Fox Searchlight parties with the stars of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and ‘The Shape of Water’ Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — Fox Searchlight feted its latest offerings, including the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tale Battle of the Sexes, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, starring Tyrion Lannister (er, Peter Dinklage) with a swanky party Sunday night.

The studio held the party, a fixture here at the Toronto International Film Festival for more than 30 years, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which was specially built for opera and ballet performances. In attendance: Octavia Spencer, Billie Jean King, Andy Serkis, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Sarah Silverman, Zachary Quinto, Natalie Morales, Michael Shannon, James McAvoy, Frances McDormand and Bill Pullman.

So nobody, basically.

I went with another writer who warned me not to eat dinner because the food would be great. And there’d be plenty of it, because if there’s nothing else reliable about Hollywood types, they don’t really eat. Journalists, on the other hand, are shameless that way. Studio parties are a curious mix of industry professionals, actors and writers, and mostly you’re trying to find a good way to butt into famous people’s conversations before you wander off to the bar or grab an hors d’œuvre from a caterer’s tray. Oh, and it’s also a good way to see how tall people are in real life. McAvoy, for instance, is quite short. The women, of course, are all skinnier than seems humanly possible, but you knew that.

Anyhow, both Battle of the Sexes and The Shape of Water are hot tickets here, and I managed to catch both on Monday.

Battle of the Sexes

Courtesy of TIFF

The script for Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, The Full Monty) can feel a bit obvious, a common occurrence in biopics where people’s lives get boiled down to their Wikipedia essentials. For example, we see Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King’s WTA rival, in conversation with her husband about their suspicion that King is a closeted lesbian:

Barry Court (James McKay): Isn’t she ashamed?

Margaret Court: That’s exactly what she is. And her game’s gonna fall to pieces.

And then five minutes later, that’s exactly what happens, and King loses her title to Court.

The best part of Battle of the Sexes, which is directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is the titular faceoff between King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell). Dayton and Faris have faithfully recreated the 1973 exhibition match, which took place in the Houston Astrodome, right down to the Vegas-style plumage and cabana boys, and Riggs’ ridiculous jacket plugging Sugar Daddy candy. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but Battle of the Sexes tends to exaggerate the size difference between Riggs and King. Carell’s Riggs is a bit hulking and over-the-hill, while Stone appears daintier than King in her prime.

But the big issue with Battle of the Sexes may just be how much territory it cedes to Riggs, or rather, Carell-as-Riggs, who frankly kinda steals the movie. Some of that is the nature of Riggs’ personality: He’s a clown with a gambling problem who, instead of fixing himself, charms everyone into abetting him.

He’s a troll, yes. But he’s a charismatic troll.

The other factor that doesn’t necessarily serve Stone, or King’s story for that matter, is that Battle of the Sexes offers little in the way of revelations about King. That’s certainly a challenge, considering that she’s been a public figure for 45 years, but it’s not impossible. One exception: When King finally beats Riggs, we see her alone in the locker room after the match, crying in relief. Pressure is a privilege, as King likes to say, but one way or another, it will extract its pound of flesh.

The Shape of Water

Courtesy of TIFF

What a great time to be anybody associated with The Shape of Water, the delightful, fantastical film from director Guillermo del Toro, which just recently won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

The Shape of Water is, on its face, about a mute maid for the fictional Occom Aerospace Research Center named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who, in 1962, falls in love with a sea creature that has the ability to heal people. The U.S. is in the midst of the space race and is searching for something, anything, to give it a leg up on the Russians. And in del Toro’s movie, the leg just happens to be attached to a sorta-human-sorta-reptilian-sorta-amphibian sea creature who’s worshipped as a god in the Amazon. An American Occom operative named Strickland (Shannon) has captured the creature and brought it to America, where he’s now holding it captive and torturing it with a cattle prod. Eliza works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and eventually brings her and her best friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Spencer), into a plan to save the creature, known simply as The Asset (Doug Jones).

But of course, The Shape of Water is about so much more than rescuing a sea creature. It’s about highlighting the cruelty that results from a need to conquer, and the damage that can be done when good men do nothing. And it’s about the dangers of being so consumed with the past that the present passes you by. Still, The Shape of Water offers hope that hearts and minds can truly be changed for the better, even in the most stubborn of individuals.

As Strickland, Shannon basically embodies the worst qualities of a certain kind of man writ large: a priggish, entitled, mansplaining alpha male who seems to have swept in straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Giles, on the other hand, is a committed advertising artist who refuses to acknowledge that modern times — and, in his case, photography — are passing him by. He’s consumed with watching Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Shirley Temple and Mr. Ed, and he insists on turning a blind eye to the violence being inflicted on civil rights activists in Alabama and Mississippi.

It’s easy to make much of the fact that Spencer is revisiting the role of maid in this film, and what’s more, playing one in an aeronautics facility, especially so soon after playing the enterprising Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures. But to reduce Spencer’s role in The Shape of Water simply to “the help” does a disservice both to Spencer’s artistry and the film’s message.

Eliza is literally voiceless, and at work, Zelda is often the one translating for her. In a touching moment after the film’s premiere Monday night, Spencer revealed that she has a brother who is deaf and mute. When they were growing up, he insisted that Spencer and the rest of their family speak rather than learn sign language, a decision Spencer says she regrets to this day.

Set off by an uplifting score by Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water will be one of fall’s most anticipated and highly treasured treats.

For Kenyon Martin, the next chapter includes finding peace in family and BIG3 league The 39-year-old knew finding himself outside of basketball wouldn’t be a problem

On a sunny, 83-degree day in Camden, New Jersey, more than 300 kids were gathered at the North Camden Community Center for a free basketball clinic sponsored in part by the BIG3 basketball league. Cheerleaders from the South Jersey Fire cheer squad pumped up the crowd before groups of children from first to eighth grades took center court, participating in basketball warm-up drills. The older groups, ninth grade and up, did the same on the outside courts.

