Art truly imitating life for HBO’s “Ballers” star Donovan Carter




Published on Jul 22, 2017 | Updated on Jul 24, 2017

When the lights are on, Donovan Carter has always been ready to perform. 

Whether it’s was in front of a few thousand at Los Angeles’ famed Birmingham High School, where he helped the football team to a pair of city section championships and a state title game berth, or nearly 100,000 at the Rose Bowl while playing for his alma mater UCLA, show time has always been go time for the 27-year-old. 

Nowadays, he’s making it do what it do before millions on the small screen. Since his playing days ended nearly five years ago, he’s parlayed his experience on the gridiron into an acting career, portraying Vernon Littlefield, one of the best young defensive tackles in the league, on HBO’s “Ballers,” a fast-paced, hilarious and no-holds-barred, look at life in the world of professional football.” The show, which stars “Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Spencer Strasmore, a former player turned financial advisor, premiered its third season Sunday. Carter took some time to explain to SN how he’s made the transition from the trenches to Tinseltown.

“When you’re on set, there’s a lot of people on set. So, you have to still be able to perform while people are watching, and it’s the same thing with football,” Carter said while in L.A. attending the ESPYs.  “You have to be able to perform in front of a large amount of people. You gotta still do your job. You have to multi-task. That’s the same thing on set. You have to take direction. You have to be able to listen to people, telling what you might not be able to see that you’re not doing and take that apply it to your game.” 

Rated as one of the top 50 players in California back in 2008, Carter, then an inside linebacker chose the Bruins over offers from Pac-12 rivals Arizona, Arizona State and Washington, but things didn’t begin to click like until his first spring camp following his freshman season. “After that, I was like, ‘OK, I know I belong I can play college ball. I was making plays. Things weren’t moving as fast as they were when I first got there. 

“By 2011, Carter had made the switch to defensive line, and enjoyed his finest season of his career at UCLA. He racked up 36 tackles, including 16 solo stops and 3.5 for loss, in addition to a fumble recovery, helping the Bruins finish second in the Pac-12 South division and qualify for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Dying for some new tunes? Play On Entertainment helps you:After going undrafted, Carter received a mini-camp invite from the Raiders, but it never materialized into a long-term deal. Sure, Carter had lined up across from some of the most menacing offensive linemen in the country, but facing life without ball was proving to be the battle of a lifetime. He was being stretched like never before, and answers to the age-old question, ‘What’s next?’ were fleeting, if present at all.”When I graduated, everything was on me. I didn’t have anybody to rely but myself,” Carter said. “So, that was an adjustment. I really didn’t know what to do. I definitely was down on myself a little bit, but knew whatever I did, it wasn’t gonna be in the house. So, I was like, ‘Man, I get up and figure out what’s in this world.”

Bruins defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure was the one who the put the acting bug in Carter’s ear. He put him in touch with Emmy-award winner Mark Harmon, a former UCLA quarterback. Still, when he’d heard news of the audition for Ballers, Carter wasn’t going to go. Forget a reel. He’d never taken an acting class a day in his life. Who’d cast him for a show on HBO? But after a little prodding from his father, he figured he didn’t have anything to lose.

“I just went for it, Carter said. “Sometimes, you just have to go for things in life and just put it in God’s hands and see where it takes you.”

He won the room, and eventually, he won the role, honing his newfound craft with the same tenacity he tackled quarterbacks and running backs with all his life. As much as he’s showing as a budding thespian, having appeared in all 20 of the show’s episodes thus far, he’s still growing as he learns everything from technique to terminology. Carter said he studies his lines the same way he studied plays. When he needs help, he’s not ashamed to ask for it. Just like a player has to be able to translate what he’s seen in the film room to the field, the proof is in the execution when it comes to acting.

“The easy part is memorizing lines,” he said. “Anybody can memorize things. It’s about bringing those lines to life.”

Carter’s moment of truth on the “Ballers” set, came while they were filming the first episode after the pilot. A huge wrestling fan growing up, he froze in the middle of one of the episode’s opening scenes, acting opposite Johnson, one of his childhood idols. “I was just nervous. I walked away. I was like, ‘Cut’, I need a little air,” Carter said.  He (Johnson) came by me. He was like, ‘Man, just do what you do. Everybody believes in you. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think you could do it. After that, after he gave me some uplift. I was like, ‘Alright man I got this. If this dude can believe in me, I can believe in myself at the end of the day.”

Carter said viewers can expect to see a different side of professional football in the show’s third season, and, of course, more parties, beautiful women and cars,  “the baller lifestyle” as he put it. Typically, flanked by his best friend and confidant Reggie, played by London Brown, Littlefield, fresh off signing a new contract that includes a $40-plus million signing bonus with Dallas, is coming into his own and will be forced to make more autonomous adult decisions as he battles an injury that could jeopardize his first season in Big D.

The maturation of his character on screen and Carter’s real life off it mirror each other in some ways.

“I can relate to Vern. I just try to do my best to learn from Vern and his mistakes and apply them to my life,” Carter said. “I’m young too. I have a little bit of success, meeting different people. It’s my first job. So, I’m saving a little money. The same as Vern, just learning through life.”