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School of Rock

A conversation with Chris Rock about rap, comedy, Cosby, and the art of casting.

I once saw Chris Rock in New York attempting to be a New Yorker. I was getting a sandwich near my office in a building that shared a space with a gym. There was Rock, alone. On his ears sat a pair of cartoonishly large, Princess Leia–like headphones.

I’m sure there was music playing on those headphones, but they screamed to me, “Please, just let me be for a moment.” They were world-blocker-outers, those musical earmuffs. They seemed to work, too. Sure, there was a head nod here or there, but for the most part, he got to just be. At that moment — for a moment — I was happy for him, a man who I had never met and had been watching nearly my entire pop-culture-absorbing life.

It took Chris Rock four years to direct a second film, and seven more to direct a third. Following 2003’s Head of State and 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, he brings us Top Five, set for nationwide release on December 12. It’s a career-defining moment for Rock as an actor and, perhaps more importantly, as a director.

As in the previous two films, Rock stars. But one of the many things that sets this role apart is that his character, Andre Allen, is a comedian. Andre Allen is not Chris Rock. But it’s hard not to watch Andre Allen without thinking about Chris Rock.

Allen has an identifiable arc of stardom. He began as a hotshot comedian, landed the lead role in a financially lucrative and critically panned trilogy (starring as Hammy the Bear, a police bear), and is now attempting to be thought of as a serious actor in an upcoming drama. Allen’s star has fallen since the Hammy films, but the one thing that has kept Allen relevant is his engagement to a reality star played by Gabrielle Union — a celebrity engagement being documented on television.

When we meet Allen, he’s promoting his film and is being profiled by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a journalist at the New York Times. What follows is a series of events (many of which revolve around a running shtick of various characters ranking their “top five” rappers) taking place as Chelsea follows Andre around and learns more about him than she ever expected.

After seeing a film about Bizarro Chris Rock being interviewed about his life and upcoming film, it’s odd to then sit down and interview the real Chris Rock about his life and upcoming film. But two days after I saw Top Five, we met at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, in an ornate bar-lounge adorned with murals of Madeline in Central Park.

This comically elite setting was a hideaway, a place where no one seemed to care who Chris Rock was. I found that borderline insulting, but like he did with those headphones, Rock seemed to find it extremely relaxing.

I’ve done very few of these type of Q&As, because I’m not a huge fan of celebrity interviews. Because they tend to be—

They’re bad.

They tend to be bad. The funny thing about the film is, to an interviewer, the interview Rosario Dawson’s journalist character gets with the lead is the dream interview.

The dream of getting that much access? Yes. You can kind of get it — because I’ve done it — if it’s like a cover story in Rolling Stone. People cover stories are like a week, and they have to have access to your house and all this other stuff, so there are circumstances when you get it.

You did a roundtable with The Hollywood Reporter recently and you said “you’re never meeting someone, you’re meeting their representative.”

Yes, you are.

When you’re being interviewed, do you want to get to a point where the person has convinced you to break down that representative part?

If we were, say, friends, there would be silence from time to time. You know, you need to check your phone, you’re eating, whatever. But you don’t really want that. Hopefully over the course of the interview, though, I let you in on something you didn’t get before.

There’s a point in the movie when your character, Andre Allen, keeps saying to the journalist, “Can we talk about the film, can we talk about the film?” when he’s asked about personal things. When you are going through this press process, do you ever get to a point where you’re like, “I want to talk about literally anything else but the film”?

No. I mean, I’m selling a movie. And I don’t do press unless I’ve got a movie coming out. Like literally, why would I do press? People always want you to do press. You never see me on Letterman or something unless I have a movie coming out. Your time in front of the camera is finite. It’s not definite. People interviewing you, it’s all finite. You should definitely use it to better yourself.

[Rock stops talking to watch a little white boy walk through the Carlyle, very comfortable, pointing at the room’s murals.]

[To the woman trailing the boy] This kid’s going run a company someday. This kid’s going to green-light my movie someday.

This kid probably owns this bar.

He might.