In front of the community center, a black, unmarked sprinter van carrying former NBA forward/center Kenyon Martin and former NBA guard Andre Owens pulled up to the building. When the two entered, all activities temporarily ceased as a group of participants rushed to surround the ballers. From the looks on their faces, it was plain to see that some kids were unfamiliar with Martin and Owens, who were in their prime before some of them were conceived. On the other hand, there were looks of admiration from the older boys and girls who instantly recognized Martin — he was drafted No. 1 overall by the New Jersey Nets in 2000 and played four seasons for them — before they started toward him for pictures and autographs.

This is Martin’s life post-NBA retirement. Not as grueling as an NBA schedule, but just the right amount of activity to keep him busy. Outside of appearances, Martin finds himself making up for the family time he lost during his 15 hectic seasons in the NBA.

“I got five little ones, and for me, being at home, being able to take my youngest son — who’s into wrestling — to WrestleMania for his birthday means everything,” Martin said. “Going to my daughter’s ballet recitals. All that kind of stuff. That’s what outweighed the NBA for me. Not playing in the league and only [playing in the BIG3] one day a week, it’s an opportunity for me to be there and do things that I missed out on while I was playing and just growing and building as a family. I just want to be their dad, be their father. They didn’t ask to be here. I love them dearly, and I’m going to do my part.”

These days, Martin represents a league that is quickly becoming a favorite among fans of BIG3, the 3-on-3 basketball league created by Ice Cube. Martin serves as captain for team Trilogy, which includes players Al Harrington, Rashad McCants, James White, Dion Glover, Jannero Pargo and is coached by former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Rick Mahorn.

Kenyon Martin #4 of Trilogy drives to the basket against Reggie Evans #30 of Killer 3s during week one of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Barclays Center on June 25, 2017 in New York City.

Al Bello/Getty Images

According to Martin, Ice Cube contacted him directly to discuss his vision for the league and the mission behind it. It didn’t take long to persuade Martin to take up the offer to join other former players back on the court for competitive games. Before they hung up, Martin was sold.

“[Ice Cube] grew up a Lakers fan, of course, but a lot of us have been a part of people’s living rooms and barbershop talks for the last 20-plus years,” Martin said. “For you not to see those guys play anymore … Ice Cube was giving us the opportunity to continue our careers at a less strenuous pace: playing half-court, playing 3-on-3 and only one game per week.”

‘Basketball wasn’t my life’

Before retirement, Martin was confident in his abilities to continue playing basketball and knew he still had what it took to help a team win, but he decided to make his 15th season his last go-round in the professional realm after noticing how much interest from NBA teams had dwindled. In July 2015, Martin made it official.

“I loved basketball, I loved competing, I loved being out there, but I looked at it as I was going to work and I treated it as such,” Martin said. “But basketball wasn’t my life. Some people don’t know what to do without the game.”

“Teams didn’t have any interest in my services, and that’s a telltale sign,” Martin said. “… Once I got waived, that was my key for me to step away. I’m too prideful to be put in those kinds of situations. I know my abilities and I know what I was still capable of doing, but if can’t nobody else see it and these other teams can’t see it, then I can’t force them to see it. It was time for me to put the NBA in the past.”

Although the decision was easy for Martin, he hadn’t anticipated the rough transition from a professional basketball player to immediately finding a normalized lifestyle that worked for him. One thing Martin knew for sure was that defining himself outside of basketball wouldn’t be a problem. For Martin, basketball was the way he earned a living — it was never his identity.

“I loved basketball, I loved competing, I loved being out there, but I looked at it as I was going to work and I treated it as such,” Martin said. “But basketball wasn’t my life. Some people don’t know what to do without the game. They don’t know where to turn to. From what I grew up and came out of, making it out of high school was a big deal. If you do anything after that, it’s a plus. Where I’m from … no former athletes come back and talk. None of that. I had to learn on the fly. There was no, ‘You can be good at this if you do this.’ For me, it was just making sure I was a productive member of society and not being a burden to nobody. I played basketball, football and baseball growing up. I played all three of them up until high school. I was tall and athletic, so I just decided to stick with it.”

Kenyon Martin #4 of Trilogy and Rashard Lewis #9 of the 3 Headed Monsters walk off of the court together after their game during week two of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Spectrum Center on July 2, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Yet, catching a glimpse of basketball games still sparked feelings of frustration. The thought of not being able to walk onto an NBA court was emotionally taxing, but Martin prioritized his time by setting aside moments during his day to “soul search” and found ways to center himself through his family.

Out of his five kids — three girls and two boys, ages 16, 14, 12, 3 and 2 — Martin noticed the natural skills his son, Kenyon Martin Jr., possessed in the sport his father chose more than two decades ago. The high school sophomore and eldest of Martin’s kids is already on recruiters’ radar.

“He’s 16 now, and he’s more skillful than I was at his age,” Martin said. “He handles and dribbles the ball better, but I was always athletic and I always played hard. That separated me from a lot of people. And he’s getting there, but he’s just starting to turn a corner where he realizes he has to play harder than everybody all the time. I was successful at what he’s trying to do, which is be a professional basketball player, so all I can do is guide him. I know what it takes to get there. I’m just trying to help him achieve his goals in life. It’s my job and my obligation to give him all the tools and put him in the right situation so he can try to make that happen for himself.”

Giving the fans what they want

When he’s not juggling family and basketball, Martin is spending time finding his next venture.

