Ben Affleck explains how Michael Jordan helped cast Viola Davis in ‘Air’

Ben Affleck’s upcoming film “Air” isn’t about Michael Jordan in a biopic sense. It’s about how executives at Nike signed the greatest basketball player of all time to a sneaker deal, and it’s really about how a person can come to embody an idea that changes the world. Since it’s focused on the idea of Michael Jordan, he isn’t really in the movie as a person. A body double plays Jordan in shots from behind, and his face is never shown. But His Airness did play an important role in the making of the movie. It was his idea to cast Viola Davis as his mother, Deloris

Affleck told the entertaining, self-deprecating story of how a meeting with MJ made him have to cast Davis in the movie to The Hollywood Reporter. In Affleck’s telling, Deloris was a very minor character in the original version of the script. But when the director met with Jordan to get his blessing to do the movie and find out what was important to him about the story of how the deal went down, Jordan told him about his mother. 

“That’s when I understood what the movie was,” Affleck said. “Talking to him about his mom was incredibly moving, and I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t about Nike.’” 

Then Affleck asked Jordan who he would cast as Deloris. Affleck said that as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he hadn’t said it, because if he didn’t get who Jordan wanted it would look bad. And of course, Jordan wanted one of the world’s greatest actresses, one of a handful of people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. 

“[Jordan] looked at me real straight and — 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,’” Affleck said. “But he was like, ‘That’s my mom.’ He was dead serious. ‘Viola Davis, that’s my mom.’ And that was it. The discussion was over. However it happened, it wasn’t his problem, but it was going to f—ing happen. And I was like, ‘OK, Mike.’”

The script got rewritten, and the offer went to Davis. Affleck said that the pitch to her wasn’t “Ben Affleck wants you to be in his movie,” it was “Michael Jordan wants you to play his mom.” 

Davis said she had a great experience on the movie. She got to work with her husband, Julius Tennon, who plays Michael Jordan’s father, James Sr. Making ‘Air’ was “an unbelievable experience that me and my husband and even my hair and makeup team still talk about to this day,” Davis said. “Ben’s an auteur and so unbelievably kind and respectful. It was one of our top experiences of being treated the way we felt we deserved to be treated.”

“Air” hits theaters on April 5, and will eventually stream on Amazon Prime Video. In addition to Davis and Affleck, who plays Nike founder Phil Knight, the cast includes Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, and Chris Tucker.

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