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Jordan's new scene

The routine at movie premieres is by now well-established. Hotel suites are turned into sets for the stars, who sit on chairs in front of movie posters and vases of flowers while platoons of interviewers are cycled through the room. Actors steel themselves for the ordeal; Tom Hanks told me that doing a press junket is more exhausting than doing a movie.

But here is Michael Jordan, and he seems to be enjoying himself. It's at the end of a day of nonstop interviews, and he is still smiling, still seeming to enjoy himself. A Warner Bros. press rep whispers to me, "He gives great sound bites."

Jordan seems to do everything well, which is why his public career may survive the end of his active basketball career and continue to grow. He knows how to pick his shots.

Shaquille O'Neal, whose show biz aspirations are well-known, let Hollywood talk him into playing a genie in his first leading role, in the abysmal "Kazaam." Michael Jordan was wiser. He held out for co-stars known all over the world - Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and the rest of the Loony Tunes gang. And he made the canny bet that Warner Bros. would take a deep interest, as a studio, in "Space Jam," the new Mike-'n'-Bugs movie.

Warners is trying to build its ancient stable of animated stars into competitors for the enormous stable of Disney characters. At stake are billions of dollars of merchandise sales, and the ongoing competition between the Disney and Warners studio stores. "Space Jam" was seen not only as a launching pad for Jordan's career, but as a cross-promotional opportunity for Bugs and his friends.

The buzz at press previews for "Space Jam" was that Warners, and Jordan, had bet right. The movie is enormously entertaining, it has the same kind of high-energy, state-of-the-art animation as the recent Disney hits, and Jordan is relaxed and engaging, playing "himself," more or less - a basketball star, now trying to play baseball, who is recruited by the Loony Tunes gang to play in a basketball game that may decide the fate of the earth. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

Q. How good of an actor do you think you are?

Jordan: I'm a learning actor. I can't say I'm good because I haven't been in this business that long.

Q. And you haven't seen the film yet.

Jordan: No, I haven't seen it.

Q. Seen any scenes of yourself on film?

Jordan: Actually I have. I've seen a couple of scenes. But I've been really, really nervous about it.

Q. Are you more nervous than for a big game?

Jordan: Sure. I mean, this is a whole new arena. I haven't really experienced that much in the movie business. I've done commercials, which means a 30-second film shot in four-hour and six-hour days. But making a movie is a long and very meticulous process, especially when you're talking about putting animation and real stuff together. I mean, that was tough.

Q. A lot of people probably won't realize that you had to do many of your scenes without being able to even see your co-stars.

Jordan: Which was pretty much the case. But it was easier because they had little people in green outfits representing the cartoon characters - moving around and trying to make sure my eye level was the same. I did some interacting with them, and they made it really simple.

Q. But you also have to come up with the right emotions and the right looks and reactions.

Jordan: Sure. I mean, sometimes when I didn't really feel like I could pull it off, I would talk to either Joe (Pytka, the director) or Ivan (Reitman, the producer) and say, "You come out here and you do it," because I could watch them and then say, "OK, I understand what you're talking about," and then I could go over and do it.

Q. I talked to Alec Guinness about making the "Star Wars" pictures. He had to do a lot of the same kind of process shots you're talking about. He said it was much, much harder than acting in a regular scene. He never wanted to do it again.

Jordan: It was hard. Of course, we had live action scenes in the movie, too. When I worked with somebody like Bill Murray, I had a better feeling. Because I can feed; I had a good rhythm or continuity that I could work off of. When you're by yourself, you can't get that. It's hard to find some type of continuity or chemistry to work with. I'd be unsure about certain ways I did something and they would say, "Yeah, it was great." But I was thinking, well, maybe it's not. But they understood exactly what they were looking for, and I couldn't always visualize it at all.

Q. On the basis of those dramatic scenes that you had with Murray and also with your NBA co-stars, do you think that you could make a movie a year and look at this as part of your career?

Jordan: No. I think I need to take a step back and evaluate a lot of other things in my life before I can make this a whole other career. I'd like to make this a hobby and learn more about it and pick and choose the parts I feel comfortable with. Maybe I'm not ready for a starring role. What made it easier for me here was that, in some ways, I was playing myself. And I was working with animated characters. And (co-star) Wayne Knight was very, very helpful to me; he really helped me relax in a lot of the scenes that we did together. It would be a pressure situation for me to try to carry a whole movie by myself. That's too much of a responsibility.