“I’ve been doing the TV thing. Me and Michael Rapaport have an NBA show [Two Man Weave] we do,” Martin said. “There’s a new coconut water I’m part owner in called Life Recovery; it’s in 7-Eleven now. I have a car service in Los Angeles that we’re trying to expand, but I’m just trying to figure it out. I have a few other things that I’m interested in. Moving forward, I think I’m a hell of a cook — I can get on that grill. I’m a Texan, so I think my barbecue is immaculate. I might do some TV shows for cooking and a few other things. I’m just trying to see what’s gonna stick without being pigeonholed to one thing with basketball. I’m just trying to put some things in a few different hats and see what sticks for me.”

Martin hasn’t been on the court since Week 1 of the BIG3’s schedule because of a pulled hamstring, an injury he’d never suffered throughout his collegiate or professional career, but he will be ready to roll for Week 5 in Chicago. The following stop, July 30 in Dallas, will be a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who grew up in Oak Cliff, an area of South Dallas.

“Dallas is going to be fun,” Martin said. “It’s not my first time playing there, but this is something new to give friends and family the opportunity to play. It’s been a few years, so it gives them an opportunity to get to see me do my thing again on this level with these guys. My mom and my family are all excited.”

‘The Wire’ — Game Day A play-by-play of that afternoon when a basketball game was more important than the drug game

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language. And some spoilers.

The goal was for the aggression to stay on the blacktop at Baltimore’s neighborhood-famous Cloverdale Courts. Proposition Joe’s Eastside squad was going up against Avon Barksdale’s Westside unit. The losing team would have to throw a party for both crews. And a six-figure dollar amount was on the line. Hell, ’hood reputation was on the line. Tension was high.

Avon clowned Prop Joe. “Ayo, wassup playboy? How come you wearing that suit, B? For real, it’s 85 fucking degrees … and you trying to be like Pat Riley!”

Joe’s retort: “Look the part, be the part, motherfucker!” Yet, the Eastside projects drug dealer hadn’t made any markings on his clipboard. Couldn’t read a playbook if he tried. This is a scene from “Game Day,” the ninth episode of the first season of David Simon’s and Ed Burns’ epic, intense and critically fantastic series The Wire.

In Episode 9, Baltimore detectives were finally able to identify notorious drug kingpin Avon Barksdale. The police knew he existed, but save for a childhood boxing photo, they had no idea what he looked like. Barksdale had evaded law enforcement for years, but they were able to identify him in this episode because he was coaching a neighborhood basketball game. “Game Day” is an essential chapter in The Wire. It sets the rest of the series in motion.

The Wire debuted on HBO on June 2, 2002. It was the same night of a gruff Western Conference finals Game 7 between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings — the Lakers won in overtime, closing out perhaps the wildest series of the decade. A slow-moving, expository, 62-minute pilot episode was no match.

But The Wire ran for five seasons. It succeeded by giving us a deep, 360-degree view of life inside an urban American city — the politicians, the cops, the corner boys, drug kingpins, stickup men, addicts, families of the addicts, dock workers, the local media — and more. The Wire could have been Detroit. Or Oakland. Or Newark. But this series was set in Baltimore — and fans all over the country and around the world were rabid about it.

Baltimore’s illegal activity (for the afternoon of Episode 9) was on a kind of TV timeout. It was Game Day in a city that birthed real-life basketball stars such as Muggsy Bogues, Keith Booth, Reggie Williams and Carmelo Anthony. This is where a high school hoops legend like East Baltimore’s Aquille “The Crimestopper” Carr flourished — and slowed down crime for two hours in Baltimore every time he had a game. The Wire’s Eastside vs. Westside contest, and the drama around it, was one of the most authentic hours in one of the most authentic television series ever to hit the small screen.

Thing is, The Wire never got its propers while it was airing. It never won a single Emmy. And The Wire struggled to maintain an audience during the last three seasons. Yet, if you ask any true-blue fans, they’ll tell you the experience ended far too soon. One more season, they wanted. Just one more.

The show did, after all, introduce Idris Elba, whose sex appeal never overshadowed the treachery of Stringer Bell. The execution of Michael B. Jordan in season one remains one of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking scenes ever aired on television. And we got familiar with one of the most dynamic and complex characters ever written for TV, the Robin Hood of the ’hood, Omar, a role seemingly effortlessly executed by Michael K. Williams. Oh, indeed.

Those who wrote it, starred and co-starred in it, directed and produced it — and who love the episode — contribute to this play-by-play. This is the story of “Game Day.”

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during The Wire era.

‘Look the part, be the part.’

Each season of The Wire focused “with sociological precision” on a different aspect of Baltimore’s state of affairs. Season one zeroed in on drug dealers and the police officers who were desperately trying to crack down on them. Consequent seasons centered on life on the docks of the Port of Baltimore, local politics, the local newspaper and the school system. This series didn’t feel fictional. “Game Day” felt like real life — language and all.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

David Simon created a world. He [was] a beat reporter for The Baltimore Sun … so the entire show, the crux of all of it, is so entrenched … in reality.

