Over the course of his film and television career, Reggie Rock Bythewood has worn multiple hats: actor, writer, producer, showrunner and director. His acting credits include Brother from Another Planet and Vampire’s Kiss. He wrote for A Different World, wrote and produced New York Undercover, wrote and directed the film Biker Boyz, and created, wrote, produced, and directed the show Shots Fired.
His latest project, the Apple TV+ drama Swagger, finds him wearing all but his actor hat. The show, which will premiere on October 29, finds its inspiration in the early life of NBA basketball star (and Swagger executive producer) Kevin Durant. The central character is Jace (Isaiah Hill), a rising teen phenomenon with untapped raw talent who connects with a local coach, Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and his imperiled youth basketball program. Bythewood focuses as well on everything happening around Jace and Ike, which spans from ambitious parents, shady donors, jealous competitors, powerful influencers, and less-than-honorable coaches to the exact opposites of all that. Racism also comes into play (and it’s harrowing).
If you’re thinking that Swagger has been bouncing around a while, that’s because it has. The 10-episode show was announced almost three years ago. Winston Duke originally signed on to play Ike, but an injury forced him to withdraw. And then, of course, COVID struck. But Bythewood – who is married to Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood — never dropped the ball, and the show rebounded, landing Jackson to play Ike and navigating new set protocols to get Swagger made.
Below The Line spoke earlier this month with Bythewood about why he got involved with Swagger, how his days as an actor influence the way he runs a set, and who proved instrumental in helping him realize the show.
Below the Line: Swagger was announced nearly three years ago. How crazy is it that between the injury to Winston Duke and then COVID, it’s taken so long to get the show made? And how ready are you for the world to finally see it?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: Oh, it’s really interesting because, obviously there’s the writing process at first and then you go into production. But I would say that we were faced with so many challenges, with COVID, and part of the perseverance was just finding the positive in every challenge. I think that’s what we did, and it really made us all come together. You hear people say, “Hey, we created a family,” but we really became a family on our show. Then, getting to see our kids grow up in real time was amazing. But it’s definitely time. It’s definitely time to get it out there, and I’m really looking forward to people seeing our narrative.
BTL: Why was it important to you to help Kevin Durant tell his story?
Bythewood: K.D. met with Brian Grazer and they had a conversation where they thought it would be a really interesting narrative. And they asked me to meet with K.D. Meeting with him was great, number one, because I liked him and that’s helpful. And I was really captivated by his story of youth basketball and the challenges he met, that he faced. But I was also excited because while I was allowed to pull from his real-life experiences, there was no mandate in me doing a biopic, which is not what I wanted to do. I really wanted to do something inspired by his life, but also deal with some other stories. I wanted to do it in a contemporary setting and really use basketball as an exciting backdrop to lean into some characters I wanted to present to the world. My process was to get the audience at the edge of their seat and while they’re leaning forward hit him with the truth to do with Swagger.
BTL: Shows and movies have a plot, and the really good ones are about something more than just the plot. So, to you, what’s the heart of Swagger?
Bythewood: Well, to answer this in a way that doesn’t give away the narrative, I will say that a show like this has interesting characters that have character arcs. And it is not just the plot, but it’s the people that we’re going to meet in this narrative. I wanted to just give a view from every seat in the house so that you could feel the kids, feel the coaches, feel the parents and feel what it’s like you know. Ultimately, this is a show about people coming together. And it felt timely. At a time when in a country if you have a different opinion, you’re bad, you’re this, you’re un-American. So, this really presented us an opportunity to challenge people’s perspectives, to ask if people can see things in a different way and still come together as a team and as a family.
BTL: How much do you feel that having acted has influenced your directing, how you are on a set, how you treat a cast and crew?
Bythewood: I’m at a point in my career where the process for me is as important as the finished product. It has to be empowering and when everything is, like, going great, it’s hard enough. So, I really just want to create a healthy environment. That’s the only way I want to work. I don’t need to work any other way. There are things that I learned early on as an actor that, number one, influences my writing, even just in terms of approaching character. It’s the same with directing. I think probably the greatest thing I learned from being an actor is just how to approach shaping characters.
Bythewood: There are so many, but I will tell you this: One of the things I did before we started production is, I called a PA breakfast. I had breakfast with just the PAs and myself, and we talked about the process, questions they had, life questions, how I came to approach the narrative in the way that we do. But also, I do that because also I like the tone that it sets. It lets everybody know that I value everyone from PAs to producers. We put my vision up on a wall and had all these images that articulated the vision of the show. I kind of did a walkthrough with everybody who wanted to hear it, so that everybody could know that they’re part of the process.
BTL: Let’s break some of it down. Talk about the casting. Lauren Grey did the principal casting…
Bythewood: All the roles were challenging to cast, but none more challenging than our ballplayers. So, it was a huge casting search for Jace, for all of them. Part of the challenge you have going in is how are you going to get a really good actor that could ball out the way that a show that you imagine a show loosely inspired by K.D.’s experiences should look? It was a huge casting search. Isaiah Hill comes in and he knocks it out. His ballplaying was legit, and we were able to get him an acting coach. I want to start there, just to get to your question about who we couldn’t do the show without. Keeping in mind, Below the Line, I want to be 100% authentic. I couldn’t have done this show without the mothers of these kids, because we faced so many challenges. We created a family largely because of these mothers. They didn’t just come to bring me food; they brought everybody food, and they kept us all dialed in. But the casting was huge.
And then, because of the way I want to work, one of the extensions of the director is your ADs. If I’m saying I want a healthy environment and my ADs are walking around cursing everybody out, then there’s a bit of a problem. I had an amazing AD staff that worked hard, that busted their ass, but also helped create the environment that was important to have on Swagger. The look for the show was very, very important, and so the way that I worked with my production designer and costume designer, and DPs… I did have some separate meetings with each department, but the more inspiring meetings were when we have what we would call our look alignment meetings. The different departments would come together and we would talk. One of the things you’ll hear me do is kind of shy away from saying the word “episode.” The thing we all bought into was this idea that we were creating a 10-hour “maze.” We used maze as a big metaphor, but also as a point of inspiration in how we were articulating our cinematic vision.
So, we would have these look alignment meetings to discuss how Maze 101, Maze 102, Maze 103 would look. Just to give you a bit of insight… The opening image of our show is this hand-drawn maze that Jace’s father gives them. The maze becomes a metaphor for life. A maze has twists and turns and poses obstacles and offers opportunities. But it’s a journey. Life is a maze, and we embodied that cinematically with our camera angles, with some things that the audience would never know, but it really made us all feel alive to approach it in that way. I had such a great, amazing crew from the art department to our choreographer and trainer, because, obviously another big thing was the basketball and the authenticity of the basketball.
BTL: Are you looking at this as a one-off series, or are you ready to tell more of Jace’s story if people want to see it?
Bythewood: I think it’d be great to have another season. There’s more story to tell. But I’m just really, really excited, October 29 on Apple TV+, for people to just dig in and see the story we tell.
All photos courtesy Apple.