Up-and-Comer of the Month: ‘High Flying Bird’ Star Melvin Gregg

     February 22, 2019

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When I went to see Steven Soderbergh‘s Netflix drama High Flying Bird, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that it was about an agent in the middle of an NBA lockout, it was shot on an iPhone, and it starred André Holland, who worked with Soderbergh on The Knick. I left wowed by his performance, but also impressed by the top draft pick his character was representing in the film. I was curious… who was that young actor? It turns out I’d see him before, and on Netflix to boot, as one of the stars of the second season of American Vandal. His name is Melvin Gregg and I thought he brought a lot of poise to the character of Erick Scott. Not only do you instantly believe him as a professional athlete on the rise, but he acquits himself well in his romantic scenes with Zazie Beetz. The rhythms of a Soderbergh film aren’t for everyone but Gregg did a great job with what I expect to be a breakout role for the actor, which is why he’s Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month.

Gregg’s background is in comedy, but he really impressed me with his dramatic chops in High Flying Bird. Sure, his height (6’2″) helped win him the role, but his basketball skills didn’t even really come into play, as there is little basketball action in the movie. Instead, it’s about the game behind the game — the tug of war between owners and players — and the agents caught in the middle. The film (and the accompanying chance to work with Soderbergh) is a big break for Gregg, who has already capitalized on the momentum it has brought his career. He recently wrapped a role in Gavin O’Connor‘s untitled basketball drama starring Ben Affleck, and he’s currently working with John Singleton on a top secret project.

I had a great time chatting with Gregg, whose background in marketing served him well in this interview, given how High Flying Bird doesn’t really play by the traditional rules. You can tell he has a good head on his shoulders, which should serve him well in this industry for years to come. Get to know him below, because he’s not going anywhere, especially if he continues working with respected filmmakers like Soderbergh, Singleton and O’Connor.

Collider: What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to get into this crazy business?

Melvin Gregg: I was always into it as a kid. I felt like if I was performing I could be outside of myself. I was more comfortable being somebody other than myself, I guess, and wearing a mask. I was just always into telling stories, but I didn’t really take it serious until I was in college in an acting class. I just really liked it. I guess you could say I was attracted to that more than any of the other things I was studying in school, so I just put a plan together to move to LA. I studied acting for like, two years in Virginia, doing whatever work I could find there, but it wasn’t very good work. It was re-enactment stuff, nothing really good. So I left and moved to LA, and that was 2011. I got to LA and just hit the ground running.

How important was social media in terms of your early career? 

Gregg: Well, I moved out here to act. I’d probably been studying acting since 2008. I moved out here in 2011 and was doing commercials, student films, independent films, anything I could. Whatever projects I could get. My first film was a Netflix film, but that was in 2013, so it was kind of a different thing. Netflix was a little different then than it is now. But I just felt like it wasn’t moving fast enough, and I needed to gain some type of leverage so I could be more valuable to a production, because without any type of leverage, it’s me versus 100,000 people. I saw social media as a creative outlet and realized I was able to gain a following on social media. I’ve got a marketing background and knew there’d be enough money there so I could stop working all these odd jobs I was working just to pay my bills. The money could be there and I could gain a following, and it’d be based off of something that I grew up doing — just making content and goofing around. So I approached it in that way and was able to create content, gain a following, and put myself in a different position once I felt like I had gained enough leverage and stability. I never fully moved away from acting, I just kind of diverted my focus to social media for 2-3 years, and at that point I realized I should target my focus back towards my initial goal.

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Image via Netflix

How you were cast in High Flying Bird, and how Steven Soderbergh explained the project to you at the outset?

Gregg: It was a traditional audition process. I got the audition, prepared it, went in and auditioned, got a callback, came back and auditioned again. Both auditions were with the casting director, Carmen Cuba. I hadn’t met Soderbergh or the writer or any of the producers. Both of my auditions were with her and she sent my tape over. They called and first, of course, they said they wanted to pin me, saying I was one of the choices. Then they called back and gave me the offer for the project. I still hadn’t met Steven. I met with André Holland, who was the lead but also the executive producer, so I sat down with him and we talked about the project, talked about the script, and talked about what he wanted out of it. We met a few times before production started, and I met Steven the night or two before we started filming, at the kickoff party in New York.

Did you have any reservations about shooting on an iPhone or were you kind of used to it given your social media background? Or was it really the kind of situation where you would’ve shot on a Polaroid camera if Soderbergh had asked.