Sonja Sohn
Detective Kima Greggs

By the time we got to the ninth episode, we knew that this was an authentic show.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

I spent 20 years on the police force. I was engaged in the drug world. I love that world. I love how brave people were. I love the integrity of the corners, and the streets. [On The Wire] we weren’t too keen about ad libbing.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

Ninety percent of the time — when you see me, Hassan Johnson, Michael K. Williams — we’re speaking to the script. David is a very smart writer, a smart guy. He’s a pro-cultural person.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

Simon is the blackest Jewish man I know. … I also appreciated that he never wrote ‘niggers’ or ‘fucking niggers’ in his script.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

The N-word was always written down. [But] sometimes it was thrown in by the actors. The actors felt the moment and did it without it being on the page, but sometimes it was very much on the page.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

[People] were ‘shitbirds’ or ‘hopheads.’ I changed them to ‘niggers’ and ‘fucking niggers’ as often as I could.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

It was the necessary word. I’m not going to lie and pretend. Now, if it’s gratuitous, it’s gratuitous.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

I was like, ‘Well, David, I’m going to let you in on a little something: Black people who play by the rules and follow the guidelines really resent black people who don’t.’ So there’s a lot of anger there. A black cop is not going to call a black kid that he sees selling drugs a ‘shitbird.’ He’s going to call him something really personal, and ugly.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Maybe Ed knew better, or maybe just I’m not remembering right — but my sense of it was if there wasn’t an annual east-west basketball game sponsored by the pre-eminent drug crews, there ought to be.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

[David] Melnick and I, we’re big sports fans. I don’t know if David assigned us this story because he knew that.

Members of the Barksdale Organization sit on the bench while intently watching a basketball game in HBO’s The Wire.

Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Basketball or boxing were the only two things that would have credibly created a moment for east to meet west. Baseball would have been absurd. Football would have been too complicated.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

When we turned in our first draft, [Simon] really brought it more to life. We were just a couple young guys who were like, ‘Man, the basketball stuff is popping, and David’s loving it!’ We were excited.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I definitely praise David Simon … using [basketball] as the backdrop … [that] resonated globally.

Andre Royo
Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins, heroin addict and police informant

[In the episode], you got everybody breaking the drug game to watch this basketball game. I remember games [like that] in [New York]. Lots of people would come to those … on Fourth Street. It rang true.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I didn’t have the money for basketball camp back [in the day]. Camp was like 500 bucks. At the time, my coach was a gentleman who made good money in the streets. He said, ‘Look, Maurice, you want to go to this camp? Every dunk you make, I’ll give you $100.’ I finished the game with about eight dunks, and that’s how I had money for camp. Playing ball … it kept me off the streets, from trying to hustle. We needed something to eat? They’d go buy 20 french fries, 20 hamburgers, 20 chicken sandwiches and bring it back to the court. They’d buy us sneakers, uniforms, books. I’m not proud these guys had to hustle for a living and sell drugs, but I was impressed they didn’t want the same thing for us.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

Basketball in the black culture is very important. It’s looked at almost as a refuge, as a way out. It gave us heroes.

‘Ain’t gon’ be no trouble over no ball.’

In “Game Day,” which originally aired on Aug. 4, 2002, Baltimore’s two biggest drug dealers have their annual streetball game. Simon and Burns say they weren’t aware whether such a game ever existed in Baltimore, but they wanted to have some sort of athletic competition. The rivalry basketball game is pivotal because it introduces new character Proposition Joe (Robert Chew, who died in 2013). Avon Barksdale (Harris) wants to beat Prop Joe’s team so badly that he and Stringer Bell (Elba) recruit a junior college player (Blanding) as a ringer. “Game Day” begins on the court, with Elba and Harris looking down on Blanding playing what looks to be pickup ball. The actual scene was shot at Baltimore’s historically black Coppin State University.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We needed, for purposes of plot, to show that rivalry. We needed it because we were introducing the element of Prop Joe and his crew on the Eastside. We needed to frame that in some intelligent way. And the idea of competition naturally led to, ‘Is there a social function? Or a moment where these different crews would cross-pollinate? We came up with the basketball game.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

David Melnick, who wrote that episode [with me], are just a couple of guys from the ’burbs of Baltimore; there’s nothing hardcore about us at all.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

It would be hard to avoid the extraordinary love affair that urban America has had with the game of basketball. Generations of it. You’d have to be willfully ignorant.

Show Creator David Simon on Capturing the essence of streetball

Footage from HBO

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

All the kids, that was their one ambition, even more so than football, was being a great basketball player. We had a couple guys come out of Baltimore, Skip Wise being one of them, who would have been a great basketball player if he didn’t succumb to drugs.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Everybody in Baltimore knows the painful story of Skip Wise. He didn’t quite escape the street culture.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

There are moments when — in the first year of World War I, in the trench warfare — when Christmas rolled around, Germans and the French and the British went into no man’s land to celebrate that holiday. And then they went back to killing each other. There were moments when you could give me the ball, or the rock or whatever. And you could have that truce.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

I’ve played on basketball courts where gangsters are on the side and got money on it. You just want to play good. I knew what that feeling was like.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

That ringer thing was eye-opening for Melnick and I. We didn’t know that that would even be feasible in that world, that somebody with influence on the street level would connect with the university to try and get a ringer. That blew our minds. That was the first or second beat on that beat sheet. We saw that, and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s the way it works?’

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I grew up in Baltimore City, played everywhere in Baltimore City. Grew up with the real Avon Barksdale’s nephew. He played on my football team in high school.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

I remember that moment where we just sat down and started pounding keys and going, ‘OK, let’s, uh …’ [but] there is no research for that. First of all, the internet — we’re talking early 2000s — was not as far-reaching.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

It seemed kind of strange to me, but David Simon said he had heard about something like that before when he was [at] The Baltimore Sun. I mostly was excited that I was having an episode that I had more than two scenes in. Me and Domenick Lombardozzi referred to it as my Taxi Driver episode, because it’s my favorite movie.

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

We were heavy in that episode.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We were using it so that the detectives could naively try to get eyes on Avon Barksdale, and to try to follow him. We were doing it so we could also show Herc and Carver up on the roof, being forgotten about.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

A layer of the shade [was] pulled back on how these guys are human. These are people. We’re treating them like they’re scum of the earth and they don’t have any rights. But if there’s a common ground like basketball, where two opposing sides can come together and put their differences aside … they mostly want to unify, they don’t want to destroy.

