O’Shea Jackson Jr. had an interesting entry into the world of acting. Most fans heard of him through his first role, portraying his father, the legendary Ice Cube, in 2015’s critically acclaimed Straight Outta Compton. Since then? The 30-year-old LA native has been on a roll, taking on unique indie comedies (Ingrid Goes West), gritty crime dramas (Den of Thieves), mainstream romcoms (Long Shot), blockbuster monster movies (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and the Star Wars Universe (the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series). Somehow, he found a way to channel his love of basketball (he may be one of the more vocal Lakers fans out there) into the role of Ike, the coach of the boys basketball team in Apple TV+’s Swagger, a new series that is loosely based on the life of Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, who also executive produces the series.
As Ike, Jackson’s guiding these young NBA hopefuls through the game, as well as helping mold them into good people. It’s also his first lead role, which hits different when you’re in a cast full of younger kids. “When I first signed up,” he tells Complex, “I was like, ‘Man, who am I hanging out with on this show? All these damn kids around here.’” He may not have been in that exact situation before, but he does get their position. “It’s a great feeling when I see young actors embarking on their journey.”
During this conversation, Jackson talks about working on Swagger through the pandemic, having to do his own balling (and why this series may change the way future sports shows are done), being a Lakers fan working for a Brooklyn Net, and how his father factors into the direction he’s taking his career.
I was looking at your IMDb like, “Damn, it’s only been about six years and he got that lead role of a TV series!” Congratulations. How’re you feeling about that?
I love it. It’s been six years since I got on camera, plus the two that I needed to audition and learn how to act before Straight Outta Compton. Looking back, man, eight years went by like that. It’s a little scary how quickly it goes by, but it lets you know that you put the work in, always showing my professionalism, keeping my head down, keeping out of trouble by the grace of God. It’s a surreal feeling and I’m just running with it right now.
Now I don’t want to do this to you, but you’re in that role and there are a lot of younger kids on the show. Were you getting a lot of “OG”s? “Hey OG.” Were they doing that to death?
Yeah, man. When I first signed up, I was like, “Man, who am I hanging out with on this show? All these damn kids around here.” And then when I get there, I’m like, “Man, you all are pretty grown. You all pretty cool.”
It’s a great feeling when I see young actors embarking on their journey. And I always let them know, “You’re not doing just any old thing. You’re on an Apple series, so when it’s your time to shine, make sure you do it, make sure you stay professional because these are the suits that you want to remember your name and spread the word about you.” But yeah, anytime they try to hit me with that old head stuff, I just make them run laps, ‘cause I’m the coach.
In that first episode, I was surprised to see you balling. How much of that was you?
All of it. Reggie Bythewood, he let us know that, “The way I want to shoot this is, we’re not about to just let you just shoot a jumper and then we cut to the ball. You’re going to have to make these. I hope you bring it.” The entire team, plus myself, worked with Reggie Wallace, who is kind of our basketball guru, and he got us right. Everything that you see any of us doing is live and in effect, and it’s a new way that I think will set the blueprint for sports shows from now on, because you can’t fake it. We’re really bringing it here on Swagger, so they’ll probably see me and Isaiah in a celebrity game some time down the road.
Did you know KD going into this series? Was he hands-on? Was he getting in on everything behind the scenes?
Well, the first time I met KD was actually courtside at a Laker game in Kobe’s last season. I was heckling him and Russell Westbrook, as much as I could. What’s funny is Russell Westbrook was at the free throw line, and I was chanting “future Laker” and now here we are, and my man is on the Lakers. [Laughs.]
KD at the time was nursing the worst injury in basketball, an Achilles injury. A lot of physical therapy and things like that, on top of COVID and everything that was going on with the pandemic. So he couldn’t be there physically, but he made sure that we all had his contact, multiple virtual meetings with us, opened up a Q&A for the entire cast. He made sure that we felt welcome, felt part of the team and I appreciate Kevin, his whole team. Shout out to Rich Kleiman for even thinking about your boy. He don’t really be hitting me as much, but I’d just say it’s because of the season.