One of the movie’s themes is this idea that when Allen got sober he stopped being funny. And how he had to find it within himself to be funny again. Do you think that’s true to any extent?

The whole sober/funny, unsober/not funny thing, that’s one of these questions we’ve been asking ourselves forever. You know, people always wondered about Richard Pryor, was he as funny not on drugs as he was on drugs. Lenny Bruce, same thing. Sam Kinison, same thing. George Carlin’s probably the only one I saw be as funny as a sober person as he was as a drug addict.

Do you think it’s harder to be funny once you get rich and famous?

I hope not. I mean, most of our biggest comedians are kind of rich.

Yes, but the idea of “my profile is big, but if I get complacent, I’m done” has to be constantly on your mind, right?

If you get comfortable, you just start doing work for the money, you’re done. You’re a done artist. And that goes for an author, a director, anybody. Once you’re not doing it for the sake of proving yourself and challenging yourself, you’re done.

Why did you rename the movie Top Five?

What do you mean?

When I saw the original rollout for the movie, it was called Finally Famous.

It was Finally Famous. I don’t know, Finally Famous almost sounded like a rom-com.

It’s also the name of a pretty mediocre Big Sean album.

Yeah … Big Sean’s name kept coming up. I was like, you really think I’m biting Big Sean? Nothing against Big Sean. Shout-out to Big Sean. Very good on the “Clique” record. But, you know. It’s weird, the “top five” thing wasn’t that big in the initial script. But doing top fives kind of took over the movie. By the time we got to Seinfeld [in the film] doing a top five, we were like “OK — that’s the name of the movie.”

There’s a history of films that feature a bunch of black folk in a room — with no white people present — shooting the shit, arguing over lists, cracking jokes. Barbershop, The Nutty Professor, whatever. There’s a scene like that in Top Five, with Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, and other funny black comedians in a living room. Were you actively trying to differentiate your scene from similar scenes in other films?

I never really thought about those movies. No disrespect. Those movies are just a little broader than this one. Even the way the camerawork is kind of in a real place, where those movies are like movies. I tried to shoot this like a documentary, almost. So it could feel real, feel like you can get lost in it.

Was that scene easy to pull off because you had so much talent in that room?

You had a lot of talent, but you still had to hit the plot points. It was a fun scene to shoot because you’ve got a lot of funny people around, just going for it. But people think, Oh, you guys just ad-libbed all of that — no. Lots of plot points in that [scene] pay off later. Literally setting up the ending in that scene.

One thing about that scene: the throwing around of “n​-​-​-​-” in an almost celebratory way, in the sense that it’s very casual and not being used to prove a point, but that’s just how people often talk in that space.

All of us are from around there, kind of. So it made sense.

It felt very familiar. When you make that scene, do you care about who laughs?

I can’t really think about it. You make a piece of art that you like and you put it out. You have no control after that. You literally don’t. Like, noooo control. There’s no television cable network that only goes into black homes. That goes for writing a movie, doing stand-up, or Snoop Dogg making a record. It’s a funny scene!

One thing that came through that you’ve discussed in other press you’ve done is how the film gives a glimpse of what it’s like to be black and famous.

A little bit.

Even being black and having a platform of any kind. This idea that with black fame comes certain responsibilities that other folks don’t have to deal with. Things other white actors don’t have to think about. Was that a conscious thing you wanted to come through the film?

I definitely made a point to tell Leslie to tell me to “Stay black” in one scene. No one tells Brad Pitt to “Stay white.” “Ben Affleck, stay white.” What the fuck are you talking about, “stay white”? I just tried to do a movie in a realistic tone. People always think, What were you trying to say? I’m not trying to say nothing, I’m just trying to entertain people, trying to make things that don’t bore me. Trying to make things that feel authentic. Trying to make a movie that I haven’t seen. In a tone I haven’t seen. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Does that get annoying that people think you have to have some underlying meaning behind everything?

It’s not annoying. It’s kind of cute. It’s kinda Awww, really, you thought all of that. It’s kind of flattering. I’m just writing jokes. But if you think it’s all that, then cool.

