Austin Aaron is playing former Lakers big man Mark Landsberger in the new HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. The actor will first appear in the March 27 episode and his character will make a memorable entrance. Mark was part of the Lakers teams that won NBA Championships in 1980 and 1982.
HollywoodLife spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Aaron about tackling the role of Mark in the HBO series after his long recurring role on 13 Reasons Why. He also discussed working alongside Adrien Brody and his pathway to acting after starting out his college career as a Division 1 football player. Read our Q&A below:
Did you know about Mark [Landsberger] beforehand? Was that something that you were aware of and the whole Lakers dynasty?
Austin Aaron: I actually played college football at UC Berkeley up north, so I was a football guy my whole life but played baseball and basketball my whole life as well. I had not one idea who Mark Landsberger was, but when I when I booked it, I’m like, okay, I’m going to do every bit of research I can on this guy. And now he’s my favorite basketball player of all time, and I don’t think it’s close.
Did you reach out to him? Or were you able to speak with him?
Austin Aaron: I haven’t yet. I actually talked to our writer of the book, Jeff Pearlman, and he was like, ‘Okay, you reach out to him. Say this and everything.’ I definitely would love to meet him one day. I think he owns like a bakery in North Dakota or something now.
This show chronicles the rise of the Lakers dynasty, and there are so many major players in this. What was the audition process like for you?
Austin Aaron: I actually auditioned for this when I was on 13 Reasons Why in like 2019. They were like, ‘Okay, it’s probably going to be a recurring role or something like that.’ I turned it in in 2019 [and] never heard back. They shot the pilot, and then the pandemic and all that happened. I think it was last year, around March time, I got a call from my agent that [said], ‘Hey, they want to see you for this role again.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I totally remember doing this.’ I did the audition again, and then they’re like, ‘Alright, we want to see you in a producer session with Max and Rodney, our main executive producers.’ So I went in there and did the audition. They had me improv a bunch of stuff. And I was like, ‘Alright, this is just way too much fun.’ I heard a week later that Mark isn’t recurring for a month. He’s going to be serious regular, and you have a week to move down with your wife. It was just an absolute blessing. That’s when I did all the research on Mark. I was like, I gotta figure out who this guy is before I go down here.
Have you ever been told that you look like him because you really do…
Austin Aaron: Not really because no one really knows who exactly Mark Landsberger is unless they’re like a hardcore fan. Once I saw him I’m like, ‘Yeah, if I don’t get this, I’m gonna quit acting because this is really me.’
You mentioned you play college football. Did you have to do a lot of training for this show?
Austin Aaron: Big time. A lot of the days were harder than D-1 college football training at Cal. We had a trainer Idan Ravin that just kicked our butt. It was me and Quincy [Isaiah] and Delante [Desouza] and Solomon [Hughes]. Every day he would run us through all these crazy drills, and he’s taught freakin’ Steph Curry, LeBron James, you name it. We showed up and were like, we’re not that. We’re going to do our best, but he definitely worked us big time.
How are your basketball skills now after the training?
Austin Aaron: They’re a lot better. I’m 6’5. I can dunk. I’m a good athlete. So I definitely held my own, but I was a football guy. I can’t shoot that well. Mark Landsberger couldn’t shoot that well. He was just the greatest rebounder in Laker history. But he couldn’t shoot anything outside of two feet, so me and him fit very similar.
This is obviously very different than 13 Reasons Why. What was that like for you making that shift into something that does have its dramatic moment, but there’s so much comedy, too?
Austin Aaron: It was so much fun. I think every day on set, we were just going over so many very important but very dark issues on 13 Reasons Why, so it was just really nice to come to a set… I think the first day when Adam McKay was on set in the pilot, I think he really set the tone of, okay, this is how it’s going to be. It’s loose, it’s fun, it’s relaxed. I think, even if we’re going over really intense issues on our show, which we will get into, there’s always a light and laughter. That’s what my character brought, too. He’s the comedic relief, so everything I had to do or improv was just all comedy. It was a lot more fun, to be honest.
You’re acting alongside some pretty big legends — John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Sally Field. Who intimidated you the most at first?
