Interview: Mike Francesa On His Acting Debut in ‘Uncut Gems’
New York sports radio legend Mike Francesa is not one to mince words or tread lightly around his opinion of a colleague. For instance, here’s what he told ScreenCrush about Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film, Uncut Gems, in which Francesa cameos as a bookie named Gary: “The movie is so damn good. People think I say that because I’m in it. I was blown away. The movie is a hard movie, but the movie is really good.”
Here’s what he says about Adam Sandler, who stars as Howard Ratner, a degenerate gambler and Diamond District jeweler trying to stay afloat amid a sea of poor decisions and self-inflicted trauma: “Adam Sandler’s performance was unbelievable.”
And here’s Francesa on former NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays himself in the 2012-set film: “I’ve never been a Kevin Garnett fan, I’ve never liked Garnett. I think Garnett’s performance was tremendous. I never saw Garnett, he wasn’t there when I was there. But he was terrific.”
Popeye famously said, “I am what I am.” The same could be said of Francesa. Since WFAN sports radio launched in 1987, the New York native has offered daily opinions and observations on the local sports teams. He has never shied away from controversy and often seemed to actively court it; Francesa was doing hot takes before hot takes became the de facto mode of online discourse.
For 19 years, from 1989 through 2008, Francesa co-hosted the Mike and the Mad Dog show with Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo; it’s not only the most influential sports talk radio program of all-time, spawning countless imitators, but its impact can even be heard throughout numerous podcasts where two people argue about something with great passion. In the decade since Russo left the show to launch his own program on SiriusXM, Francesa hosted afternoon drive on WFAN by himself for five-and-a-half hours per day, from Monday through Friday. (Francesa retired from the afternoon drive show in 2017 but returned to the station a few months later; in early December, he stepped down again but will continue to have a daily presence on WFAN and its affiliated app, Radio.com.)
“Mike is an instigator and an institution,” Josh Safdie told ScreenCrush via email. The director and his brother, Benny, both grew up in New York and listened to Mike and the Mad Dog as kids. “How could we make a movie about a degenerate sports gambler who lives and works in Long Island and the city and not have the Sports Pope involved?” Josh said, referencing Francesa’s holy nickname among fans. “With the bookie character, we initially wanted a real-life bookie, whose name I can’t mention for obvious reasons, but he resembled Mike. I’ve often imagined Mike throwing money around on games. I’ve often imagined him taking action. It seemed to make perfect sense.”
In Uncut Gems, Francesa appears in two scenes, both opposite Sandler’s Howie. In each, his character, Gary, is left exacerbated by Howie’s big swing, long-shot bets. “That’s the dumbest f—ing bet I’ve ever heard of,” Gary tells Howie at one point.
“They told me they wanted me to give the same tone I would give a caller if I was angry,” Francesa, who had never played a character other than himself before, explained. “They didn’t give me a script or anything, that’s just what they told me. They just said, ‘Listen, react the way you would to someone who you thought was bringing you some nutty stuff on the radio.’ I said, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And that was the tone I gave them.”
Said Josh Safdie of his novice performer: “He took direction very well, though I’ll admit, sometimes I wasn’t sure if he was paying attention -- I even felt like a caller who didn’t have his full undivided, getting that ‘right ... right ...’ But he’d surprise us and weave in the notes effortlessly in the following take.”
Since the film’s trailer debuted in September, Francesa’s appearance has been highly anticipated in the corner of Twitter where accounts like @backaftathis (which chronicled Francesa’s numerous on-air gaffes over recent years) are as popular as BuzzFeed or CNN. At a special New York Film Festival screening in October, Francesa appeared alongside Sandler, Garnett, the Safdies, and actress Julia Fox (a breakout performance as Sandler’s onscreen girlfriend) and received the biggest cheers outside of Sandler himself.
“I think they’ve had some fun with me being it -- from them putting me in the trailer, which they didn’t have to do, to in the movie, giving me billing, full screen,” Francesa said of the Safdies. “They were very generous to me.” Francesa said he’s open to doing more screen work, but thus far hasn’t gotten any calls. “If it does happen, I would be glad to talk,” he added.
In fact, the often cantankerous Francesa seems nothing but pleased with Uncut Gems and the experience of appearing in the film. But ask him about Howie’s bet, a sweaty, desperate stab to strike big, and the host who entertained listeners for thousands of hours over the course of four decades comes out.
“The bet was ridiculous. The bet was totally ridiculous,” Francesa said with a rise in his voice. “That’s part of the nature of it. This crazy SOB would come up with the craziest bet. He bets the opening tip as part of the parlay! The bet was so unbelievably insane.”
Uncut Gems is out in wide release on Christmas Day.
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