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London Brown is the most hated character on ‘Ballers’

Why the best year of the rising star’s life was also the hardest, and how it changed his purpose

London Brown should have been laughing.

The comedian made it out of his ‘hood — the same ‘hood, he said, “where they shoot black films about gangs” — with the kind of success it was hard to even dream about while hanging out in Los Angeles’ infamous South Central. But Brown joked his way out of the Westmont neighborhood of Los Angeles — the deadliest in the city since 2000 — and onto a stage opening for superstar standup comedian Chris Tucker.

His own laughter should have been the thing piercing the air while shooting the second season of HBO’s impressively authentic Ballers. On a series akin to the network’s highly successful Entourage, set in the universe of America’s most popular sport, on a show starring and produced by one of the world’s biggest movie stars —Brown stands out.

He plays Reggie, and just about everybody knows a “Reggie.”

He’s trifling. He’s obnoxious. He’s the guy in the back, hitching his wagon to the next superstar — and mostly doing his friend a world of disservice in the process. Clearly Reggie is relatable, and Brown turned in a portrayal so convincing that the show upgraded him from a guest star to a series regular.

Brown should have been celebrating. Instead, under a paintball mask while filming a playful scene in Miami last fall, he was crying.

“Last year was the best year of my life and the worst at the same time.” — London Brown

Not many people on set knew of his private pain. Brown was mourning the loss of his baby brother, Wendell Lee, who had been killed in their neighborhood a few weeks earlier. Lee was 25. It’s the kind of story that played out in one of those 1990s ‘hood flicks that fictionalized Brown’s home area. Lee was kind of like Boyz n the Hood‘s Ricky Baker. He was a standout guard on the mens’ basketball team at Colorado State University at Pueblo, who was in town because he was one of 40 players invited to try out for the D-League’s Los Angeles D-Fenders. Lee’s assailant remains unknown. The tears Brown was privately shedding were a first. He said he’d never cried as an adult — “I thought something was medically wrong.”

It was tough for Brown to maintain himself during takes — he was trying to keep it together. “Even though we’d grown up in the ‘hood, about five or six years ago, my mother [finally] moved out. For me it felt like, OK, we beat the statistics. We got out. But then when this happened — ” He’s still drained by tragedy.

“Last year was the best year of my life and the worst at the same time. I was living off my art. I was on one of the hottest networks, living in a Hollywood condo, and working in Miami where the weather is great. I’m like, Cool, this is it. And then that happens and it was a reminder that the things I do are bigger than just me,” Brown said. “It’s not about me just working and getting a check to live a ritzy lifestyle. I have to make sure I’m working because I try to be some sort of assistance to my family, and take the stress off of them.”

His purpose has become clearer. He speaks at after-school programs now, and spends time at Boys & Girls Clubs. He wants to be a positive influence, mentoring kids and showing them what life outside of South Central, L.A., looks like. It also makes what Brown’s doing on HBO’s Ballers all the more meaningful.

“When my brother passed … I was like, I got work to do. Ballers, as great as it is, I don’t lean on it. I still work clubs nightly — I try to do two, three clubs a night if I can, because that’s one thing I have control over. Whatever it is I’m trying to do, I want to execute it with a very, very strong focus so that I can stay moving and be ready for whatever’s there. My grandmother passed away about a month or so ago and … these are just small reminders that, while I’m here, I’m not necessarily running around trying to make a dollar, but I’m trying to make a difference.”

Being a thespian has become therapy, and going toe to toe with Dwayne Johnson, Ballers co-star and executive producer, has brought Brown some comfort. He’s challenged himself to even more deeply build the character of Reggie for season two. Brown doesn’t care for people like Reggie or people who share the all flash, no substance Reggie seems to ride out on.

“That’s why I took the role,” he said. “Because it’s a nice stretch from who I am in person. I’m on a show with a lot of talented people, people with serious résumés. I didn’t want to get lost in the mix and just be a third wheel to this cast. I want to make sure that playing opposite Dwayne … I held my own. Dwayne, he has so much presence. He’s 6-foot-5! I needed to make sure I wasn’t cast by accident.”

No one watching the show would think that. Brown absolutely morphs into Reggie, so much so that he gets mean-mugged by random people in real life who can’t exactly pinpoint where they know him from, but know that they don’t deal with him.

“People are emotionally charged against Reggie,” Brown said. “People come up to me with their fist balled up. I was at a club one night and this guy says, ‘I was trying to figure out why I didn’t like you He was staring at me, he’s eyeing me in the club. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Hey man … I was really mad but then I realized you’re the dude from the show. And man, good job!’ ”

Expect more of that this season. Reggie is even more excited. His character sets in motion the storyline for the season, and Brown’s pain shows up in his work.

“The director told me … to riff a little bit. There were a couple times the director would say to tone down the funny a little bit. One time I [toned it all the way down] and then he was just like, ‘Uh, whoa. Not that heavy.’ ”

All things considered, Brown is grateful.

“I didn’t get here on my own. God knows that. He set it up. And I don’t take any credit from the people who gave me a shot. So I try not to waste anybody’s time.”

Ballers returns to HBO on July 17 at 10 p.m. EST/PST.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.