Austin Aaron: Man, probably Adrien Brody. One hundred percent. Max Borenstein, one of our executive producers, he came up to me and it was like one of our first days on set. It was like two o’clock in the morning. I was absolutely exhausted. I wanted to go home at that point, and now he comes up to me. He’s like, ‘Alright, I want to have you do an improv scene with Adrien Brody. Just kind of go out there. He’s going to ask you something. Just see what happens.’ I’m like, this is an Oscar winner. I was a week away from quitting acting before this role. But I go out there and turns out he comes up to me at the wrap party where he’s like, ‘This was the funniest moment of the season by far.’ I don’t know if it’ll make it or whatever, but it was a really cool scene with him. And then afterward, I wasn’t scared of him as I was.
Had you dabbled in improv before? Or was this your first foray into it?
Austin Aaron: No, no, not at all. I think a big part of it is just staying relaxed and staying loose and seeing what’s going to come to you. But I’ve read so many books over the past year, just kind of trying to dive into the true art of improv because I knew absolutely nothing, and then seeing on this show how much the producers and directors are like, ‘Okay, do this. Throw this in there. We’re gonna start the scene like this.’ It’s a lot of just go with it. I’ve definitely dove into a lot of different books and videos and everything to try to figure out some craft in the offseason.
What can you sort of tease about Mark’s debut?
Austin Aaron: He’ll come in with a bang. It’s probably gonna be funny. You’ll probably have a smile on your face. But I hope whatever people see me in throughout the show, I hope people are just laughing and smiling because I think that’s really, really important. I think that’s what Mark brought to the team. He wasn’t the best player. He wasn’t Kareem or Magic, but you don’t stay on a team for four-plus years and win two championships if you don’t bring significant value. He is one of the best rebounders in the history of the game, but what I think he brought — and I talked to Jeff Pearlman about this — so much laughter and joy to the team. I think that relaxed all the guys and helped ultimately win games. I hope people do that with my character and my portrayal of him.
What is his backstory? What is his relationship with Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]?
Austin Aaron: I couldn’t tell you honestly. He was just a goofball. They were just laughing at him all the time. I don’t know if it was laughing at him or with him or whatever. But I think they kind of fell out towards the end because there’s this big… if you read the book there’s this big storyline about how he outed all the Lakers for cheating on their wives, and then he ultimately got traded. Hopefully, that’s down the line. Hopefully, they still like them somewhat. Like I said, he owns a bakery in North Dakota now. So hopefully they’ll stop by the bakery every now and then. I definitely want to go at some point.
Quincy and Solomon are two of your co-stars. What’s it been like working alongside them and creating this, no pun intended, magic?
Austin Aaron: I was a heavy recurring on 13 [Reasons Why], but this is our first series regular job, like you’re working every day. Me, Quincy, Solomon, Delante, we’re all going through this together. Jimel [Atkins] is playing Jamaal Wilkes. It’s really cool to go through this whole process. All these guys were at my wedding a few months ago. They’re absolutely friends for life. Not just coworkers, but guys that you can reach out to whenever and true friends. I’m so excited to be on this journey with them because they’re all incredible people.
I find it so fascinating that you were a college football player, and then you segued into acting. How did that happen? Did you always want to be an actor?
Austin Aaron: I did a skit my senior year of high school for homecoming where I played Troy Bolton, and our little crowd went wild at the rallies. I love entertaining. I got to the next level in college football and I’m like, I’m not fast enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m not going to the league, which I thought I was. I’m gonna get out. I don’t care if I’m on a full-ride scholarship. I’ll find a way to help my parents pay for college. So I gave up a full-ride scholarship in the coach’s office and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I hate the game. I’m depressed. I don’t want to play it anymore because I realized I love entertaining.’ I always had a dream about being an actor since I was a kid and watched so many amazing movies with my parents. I’m like, let’s go after it while I have no money, and let’s see what happens during this time where I don’t have the pressure of providing for kids or that different chapter that comes in your life. That’s what got me, and then I had one line on one of the episodes for 13 [Reasons Why], and they’re like, ‘Okay, we like you. We’re gonna bring you back.’ And then that turned into recurring for two years when I was in all the episodes. That’s how I got started, and I don’t want to do anything else.