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

It didn’t catch me by surprise because … it’s kind of tradition. It’s very similar to the Rucker, you know? In New York. It all made sense to me.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

[My character had] that revelation of, ‘Oh, these motherfuckers might have feelings.’ They care about shit.

Detectives Herc and Carver watch an annual neighborhood basketball game while they try to identify who Avon Barksdale is.

Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I was home on break from playing basketball overseas, and in South America. A buddy of mine was doing security for The Wire, and the director said, ‘Hey, do you know a guy that can play basketball, and can dunk?’ So I went up to Coppin … and I opened that episode up with Elba and Harris. Sometimes I look back and say, ‘Man, should I have started acting instead of continuing playing basketball in Europe?’ I made $2,500 in three days.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

I love that episode. “Game Day” is one of my favorites. … That’s the one I had the most fun shooting.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

The show was very urban, and gritty, but here we are shooting in a clean and pristine university gymnasium. That crossed grains with this show that we were getting to know. … It was outside of the element of the world that The Wire was [usually] taking place in.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I was overly impressed, even though Dunbar is Eastside and I [in real life] was Westside. So I had a little issue with that at first because, you know, the rivalry’s real!

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

Idris don’t really play basketball, but we still had a lot of fun.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

He didn’t know anything about drug dealing, either, when he started out! Idris instinctively knew the value of a scene. You didn’t have to go to him and say, ‘This is the way things are done.’ There was no need for him to really love basketball.

‘The projects got a ball team?’

Baltimore basketball is serious business — in real life and on television. Detectives Herc and Carver finally figured out that everyone in the streets has suspended all drug trafficking to participate in or watch the basketball game. In a scene leading up to the end of the game, Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) announces that the drug dealer they’re looking for (Harris’ character) is over at the historic Cloverdale Courts.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

They didn’t actually film that at Cloverdale. That was at Collington Square in East Baltimore.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

There was one issue. That episode was being directed by this French director whose name I can’t remember.

Milcho Manchevski
Director

I was born in Macedonia. I came here for film school and then stayed.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Milcho turned out to be a very good director. He was a good friend of [former executive producer] Bob Colesberry’s. Bob brought him in, very much admired his work. And there’s a lot to admire.

Milcho Manchevski
Director

It’s the only piece of episodic television I’ve done. I directed five features and wrote all of them. But this one was just so attractive because the writing was great. Colesberry was producing … so I knew it was going to be a creative enterprise.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

He was a feature director who had never done television. In features it’s, ‘Get the writer off the set. We have the script.’ But in television the writers are the producers, so we’re worried about continuity, we’re worried if it will make sense in all [of the] episodes. He wasn’t used to having a writer always on set. If not me, Ed or somebody. We struggled a little bit.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

He was new to TV and just didn’t realize the concept of you can’t reinvent the wheel. You have to learn how to adapt and fall within a frame of what the show is … you have the ability to color it and put your name on it. You can’t come in and completely change it. It caused a lot of tension. Unfortunately, I was the middleman between him and our VP and also the actors.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

After lunch — when you have lunch on the set or whatever, it’s like an hour long and you come back — no director. The director couldn’t be found. So what happened was … Anthony Hemingway … he was second A.D. for The Wire.

Tray Chaney
Malik “Poot” Carr, teen drug dealer

When everyone came back from lunch … Anthony was the man.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I had to rise to the occasion. It was very sensitive, only because the union obligations and all the legalities within that. I wasn’t technically directing, but … I was there for the show and had to step forward to protect the show.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

The basketball thing is obviously an intensely choreographed dynamic. And the A.D. would be influential in terms of placing everybody and … you’re coordinating between the actual athletic narrative within the game, what’s happening, where we’re placing all the extras, where we’re placing our characters among the extras. That was Anthony. And I think, in some respects, it’s where he really began to shine.

Show Creator David Simon on Developing iconic characters

Footage from HBO

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

We had a lot of faith in Anthony. He had been with us, particularly with [co-executive producer] Nina Noble, from the early ’90s. And he was extremely confident.

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

Hemingway was a big part of the show even when he wasn’t directing as a first A.D. He was very influential.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

That day in particular was challenging because we needed crowds. We had open calls on the radio, getting people to come out. We had the turnout that we needed.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

I think the extras were hired right from the neighborhood.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

And it was about 85 degrees. The humidity in Baltimore is ridiculous.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

Insane and intense and crazy. I didn’t technically direct that episode. I had to make it, I had to be the Band-Aid and make the day flow. I was still assistant director. … I had to step in and keep the day flowing … but I didn’t, and will not ever, call myself as the director.

J.D. Williams
Preston “Bodie” Broadus, teen drug dealer

Wood Harris is the star of Above the Rim. … It was a basketball film; it had Tupac [Shakur] in it. It just took me there, like, ‘Wow, now I’m doing a basketball scene with Wood Harris? I must be making some type of progress. …’

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I didn’t even know Idris Elba was from England. He spoke the Baltimore slang and language so much. He was that good.

Tray Chaney
Malik “Poot” Carr, teen drug dealer

I was a fan of J.D. [Williams] from him being on Oz.

“We’re really part of something that was incredible and has become a part of the fabric of television.”Shamit Choksey

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I’m a Tupac fan, and I’m also a Wood Harris fan. I asked while I was sitting there, ‘How was being around ’Pac?’ He said, ‘He’s the ultimate professional, he’s a perfectionist, but he’s a down-to-earth man, just like you and I.’ I was sitting here talking to Wood Harris about Tupac! This is crazy!