Gregg: I didn’t know! I thought it was a traditional film. They didn’t tell anybody until we got to set, and when I got to set, the first thing I saw was the iPhone. At first, I was… not skeptical, because Steven is an amazing talent… but it’s like, oh my God, my big break! This big movie, and all I see is this iPhone, which I’ve been shooting on for the last five years. I’m like, I can’t escape it! I was just questioning a lot of things. Did they cast me because of social media, and are they pushing this towards social media? I just didn’t really know what to think, but then I had to pull myself together and look at it from a different perspective and see the blessing in all of it. To see someone as talented and accomplished as Soderbergh doing something with the same resources that I had, it kind of gives me no excuse to move forward in regards to creating things, but also learning. I just looked at it as an opportunity to really learn and to see one of best directors of our generation work on an iPhone, something that I have access to. Not just me, but everybody in the world. When you’re on set and you see all these big camera rigs, and it’s like, ‘I could probably do this but I don’t have that stuff,’ but with him shooting on an iPhone, it’s like, ‘OK, who am I? I’ve gotta get to work.’ And then, outside of that, I’m comfortable in front of the iPhone, but it might have been different for the other actors, especially the more tenured actors. But I’ve been shooting on iPhone for the last six years so it was kind of comfortable.

Did you have a favorite Soderbergh before you started shooting? Were you a fan?

Gregg: Yeah, I’m a fan of all the Ocean’s films. I recently watched Logan Lucky and I really liked it. It’s so underrated. It’s really underrated. I was telling [Steven] at the premiere that I had the opportunity to work with Kevin Hart in Hawaii maybe 2-3 years ago and my whole idea for the sketch was based on the Ocean’s franchise. It had the same kind of thing with the heist, where at the end it’s revealed that all the pieces were moved earlier. I was telling him, ‘I’ve gotta send it to you, I’ve gotta send it to you. I made this way before I even met you.’ So yeah, I guess I would have to say the Ocean’s franchise is my favorite.

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Image via Netflix

Have you received any feedback from athletes yet, because I’m very curious what their reactions would be, and if this film has given them any ideas.

Gregg: I’m interested to get feedback from athletes. I haven’t yet, but I would’ve had to get them through like, Twitter. I don’t have Instagram on my phone. I post and then I put it away. But I haven’t been out much either. It’d be interesting to get the perspective of the athletes though. I do have a friend I went to high school with, Vernon Macklin who plays overseas now, but he was drafted during in 2011, which was the lockout class. He was telling me, ‘this is crazy because I was drafted during a lockout,’ so I got his perspective, but that’s really it.

Do you remember the last NBA lockout and what you felt as a fan of the game?

Gregg: I didn’t really see it as in depth as the movie articulates to the audience, I just thought, ‘alright, they’re not playing for whatever reason.’ But I didn’t go into thinking ‘oh, the players aren’t getting paid, there’s something else going on here. It’s a conspiracy, it’s business over sports.’ And I feel like a lot of the world, they don’t really see that either. They just think, ‘alright, they’re not playing. Whatever. Cool. I’ll find something else to do with my time.’ People don’t realize these guys support their families, and things have to come to a standstill until they’re figured out.

Are there any actors you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?

Gregg: I’ve thought about this a lot, and there’s nobody’s career I would want to emulate. I want to do what’s best for me, and I want to be able to offer what I feel I can offer the industry. I can’t really say any particular person whose career I want to mirror, but of course there are a lot of actors I look up to, and if I could have a career as successful, or even half as successful as theirs, I would be lucky. Will Smith and Denzel Washington. I grew up with those guys as my favorites. Ben Affleck. I’m a big Christian Bale fan. I love Christian Bale. Tom Hardy. Leonardo DiCaprio, of course. I guess you would say the typical favorites, but they’re the typical favorites for a reason. I fall into line when it comes to being a fan.

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Image via Netflix

What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your career thus far?

It’s weird, because it’d be things that people wouldn’t expect. I guess it would be meeting Will Smith. I grew up idolizing Will Smith and I met him when I was an extra for the Jimmy Kimmel show. We were shooting a sketch, it was like a fake spoof trailer for a movie that didn’t exist, but they were shooting it because Will Smith was promoting After Earth. So I had a chance to meet him and it was different because I was new to LA, so to meet Will Smith was incredible. Another cool moment was when I was an extra in Star Trek with Zachary Quinto, who’s actually in High Flying Bird. I feel like my real pinch-me moments came from before I had any type of success in the industry, because I was just a kid from Virginia getting into this world that seemed bigger than life. After being here for a while, it kind of feels more grounded to me now, but at that point, everything felt like I was watching a movie in real life. I guess you could say it was more exciting.

Are there any directors you’re eager to work with now that you’ve worked with a legend like Soderbergh?

I just want to continue to work with dope people, not just the legends. Of course, I’d love to work with them, but to be able to work with new up-and-comers. I’ve been fortunate so far to work with great directors. Steven Caple Jr., who just did Creed II, I met him at USC and worked with him early on. I’ve been able to work with Soderbergh. I just worked with Gavin O’Connor on a basketball movie. I’m working right now with John Singleton. I’ve been fortunate to work with dope directors so I just want to continue to work and hopefully the universe puts me with the people I should be with. I don’t even want to try and call it out and own it now. I just want to be comfortable, if that makes sense.

