Learn about the time when the game of professional basketball changed forever with Sweetwater. The upcoming sports biopic explores the story of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, a star member of the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1940s who would go on to become the first African-American to sign a contract with the NBA.
Everett Osborne leads the ensemble cast of Sweetwater alongside Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven, Rebel Moon‘s Cary Elwes, Kevin Pollak, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Ri’chard, Gary Clark Jr., Jim Meskimen, and Eric Roberts. Having languished in development for nearly 30 years, the film is a moving ode to one of basketball’s most underexplored legends.
In anticipation of the film’s release, Screen Rant spoke exclusively with star Everett Osborne to discuss Sweetwater, the importance of finally telling Clifton’s story, learning new basketball skills from the current roster of Globetrotters, and more.
Everett Osborne on Sweetwater
Screen Rant: I’m very excited to get to talk about Sweetwater, especially as a fan of the Globetrotters and the NBA. What about the film really sparked your interest?
Everett Osborne: Well, thank you for those words, man. It’s a great team, we put our best into it. I think the story itself, I mean, what inspired me the most was not knowing about this person. You’re like, “Oh, This is the first African-American to sign an NBA contract.” I knew who Jackie Robinson was, I had no idea who Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was.
To be able to go on that journey of exploring, being educated, and just being inspired through his personal journey and seeing how this one person changed the game of basketball, just brought creativity, flair and style, like the alley-oops. Everything he brought, we love the game, we see the game to this day, we love and appreciate it, but we don’t understand the reference point. So I think that was one of the pivotal parts for me, just really seeing that and understanding the responsibility we have with that, it was beautiful.
How much research did you have to do to better embody the character? Or did Martin Guigui really have it all in the script?
Everett Osborne: Martin did a great job, I mean, 28 years of research of this script, of this character, but I had to do a lot of work. I had two weeks to prepare, maybe two and a half, three weeks, so the moment I got it, it’s my responsibility, it’s a real human being. His daughter is still here to this day, Jataun Robinson-Swopes, amazing, family is still alive, so you have a responsibility, and people may not know this person is, so that’s extra responsibility.
I just had to do a lot of research, read articles, what year was he born? What was he going through during that time? So it’s that whole experience of not just his personal experiences, but what was the climate of the world, because that shapes the human experience. We all survive in different ways, depending on what we go through, so that was a whole eye-opening experience for me, and I had to delve in deeply.
What was one of your favorite bits of research that you found that you then brought into your performance in the film?
Everett Osborne: My favorite bit was Sweetwater had a quietness about him, very gentle, but he also had a little chippiness to him, as well. He knew he was the best, but he never said it, he never worried about the credit. He’s always about the other, he’s the ultimate servant, he fought in the war for all mankind, so he cared about the others around him more than himself, because of the innate human value. So I think that was something I wanted to sew into this film, is that innate value and the love for humanity, and fighting for the other, that was something that was very important to me.
The rest of your co-stars do a phenomenal job with the actual basketball skills and recreating a lot of the Globetrotters’ moves and flair. How much prep did that take for you, or did you already have some of that down prior to the film?
Everett Osborne: [Chuckles] So we had a couple of good guys that were already genuinely Globetrotters, like Kevin Daly, Herb Lang, these guys actually are Globetrotters, so to have them and the authenticity of that in the film helped tremendously. I had a skill set, but I had to absorb a new world of playing in the ’50s, of just learning what that felt like. So that was a whole new shift in stepping into that world and understanding that, but it was fun, it was a journey, but being surrounded by those guys, it helped out a lot.
What was one of the trickier moves to learn from the Globetrotters?
Everett Osborne: The trickest move to learn from the Globetrotters? There’s this thing, I don’t even know if it made the edit, it’s how you pass the ball, there’s a way you could throw the ball and pass it through the elbow. Little tricks like that of how to pass the ball secretively was definitely tricky, have fun doing the between the legs, layups, and having fun with that, which you see on the [poster]. They snapped that, that was a still from an actual game we were playing on set while they were filming us, and I just have fun finding that new creativity, innovation.