You’re very passionate about your basketball; was it hard to work for a Brooklyn Net?
Man, what I didn’t like is, we had to pause for the pandemic and we came back probably seven or eight months later and the Lakers had won the championship a week and a half prior to us bringing back filming. And of course, Adam Silver, you money-hungry little… They gave the Lakers the shortest season an NBA champion has ever had, and it just was not the same. We had so many injury problems and things like that. I was just trying to keep my head down, because I’m like, “Here we go, KD about to have this cakewalk to the Finals.” But once again, it being such a short season, the injury book played pretty much every team in the league. Kevin was out there at a certain point by himself holding the Nets afloat. Now, it’s a new year. Not everybody healthy, we’ll see how it goes, but you know, it’s the off-season for Swagger, too. So I’m back to rocking my Lakers hat pretty tough, Mr. Net.
You mentioned working through the pandemic. Talk a little about what that was like, shooting during the pandemic and that added stress.
Swagger is such an amazing show because of how well we talk about current events and for us to use the curse of the pandemic and try to flip it into something for our own narrative, actually adding it into the show. At that time everybody was still full of fear—rightfully so, but it was a different time then, as far as your mental grasp of what exactly is going on. When you’re shooting a show based on 15 people being on the same floor, or you got coaches trying to stay 6 feet from players, you got 10 players on the court, plus the refs? It’s a weird dynamic that you have to do. Even the crowds, we had to figure out how we’re going to film these people at this time and vice versa. So it was a new struggle.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from this show, is how to endure. I’m not even the original lead. They had a situation where the original lead [Ed note: Us star Winston Duke] got injured and they had to worry about whether or not the show would be made. Then they bring me on and then the pandemic happens so we have to wonder if the show’s even going to get made. We endured, we persevered and here we are. And the entire time it was up to all of us to keep each other’s spirits up and make sure that we handled anything that was thrown at us, with Swagger.
We started out this convo talking about the last six to eight years, you’ve really been on the grind to get where you are today. And it’s been dope because you’ve been very versatile. Not too many people can go from an Ingrid Goes West to a Den of Thieves and then start hooping as a coach on a TV series for Apple TV+. Do you have a clear and present goal for your career? Are you kind of taking what’s popping and seeing where you can go? Where are you at right now with you as an actor?
When I did Straight Outta Compton, everybody was telling me how well I’ve done and things like that, but there was also the talk of, ‘He is playing his dad,’ right? That stayed in the back of my mind, that ate away at me. And after Straight Outta Compton, I didn’t get a call or a role for a whole year. So it was a really conscious decision of mine. I said, ‘Anything that I get has to be made to show my versatility. The next thing I get has to be night and day from Straight Outta Compton.’ And that was the Ingrid Goes West. Then I said, ‘The next thing I get has to be night and day from Ingrid Goes West.’ Then I go onto Den of Thieves, which leads to Godzilla, which leads to Long Shot, and then went back with Just Mercy. And now we have Swagger. After Swagger, I got the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, and so on and so forth. We’re about to get geared up for Den of Thieves 2. It was always to show versatility so they can never put me in a box. They can never say that I’m this type guy and studios of all sizes have to hit me up just to see if I’m right for the role, [the goal is] to just always be in my bag [so they are not] able to typecast me.
The typecast fear comes from my belief that they typecast rappers. When they see that you a rapper, they only think about you for four different type roles. And I didn’t want that. You know, the whole reason why I even did Straight Outta Compton was for people to respect all the hard work and what type of man that my father was and give him his flowers while he’s still there. So now, in my acting career, I want some of the trophies that they wouldn’t give him because I feel like my mom’s trophy case got to be filled up. I remember as a kid, I hated MTV because they never gave my dad that Popcorn. I always wanted my dad to have that Popcorn. And [when I won], my mom got that golden Popcorn sitting right on her mantlepiece.
My goal is to further add to this Jackson empire. And then, you know, after I’m all said and done, I’ll see what my daughter’s doing and see if she want to do it, too.
Swagger is streaming now on Apple TV+.