I know you studied marketing at Old Dominion, so what’s your take on Soderbergh’s attitude towards marketing, because High Flying Bird obviously doesn’t have a ton of marketing, and I know Steven has personally felt he could get away with alternate forms of marketing models on films like Logan Lucky. What do you make of the way things are these days?

I feel like what Steven does is smart. It’s creative marketing. He goes outside and challenges the traditional sense of what marketing is, which is what they teach you in school, and what I learned in school, even though it’s completely in void now because in the social media-driven digital age, a lot of marketing is online now, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago. It’s just a whole other world. But when it comes to marketing a film, I feel like it’s a weird place for that because your traditional sense of marketing really doesn’t work the way it did before, like going on all the late night shows, doing all of the press runs. You really don’t reach as many people as you would have, since the most popular late night show is doing a fifth of the ratings that they were doing 5-6 years ago, so you have to try and figure out a new way to reach the people, and there are a lot of different, experimental ways that are going on right now. A lot of people are doing a lot of different things.

They’re doing influencer screenings, they’re doing activations. I’ve been part of campaigns where they hire me to do a sketch for a movie to try and promote the movie to my audience, so I feel like what Soderbergh did was, he used the fact that the movie was shot on an iPhone and doing something different. He created a project that he knew was going to create conversation, and that was the marketing on this project. It was something that people were going to talk about, whether they were talking about shooting it on the iPhone or Soderbergh doing a film that goes straight to Netflix, or [talking about] the context of the film, which is going against the system. That’s what he actually did! What he did was parallel to what André Holland’s character did in the film. He went against the system and took it straight to Netflix, which is what André threatened to do in the film. Except Soderbergh actually did it, and I feel like doing something as different as that is going to cause conversation, which is the most organic form of marketing.

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Image via Netflix

At 6’2″, do you feel like your height gives you an advantage when it comes to auditions? Does it help get you into the room?

When it comes to basketball stuff, I definitely feel like it plays a part. It’s the perfect height to play an athlete, because you’re fairly tall, but you’re not so tall that it’d be hard to shoot you next to another actor. I feel like it’s definitely an advantage when it comes to basketball projects. If I was 5’9″, I probably wouldn’t have been able to be in American Vandal or be cast in High Flying Bird or the Gavin O’Connor film, or anything that requires me to be an athlete. It’s a pretty cool height. I’m fortunate to be 6’2, because I can play the athlete but not so tall that I can’t play your average guy.

Do you have a favorite team and did you grow up playing basketball?

Gregg: I grew up playing but I was never really super serious about it. I just played for fun, I didn’t aspire to be a professional athlete. But yeah, I definitely grew up playing basketball and I was always a Lakers fan. Ironically, I live in LA now, but I’m from Virginia and we don’t have a team, so everybody kind of just picks a random team and my team was always the Lakers.

Do you play ball here in LA?

Not so much now. I did before, it’s just a hazard playing out here, man. People take it a little serious. I’ve seen people get their knees gashed open. I’ve rolled ankles and not been able to audition for projects, or walked around with a limp. So when I do play I kind of take it easy.

I noticed you don’t currently have a manager. Is that a conscious decision on your part at this point of your career?

It’s a conscious decision. I know starting off, I was hands on with a lot of my stuff when it came to the digital space, because I understood marketing, and the space was so new, I felt like nobody really understood it the way that I could understand it because I was in it and I had friends who were in it. But I had intel coming from all directions, whereas a manager would’ve had to come through different filters, I guess you could say, but when I started to move more into the traditional space, I was like let me try to find a manager, someone who has connections in this space, on this court, where I really don’t have any connections or plugs. I was with Untitled and they were great. They paired me with different people and helped me find an agency, but as of now, I kind of just feel like I’ve learned the lay of the land to the point where I understand where I want to go and how I want to get there, and I know exactly what I want and what I don’t want. I’m really good at managing myself, and if I get to a point where I realize I can’t handle it, maybe I’ll get an assistant or something who can manage that situation. But my team at CAA is amazing when it comes to everything that an agency is supposed to be, so if I move forward with getting a manager again, it’d be more of a producing partner rather than a day to day manager who calls you and sets up things and coordinates your schedule, stuff like that.

What’s next for you besides that top secret John Singleton project?

I probably shouldn’t have said that. I don’t think I’m able to talk about it yet. But I’m working on a project right now, and the Gavin O’Connor project is probably coming towards the end of the year. I’m working on something else. I’m looking for an indie. I want to do a dope indie film, and outside of that, I’m working on different scripts and development projects myself, things I can put out and distribute myself, like I did before in the digital space. I’m just working on something like that as well, just working on keeping things coming out.

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Image via Netflix

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Image via Netflix

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