That’s what Sweetwater brought to the game, the game was being played in a rigid way, but he brought that flair, he brought that creativity and human beings, we hold an interdependence. So if one other person is able to express freedom and [creativity], it’s gonna inspire the next person, whether they’re black or white, to kind of discover, “Hey, what more can I do on this court? What more can I do in my life? I know this is a system that was put in place, but how far can I take it?” Now you see we have a game, there’s a three-point line, people shooting half court, LeBron James dunking. Michael Jordan said it himself, “There’s no Michael Jordan without Sweetwater.” So, you have these guys that are beacons of force, trailblazers, and Sweetwater is the reference point for all of that.
You mentioned earlier about his family and the responsibility that you have to getting the role right. This is one of your biggest roles to date, was there any kind of intimidation or nerves going into filming this?
Everett Osborne: To be honest, no, because I wasn’t in my own head I’d be lying if I said I [was], I was just in Sweetwater’s world. So, Everett, who’s that? [Chuckles] I’d come home and be like, “Wow, that was freaking crazy.” But at the end of the day, when you’re in the world, you’re in it, and I’m in it. That’s how I felt about it, I was in it every step of the way.
I was supported by a great team, a great cast. We have legends, man, Cary Elwes, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeremy Piven, Kevin Pollak, Eric Roberts, Jim Caviezel. But when you have these guys bringing such authenticity, and a high level, to this craft, you’re gonna be inspired to keep it at that level, and maybe take it higher. I think that’s what we all did with each other, we all lean on each other during these moments, so it didn’t feel like a first to me.
Since you mentioned your co-stars, I actually did want to ask about them, especially Jeremy, you two have this wonderful bond that forms as the film goes on. What was it like developing that with him off-camera as well as on?
Everett Osborne: So beautiful, man. Literally, he’s a legend, the scene you see in the trailer when he comes up to me and asks Sweetwater, “Have you heard of this? There’s no negros in the league.” That whole exchange in that locker room, that was our first time ever talking, I think, so it was really real authentic. [Chuckles] Jeremy’s a guy in your face, he’ll put 100 percent to the table. It’s just great to do the same, and like I said, humans hold an interdependence, so when one person is bringing their best, the next person can, and that’s what we did. I think that’s what this film was about, as well, it’s a human story, it’s not just a one-diaspora story, this thing hits all across the board.
I also loved your dynamic with Kevin, where he wants to be inspiring, but he’s still got a little bit of negativity to him. What was it like playing off of that?
Everett Osborne: So great, he’s so creative, any moment, you don’t know what he’s gonna bring, so you’ve got to stay present. You’ve got to stay in the moment, because he’s going to be innovating, he’s gonna bring something up, maybe throw a line out, he may do something, he’s very present. So it was just fun to be in that den with him, in that lion’s den, I can’t explain it, they were just magical moments, honestly.
What is one of the biggest things that you are really looking forward to audiences seeing and taking away from this film?
Everett Osborne: Well, first off, I’m happy to see the story is finally being told. This is a trailblazer that we’ve heard nothing about, for the most part, and I think audiences can take away the power of the human spirit, of human connectivity and love, and pushing past boundaries, and understanding that there’s a higher truth, purpose beyond what’s being presented to you. You just have to believe, really believe that, “Hey, maybe I could push against these boundaries. Maybe the world is set in stone, but maybe there’s a better way, and I can step into that undiscovered and have fun in that.” That’s what life is about.
In the late 1940s, the game of basketball is a whites-only game. But barnstorming around the country is a team of African-American players whose extraordinary talent and showmanship have made them renowned for almost two decades: The Harlem Globetrotters, including a 26-year-old named Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (EVERETT OSBORNE), whose power forward skills dazzle audiences and opponents alike, inspiring sportscasters to create new terms like “dunk” for Sweetwater’s on-the-court accomplishments.
As Abe Saperstein (KEVIN POLLAK), the manager and promoter of the Trotters, works to get the team and Sweetwater the recognition they deserve, irrepressible New York Knicks Coach Joe Lapchick (JEREMY PIVEN) sees in Sweetwater the man who could integrate the game as “the Jackie Robinson of basketball.”
Sweetwater hits theaters on April 14.