When Ben Affleck met with Michael Jordan about Air, the director’s new movie that highlights a key moment in the basketball icon’s story, Jordan had one request. “Viola Davis. That’s my mom,” the filmmaker recalled to The Hollywood Reporter of what Jordan told him.
Air, the story of how Michael Jordan’s family and a group of executives at Nike revolutionized the business with one historic sneaker deal, premiered Saturday at the South by Southwest film festival, ahead of Amazon releasing it wide theatrically April 5. In addition to Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan, the movie also stars Matt Damon, Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman as execs at Nike, Affleck as Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight and Davis’s real-life husband, Julius Tennon, as Jordan’s dad.
For Davis, who shot the movie after completing her grueling Woman King shoot, the character of Deloris was the draw.
“Mothers are the most important figures in anybody’s life, so I was very flattered and deeply moved to be asked to play Michael’s mother,” Davis told THR. “I know Michael Jordan but didn’t know that Deloris brokered this deal to get him a huge stake in the shoe and in turn, protected her son’s legacy. I wanted to know more about this woman who had the strength and courage to fight for her son’s worth. For Deloris to have this insight and progressive vision, to stand her ground in the negotiation room – which I know can be the hardest part of the job – makes her an incredible woman. That made me lean into this project.”
In an early version of the script, before Affleck met with Jordan, the Deloris character was minimal, he said. But sparked by Jordan’s input—and boosted by the advice of Affleck’s wife, Jennifer Lopez, the filmmaker began to see Deloris as the key to the story, and expanded the role.
One of Davis’s pivotal scenes is a phone call between Deloris and Damon’s character, Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike exec who is trying to sign her son to a contract. The scene is seven pages in the script, which Affleck shot with four cameras on each actor.
“I want to play the scene so they can get up, they can do whatever they want, they can move around,” Affleck said. “We did two takes and I said, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. I’m done. If you want to go again, I’ll shoot all day.’ [Davis] went, she watched the playback. When she came out, it was the first time I saw her smile and I just felt like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was the most lovely, rewarding moment.”