In person, Chris Rock, the 49-year-old comedian turned filmmaker, may not quite be the bombastic firebrand from famed HBO specials Bring The Pain and Kill The Messenger. But he is occasionally excitable: at points, his eyes open wide, his voice leaps up a couple of octaves and he flashes a broad smile with more than a hint of mischief. The emphatic performer with the audacious theories is never gone, it seems – just occasionally out of sight.
He has a lot to say about Top Five, the new movie that he wrote, directed and stars in, and for good reason. The New York-shot film is a step up from his past efforts, as indebted to Annie Hall as it is to hip-hop. In it, he plays a comedy bigwig with serious-actor ambitions being profiled by a journalist (Rosario Dawson). Unlike his previous efforts I Think I Love My Wife and Head of State, Top Five’s storytelling, performances and banter carry with them an easy assurance. It’s the sort of project that could make people think of Rock not as a comic who makes movies but as an auteur with an oeuvre that just so happens
to be hilarious.
You cast comics like JB Smoove and Cedric the Entertainer in big parts in your film, but you also cast comedians for parts with just one line. Why?
I’ve directed before, and I was in love with my words. I took myself seriously and wanted an actor-actor to say my words. So this is me taking myself way less seriously and deciding I’m going to have fun. I wanted to do funny stuff with friends. Tom Papa is funny saying, ‘All the water on the Internet!’ That’s what it took me a minute to learn: you hire the actor – it’s your movie, but it’s their part. They should take it over on a lot of levels.
Are you hoping, like your character Andre Allen, that this movie will make the industry take you seriously?
I feel like I have been taken seriously, way more than most comedians – social commentary, all the rubbish people write about me – almost to the detriment of asking, ‘Is the guy funny or not?’ Making this movie is me saying I want to be taken funny.
How much pressure have you felt to deliver a great movie?
People assume a stand-up is going to have a big movie career. With the exception of Eddie Murphy, that’s not how it really goes. Cosby? Mostly misses. Carlin? Never happened. Pryor? Five bad ones, one good one. There’s a little bit of fear that I’d never have a movie as good as my stand-up. So let’s see if we can do it.
The film has a real sense of community and some bawdy set pieces. It reminded us a bit of Judd Apatow’s movies. Were you influenced by him?
I love Judd, and he saw early versions of most of the movie, but it’s got almost nothing to do with him. It’s a Linklater movie. I’m Ethan [Hawke], she’s Julie [Delpy], we’re walking around New York and talking.
How was shooting in so many outdoor Manhattan locations?
A sound nightmare, but there’s no way in the world I’d get to make this in a studio. No way in the world I’d get to hire [cinematographer] Manuel [Alberto Claro] to shoot it. ‘Let me get this straight: you’re doing a comedy and you want to use the guy from Melancholia?’ No studio is letting me do that.
You did a Broadway play a couple of years ago. What influence did that have on you?
It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Fifteen years ago – when I was Kevin Hart, I like to say – I just got thrown into things. No one asks, ‘Can you do it?’ You’re kind of learning on the job. But I didn’t realise how much I needed that play until I did it. It’s a writing education, an acting education, a directing education. That’s how dumb I was going in there: I thought, ‘Why do they need directors in plays? Really, to walk from here to here?’
Kanye West gave you the name for your next stand-up tour – The Black Plague. Why didn’t it happen last autumn?
My kids are young and they’re only going to be young once. Nine hundred days. You can literally count the days before they want no part of me. While I have this time, why not spend it with my kids? Eighty percent of fatherhood is just availability – when they need you, you’re there. That’s all anybody really wants from their dad.
So you haven’t outgrown stand-up?
You can have ideas that are bigger than stand-up, but I don’t think I’ll outgrow it.
Do you see a parallel between making this movie and developing your voice in stand-up?
Hopefully this movie is like Bring The Pain. I was a successful stand-up before Bring The Pain, but it took me a while to figure out my voice. I was good enough to get on Saturday Night Live, do TV spots and make money in clubs. I had a living. And then I had a spurt. David O. Russell had a spurt. Always made good movies, always made good movies, and then The Fighter came out… Let’s hope I’m having a David O. Russell moment.
Top Five is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday April 9.