Quincy Isaiah (l) as Magic Johnson and DeVaughn Nixon as Norm Nixon Warrick Page/HBO

Nearly 30 years ago, DeVaughn Nixon—the son of NBA legend Norm Nixon and stepson of multi-hyphenate Debbie Allen—rose to fame as a child actor, playing Whitney Houston’s son in The Bodyguard.

But after working as a print model for Mervyn’s and JCPenney and appearing in James Cameron’s Terminator 2, Nixon decided to step away from the entertainment industry to pursue other opportunities. He earned degrees in business finance and television production from Loyola Marymount University and began working in real estate, investment banking, and the private sector—only to discover that part of himself still longed to be in front of the camera.

“I called up my agent and I was like, ‘Look, just start sending me on auditions.’ So what I would do when I was at work [for a venture capitalist firm] in Orange County is I would sneak out of work early and go to auditions all the way in L.A.,” Nixon, now 38, told Observer. “It was probably about an hour and 15-minute drive, and then I would come back . . . The market went under [in 2008] and I ended up getting laid off, and my first call was to my agent. I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this again.’”

Since then, Nixon has appeared in Sonny With a Chance, Marvel’s Runaways and NCIS. But his next role is his most personal: In Winning Time, the new HBO sports drama that is based on Jeff Pearlman’s nonfiction book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, Nixon has stepped into the shoes of his father, Norm, in a rare case of art imitating life.

In a recent Zoom interview, Nixon spoke about the invaluable opportunity of playing his father (and no, he was not automatically given the role), his memories of the “Showtime” era, and the experience of working with Houston on the set of The Bodyguard.

Observer: How did this project first come to you? Were you always auditioning to play your father?

DeVaughn Nixon: Yeah. My buddy texted me and was like, “Look, check this out. You should play your dad.” I read it, I was like, “Huh?!” So I immediately called my representation. And they were on it immediately, got me an audition within two days. Everybody thinks that [the producers] just gave me the role. They had no idea who I was; they had no idea that I acted. They literally thought I walked off the street, came in and auditioned, and I was my dad’s son and happened to look like him. But I got a callback and then I found out that I got it. And interestingly enough, I beat my brother for it. [Laughs.] My brother has done some stuff, but I was the more seasoned actor, I would say. I couldn’t be more thrilled, man.

What was your father’s reaction to the news?

My dad is a firm believer in tough love, so when I told him I got it, he was like, “Okay, cool. Just don’t make me look stupid, man.” [Laughs.] On my birthday, he was talking to my friends. He was telling them that he’s proud of me, he wants me to do well and he’s happy. He’s just gonna step back and let me have my turn. We have the premiere tonight, and I asked him, “Do you wanna come?” And he was like, “I’ll just watch it with you on Sunday by ourselves.” He’s not really into interviews and media, even though he’s a television sportscaster and has to be on TV all the time. But he’s just like, I’m gonna do my job, I’m gonna go back home, I’m gonna go watch some Netflix. That’s the way he is, man. [Laughs.] But he was really excited for me, I’ll say.

Normally, when you play a real person, you can look into historical archives and do a lot of secondary research. But in your case, you get to play a man who literally brought you into this world. How did you prepare for this role, and what kinds of conversations did you have with your father about that era?

Well, I secretly was video recording and videotaping some of our conversations when I’d ask him stories—now he’s gonna know. [Laughs.] I had to drop weight—that was the biggest challenge—losing 30 pounds that I had to lose to get exactly where he was. He was about 162, 163; I was about 187, pushing 190.

I studied him. I knew all of his mannerisms, I knew a lot of the sayings, and I could mimic his voice, ’cause he has kind of a slight accent. He’s from Macon, Georgia, so I added a little Southern twang to how I was speaking. I tried to mimic how he shot a basketball. He was showing me drills, I tried to add his cadence to my performance, and I think I’m pretty spot on. I showed my cousin a couple of clips and he was like, “Oh man, you look exactly like your dad.” 

There’s obviously a certain level of physicality required, but I always think the best sports stories have a really emotional hook. How were you able to tap into his psychology?

I took a break [from acting] because I was like, “Man, am I really gonna make it?” I had the privilege of meeting Tom Hanks one time, and I was like, “What kind of advice do you have?” And he was like, “Just never give up.” Being an actor, there’s 100 “Nos” before there’s a “Yes,” and psychologically, it messes with you. Me growing up so young and then seeing some of the people—Macaulay Culkin, Elijah Wood—those guys are the ones that I grew up with and to see them hit the level of success that they did, it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough, so I brought some of that.

What also made the transition so seamless was the set design, the clothes, and the decoration. It just put me back in that place. They did such a great job. Like, when they replicated the Forum on one of the stages, I actually felt like I was balling in the Forum. The short shorts, me picking out wedgies. [Laughs.] I was like, “Yo, this is really what they went through? Wow!”

All of the actors that were around, seeing how they would tap in, they just raised the bar on my performance, and it was easy for me to feel like a part of that era while also adding all the psychological things that I used to help me get back in. My dad came from humble beginnings, and the first scene you see that feels a little threatening is the one where he plays Magic. I just tried to tap back in, thinking about how many jobs did I go after and then that person got this role.

