Wesley Goes Hollywood

Feb. 2, 2013

Kansas basketball’s history is speckled with as many stars as any other program in the country. The likes of B.H. Born, Clyde Lovellette, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Danny Manning and Paul Pierce have all called the University of Kansas home. Yet, one former player shines brighter than them all.

Wilt Chamberlain’s arrival in Lawrence is the subject of a new film by Lawrence filmmaker and University of Kansas associate professor Kevin Willmott. Jayhawkers examines how Kansas coaching legend Phog Allen and former Chancellor Franklin Murphy used Chamberlain’s arrival in Lawrence to desegregate the town and the university.

When Willmott was casting the film, Kansas head coach Bill Self suggested current Jayhawk Justin Wesley for the role of Chamberlain. Wesley was obviously familiar with Chamberlain’s abilities on the court, but he admitted that he was unaware of Chamberlain’s struggles off of the court.

“When (Willmott) approached me with the script and the story, it was all new to me,” Wesley said. “That made the experience that much more enjoyable–learning that history and that back story that a lot of people don’t know about.”

Prior to filming the movie, Wesley had no prior acting experience–something that Willmott said Wesley handled well.

“Justin really got it from the very beginning,” said Willmott. “He understood the concept of not trying to act, which is a really big one. The first thing I always tell folks is, `Don’t act.’ That’s the usually the biggest problem when you’re working with an actor is that they try to act. Justin was just himself and he took his persona and placed it in Wilt himself.”

Willmott noted that he told Wesley that there is nothing about Chamberlain’s story to which Wesley could not relate. Both Wesley and Chamberlain are from larger cities; Chamberlain was from Philadelphia and Wesley calls Fort Worth home.

“Coming to what is a small town to folks like that and experiencing what Wilt experienced,” Willmott said. “I am sure Justin has had moments where he’s experienced some things–certainly not the segregation that Wilt experienced–but other things that basketball players all experience when they come to a small town. He responded incredibly well. I think people are going to be really surprised with how good he is in the film.”

The Jayhawkers cast and crew is loaded with current Kansas students and alums alike. Former Kansas star Scot Pollard is an associate producer on the film and plays the part of B.H. Born. This is the second film of Willmott’s in which Pollard has appeared as he has a part in the recently-wrapped Destination Planet Negro.

“We thought he’d fit B. H. Born well, who was one of the ball players for KU back in (the 1950s),” Willmott said. “There were many people who told Allen that they should go after Wilt. We thought (Pollard) just was a good cast situation.”

KU graduates Jay Karnes and Kip Nevin play Murphy and Allen, respectively. It helped Wesley ease into his role having veteran actors with KU ties alongside him during production.

“They were telling me, `Hey, you’re doing just fine. I’ve never seen a first-time actor act that well,'” Wesley said. “It was encouraging coming from them when they’ve done plenty of movies in the past and they are saying I’m doing great.”

The majority of the film was shot in Lawrence with basketball sequences filmed at Holcom Park Recreation Center and the Lawrence Community Building with exception of some scenes being filmed at a gym in Topeka.

“(Because) the film is in black and white and in the 1950s they still smoked in arenas back then,” said Willmott. “The look of the film is going to be really unique in the terms of the way the basketball will look. We were influenced a bit by the photographs of Rich Clarkson who was one of the key photographers of Wilt when he was playing at KU.”

Added Willmott, “It enabled us to kind of cheat a little bit and use gyms that were not the gyms of the 1950s, but it helped us in that it allowed us to make those gyms look like the 1950s and at the same time give what I think is going to be a visually stimulating look to the film.”

Wesley was on set for much of the shoot which began production in early August and wrapped near the end of September. For the first time actor, it was an adjustment to be on set for some of the longer days.

“The only thing that was trying at times was sometimes going from eight in the morning to eight in the evening,” Wesley said. “The 12 hour days were kind of tough. There were some days when it was fine and there were days when it was like, `I don’t want to be here.’ That was the hardest part.”

Wesley will be able to see his work in the film sometime this spring as Willmott, who is in the middle of editing the film, hopes to have a cast and crew screening before the summer. Willmott hopes to enter the film into Sundance and many of the other major film festivals and says that, should the film be accepted, that is when the film will premiere.

Wesley admits that he is thinking about the reviews of the film.

“I just hope they are great,” Wesley said. “I hope they don’t say `Bad movie, bad acting.'”

Should the reviews be great, Wesley says that he is open to doing more acting though he never expected to be asked to appear in a movie when he came to KU to play basketball.

“As a kid you see your favorite movie–some action movie or something like that–and you say, `Oh, I want to be an actor. I want to make a movie like that.’ I never saw this coming at all. If Spielberg calls,” Wesley said with a smile, “I might have to take a little break from basketball.”

Written by Kansas Communications Assistant Alex Folsom