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

There was one cross, one vicious move that [Blanding] made from the top of the key. When we saw it we just fell down, we were laughing so hard. It was such a great inside move. You’ve got to remember, we’re only doing this with a few seconds of ball. We’re not filming the whole game … so whatever time we have to devote to actual basketball, you want the footage to feel real. You also want to get the in-your-face ballet of streetball.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

That was scripted, but that’s how I play. The director was like, ‘Listen, don’t shoot the ball.’ [We] said, ‘Well, we just want to play!’ And that’s when we started playing a little bit more physical, and I played my real game and they stopped stripping the ball because they knew an elbow might come behind it. So the first part was scripted, the second part was like half-scripted, and then they made use of us really playing ball.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

I remember seeing that on film and thinking, if you ever went to Collington Square, if you ever went to Cloverdale and watched the best players, that’s the kind of shit where you saw a move like that and it laid everybody out for 30 seconds. Like, ‘Oh shit! What just happened?’ We got one of those on film. I was very proud of us.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

I didn’t have to give them any technical advice. Everyone knew basketball. Everybody who was there was black.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I thought it was authentic. When we play ball [in real life], you had guys who probably didn’t get along … on the street level, they’re enemies. But on the basketball level, they never brought it to the court. You’d have some shootings sometimes, people would get into a fight, but I’d say 95 percent of the time it was strictly about basketball. It did lower the crime rate in that area where we played — everybody just wanted to watch us play. Everybody wanted to see me dunk because I had like a 45-inch vertical back then.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I was out there trying to find moments … where especially black men can come together and support each other. And put behind us all the negative drama that has been perpetuated over the years, and support one another and love one another. And be able to be in the same place together.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

It was as authentic as I have seen anybody portray the streetball of Baltimore City, where they gettin’ in the referee’s face.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

When you see me get up and I’m bantering and checking the referee, that guy was a really good actor — one of my fondest memories of The Wire.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We [wanted to] demonstrate something about Avon Barksdale’s personality when he intimidates the ref on a bad call and then, in the next moment, becomes frustrated that the ref is about to cave. He wants to yell at the ref. He doesn’t want the ref to treat him like the winner because he’s feared. He wants to be right on the merits, and he no longer can be because he’s Avon Barksdale. And he realizes that.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

The crowd, that was normal. A summer league in Baltimore will generate a crowd of at least 500 people sometimes. It was just awesome.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We’re not thinking to ourselves, ‘We’re really making a statement here about basketball in the inner city.’ We were just using found material.

Maybe we won.

Fifteen years later, this series still resonates (and it’s available at HBO NOW). Major urban centers are still dealing with the problems that embattled fictional Baltimore for the duration of this series. The Wire, sadly, feels contemporary.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I actually get very giddy when I go on different jobs, and I smile real hard when so many people really praise the show. That makes me feel great to be a part of that. That was my start.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

Five years out, when I started to hear, ‘Wait a second, he wrote for The Wire? I love that show.’ … I kind of scratched my head. It wasn’t those that are from that world. It was a white college girl who’d never spent any time in the city who was obsessed with the show.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

I don’t think anything’s changed. Now the drugs embrace the white community, the working-class community, particularly. The language might change from rural America to city America, [but] it is the same. And the acting is so damn good.

“I have a problem with the glorification of a drug dealer and America is fascinated with that world. We’re celebrating the very … problem that America has in its ‘hood. But Stringer Bell was no role model. He ruled the people who worked for him through fear.”Idris Elba, 2009

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

Maybe people weren’t ready for a show like that, or maybe it was just kept in the shadows. It’s like a cult following now.

J.D. Williams
Preston “Bodie” Broadus, teen drug dealer

We blew everybody’s tops off, and they still didn’t give us whatever we deserved. That’s OK because that makes them look stupid. The most important thing is that the people who know, who love it, really love it.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

I didn’t realize how big and iconic the show was when we were in the middle of it. We’re really part of something that was incredible and has become a part of the fabric of television.

Andre Royo
Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins, heroin addict and police informant

We knew what we were doing was real stuff. There was a certain pride and awe every time we got a script because we were like, ‘Are they telling our side or not?’ And we’re really telling this side of the story, and with such fairness, and in such a nonjudgmental way. It just kept us intrigued and happy to be a part of the show.

Sonja Sohn
Detective Kima Greggs

The Wire is timeless. We’ve been living in these conditions for decades now. It’s not a surprise to me that it resonates. Until we address the structural issues that exacerbate the criminal element that exists in underserved black communities, this story will always be relevant.

Tray Chaney
Malik “Poot” Carr, teen drug dealer

I think I can speak for all of us saying we didn’t know that the show was gonna be a part of history like it is now.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

I would prefer to be living in [a] country where The Wire was less relevant 15 years later. I would have much preferred to think of the show as being anachronistic.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

I thought it was gold when we were doing it. I still get a little frothy when people are like, ‘Why did that show go off the air?’ And I’m like, ‘Did you watch it when it was on? Well, that’s why the shit went off the fucking air.’ They were] watching The Sopranos, which was old and tired by that point. The Wire is still the best show in the history of television. And if you reran it right now, it would be better than everything else on TV.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Maurice Blanding: Works at Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Ed Burns: Lives in West Virginia and is working on several television projects.

Tray Chaney: Is a rapper and also stars in Bounce TV’s Saints & Sinners.

Shamit Choksey: Currently working in automotive sports marketing for Kia; also working on a new TV project with his brother.

Seth Gilliam: Co-stars on AMC’s The Walking Dead, is set to co-star in feature film Change in the Air.

Wood Harris: Is set to co-star in feature films Once Upon a Time in Venice (with Bruce Willis and John Goodman) and 9/11 (with Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg).