Devaughn Nixon (l) and Quincy Isiah Warrick Page/HBO

You were born in 1983, so what do you remember from the Showtime era? As a child, did you understand the magnitude of the Lakers or that your father was famous?

No, man, that’s crazy you should ask. I just saw my dad on television and I was like, “Oh, that’s a regular job. He’s not famous. He’s like a school teacher. He’s entertaining people.” I didn’t understand the concept of celebrity. The first time I realized that he was famous, I was like 11, 12, 13, and we would have movie nights. We would go to the Third Street Promenade, and people would say, “Hey, how are you doing, Norm?” Or talk to my step-mom like they knew them, and I was just so confused—like, “Do you owe all these people money? What’s happening?” [Laughs.] Then, I was like, “Oh, okay, I get it.” I had grown up around some celebrities that are now still famous, that are buddies of mine, and it was the same thing. Everybody always acts like they know you, or the double head turn—I would see that a lot.

How would you say this project has not only deepened your understanding of that era but also strengthened the relationship that you have with your father?

Yeah, that’s exactly right, man. I would go in his closet—well, I actually took a couple of things that he doesn’t know about either, but now he knows. [Laughs.] Man, I’m just giving you all the juice! I took one of his vintage Clipper things—I’m sure he’s looking for it, he knows where it is now. [Laughs.] And I just worked out in it. Before I had gotten this, I would put on some of his clothes and watch some of the tapes and interviews when he wasn’t at the house. And he has an old school Ferrari and Mercedes that he kept from that era, so I would drive that around. That helped me get into the character.

I would bug him on set. A couple of times before I went into a scene, I would be like, “Yo, Dad, how did you feel about this? What was your connection with this character? Who were your best friends on the team?” Because when you have a best friend, you talk to them differently rather than somebody who’s just an acquaintance. That helped with my acting, delivering the lines in a different inflection. It did make us a lot closer, which I’m thankful for.

This era of basketball history is so revered in pop culture. There are certainly some creative liberties that were taken in this series, but did you ever find yourself wondering what was real or fake from that era?

Yeah, I kind of know what’s real and what’s not. [Laughs.] I was hearing through the grapevine that HBO was gonna make a website so that people can fact check [some details]. I think it’s always cool for people to not know and just enjoy the story, and then they can go back, because you look at all stories that are based on real things—everything’s not true unless that person’s writing an autobiography about themselves. But if somebody else is telling the story, people embellish, stretch things. There are some things that are definitely doctored up, but for the most part, they tried to stay true to what was real.

In addition to Winning Time, you also have a heavily recurring role in the new season of Snowfall. What can you preview about your character, Kane Hamilton, and how he fits into the world of Snowfall with Franklin (Damson Idris) and Kevin (Malcolm Mays)?

One of the characters, his name was Kevin, and that was my brother basically, and they end up killing him, and then Franklin has these runners who are selling drugs on the corner, and one of the Mexican mafia gangbanger dudes just stabs my cousin. So, this whole time [as Kane], I’ve been in jail, and then I come out with a real chip on my shoulder. [Laughs.]

What I love about this character is I’ve played thugs and things like that before, [but] this was the first time I was like [to the producers], “Can I do this?” They’re like, “Yeah, don’t hold back. You can do whatever you want.” I wanted to give my voice a different sound, so I would literally scream into a towel until my voice got super hoarse and scary. I asked for some tattoos. I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I just wanted to take the character there because I think I have too kind of a face, man. [Laughs.] Nobody’s gonna take me seriously! If I’m like, “Yo, man, give your money!” They’re like, “No, dude. We’re gonna kill you!” Both of these shows are gonna be airing at the same time, and I hope that [viewers] see my range. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they think.

You also famously worked with Whitney Houston on The Bodyguard. What are some of your fondest memories of working with her?

Whitney used to always bring me into her trailer and sing to me. She was very religious, so she opened my eyes to the Bible and she would read verses pretty often. And it’s really funny—my mom actually got married up there on the set of The Bodyguard, in Lake Tahoe. They had a bond because my mom actually had to go back to California, so Whitney looked up after me.

Another memory that I have is when she told me that Bobby Brown had asked her to marry him, and she showed us this ring . . . Look, it might as well have been a boulder. I’ve never seen such a big ring in my life! It was insane, and she was just so happy. And regardless of the stigma behind their relationship, they were always sweet and kind, and I loved them deeply, and I know how deep their love went. It was incredible to see how happy she was.

Another thing is I started a huge snowball fight in Lake Tahoe because it was the first time I had ever seen snow, so one of the [assistant directors] was showing me how to make a snowball, [and] I took one. I think it was right before I almost died on the boat, and she’s singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and her sister walks out. And during one of the breaks where she was just chilling, I went up and I threw a snowball at her and at Kevin [Costner], and it hit them both in the back of the head. And they’re like, “What the fuck?” And they saw it’s me, and I’m like, “Ha!” [Laughs.] I honestly started the biggest snowball fight—like 100, 200 people. So that was really, really fun. [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Winning Time premieres Sunday, March 6, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

DeVaughn Nixon Takes the Court in ‘Winning Time’ — Playing His Own Father