Q. There must have been a lot of people who brought you a lot of film projects over the years.

Jordan: Right.

Q. And why was it this one that you jumped for?

Jordan: Well, for a couple of reasons. I had a chance to play myself. (Chuckles.) I didn't really know it was difficult playing myself until I actually was doing it. And I had the time free, eight weeks in the summer. And I was working with Joe Pytka, whom I've done some commercials with. And they taught me some of the things that I needed to be taught to understand it.

Q. There were some stars who just couldn't play villains. John Wayne, for example. Nobody would accept him as a villain. Do you think you might be in that category?

Jordan: I wouldn't mind that. I think that's the part of this whole process of me doing this G-rated film, in a likable situation. I can understand people not really preferring me in an evil role. And, of course, to some degree, I like to be someone who's liked by a lot of people. I don't want to be hated.

Q. When you were reading the script, did you chortle a little bit to yourself at some of the scenes where your NBA rivals lose the ability to catch, pass, dribble or even hold a basketball?

Jordan (smiles): I wish that could happen more often in regular season. I really wanted to see how they were going to adapt to acting, Charles (Barkley) and Patrick (Ewing) especially; Patrick and I have been good friends ever since we were in high school, and I could never see him really acting, you know; but it is a part of his personality that not too many people get to see.

Q. You know, there's a movie coming up that Spike Lee hopes to direct, "The Jackie Robinson Story." Now you're a movie actor, you're a star and you're a baseball player. How about it?

Jordan: I'm a learning, aspiring movie actor. I've seen the old Jackie Robinson when he was playing himself. I don't know if I could pull that off. I would think about it, but I don't know if I could. But I'm anxious to see who plays him.

Q. There are a lot of actors who come to see you when you play basketball, and you've probably gotten to know some of them. Jack Nicholson, for example. Do you get any advice from these guys? Even in a kidding way, do you ask them about acting?

Jordan: No, but actually, a couple of actors came and hung out with me. Stan Shaw and I spent some quality time together just talking about the business. And T.K. Carter was one of my acting coaches, in a sense. He worked with me a lot in trying to help me relax. And I played basketball with a lot of them at night on the lot. Dean Cain came over and Damon Wayans, who's a good friend of mine, and we played basketball quite a bit. And they would give me some pointers and certain things to think about. But I felt very awkward when those guys would come and watch me act, instead of them coming to watch me play the game of basketball.

Q. The dirty tricks that your opponents played on your team in the game - were any of them inspired by dirty tricks that people have played in real life?

Jordan: Well, some of the physical play. I mean, that's Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks. The story is that I am accustomed to them in some ways, but the Tunes are not. The motivational talk I gave to them at halftime was very similar to some of the conversations I've had with the Bulls. I mean, you gotta fight fire with fire in some ways and don't let 'em just push us around, you know, and sometimes you have to bully the bully.

Q. One of the things about basketball is that it's an international sport. And cartoons are international, too. Do you think that this film will have the result of making you even more of a worldwide personality than you are already?

Jordan: It may. Basketball is global and certainly the cartoon characters are just as global, so I think the correlation of the two will somehow reach international highs - hopefully so, because I think Warner Bros. is really putting a lot of faith in me, and I'm just happy that the project has turned into a positive thing. In the beginning I was really nervous if it could happen, but it has, and I'm very happy with the outcome.

Q. Let me ask you one more question. You're the biggest sports star in the world today. But movie stardom is a different sort of thing. People look at this big picture on the screen; it's a different kind of impact. Did you get any vibes about movie stardom vs. sports stardom?

Jordan: Well, I think the demands are far more than what I would be doing in the basketball industry. I don't want to move to L.A., I don't want to live some of the lifestyles of lot of the actors. I like being able to mingle with the public, being accessible to a certain extent. I don't want to ever isolate myself. I think a lot of times movie actors isolate themselves away from the public, and that's probably because of some of the mystique they have to maintain for the interest of their profession. But as a basketball player, I think that being able to mingle with and be accessible to the public is something that's enhanced my career. And I don't ever want to lose that because that's a part of my personality. It is always a danger to change that, and I think people in the public can detect that quicker than you can think.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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