For André Holland, there is much riding on the success of the Netflix sports drama “High Flying Bird,” which made its world premiere at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival and lands on Netflix today. The movie features an intriguing pairing behind the camera, with a script by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney directed by Steven Soderbergh, but it also marks Holland’s first executive producer credit through his newly-minted Harper Road Films production shingle — as well as his first leading role in a movie. But Holland’s just getting started and has big plans for the future.
“High Flying Bird,” which follows a sports agent’s controversial business pitch to a rookie basketball player, is the first project on Holland’s 13-year-long resume that he shepherded along from the start. He first brought the idea to Soderbergh after the pair worked together on the filmmaker’s Cinemax series “The Knick.” Their professional partnership evolved into a more personal one, as the two became good friends, which led Holland to share with the director an early concept for what would become “High Flying Bird.”
“I loved working with him, and I wanted us to work on something else together,” Holland said. “I also was very interested in producing, so I started a company, giving Steven a number of ideas I was interested in, and this is the one that we got most excited about.”
Holland, a longtime avid baseball fan, initially wanted to tell a story about the Negro Leagues. But after workshopping the idea with Soderbergh, they realized that financing a period film about professional baseball leagues comprising predominantly of African Americans would create a number of challenges. So the plan was scrapped, and replaced by a story set in the present-day universe of the NBA.
They found a new spark of inspiration when recorded racist remarks by Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, were leaked to the public. “Around that time, the Donald Sterling tape came out, and it stimulated conversations about the intersection of race and athletics, and we felt that it was a timely theme that might have better mileage on it,” Holland said. “We eventually honed in on this original idea, and the deeper we dug, the more interested we got in it.”
Holland reached out to Dr. Harry Edwards, author of “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” who was eventually featured in the film. The 1969 book is a treatise on how the collective voices and concerted actions of black athletes could evoke institutional change. The actor’s conversation with Edwards would introduce him to the long history of activism by African American athletes, providing him with an even richer social awareness that would directly influence the film’s plot.
At Holland’s request, longtime playwright pal McCraney soon joined the project. McCraney and Holland share a bond that goes back to 2006, when both men were in graduate school (Holland was NYU, and McCraney at Yale). “We were introduced by a teacher we had in common and clicked right away,” said the actor, who eventually appeared in one of the writer’s early plays — the Sundance Theater workshopped “Wig Out!” (2008), a portrait of Harlem drag queens.
Holland would go on to work with McCraney on other stage productions, which found them touring the New York and Atlanta theatre circuits over the next several years.
“We’ve been in each other’s lives, both as collaborators and as really, really close friends for a very long time,” Holland said. “It’s probably the most important professional collaboration of my career.”
He would eventually introduce McCraney to Soderbergh, and the trio developed the “High Flying Bird” concept over roughly two years. During that period, Holland also prepped for the role of an enterprising sports agent, which included shadowing real-life agents, which he described as a revelatory experience.
Soderbergh’s production style provided another new opportunity for the actor — performing in front of iPhones. He would discover an appreciation for the flexibility and efficiency afforded by the technology. “To me, it was all pluses, because it allowed us to move fast on a budget that didn’t give us a lot of time,” he said.
The $2 million film was shot in 13 days, thanks in part to Soderbergh’s use of multiple cameras for individual scenes, allowing him to capture each moment from different angles simultaneously. This technique had a direct impact on Holland’s performance. “It took a little bit of getting used to because you’re accustomed to seeing big cameras on set, but it freed me up as an actor because you get to feel the momentum of the story unfolding around you, and it kind of helps you get into a rhythm.”
It’s an experience that he has since wholly embraced, giving much credit to Soderbergh’s flair, which he now trusts without question.
It’s a confidence that was established when the pair first worked together on the Knickerbocker Hospital-set drama, “The Knick,” which the director would cast Holland in, as Dr. Algernon C. Edwards, after seeing his performance in the Jackie Robinson drama “42” (2013).
“Up until then, I was used to getting immediate feedback from my directors every time I did a scene because they’re usually very involved in every little moment,” Holland said. “But in Steven’s case, he trusts his actors and allows you to play the scene according to how you feel it should be played.” It was a practice that Holland said “weaned me off the need for approval.”
With the launch of his production company, Holland plans to wear more behind-the-camera hats, and already has plans for his directorial debut. (He declined to offer specifics.)
Holland said he was compelled by opportunities to support representations of African-Americans onscreen, by creating content and embodying characters that “black folks can be proud of,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything that I feel ashamed of, or that I feel demeans myself, my family, or my people. I want to be proud of the work that I do, and I want my community to be proud of me. I’d rather be hungry than ashamed.” (That impulse also drives his activism, including the Ryan Coogler-led Blackout for Human Rights, as well as the Campaign for Black Male Achievement).
“I’m now much more open to other possibilities, which is why I’m trying to write, direct, produce and act, all at the same time if I have to, because the time feels right,” Holland said, noting that the company is developing a number of projects to be announced later. And one of them might be a return of “The Knick,” which the actor says he’s been “kicking around” ideas on, with one of the series’ writers. They both miss working on the show and would love to find a way to do more of it, although it’s history for now.
“I’m grateful for everything I have accomplished so far, but by no means do I feel like I’ve arrived,” he said. “I’m still hungry and still trying to grow as an actor, and I feel like I’m just getting warmed up, because, the way I see it, I’m still very much at the beginning of this journey. The hustle is neverending.”