Josh and Benny Safdie’s merciless assault on the senses, “Uncut Gems,” is now in theaters from A24, with the film’s star Adam Sandler turning out a startling performance that both showcases his singular gifts while revealing new ones. Not since “Punch-Drunk Love” has the comic actor delivered such an unhinged, yet emotionally nuanced turn.
He stars as the eccentric, abrasive Howard Ratner, a NYC jewelery dealer who is splitting up with his fed-up wife (Idina Menzel) and has all but alienated his children. One of the film’s subplots revolves around a rare gem that Howard has imported to his shop, which he ends up lending to real-life basketball player Kevin Garnett. However, according to a new interview with Vulture, the Safdies originally designed the film around Kobe Bryant, and also considered NBA players Amar’e Stoudemire and Joel Embiid.
“It started with Amar’e Stoudemire, who was a Knicks player in 2010. That’s when we started the project. He’s famously a Black Jewish person, so the themes of the movie presented themselves in that way: Ethiopian Jewish tribe. Beta Israelites,” Josh Safdie told Vulture. “Black opals, which were found by a Jewish tribe in the Beta Israelites in Welo mines. Amar’e is a very spiritual person. He calls himself the ‘spiritual gangster.'”
Josh Safdie continued, “But about 2015–2016, we were having trouble getting financing, finding the right person to star as Howard, and our agency suggested casting up and going with Kobe Bryant. But Kobe — they didn’t understand the themes of the movie. He’s a West Coast person, we needed East Coast games. Because we had to write around the reality of the games.”
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Josh Safdie added, however, that his agents resisted the idea of Bryant. “Our agents are like, ‘No, no, no. He doesn’t want to act anymore. He wants to direct.’ And I’d just spent two weeks fucking writing this thing! He’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to send it to him.’ I was like, “What the fuck?!’ So then we ended up with Joel Embiid. Because we were like, ‘You know what, we’re going to update the movie. It’s going to be a contemporary film. You want to use a contemporary player.'”
In an earlier interview with the Safdies in Uproxx, Josh Safdie said that ultimately Kevin Garnett was the real deal, despite initial reservations. “Amar’e wouldn’t shave his head to match the games that we had to shoot around. So then we were like, okay, who is left? And we looked and Kevin Garnett … fate is a real thing. It was meant to be Kevin’s role from the beginning — even though we hated him as Knicks fans,” Safdie said.
“I would always watch KG postgame because he was so entertaining,” Josh Safdie told ESPN. “But I realized after meeting him that I didn’t know his real voice. I had to learn that voice. He’s eloquent. He’s a great storyteller. I wrote for that voice. And he worked really hard.”