Nike founder Phil Knight's memoir about the early days of the company, Shoe Dog, is being made into a feature film after Netflix optioned the story detailing a group of ragtag, running-loving misfits who built a global empire led by the doggedly determined leader.
It’s not hard to see why Hollywood is attracted to the story. Not only is Nike a global household name, the story is reminiscent of other shaggy dog sports-meets-business tales like Moneyball and Jerry Maguire. The story is alternatively hilarious, sweet, dramatic, and passionate. At the center of it all is a strangely compelling love story: these men love shoes.
While we wait for more details to be announced, we decided to think about who could play Knight and his rowdy band of shoe dogs who went on to change the sneaker world forever. Here’s our take on Shoe Dog if it were the kind of quirky, indie-inspired dramedy that takes awards season by storm.
Adam Driver as Phil Knight
“I couldn’t sell encyclopedias to save my life. The older I got, it seemed, the shier I got, and the sight of my extreme discomfort often made strangers uncomfortable...No matter how deftly or forcefully I managed to deliver the key phrases drilled into us during our brief training session...I always got the same response. ‘Beat it, kid.’”
Casting Knight would be tricky, as the film spans roughly 20 years, and we watch Phil go from an aimless college grad traipsing across the globe trying to find himself to a self-assured businessman who makes an IPO that brings him wealth beyond his wildest dreams.
Reading about Knight, you are struck by the fact that he isn’t your typical businessman. He is oddly quiet, incredibly quirky, and plagued by the kind of self-doubt you wouldn’t expect from a future tycoon. And yet, the man has a hard edge. He isn’t afraid to hire and fire, to commit light corporate espionage, to make bold choices, and fight for his vision.
For this role, Adam Driver would be perfect. After breakout roles in a number of indie film and TV shows (Girls, Paterson, Silence, Midnight Special), he has proven he can play sweet and tough in equal measure. His recent Star Wars success has shown that he can open a film after his turn as Kylo Ren made him a household name.
Finally, Driver looks like the kind of guy who could run six miles a day, and running is a vital part of Knight’s story.
JK Simmons as Bill Bowerman
“After you’d won a race, if you were lucky, Bowerman might say: ‘Nice race.’ More likely Bowerman would say nothing. He’d stand before you in his tweed blazer and ratty sweater vest, his string tie blowing in the wind, his battered ball cap pulled low, and nod once. Maybe stare. Those ice-blue eyes, which missed nothing. Everyone talk about Bowerman’s dashing good looks, his retro crew cut, his ramrod posture and planed jawline, but what always got me was that gaze of pure violet blue.”
In many ways, the story of Shoe Dog is a buddy comedy with two unlikely lifelong friends at the center. Bill Bowerman was Phil Knight’s track coach at the University of Oregon. In his capacity as coach, he was equal parts drill sergeant and mad scientist. He would push his athletes to the limit, then he would go home and try to build better shoes for them. From there he goes onto become Knight’s business partner and head of R&D. Bowerman and Knight built Nike together.
Toughness and kindness. An aloof sense of humor and a hard edge. A philosophical detachment and a drive to win. Bowerman is easily the most intriguing character in Shoe Dog, and when you read the book, if you start picturing Simmons, you’ll see him as Bowerman from the first page to the last.
Caleb Landry Jones as Jeff Johnson
“Suddenly a guy sauntered up and held out his hand. Twinkly eyes, handsome face. In fact, very handsome--though also sad. Despite the enameled calm of his expression, there was something sorrowful, almost tragic, around the eyes.”
In a book filled with strange characters, Jeff Johnson might be the strangest. He spends most of his time working for Nike long distance, and he keeps up correspondence through a flood of letters, many of which go unanswered. This doesn’t stop him though. He just sends more.
While Knight, Bowerman, and the rest of the motley team could be described as quirky, or “a bit off,” there is a sheer strangeness to Johnson that results in the kind of sadness an alien might feel if they found themselves marooned on earth, away from their kind. For better or worse, Johnson is one-of-a-kind.
Caleb Landry Jones has proven he can capture a perfect oddball sensibility, regardless of the tone. He used it to create terror in Get Out and then played it to comedic effect in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. Jones is one of the best character actors working today, and the role of Jeff Johnson would almost certainly land him a best supporting actor nod.
Freddie Highmore as Bob Woodell
“If not for his wheelchair, I don’t know that I’d have recognized Woodell when I first walked in. I’d seen him once in person, and several times on TV, but after his many ordeals and surgeries he was shockingly thinner. He’d lost sixty pounds and his natural sharp features were now drawn with a much finer pencil.”
Woodell rounds out the main characters in the story. A once tenacious athlete now confined to a wheelchair, the reader is often moved by his energy and resolve. Onscreen, he’ll probably remind viewers of Jason Street from Friday Night Lights: an athlete who found new determination in life once he lost use of his legs.
