LeBron James, the biggest celebrity in Amerian sports, met defeat—despite his herculean efforts—in the NBA Finals on
June 16. “It hurt to lose. I’m still in a little funk right now,” he told reporters a few days after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ loss to the Golden State Warriors. But cheer up, LeBron! On July 17, audiences will surely flip for his stellar comedic turn playing a version of himself in Trainwreck. “It’s not just a cameo,” says director Judd Apatow. “It’s a real role and he kills in every scene.”
How did one of the world’s most talented athletes end up in one of the summer’s most anticipated comedies? Credit goes to Amy Schumer, writer and star of the movie about a commitment-phobic, sports-averse magazine writer who reluctantly falls in love with a sports doctor (Bill Hader) — who happens to be friends with one LeBron James. Schumer, also not a sports fan, explains why she wrote James’ name into the original script: “He’s the only basketball player I’ve ever heard of. It was him or Larry Bird,” she says. “I’m very lucky he said yes for a lot of reasons.”
Schumer and Apatow were resigned to the idea that when it came to casting, they’d probably have to settle for a less well-known player. “LeBron was the person we dreamed of getting, but you always assume you’re going to end up with your 10th choice,” says Apatow. Yet James was—pardon the pun—game after the director and Hader (who James already knew from his time hosting Saturday Night Live in 2007) took him out and pitched him the idea. “He really laughed and had a lot of great ideas,” Apatow adds. “We got along like gangbusters.” (Jokes Schumer: “Judd makes it sound like this great Glengarry Glen Ross kind of lunch where Bill kind of closed the deal.”)
On set, the filmmakers were delighted to discover the sports star is as nimble off the court as he is on, and in early screenings of Trainwreck, his scenes—like the one where he earnestly recites lyrics from Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” midconversation—have earned some of the biggest laughs. “We didn’t realize till we were on set that he’s this really good actor and really funny,” says Schumer. “It could have been bad if he wasn’t so good! He was able to improvise—and he was down to joke about everything. It was fun to watch.”
It’ll also be fun to see if James continues to pursue a career in Hollywood when he’s ready to hang up his basketball shoes. The 30-year-old has already laid the groundwork. In 2007 he not only kicked off SNL’s 33rd season but also cohosted the ESPY Awards with Jimmy Kimmel. Comedic guest spots on Entourage and SpongeBob SquarePants followed in 2009. In 2013 it was announced that he and Kevin Hart were attached to play brothers in a comedy for Universal Pictures that’s currently still in development.
And he’s not just working in front of the camera. James created and executive-produced the animated Web series The LeBrons. His company, Spring Hill Productions, is behind the basketball drama Survivor’s Remorse, which returns to Starz for season 2 on Aug. 22.
Could James become moviedom’s next bankable leading man, à la Dwayne Johnson? Schumer, for one, thinks it’s possible. “I think he’s all set right now employment-wise, but I can say with full confidence that I believe he could have another career in acting if he wanted,” she says. “It’s really not fair. Judd, Bill, and I, we’re just funny. That’s our only thing. He’s like, ‘Okay, so am I, but I’m also the best basketball player in the world.’ ”
Schumer may not have watched the NBA Finals, but she still managed to show her support. Shortly after the game 6 defeat, she posted a picture of herself and James on Instagram. The caption: We’re gonna be just fine. “I heard he had lost and that other people got hurt on his team and he was really carrying it on his own,” she says. “I just wanted to be like, ‘Hey, man, you’re a movie star.’ ”