In October 2020, Uche Agada was laying in his bed in New Jersey and scrolling through Instagram when he saw a screenshot of a Tweet that Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had sent. The Tweet had mentioned Disney was producing a movie on Antetokounmpo and his family’s background and looking for people to portray Giannis and his brother, Thanasis, his Bucks’ teammate.
Agada, who had graduated from high school that spring, was a big Giannis fan, but he had never acted before. Still, the message noted no experience was necessary, so Agada thought he might as well give it a try and send in a tape.
Much to Agada’s surprise, he ended up getting the leading spot portraying Giannis, while his brother, Ral Agada, won the role as Thanasis. And on Friday, their unexpected Hollywood career will officially kick off as the movie, titled Rise, will be released on Disney+.
“I always listened to successful people speak and they always talked about just trying because you never know,” Uche Agada said. “I saw that (post) and I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to give 110%. If I get it, cool. If I don’t get it, cool.’ I wasn’t an actor so it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t get it.”
Friday’s release is a long time coming for Giannis, who had pitched the film along with his agent, Giorgos Panou, and producer Bernie Goldmann to Disney executives. They wanted the movie to revolve around how Giannis and his brothers grew up in Greece, the son of Nigerian immigrants, and overcame the odds to become successful people. Besides Giannis and Thanasis, a third brother, Kostas, has appeared in 22 NBA games over three seasons and won an NBA title in 2020 with the New York Knicks. Giannis and Thanasis were members of the Bucks’ 2021 NBA championship team.
Disney greenlit the project in 2019, and writer, Arash Amel, completed the script. Around that time, director Akin Omotoso, who was born in Nigeria, read an article in Sports Illustrated that mentioned Disney was making a film on Giannis and his family. Omotoso remembers reading about Giannis when he entered the NBA in 2013 and vowing to someday direct a film on him.
“I said to my agent (after reading the Sports Illustrated article), ‘Whatever you do, you’ve got to get me in that room so I can tell them how I would tell the story if I was given the opportunity,’” said Omotoso said. “I kept the magazine by my bedside just to make sure. I said, ‘I’m not taking this magazine away until I know they found a director for this project.’”
Finally, after several months of waiting and pitching how he would make the film, Omotoso found out he had landed the role on Sept. 18, 2020, the same day Giannis won the second of his back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards.
When searching for someone to play Giannis in the movie, Omotoso didn’t care too much about people’s acting experience. He had successfully worked with newcomers before.
“What you’re looking for when someone is new to the process, you’re looking for emotional intelligence and you’re looking for someone who has the essence of Giannis,” Omotoso said. “With Uche, it was clear he had both. He had the essence, and he had the emotional intelligence. Those are the things that really attract us as a team.”
Shortly after Uche was hired early last year, Goldmann asked if he had a brother who would like to try out for the Thanasis role. Ral Agada, who is two years older than Uche, was thrilled when he heard from Uche. Ral was working at Best Buy
“I was kind of just drifting, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Ral said. “This came at a perfect time. I finally found what I wanted to do.”
To the Ugada brothers, the experience has been surreal. They did n’t play much organized basketball, but they are NBA fans and had known about Giannis since his rookie year in 2013. They were drawn to his story about him and the fact that the Ugada’s father was also born in Nigeria like Giannis’s parents .
The brothers, along with the rest of the cast, were in Athens, Greece from April 2021 to July 2021 shooting the film.
“Walking on set for the first day was weird because they’d say, ‘Action!’, and then there’s a whole bunch of people just staring at you,” Uche said. “But eventually as you continue doing it, you forget they’re even there. There’s a lot of stuff I never really thought they did until seeing it with my own eyes.”
Said Ral: “Honestly, every day I woke up pinching myself, like, ‘Yo, this is insane. I’m out here in Athens getting paid to be here in a Disney movie starring with my brother.’ It was insane. It was an awesome experience.”
As the days and weeks passed, the brothers became more comfortable in front of the camera, and their bosses noticed.
“Both of them put in the work, put in the time working with myself and also sponging off everyone,” Omotoso said. “It was really beautiful to watch them grow over the shoot. They just gave it their all. I’m so happy that everyone is responding so positively to them because it’s a testament to their hard work.”
After filming wrapped up nearly a year ago, the brothers returned to their home in Westampton, NJ, about 25 miles from Philadelphia. Some of their friends knew about their unlikely path, but in the past few weeks as the trailer for Rise was released and more publicity about the film came out, even more people in their hometown are amazed at their journey.
“Everybody just likes them and has a good outlook on them and is excited to see this,” said Linda Wittmann, an English teacher at Rancocas Valley Regional High School the Agadas’ alma mater, and a former neighbor of the boys.
Now that they’ve completed their first roles, the Agada brothers envision many more ahead. They are young – Ral is 22 and Uche is 20 – and they’ve found what they want to do with their careers.
“This acting thing, it’s like a bug,” Ral said. “It’s really fun. You just want to continue doing it and learning. It’s definitely something I want to continue to do, for sure.”
Uche then interrupted his brother.
“We’re already sending out auditions for the next jobs,” he said.