michael Jordan of acting.

"Viola Davis is the best actor I've ever seen," Affleck said at Saturday's "Air" screening.

"It's hard to know if you're successful. It's hard to know if you've accomplished something. But honest to God, I always felt, 'If I was a director and one day, I have Viola Davis in my movie, that would really be something. That would mean the world to me.' And I've gotta say, it really does. This is the best night of my professional life

Rounding out the main cast of "Air" are Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans and Chris Tucker. The Amazon Studios title opens in theaters April 5.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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