Let me put it this way: at 22, this Scream Queens actor was basically the polar opposite of Frank "Cush" Cushman, his cocky quarterback character in Jerry Maguire. "I was a real newbie," Jerry O'Connell tells Bustle in an interview. "I wasn’t rolling into that set with my chest pumped and 'let’s do this' and giving high fives. I spoke when spoken to and I kept my head low." Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, Jerry Maguire celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and was a key part of the actor's transition into being in the business as an adult after working steadily as a child. "I was very respectful of Mr. Cruise and Mr. [Beau] Bridges," O'Connell says of his experience on set with his costars — not that it was a tense environment. "It was just such an honor and such a great vibe," he remembers.
Jerry Maguire is the story of a sports agent who becomes disillusioned with the flash and impersonal nature of the business he's in. But he's good at what he does and wants to represent athletes on his own terms. Enter Cush, a star of a client who could save Jerry's neck by going #1 in the NFL draft with his principled agent by his side. O'Connell's scenes are morbidly funny, because it's evident to everyone but Jerry that Cush already has one foot out the door.
O'Connell says that the character of Cush is loosely based on Drew Bledsoe, the retired quarterback who played for the Patriots, Bills, and Cowboys during his career. Crowe observed him when he was shadowing a sports agent in his former life as a journalist. "I’m pretty sure he did months if not years of research for this," O'Connell says.
"Sports was becoming entertainment and entertainment was becoming sports," the actor says about the movie's timeliness. "Sports went from teams winning championships to companies creating stars to make a lot of money." That emphasis on endorsements and empires is why Jerry's only real client Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) believes himself a failure because Reebok isn't showing him "love" and why Cush and his dad would gladly give up Jerry's personal touch in favor of a real shark in Bob Sugar. Jerry Maguire lifted the curtain on a business that audiences recognized because it was constantly marketing to them. "These Michael Jordans, these Bo Jacksons were being made, and [the movie] just set a love story and a friendship story between Tidwell and Jerry Maguire in this world," O'Connell says.
Friendships were forged on that set too. "Watching Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise — they were a couple of buddies," O'Connell recalls. Meanwhile, he was spending his time at work following the lead of his movie dad. "It was really fun to stick by Beau Bridges’ side. He really was really comforting," he says. "To this day in LA, we sort of live in the same area. It’s so fun to see him. We still say to each other when we’re at a party or a fun neighbors' get together, 'Can you believe people are still talking about that movie?'"
The Jerry Maguire references thrown O'Connell's way haven't let up in the two decades since it was released. "Whenever I ride the subway, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone’s either gonna say, 'I just wanna play football' or 'I’ll either surf or ski' or 'Show me the money,'" O'Connell says. He credits Crowe's writing for the movie's staying power. "One line was more memorable than the next," the actor says, emphasizing that they were all delivered exactly as written. O'Connell still got an ad-lib into the final cut, however. Frank's signature grunge-rock anthem was completely improvised. "'Cushlash' was just goofing around in between takes and playing one of the four chords that I knew. That’s it," O'Connell says. "But Cameron picked up that guitar and that guy can rock."
There's one Cush-ism in particular that has permeated the actor's real life. "It’s like a mantra I have with myself before I get into any kind of argument," O'Connell explains. "Whether it’s at Starbucks or at the workplace or even with my kids, I take a deep breath and I just say to myself, 'Why is this happening? I just wanna play football.'"
And that, friends, is the enduring wisdom of Frank "Cush" Cushman and Jerry Maguire.