The Actor Details How He Got the Role of Larry Bird in the HBO Sports Drama
Of all the people Sean Patrick Small could have expected to thank for landing the breakout television role of a lifetime, Bo Burnham is probably one of the least likely.
Alas, when the comedian’s departure from the acclaimed HBO series “Winning Time” was announced, Burnham’s abdication from the role of basketball legend Larry Bird left a void that Small was almost certainly destined to fill. As they say, that’s showbiz.
Following the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers in the late 1970s and ‘80s, the primetime series focuses on the infamous rivalry between two legends: a young Magic Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah) and Boston Celtics power forward Larry Bird. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall, Small’s resemblance to a young Bird, in both face and build, is uncanny. And after spending seven years writing and pitching a biopic-turned-miniseries centering on Bird’s early career, Small already knew the character like the back of his hand when he got wind of the part.
“The timeframe worked out perfectly because ‘Winning Time’ was starting off from [Bird’s] rookie season in the NBA,” says Small. “I’d been doing all this work on his backstory, so it was like—oh, I have all of this in my back pocket, I know exactly who this person is, which ended up being incredibly beneficial.” Additionally, Small himself had been a basketball player in high school, which was also when he first became interested in acting.
Growing up in the Silicon Valley area, Small had dipped his toe into theater, auditioning for his school’s troupe, Broken Box, and cutting his teeth on roles like that of Tybalt in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” As an undeclared major at UC Davis, Small wasn’t banking on a career in acting. Thinking he might pursue winemaking and viticulture—his family had once owned and operated a half-acre vineyard in Los Altos Hills that produced a boutique supply of cabernet sauvignon—Small auditioned for a short film and took the lead role.
“It was a way different experience than I’d had with theater,” says Small. “The camera is right in your face; you don’t have to perform for the people sitting in the back row. The director was always telling me, ‘If you just think about [something], it’ll come across on camera,’ which is something I’d never thought about before as an actor.”
After trying on different hats (both on- and off-screen), Small discovered that his calling was in the film industry and transferred to the USC film program. In 2018, Small received international recognition for his lead role in “The Just”—showcasing his gritty portrayal of a desperate young man who burglarizes a house and is held captive by its owner, forcing him to craft an opportunity to escape after facing off with a crooked police officer seeking to frame him. “When I got the role, I was like: okay, I’m prepared for this moment. I’ve honed my craft, there’s a method I’m using to get into this character’s mindset.” To prepare for shooting, Small recalls that he didn’t eat or sleep the day before arriving on set. That allowed him to fully step into the shoes of his character—to experience the hunger and motivation behind the actions of his on-screen counterpart. The work paid off.
The crime drama (editor’s note: the short was written and directed by the author of this piece) premiered to a packed theater at Regal Cinemas in downtown Los Angeles, and Small’s haunting performance earned major acclaim in the festival circuit with an array of Best Actor wins and nominations; the film was also celebrated in cities throughout the US, Canada and across Europe. “It was really validating,” Small recalls. “I realized: okay, people get it; people really see the work that’s been put in.”
But in 2020, everyone’s favorite global pandemic put the brakes on film production, leaving artists of all kinds without steady work. A film Small had planned to shoot was shelved, and the prospect of a career pivot began to feel necessary, despite the taste of success that he’d experienced. After marrying his longtime love later that year (the pair also welcomed a son in October 2022), Small considered putting acting on hold. “I had done things that I felt good about,” Small explains, “but I [started to question] where is this all going to lead?” And that’s when he got the call that would change everything.
Two weeks after finding out he’d nabbed the role of Larry Bird, Small found himself on the HBO set, working with Director Adam McKay and outfitted in a retro white and green Celtics uniform, accessorized with Bird’s iconic mustache and Midwestern Indiana drawl. Small jumped in midstream on season one, working with renowned NBA trainer Idan Ravin to hone in on Bird’s physicality and agility on the basketball court. “Winning Time,” also starring John C. Reilly, Sally Field and Jason Segel, premiered in 2022 to critical success. Season two is set to premiere later this year.
After nearly quitting the business, Small says he’s fortunate to have this role that seems tailor-made for him.
“Bird had a hustle mindset where he just never stopped,” Small explains. “His motor was constantly going, and I approach everything with that mentality now. Everything is deliberate; there’s no wasted movement.”
Based in Los Angeles, Kandace has spent the past ten years in the fashion and lifestyle space, and recently in entertainment at Sony Pictures Studios. She has a Masters in Journalism from Emerson College and has studied in Paris, Firenze, and Washington DC, beginning her career as a style editor and tastemaker for NBC. She is an internationally award-winning filmmaker, having studied screenwriting for film and television at UCLA, and her work has been celebrated around the world, in cities like London, Nice, New York, and Montréal. Paying homage to her French heritage, she is also the creator of The Chic American--a style and culture editorial destination for Francophiles, dedicated to the art of living an elevated, French-inspired lifestyle.