Quincy Isaiah Tames the Fame Monster

The Winning Time star discusses getting his mind right in order to play Magic Johnson, and how he relates to Ted Lasso’s toxic positivity.

Photographs by Lea Winkler

Quincy Isaiah as Ted Lasso from 'Ted Lasso.' Isaiah wears Ox and Bulls Leather Company.

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Earlier this year, Quincy Isaiah found himself in a car headed for Beverly Hills. Although mere months before, he'd made his very first appearance on-screen, in the breakout role of Magic Johnson for Adam McKay's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, the Muskegon, Michigan, native had been selected for the Hollywood Reporter Drama Actor Roundtable, giving him a chance to sit down for a conversation with legends like Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Brian Cox. "To be in that room was crazy," Isaiah tells me in May, from his residence in L.A. "I'm still processing it." Isaiah's portrayal of Johnson in the HBO Max basketball drama, which chronicles the Los Angeles Lakers' "Showtime" era, may have been his introduction to a major acting project, but the role made it eminently clear he belonged among the roundtable’s Hollywood heavyweights. "It was an opportunity to just geek out over the craft of acting with people who have been doing it for years," he recalls. "That don't happen that often."

Prior to landing Winning Time, Isaiah had spent years going on auditions and turning up with nothing. "That was really tough," he says. "When I decided to chase the dream of being an actor, I felt like I might get a few guest stars here and there. Maybe I'd get a series regular part and work my way up to becoming an established actor." Instead, he found himself on billboards all across L.A. and at bus stops in New York, starring in the series alongside the likes of Gaby Hoffmann, John C. Reilly, and Adrien Brody. He suddenly entered a "new wave of exposure that I never experienced before," he adds, but it only made him want to perfect his craft. "I was inspired to be like, Okay, I gotta get to work more. I gotta do better. I gotta study more. And that's what I love. I just want to earn my spot, that's all." As he gears up for season 2 of Winning Time, the actor discusses binge-watching Ted Lasso, and details how he chose to integrate therapy into his preparation for the role of a lifetime.

To play Magic Johnson, you had to get into physical shape—but you also went to therapy ahead of time. Why?

I wanted to have a good foundation and address some things in my past—make sure that I'm good and healthy emotionally, and understand myself more. Being able to talk to somebody who’s unbiased, having another pair of eyes, another brain, a set of ears to listen helps you through things. Booking this role was a major thing that I needed to wrap my mind around and understand what was about to happen. Everybody kept telling me: Your life is about change. I understood where it was coming from, and I also understood that all this new stuff was going to open so many doors. I don't know if, without therapy, I would've been able to embrace that newfound—I don't want to call it fame, but interest in me. This journey is about making sure that I can be as me as possible.

Did you watch any of the episodes of Winning Time that made it onto television?

Multiple times—I'm not gonna lie. But since the finale aired, I'm trying to look forward to season 2 and other projects. It's good to have something else to focus on and not critique yourself too much. Some scenes I don't watch, though. I will admit that I fast-forward through them.

McKay often directs characters to break the fourth wall. Did you have any idea that the final cut of Winning Time would be the way it turned out, especially tonally?

I knew it would be fun, based on the way that we shot it. Seeing the final product, I think they did exactly what they needed to do. You know, a lot of scenes didn’t make the cut. For me, it's been a trust fall: trusting that they know what they're doing. And they do.

Quincy Isaiah as Ted Lasso from 'Ted Lasso.' Isaiah wears Ox & Bulls Leather Company.

You've chosen Ted Lasso as your character to re-create. When did you first start watching the show?

About a month ago. People had talked about it, and I saw it won a bunch of Emmys. Going into it, you're like, All right, this is gonna be a fun 30-minute comedy. Right away, you learn the premise of him leaving, and you're like, Wait—something isn't right. Then you find out he's going through a divorce and all these things are going on with this team. I thought it was brilliant, the way they touched on therapy in there too, talking about mental health, toxic positivity, and not addressing the issues in your life—and how they can come up physically sometimes. You love his character, and you want him to realize that he doesn't have to put up this shield all the time. You want him to be more open about his feelings. If most people would do that, I think we would have better communication and fewer misunderstandings. But the other great part of the show is, you can dissect it, or you can just watch it and not think too deeply about it.

Which way do you prefer to watch Ted Lasso?

I gotta pay so much attention to it. I watch it with subtitles—I can't miss a line. If I miss a line, I rewind it. I love comedy; that's my thing. I mean, I love my drama, don't get me wrong. That's where I want to make my living, but I definitely have a heart for comedy. I want to do both—and the darker stuff, too.

What is your dream drama role and your dream comedy role?

I've said King [Richard] Pryor multiple times. But also just a person: a teacher, because teachers don't get nearly enough credit for what they do and how tough their jobs are. And for a comedy role, something with a lot of makeup. Something where I get to wear a fat suit and change my voice, maybe walk with a limp, have different physicality. I want to be unrecognizable in the part.

Grooming by Simone.