Best known to American audiences for his TV work on Bates Motel and The Good Doctor, Freddie Highmore has the charm, good looks, and tenacity to pull off Woodell’s particular character. He has the charm and intensity needed for this key role, which requires both in equal measure.
Chris Sullivan as Delbert J. Hayes
“...Delbert J. Hayes, the best accountant in the office, and by far its most flamboyant character. Six foot two, three hundred pounds, most of it stuffed sausage-like into an exceedingly inexpensive polyester suit, Hayes possesed great talent, great wit, great passion--and great appetites.”
The hard living, hard drinking Hayes is the comic relief in a story filled with interesting characters. Though he often appears in dramas like The Knick and This is Us, Sullivan often plays comic notes in these shows. You may not have recognized him, but in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, he played “Taserface,” and got a lot of laughs in a movie filled with funny moments.
In a film like this, your comic relief should also have a measure of depth and Sullivan is more than up to the challenge.
Mark Ruffalo as John Jaqua
“We found Jaqua standing out on his porch. I’d met him before, at a track meet or two, but I’d never gotten a really good look at him. Though bespectacled, and sneaking up on middle age, he didn’t square with my idea of a lawyer. He was too sturdy, too well made. I learned later that he’d been a star tailback in high school and one of the best hundred-meter men ever at Pomona College. He still had that telltale athletic power.”
Bowerman’s lawyer, John Jaqua, is another interesting character who plays a key role in Knight’s business life. Like Bowerman, he has a strange mix of intensity and kindness. While most of the story’s athletes are built like runners, Jaqua’s sturdier frame and softer approach make him a nice contrast to some of the other characters. Ruffalo, who has played an athlete in Foxcatcher and a journalist in Spotlight, would nicely fit the bill.
Brie Larson as Penelope Knight
“Suddenly, sweeping lightly into the classroom and taking a seat in the front row was a striking young woman. She had long golden hair that brushed her shoulders, and matching gold hoop earrings that also brushed her shoulders. I looked at her, and she looked at me. Bright blue eyes set off by dramatic eyeliner.”
As you might expect from a story about the business world of the '60s and '70s, women do not figure prominently into the narrative of Shoe Dog. Knight has the stereotypical CEO’s blindness to the potential, and sometimes even mere presence, of women.
The only woman who figures prominently into the narrative is Phil’s wife, Penelope. She isn’t given much to do other than to act as the dutiful wife, and act as the butt of a few comedic anecdotes. The role is substantial though, and if you could land an actress with the skills of Brie Larson (Room, Short Term 12), Penelope could come off with more dramatic weight than she has on the page.
Masi Oka as Kitami
“Gone was the angry Kitami from the bank. Gone was the scolding Kitami from my office. Talking, laughing, slapping his knee, he was so personable that I wondered what might have happened if I’d given him a mai tai before driving him over to First National.”
If the story has a villain, it is Kitami, the hard-nosed Onitsuka executive who goes to war with Knight when he creates Nike. Knight began his professional life in shoes as an importer for Onitsuka, and Kitami is one of a number of intriguing Japanese executives he deals with.
While the others come and go with a typical Japanese solemnity and detachment, we get to know all sides of Kitami, who proves a more than worthy adversary for our heroes. Katami is the most interesting of the Japanese business meet in the story, at once a hard-charging corporate raider and capable of entertaining a party by playing a emotive rendition of “O Sole Mio” on guitar.
Masi Oka, best known to audiences for his roles in Heroes and Hawaii 5-0, could bring a light, humorous touch to Kitami’s self-seriousness that would capture the dynamic nature of the character as written. While Kitami is a hardass, his toughness often feels performative, and Oka could play the him as more than just a stuffed suit.
Alden Ehrenreich as Steve Prefontaine
“By then Prefontaine was universally known as Pre, and he was far more than a phenom; he was an outright superstar. He was the biggest thing to hit the world of American track and field since Jesse Owens. Sportswriters frequently compared him to James Dean, and Mick Jagger, and Runner’s World said the most apt comparison might be Muhammed Ali. He was that kind of swaggery, transformative figure.”
Prefontaine was a rockstar, and like so many rockstars, he lived fast and died young. It’s hard to imagine a track star with the kind of profile today, but when he was running, Prefontaine was a phenomenon. Though he is only a small part of the story of Nike, his legacy lingers with the book and the brand, providing a spiritual north star for Knight.
Ehrenreich has portrayed Han Solo, and a young dumb cowboy in Hail, Caesar! He brings a certain swagger to his work that would help him fit nicely into the shoes of Prefontaine. And we think he would have no problem rocking that signature mustache.