Anthony Hemingway: Is producing and directing television series including WGN’s Underground and is set to direct the indie film Bury the Lead. He also served as an executive producer and director on ABC’s American Crime and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Domenick Lombardozzi: Is part of the cast of Fox’s Rosewood and will next star in the feature films Frank and Ava (2017) and Hard Powder (2018).

Milcho Manchevski: Recently wrapped the feature film Bikini Moon, which stars Condola Rashad.

Andre Royo: Co-stars on Fox’s Empire and is set to co-star in Amazon Studios’ Beautiful Boy alongside Steve Carell, out in 2018.

David Simon: His next series, The Deuce, is set to premiere on HBO this fall; it features several The Wire alums.

Sonja Sohn: Is currently filming Showtime’s The Chi.

J.D. Williams: Stars in Bounce TV’s Saints & Sinners.

National Urban League hosts real talk about the State of Black America in 2017 TV special tries to addresses questions about an uncertain political future and protecting progress

When National Urban League president and CEO Marc H. Morial walked on stage Tuesday at the Howard Theatre, the message he was there to spread applied as much to the building as it did to the black community. The iconic venue in Washington, D.C.’s, Shaw neighborhood, down the block from Howard University, reopened with much fanfare in 2012 after decades in disrepair. But it’s now facing financial trouble and may have to close again.

And with President Donald Trump rolling back nearly every important policy that America’s first president of color (and the first lady) put in place, it feels like we may be going back to a darker era. Hence the theme of the proceedings: “Protect Our Progress.”

The nonpartisan civil rights organization and TV One taped a two-hour town hall special on the State of Black America with the release of its annual report of the same name. It highlights issues facing the community, complete with tangible data to better understand how to tackle these issues.

“Backward never, forward ever. We are bold. We are mighty. We are empowered. We are Urban Leaguers. Protect our progress. Resist the rollback!” was the call-and-response chant that Morial led with those gathered at the 2017 Legislative Policy Conference, before moderator and TV One host Roland Martin took over the proceedings.

While the taping schedule made it a slightly different vibe from a live town hall meeting — the show airs May 31 — Martin kept the crowd loose while also directing the show from the stage. The first panel featured culture critic Toure; Angela Sailor, former director of the Republican National Committee’s Coalitions department; CNN’s Symone Sanders; and activist/TV host Jeff Johnson, who has covered income inequality, education and mentorship in the black community.

Things moved from polite sharing of ideas to actual disagreement when Martin asked Sailor whether black people should trust the Department of Education’s budget when it comes to opportunities for children. She implied that the larger solution would involve more than that anyway.

“We know that they’re not because the budget is not reflective of it,” Sanders retorted. “It is incumbent on us to demand. I think we are doing something. Organizations like us … are definitely showing up in their communities, showing up to the elected officials or coming to the funding table with private and public partnerships to make things work. But we cannot let the Department of Education and other folks off the hook when they don’t include us in their budget. That’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Shortly afterward, Johnson described how black folks too often get caught up in the dream of college — the “bougie wonderland” — and get themselves into debt instead of learning skills that make them marketable in a global environment. I could have listened to him talk about that subject for the rest of the event, but alas, they moved on.

According to the latest State of Black America report, the 2017 National Equality Index compared with white America is 72.3 percent. The Hispanic Index is 78.4 percent. The index looks at five areas: economics, education, health, social justice and civic engagement.

When trying to cover so many topics with so many voices in a limited amount of time, it’s impossible to delve into any one in a truly meaningful way. But the crowd was given Q&A sessions with each panel. “No sermonettes; ask a question,” Martin sternly advised the crowd with a wink.

Before most segments, a vignette was shown about a specific initiative that the Urban League had helped with. In a similar vein before the taping, corporate sponsor Toyota, through its Freedom To Move program, highlighted “Hiplet,” a Chicago dance center that is loosely described as “rap ballet.”

The second panel featured Sailor and author/professor Michael Eric Dyson, along with CNN commentators Parris Dennard and Angela Rye. My favorite moment came from Dyson, who mentioned Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert while discussing the plight of Detroit, which is undergoing one of the harder-core gentrification processes in the country.

“I grew up in Detroit. It’s not just crime, it was white flight that exacerbated the tensions in the city,” Dyson said. “The [areas] around Detroit began to absorb those resources, then they marginalized poor people. Gentrification is predicated upon the access to capital and the ability to own a home, while upwardly mobile, largely white people — and then, in some cases, black and brown people — who then push out those people who are there.

“Once into the exurbs and suburbs, where they were banned, now, as Roland said, there’s no transportation network out there. They’re stuck out there, while Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers and is one of the greatest landowners in Detroit, is creating the tension because he owns so much of the property and now along the lakefront and the waterfront, where blacks are banned. White brothers and sisters are establishing their bona fides while black people are left behind. That’s a problem of not crime. The real crime is white neglect and white flight from a city, then reappropriating black resources.”

Whether any problems were solved Tuesday wasn’t really the point. Some smart minds got together to discuss the problems facing our community. When it airs later this month, I hope discussions will spread outside of that as well.

Misty Copeland discusses her new book, ballet culture and social activism ‘It was important for me to get out there and let people know what I believe in’

Misty Copeland, the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, sat down with reporters and fans at the National Press Club on Monday to talk about her first health and fitness book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You.

The 34-year-old has had an active couple of months, traveling to Cuba to spread classical dance and also speaking out against Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who made remarks that were supportive of President Donald Trump. When Under Armour began its sponsorship of Copeland in 2014, she became the first classical dancer with a sports brand endorsement.

Since starting her ballet career at age 13, Copeland has become an author and public speaker and was recognized as one of Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People in 2015.