Yeah, that’s not a you-specific thing —

I’m not Public Enemy, I’m not KRS-One — I love those guys. Don’t get me wrong. [Pauses.] I think I’m more Ice Cube.

How so?

He stumbles across political themes from time to time, but he’s literally just entertaining people. You might have the most militant record in the world and then he makes Are We There Yet?

And he’s killing Bud Light commercials. So, um —

Coors Light.

Wow. That’s on me.

Someday he’ll do Bud Light. Right now he’s at Coors. He’ll move up.

How do you feel, at this stage of your career, about being asked to be a role model?

Be a role model to your kids. You just are. Your kids watch you every day. They kind of do what you do. But the whole “Be a role model to people” [idea] is kind of racist when you think about it. It’s not like, “Get on the back of the bus, n​-​-​-​-” racist. It suggests that my behavior is not natural. It’s like, “Hey I don’t beat my wife because I don’t beat my wife, not because I’m trying to help the race out.” Know what I mean? I read because I want to read. It’s like, you have a negative image of your people as a whole if you’re putting all of your eggs in my basket. Or a basket of my behavior. Really? I don’t smoke crack because I don’t want to smoke crack, not because I’m trying to help out. So you’re saying if I wasn’t famous, I’d just be in jail and cracked up if no one was watching me? No.

Are there any aspects of the Andre Allen character that you envy? Because a lot of the knee-jerk reaction to this character is “This is Chris Rock had everything gone south.” But are there aspects of him that you appreciate?

I appreciate anybody that can have a breakdown. Because breakdowns allow you to clean the slate. After a public breakdown — you can do anything. It’s only going to go up after a public breakdown. It becomes “At least he’s not tearing up a supermarket” … “At least he’s not trashing a hotel room.” There’s something admirable to anyone letting you know exactly how they feel and exactly how mad they are.

Which is also a classic example of why Richard Pryor is so beloved.

He didn’t keep any of it in. He’s like, “I’m mad, I’m so mad, I’m going to shoot out the tires of this car.” I’ve been that mad, but I restrained myself.

Andre Allen is mostly known for a character named Hammy that he played in a movie. Throughout the film, people shout “Hammy” at Allen wherever he goes. Watching that shed some light on what that hounding must be like in real life.

I’m Pookie. Wherever I go, especially if I’m around black people or Hispanic people, dude — I’m Pookie from New Jack City, forever. And I hear Pookie all day, every day, screamed from blocks away — “Pookaaaayy! What up, Pook!” That’s what it is.

I was thinking about that because there was a point in your interview with The New Yorker, where you alluded to the fact that you don’t really have a “Hammy.” But in the right audience, you do.

VH1 plays New Jack City as much as AMC plays The Godfather. New Jack City is always on. MTV plays it. It’s that movie for a lot of people of a certain age.

And it wasn’t last year.

It’s 20 years old.

Do you wish it was a different character?

Nah, nah — it’s great. I like that people have seen me grow up. Some guy was interviewing me the other day, and he was like, “This movie’s like Boomerang, except now you run the company.”

Saturday Night LiveALAN SINGER/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY

The idea of growing up in public is now a very normalized thing. That wasn’t true 20 years ago. What year did you start at Saturday Night Live?

I started at SNL around ’90-91. That’s around the time people started seeing me. I think I’m Gonna Git You Sucka comes out around ’88 or ’89. So that, then Beverly Hills Cop II and SNL.1

But between films and stand-up, you can plot how you’ve felt about things over the past 20 years.

I’m old. I’m ooooooold.

[Pauses as a man walks by.]

The bellhop asked me if I was making a delivery when I walked in.

It’s the Carlyle. I watched a fight with Al Pacino here, of all people. Me, Al Pacino, [Leonardo] DiCaprio, Matt Dillon — it’s like all the Italian guys hung out together one night to watch a Mayweather fight and I got kind of invited.

You just called yourself old — do you feel old? Do you talk to a lot of young comedians?

