Adrien Brody and Jason Segel Unpack Pat Riley’s Coaching Coup and Paul Westheads Downfall on Winning Time
SPOILER ALERT: This article includes details about Episode 5 of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” Season 2, now streaming on Max.
The coach is dead, long live the coach. Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) is out of a job on this week’s episode of “Winning Time,” after tensions come to a head between the Lakers head coach and Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). With his stubborn enforcement of a fast-break system — inelegantly deemed “the system” — Westhead left the young point guard caged and exasperated. After Johnson issues an ultimatum to management, the organization side with its star player, and sends Westhead packing.
The move marks a controversial turn for the Lakers — the decision to side with an athlete over a coach comes across to some in the media as an unorthodox effort to coddle a twenty-something celebrity. Now, of course, it seems that NBA organizations have a more flexible attitude toward making changes in management when star players appear dissatisfied. But in 1981, the Lakers’ verdict stupefies Westhead, who doesn’t see his exit coming even as the team’s marquee name turns against him.
“If they made me coach of the Lakers, it would be a disaster,” Segel shares, remarking on playing his character’s bitter downfall. “I wouldn’t know how to talk to LeBron. I wouldn’t know how to talk to anybody. I would mess it up. I’d walk home, secretly resentful, saying ‘They were really mean to me today.’ That’s how I tried to play it.”
Following Westhead’s unceremonious shunting, the Lakers hold a chaotic press conference to announce that assistant coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) will take over in the newly created role of “co-coach,” with Jerry West (Jason Clarke) — who hates coaching — working alongside him. The sudden promotion comes as a welcome surprise to Riley, who had been working privately with Johnson to help him become a stronger leader on the floor. After Riley proves his mettle, the episode culminates with a hysterical montage as the basketball tactician emerges as a sex symbol, lovingly cussing out his players, unwrapping Armani suits and slicking his hair back, all as Frankie Valli’s “Grease” blares on the soundtrack.
Speaking with Variety before the SAG-AFTRA strike, Brody and Segel discussed the fates of their two characters — and why a basketball coach isn’t far from a film director.
Adrien, I watched “Asteroid City” a few days after watching this episode. In that film, you play a director who has to motivate his two lead actors to stick through a production. Those moments struck me as being remarkably similar to the battle speeches you perform as Pat Riley.
ADRIEN BRODY: Directors and coaches are very similar. Riley enforced a fastbreak mentality to the team, really allowing the guys to play and to play to their strengths. That’s the mark of a great leader — a director has to be a great leader, and a coach has to be a great leader. In “Asteroid City,” I was referencing Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan, and actors and directors of that era of the ’50s. But they were icons like Riley was. There has to be an ability to remind the player that they have to keep playing. You got to quiet all the noise and live up to your potential.
In the series, a big reason why Riley is able to get through to Johnson is because he can speak to him with the perspective of a former player.
BRODY: It’s coming from experience. Which, to add to the theme, an actor can very likely make a good director in the sense that if a person is well-educated in film and competent in their storytelling abilities, they can definitely relate to actors and create the environment that’s necessary for actors to thrive on set.
Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who directed the premiere and the finale, is a former actor.
BRODY: Exactly. Or Clint Eastwood, who you have on your wall behind you, is a perfect example of an actor becoming a remarkable director.
Jason, last season you told me that you don’t take a role these days unless you understand why you would be a good fit for the part. Did you have Westhead’s paranoid downfall in mind when you made the decision to join the series?
JASON SEGEL: Yeah, I did. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to go down, but I felt very excited when I started getting the scripts. I really like playing somebody on a downslope becoming their worst. If you play that with love, if you play that as though it’s us, you can bring a lot to that journey.
In the series, Westhead seals his fate with the Lakers when he pulls Magic Johnson into a janitor’s closet and demands his obedience. How did you and Quincy Isaiah approach filming that climactic argument?
SEGEL: It was all kind of fun and games with Quincy for most of the season. We were having this rivalry, but sometimes I’d make him laugh when we were shooting, and it was light and fun. Then we got to that scene in the closet; that day felt different. I wanted to be cool towards Quincy, towards Magic Johnson. I did not want to make him laugh. I wanted to make him feel so little.
You’ve kind of been feeling like, “Oh, poor Westhead, he’s not going to be able to do it.” I hope at that scene the audience feels a turn: “Oh no, this is bad. He needs to go.” I didn’t want you to feel conflicted about him getting fired, specifically because of that scene. That day, we barely looked at each other. After the scene was over, we both knew what we had been doing. Quincy had been doing the same thing from his end. I don’t think either Quincy or I are real Method actor types or anything like that, but you do catch a vibe. You’re trying to create the canvas for these scenes to succeed.
Do you think Westhead is actually convinced that he’s going to emerge from this disagreement unscathed? Or is he just maniacally reassuring himself?
SEGEL: I’m going to steal from a woman who gave a great TED talk about being wrong. She said, “Do you know what it feels like to be wrong? People would say ‘embarrassing, shameful.’ No. That’s what it feels like when you know you’re wrong. What it feels like to be wrong is exactly what it feels like to be right. You just don’t know it yet.”
Westhead is basically like Wile E. Coyote after he’s run off the cliff, but hasn’t looked down yet. We all can see it. As a viewer, you’re like “You’re not going to win this argument with Magic Johnson.”
We all know it’s not going to happen, and he’s just running with a sort of divine nonchalance. Then there is the moment when he looks down.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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