Copeland answered questions about her book, which was released March 21, how she came back from a near career-ending injury, her activism and more before heading to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

What’s your relationship like with Kevin Plank since you’ve spoken out? Was there any frostiness after that? Is he still behind you 100 percent?

I’d say we’re probably closer now. … He and I have always had a very close relationship, and so I think everyone was a little taken aback by his comments that were taken out of context. … I know that it’s been very important for me. In the beginning this is so exciting. This is the first time a classical dancer has been given an endorsement with a sports brand. It’s a really big deal, and it’s brought so much attention and recognition and education to the American people, in terms of showing them that dancers are athletes and all that it takes to get there. At this point, I feel it’s not just me that represents Under Armour — Under Armour represents me. Steph Curry and Dwayne Johnson, they both agreed with me in that we have a responsibility as African-Americans to represent ourselves in a true and real way. … It was important for me to get out there and let people know what I believe in.

The Trump administration is proposing massive cuts and the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. How is this going to affect the push to see more dancers and artists of color?

Of course, I’m not happy [about the proposed cuts.] I think that right now is an even more important time for arts to have a voice and to stand up for what’s right for this country. I often speak about the opportunity I had when I traveled to Rwanda, and I worked with a program called Mind at Ease, and to be able to see the benefits of what dance can do for a child. … I’d love to start my own foundation [not right now] and be a place for people to turn to.

How did the Boys and Girls Club change your life?

Being able to go to a community center that had positive role models there and a real structure as a young child who didn’t have a lot of structure in my household, I think that it really saved me and it really set me up for the path that I’m on. I also would have never been introduced to classical ballet had I not been a member of the Boys and Girls Club. That’s where I took my first ballet class, on a basketball court there. They’ve been such a big part of forming who I am today. … I think it’s so important to have community centers like that, especially in underprivileged communities.

Misty Copeland, the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, spoke to Jeff Ballou, president of The National Press Club, during a press event in the Holeman Lounge of The National Press Club on Monday, April 17, 2017.

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Are you going to advocate for better grocery store selection in tough neighborhoods so people can have a balanced diet?

It was extremely difficult for me as a child [to consistently find healthy food options]. I think it’s something that would’ve helped me early on, is just the knowledge of what’s not good for me and that there are ways to make the right choices even if you don’t have fresh vegetables around you. My mother didn’t cook, so I grew up for weeks at a time eating a cup of noodles every night for dinner. … I think having that strong base as a child [of knowing how to eat well] is going to make it so much easier as an adult when you have the ability to make those decisions for yourself and get the things you need.

Are you an advocate of having proper meals in schools?

Absolutely. I definitely stand behind it. I think starting as young as possible and understanding how much nutrition plays a role in health for the rest of your life. I think a lot of Americans think if I’m physically fit or active I’m healthy, but what you’re putting into your body is more than half of it.

[What do you hope will be the] takeaway from Ballerina Body?

I hope that they feel an opportunity to start fresh no matter what age they are. That they see something that’s really attainable and it’s about looking at your life and your lifestyle different than just, ‘I’m just going to try this and it’s a fad and see if it works,’ but maybe that it just makes them look at how they approach their lives in a different way.

What advice would you give readers of how to get through a near-break-point experience?

I had surgery five years ago now. I had six stress fractures, and I was told by more than a handful of doctors that I’d never dance again. I found the one doctor who said I will, and he’s the one who performed my surgery. During that process of healing, I didn’t allow myself to step back and look at what could be. I took every single day one day at a time and being really present in the moment of each day. Like, what can I do today? I can’t walk, so I’m going to lay on the floor and work on my arms. I’m going to do something that’s going to further me and make me better when I get back to the stage. Working in small increments allowed me to not get overwhelmed. Of course there were days that I crumpled and said I can’t do this, but having that support of ‘Yes, you can’ and ‘You’re going to start again tomorrow,’ I think just looking at things that way and enjoying the process.

Since you’ve come on, have you noticed a change in attitude in classical ballet? Has it been more accommodating to women of different sizes and shapes?

I’m going to say no. I think it’s become a conversation and acknowledgement from the ballet world that I’ve never seen before. I think to even just put it out there, my experiences that African-American dancers, in particular, have been told they don’t have the right bodies for generations and generations. For me, I think that’s the way of saying you don’t have the right skin color. I think just addressing these issues is making these professional companies wake up and realize the world is looking at them, and it’s not acceptable to not accept more diversity in your companies.

Misty Copeland stretches while participating in a class with the Cuban National Ballet in Havana.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

How have you innovated ballet?

I don’t know if I have a signature movement. I think something that makes me unique is the way I hear music, and I think that has a lot to do with the music I grew up with and around and the fact that I didn’t start dancing until super late. It allows me a bit more freedom in how I interpret what I hear. … I was listening to Anita Baker and Aretha Franklin and creating in my own mind what I thought dance was.

How’d you meet Prince, and what do you think his impact is?

I met Prince a long time ago. He reached out to me and asked me to be in a music video of his. I was still a new soloist with the company, so I was like, ‘How does he even know who I am, and why does he want me in his music video?’ When I met him, I agreed to work with him because I knew I’d have an opportunity to reach more people and a completely different audience than maybe are coming to see the ballet. I ended up working with him over the course of five years, just touring the world with him, and I feel like in that time and being on stage with him and seeing him live right in front of me really made me the artist that I am today. He forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. I think his impact on the world will live on forever. I’m just so grateful for the time that I had with him and for him being so unique and pushing the boundaries and not fitting into the stereotypical mold — especially as a black man.

What’s on your playlist?

I’ve been listening to Solange and Frank Ocean … some old Mariah Carey. I love Anita Baker and Aretha Franklin. I’m very open in terms of music, but at this point I like things that make me think.