I talk to Hannibal [Buress]. I talk to Jerrod [Carmichael]. My brother does stand-up. I talk to guys a lot. I don’t feel old because I feel like I’m in the same business. And I feel somewhat competitive with them.

Which is good.

I did some little club shows and had Hannibal open up, but I was like, “I want to be better than fucking Hannibal,” know what I mean? So in that aspect I don’t feel old. I guess when the day comes — and it’s going to come — when those guys are better than me, yes, I will feel old. But right now, I can still take most of them.

Do you feel you’re trying to target your comedy for your age group? Are you trying to get 20-year-olds the same way you were?

I don’t think I’m ever going to get 20-year-olds again. But also not really targeted for my age group, per se …

I don’t really know what your target really ever was.

It’s weird, because when I’m in the States, it’s a little older — when I go overseas, it is really young. I get offers to do colleges. I don’t know, it’s not really a number thing, just energy. Do you have enough energy to entertain a 25-year-old? Carlin had it until he was 70, was knocking out colleges. I think I’m probably best if you’re 30. Paying some bills and have had a woman or man break your fucking heart — I’m the comedian for you. If you’re mad at your taxes and shit and you’re, like, not really a Republican or a Democrat.

So if you like to question things.

Yes, if you like to question things, then I’m the comedian for you. Sometimes that’s not a kid thing. But I’m cool with it. The 20-year-olds that like me are really fucking smart.

Do you think it requires a strong knowledge of your back catalogue?

I’m sure there’s a bunch of kids that watched me on SNL the other night that probably never saw me before. Or thought I was the guy from Grown Ups and whatever the fuck. Probably never even saw my stand-up. So if that was your first time seeing me, hopefully you think that I can hang.

I once overheard a conversation between two college-age kids — they didn’t know LL Cool J was a rapper. They knew him from NCIS.

Yeah, that’s real easy.

I was like, “Damn, that makes 27-year-old me feel old as shit.”

Yeah. I mean, it’s real easy. LL hasn’t had a hit in probably 25 years. Like, an actual hit. Not a record that’s on the radio. A hit. That, like, affected the culture. Since, like, “Doin’ It.” I mean, I guess “Headsprung” played at the clubs, but “Doin’ It” was like that shit. It was amazing.

You could say the same for Cube. Probably like 15 years.

Probably about 20 years, too. Even Snoop’s been a minute.

Nah.

I mean, he ends up on someone else’s record every now and then.

Pharrell will keep Snoop relevant until the end of time.

Yeah.

But that happens. I have to imagine you don’t expect that to happen to you. Or you don’t want that to happen to you.

It will happen at some point. I’m sure it’s happening already. But, you know, I try to mix it up. And it’s not like I’m pandering to young people. You know, if you get an offer to host the Grammys and an offer to host the BET Awards — host the BET Awards. Because it skews younger and you’ll get more new fans doing that than even doing the Oscars. And that’s kind of the name of the game: How many new fans are you going to get doing this? It’s all about new fans. My kids don’t know who Eddie Murphy is, my kids don’t know who Madonna is.

How old are your kids?

My oldest is 12.

In a moment like this, are you proud of Hannibal for using his stand-up as a platform to talk about some real stuff? Or is it odd, as someone that has some connection or relationship with Hannibal and Cosby?

You know what, I talked to Hannibal a couple of times. He had no idea this thing was going to blow up like this. I can’t speak for him, but he did not do it for what’s happened. He thought he was just telling a joke to the people there. He had no idea it was going to blow up.

Is this issue something you don’t want to touch? Since you have some history with Bill Cosby critiquing your jokes?

Let it clear up. I don’t know. I literally don’t know. I wish I knew — I just don’t know. I don’t see the pictures — it’s all just people talking.

I mean, they’ve been talking.

They’ve been talking. Yeah. I don’t know. The whole thing is sad.

It’s gone through the emotional cycle, from confusion to anger to disgust to sad.

It’s just sad. It’s exhausting.

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While you were writing Top Five, did you have these actors in your head?

