If you happened to catch the new Adam Sandler film “Hustle” on Netflix over the weekend — as many did, judging by the fact it immediately shot to #1 on the streamer — you might have been intrigued by the actor starring opposite the comedy legend. Sandler plays a Philadelphia 76ers scout named Stanley Sugarman who believes he’s found the next NBA star in Bo Cruz, a temperamental Spanish player who is more than a little rough around the edges. For the role of Cruz, director Jeremiah Zagar needed to find a great actor who could also play basketball. As it turned out, he found Juancho Hernangómez, an NBA player for the Utah Jazz who, in his acting debut, turns out to be a major onscreen presence.
The 26-year-old Hernangómez is in good company — the film features numerous cameos and performances from other players including Anthony Edwards, Dirk Nowitzki and Boben Marjanović, and counts LeBron James as a producer. But the newcomer more than holds his own against the excellent Sandler, portraying his character’s struggles and secrets with both depth and charisma.
Hernangómez was born into basketball: Both his parents were players, his brother Willy plays for the New Orleans Pelicans and his sister plays for Estudiantes youth team in Spain. And while basketball will always be his first love, Hernangómez is also enjoying the rave reviews for his side gig as an actor.
You’ve never acted before – is it something you’ve thought about? How did this part come to you?
It’s funny. I never wanted to act, it wasn’t my dream. It’s still not my dream. My agent called me before COVID trying to get me to do an audition for the movie but I was focused on basketball at the time. I told him no for like five months. But then COVID hits, basketball stops and I have nothing else to do. I was in quarantine at my brother’s place and so bored. It was my sister who pushed me to do the audition.
So in a way we have COVID to thank for your acting career?
I guess. That’s the only good thing COVID brought.
Would you consider yourself an Adam Sandler fan before this?
I definitely watched all his movies and thought he was funny. But again, I wasn’t thinking too much about actors and movies, it’s always been about basketball for me.
What was the audition process like?
I think there were two or three audition calls over Zoom. Adam was there from the start, he was watching all the calls and the very last one was with him. Then they told me I had to come to Philly in the summertime and they put me in touch with an acting coach. Her name is Noëlle Gentile and as soon as I met her, she was one of the best people I ever met. She worked so much with me, all summer we were doing three or four zoom calls a week. Everything I did right was because of her. She gave me homework, we played games, she had my write letters to my father and my daughter in character.
She helped me not just through acting, but through life. She taught me to love and give my best to the people around me. She was always so positive and she would push me to keep going. She really got me to open my heart and love and trust her. She’s one person who’s going to be in my life forever. Whatever she needs, I’m going to be there.
Once you booked the part, did they change the script at all to reflect your story?
No, the script was already there. But we are a lot alike. I’ve been through a lot, I know how hard it is to get from Europe to the States to fight for your dream. I know how hard it is when they tell you no and you feel you’ve failed in life.
What were the hardest scenes for you to shoot?
Actually, the basketball scenes! I mean, I’m used to playing basketball but it was hard doing it over and over again and then waiting 30 minutes to change cameras. I’d sit down and have to warm up all over again. The stopping and starting was strange.
So the emotional scenes or ones where you’re fighting with Adam came easier to you?
Yeah, I liked those ones! The one where we’re fighting and I grab his shirt was fun. It’s really easy when you know somebody as good as we know each other and you have a trust, you can do whatever you want. When they said cut we just laugh and hug and know how much we love each other.
I know Adam loves to improvise – were you up for improvising in the film?
I love to improvise! Jeremiah gave us so much freedom to do whatever we want, whatever we feel. I think that’s one of the keys to the movie, was that freedom.
Which is harder: playing professional basketball or acting?
I guess the big difference is acting is something new every day. So one day, you’ve got to cry. Another day, you have to try and kill Adam. In basketball, it’s about routine.
I know basketball is your first love, but are you open to doing more acting?
I don’t know. For now, I’m focused on basketball, but you never know. I’m never going to say I wouldn’t do something. I never expected two years ago to be talking about being in a movie. If Adam and Jeremiah call me, I would do it for sure.
What do you love about basketball?
It’s just in my blood. It’s given me so much and I owe it so much. I feel like basketball brings people together. I can go to any country — Africa, Spain, United States — and you’ll find people playing the same sport. And they become a friend. I love the game.