Three former Bruins get Looney for ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’
No one would mistake Nicole Kornet for the WNBA’s greatest scorer. Kornet, a former UCLA guard, has flowing blonde hair she ties into a ponytail on the court and scored 752 points during her four-year college career at UCLA and Oklahoma. Diana Taurasi, who pulls her dark hair into a tight bun, eclipsed that number in a single WNBA season twice and is the league’s only 9,000-point scorer.
The only universe where those two players pass for one another came to life this year — in the Looney Tunes universe.
Kornet was one of three former UCLA basketball players who had supporting roles in “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” the LeBron James-led film that topped the domestic box office during its opening weekend. Kornet squared off against James as she brought Taurasi’s White Mamba character to life while Mariah Williams and Darxia Morris became James’ teammates as Porky Pig and Sylvester, respectively.
For the three Bruins venturing into post-basketball careers, the opportunity was almost too good to be true. Williams works primarily as a real estate agent but does commercial and sports fitness modeling on the side. After an eight-year pro career that included two training camp opportunities in the WNBA, Morris was diving into acting and had enrolled in an acting school when “Space Jam” was starting production. Another former Bruin, Shaina Zaidi, told them Warner Bros. was looking for short basketball players to play Looney Tunes.
“Being short paid off this time around,” said Williams, a 5-foot-4 guard who graduated in 2013.
Filming took about three months in Burbank. The soundstage was covered in green screens with cameras positioned at every possible angle. Every day, cast members pulled on skin-tight gray motion capture suits that covered everything but their faces, danced in front of a screen that projected their characters back at them in real time and tried to soak in knowledge from established Hollywood stars like actor Don Cheadle and director Malcolm D. Lee.
It was surreal.
“Every day, I was in awe,” Morris said. “I didn’t want any day to be over.”
Dribbling while wearing motion capture gloves was a challenge but acting and playing basketball aren’t too different. Stunt coordinators sketched out plays. The actors ran them over and over. It was just like practice, Williams said, except for the cameras moving on each take to capture different angles.
While shooting multiple takes creates the illusion of a harmless re-do, it’s not as easy as it seems, Kornet said. Dozens of crew members and actors work on each take and there is a long list of shots to get through. Each opportunity felt like needing to make the final basket to win a national championship.
“They don’t want to be there all day because you’re messing up,” said Kornet, who auditioned for her role through a connection with Sheldon Bailey, who was James’ body double. “They want to get it one and done so they can move on.”
Kornet’s responsibility was magnified as a principal character. Not only was she playing basketball in the name of Taurasi, she was trying to do it while acting like a snake. She and other actors cast for the Goon Squad participated in intensive movement training from veteran movement choreographer Terry Notary to incorporate animalistic characteristics into their basketball personas.
Notary, whose work includes “Planet of the Apes,” “Avatar” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” instructed Kornet to move as if she was under water, needing to push through the scene with slow, large movements. For a visual aid, she sometimes wore a giant Styrofoam tail and whipped it across the floor. To really embody a slithering snake, Kornet laid on a dolly and moved her arms like she was doing a freestyle swim.
It was as strange as it sounds. But it was also the best summer of Kornet’s life.
“You’re playing like a snake and you’re playing in a space suit and it’s hot and sweaty and uncomfortable, but who cares,” she said. “We’re all doing it together.”
The cast and crew became like a family. They played Spades with Cheadle, who is a trash talker and doesn’t take it easy on rookies, Williams said. At promotional events for the movie’s release, James, two years removed from filming, had no problem remembering his Tune Squad.
“We look at him like ‘Oh, he’s untouchable. He’s a superstar.’ You don’t see him as a regular dude,” said Morris, who graduated from UCLA in 2011. “Being on set with him, you see him as a regular dude.”
James, who at the time of filming was entering his first year with the Lakers, wasn’t above a friendly basketball competition with cast members. One morning, James, who knew Kornet specialized in shooting, challenged the former UCLA guard to a contest. James won the first game, but Kornet staged an epic comeback to grab the second round after she made 12 straight shots. Everyone stampeded the court after Kornet won.
Tied at a game apiece, they stayed after the day’s shooting had wrapped to settle the contest. A small group of people witnessed the tiebreaker that dragged on for 45 minutes.
James was a little mad, she remembers, but gracious enough to sign a silver basketball gifted by a prop manager.
“To Nikki,” James wrote on the ball that Kornet keeps in a custom-made shadow box. “Shooters shoot!”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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