Inspired by the life of NFL player Spencer Paysinger, The CW drama series All American follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a rising high school football player whose promising talent leads football coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) to recruit him from South Crenshaw High to join the team at Beverly High School in Beverly Hills. Once there, Spencer has to learn how to navigate two worlds – the southside neighborhood that he knows and loves and the affluent Beverly Hills world that feels so foreign to him – while taking advantage of the opportunity that will help him accomplish his dreams.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Daniel Ezra talked about the unexpected journey that’s led him from the UK to an American TV series about football, how often people are shocked when they hear him talk with his natural accent, getting to know the real Spencer, how the show is really starting to find its voice, how nerve-wracking it is to wait on the Season 2 renewal, and what he’s most excited about, with what’s still to come this season. He also talked about his role on the sci-fi series A Discovery of Witches, and whether he’ll be returning to that series, which has been picked up for Seasons 2 and 3.
Collider: I’m a big fan of the show, which took me by surprise because I am very much not a football person and I often feel like I’m too old for high school shows. But this show is just such quality storytelling that none of that mattered, when I started watching it.
DANIEL EZRA: Fantastic! That means a lot. Thank you so much. That’s so good to hear.
Great storytelling is great storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a fan of the subject, if there isn’t great storytelling.
EZRA: I felt the same way, coming from the UK, where American football is just another thing, and high school is very different. My first reason for wanting to do it was how, even as someone from the other side of the world, I connected with it
As a Brit, could you ever have imagined that you’d find yourself leading a TV show about American football?
EZRA: No. Actors always visualize their careers, and the things they want to do, but never did I think I’d be on a show about American football. And when they told me the title, we were half-way through the pilot when they said, “I think we’re gonna call it All American,” I was just like, “Oh, my god!” I just felt like such an imposter. It was crazy! But one of the positives is that it definitely made me work a lot harder. Being the outsider from this world made me more determined to look and sound and fill the part.
Were your friends and family like, “Hey, man, what are you doing?!”?
EZRA: My family was more uplifting than I was because one of my first roles was playing a boxer, and I had never really done boxing before, so they’ve seen me have to go and learn new skills. But yeah, they were a bit like, “You’re gonna go and play American football?” They knew I grew up playing basketball, but when I started acting, I stopped sports completely. But they had a lot of faith in me.
How often are people shocked, when they learn that you’re not American, especially when you pull off the accent so well? Do people ever freak out, when they hear you talk?
EZRA: Yeah, the majority of my Instagram messages are people blown away by the fact that I’m British. It’s the accent, but it’s also such an American show, with the title and the football. We’re talking about some very relevant issues in America today, so the last thing they’re expecting is that. So, when I do interviews and press in my own accent, some people are surprised and shocked, but I think it’s a compliment. My rule for accents is that you haven’t really mastered it until you can convince a native that you’re from where they’re from. That’s a good sign.
You’re also in the first season of A Discovery of Witches, which I really loved, as clearly many other people have, since it’s already been picked up for a second and third season. What was the appeal of that series and character, for you? Are you someone who is, personally, a sci-fi fan?
EZRA: Yes. I grew up on Harry Potter and Philip Pullman books, which are these incredible books about witches and demons, and things like that. As a kid, I was a huge fantasy fan, a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, and all that stuff. One of the big things was that I’d never done the fantasy genre before. I’ve done period dramas and modern stuff, but I’d never done fantasy before, so when that came along, that was the big draw. As an actor, you always want to challenge yourself and try out different genres. The biggest pull is to try to do something new, that’s far away from anything else that I’ve done before. With All American, it was the same thing. I’d never done an American show before, and I got to do American football. So, it was cool to do something different, and I’m looking forward to going back for the second season.
So, you’re going to be able to go back for Season 2?
EZRA: Yeah. Luckily, fate worked out. While we’re on hiatus, I’m gonna go back and film.
Very cool! I love that show because it’s such a different take on that kind of genre.
EZRA: Yeah, I agree. And every character is complex. I love it when shows are steeped in this really well thought out world, with so much history. That’s my favorite thing about the show. We get to talk about all of this stuff that happened thousands of years ago, and how it all lead up to this moment. That’s always my favorite thing about these kinds of shows, and that’s something we do really well in A Discovery of Witches.
One of the cool things about All American is that you’ve got a real guy that you’re playing, who you can get to know and who’s involved with the show. What’s it been like for you to get to know the real Spencer, and have this opportunity to bring a version of him to life?
EZRA: It was a really beautiful thing ‘cause when I got the part, I didn’t how involved he was gonna be. I taped in London, and then when they flew me out for the screen test, he wasn’t at that audition. But then, he ended up being on set, every day, for the pilot, and he actually plays one of the assistant coaches on the show. So, anytime you we have football, he’s around. He’s always popping in the office. He’s a consulting producer, so he’s always in the writers’ room. The show’s authenticity and the truthfulness that we’re going for is never really a worry for anybody ‘cause everything goes through Spencer. The barbershop that we filmed at was the barbershop where he got his hair cut. The park where we filmed was where he used to play. It’s all based on these real places. Even when we do take artistic license, it’s still always rooted in this man’s life, so having him there, as that support system, has been invaluable. I would go and ask him questions about certain things, like, “Where was your was your head, when this kind of thing was happening? What were you thinking, at this point in time?” He was great. He never imposed anything. He always let me have the freedom to do my own thing, but always made himself completely available whenever I needed him, and that was not just for me but for the story.