I definitely was like, I need Cedric [the Entertainer]. I definitely was like, I need JB [Smoove]. I didn’t even know what part Leslie was going to play, but I was like, “Leslie’s going to be in this movie.” Brian Regan, I knew I had to find a part for him. Ben Vereen, same. For the leading women, we read a bunch of people. A lot of really cool actresses came in and read. And Rosario seemed like — with certain occupations, when you have them in a movie, if you don’t cast the right person, it’s like c’maaaaaan. Writer is one of those occupations. If you’re not of a certain intelligence, you can’t play a writer. There’s women and men who have played writers and you’re like, “Stop it. Just stop it. You don’t write. You don’t live in your head.” Writer, lawyer, doctor — certain professions you have to project a certain intelligence, a certain weight, to carry it. And Rosario definitely has those qualities. You believe her. She’s that smart. You believe she’s a mom with this kid. It had to feel real. Just wanted to make a real-feeling movie.

What about Gabrielle Union as the reality star?

She was right. She lives in Miami, she’s friends with some of these reality girls, so she was able to approach it from a human standpoint, where she wasn’t making fun of reality stars.

I think it’s easy to overlook her performance in this movie.

I think it’s the best thing she’s ever done.

You can’t avoid reality TV, so it was a very identifiable plotline.

You can’t. And it’s people on these shows. With feelings. And a mother and a father. And kids. Feelings, because they’re people. They’re confident sometimes, and other times they’re really vulnerable. So it was like, let’s make them into people.

Not knowing much about the film, just seeing the cast, it’s like, “I have no idea what this is about to be.” You don’t expect [REDACTED] to show up at the end of the movie, for example. It’s not predictable.

And it kind of works. It’s like, Oh shit, it kind of works.

Rounding up this group of actors to be in your film, is that a validating thing for you, being able to pull this off?

It’s about having good relations, but let me put it this way: I don’t think anyone did a favor for me. If you called them up with that script, you could get all of them. Because you’re offering them real parts. Maybe … OK — Kevin Hart did me a favor. Kev’s busy. Kev did me a favor. But he still got a good part, though. A real part. And when you call up actors and you’ve got a real part, you can get them. And everyone’s got a real part. If you’re Cedric and you read that, you’re like, “Oh, shit, I’m not getting offered this anywhere else. I’m going to score. I’m going to have the funniest scene in the movie.” JB — any movie you see JB in, he’s crazy. In this, he got to be the grounding force. He doesn’t have any scenes like these in other movies.

The tricky thing is that, because a lot of the actors in the film feel like they’re comfortable in these roles, you want to say that thing people say: “It’s like they’re not even acting.”

I get a lot of that. It’s like, no — we have a script. But they don’t get to play that stuff. Rosario’s one of the most beautiful women in the fucking world, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in a romantic comedy. Never seen her with a guy in a romance, ever. What the fuck is that? Gabs is funny, Gabs never gets to be funny, and she’s hysterical. So if you come to people — if you come to me with a really good part, it’s like, Yes. Let’s do it. I don’t care what the money is, I want to be in good shit.

Which is slightly connected to why I thought the Tyler Perry joke in the film was so funny.

He called me. He liked it. He told me Lionsgate wants him to do a Madea horror movie. I would actually go see a Madea horror movie.

That’s just proof he will continue to win.

He’s the Puff Daddy of film. He’s like, “Yo, we won’t stop, did I tell you that we won’t stop.”

By the way … [I unbutton my shirt, revealing a Puff Daddy T-shirt.]

You’ve got a Puffy shirt on?

I had to button the other shirt up for the Carlyle.

Wow. Speaking of, I’ve got to see if I can borrow his house for New Year’s.

Is that how it works? “Puff, can I borrow your house?” That’s a very dope Airbnb life you’re living.

Well, he has a house in Miami. It’s fucking amazing. But, if no one’s staying there … 

Filed Under: Movies, Chris Rock, Top Five, JB Smoove, Leslie Jones, Gabrielle Union, rosario dawson

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert