Although he has won four Emmys for various comedy specials and even hosted the Oscars, Chris Rock never really has hit the zeitgeist when it comes to the big screen. His screenplays for such films as Down To Earth and his feature directorial debut, Head Of State, received mixed responses at best. His next directorial outing, I Think I Love My Wife moved him into more friendly territory with critics thanks to a smarter, more personal script. And his hilarious documentary Good Hair showed a sharp eye. But nothing prepared audiences for his latest writing/directing/starring achievement, Top Five, which made the biggest splash at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, igniting a bidding war eventually won by Paramount and now opening December 12 in the heart of awards season. There is genuine buzz for this outrageous, but very personal comedy, which has been dubbed Rock’s Annie Hall. Just don’t tell that to Chris Rock, a Woody Allen fan, as I learned in my interview with the star.
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I was in Toronto and you stole that thing lock, stock and barrel. I mean, unbelievable.
You know I had just finished mixing the movie like four days earlier, so I almost kind of didn’t even know what I had.
Yeah, it was scary. We weren’t on any lists, you know what I mean? You get off a plane and there’s something there—some report thing or whatever—and you’re looking at the list: “Movies to see.” Not on them. You get to the hotel, there’s another list: “Movies to see.” Not on any. So (the film’s reception) is kind of satisfying.
Top Five exploded on that Saturday night. I remember, because I ran into the Lionsgate people and I said, “Have you seen anything good?” And they said, “Oh, we just saw the Chris Rock movie.” You could tell they were running back to see how they could buy it. They said it went through the roof. I saw it the next day at the noon show. You could just see this movie exploding. And you’re right—I don’t think anybody really was focused on it going in.
It was almost like, “Why is Chris Rock coming to the Toronto Film Festival?”
Now we know. Are you surprised that it sold that quickly, and to Paramount, and that they decided to put it out this year in December?
It’s all a shock. By the way, I’m shocked that I got money to make the movie in the first place. My shock starts there. You know, every movie is a miracle. We’re not in the era of people having multi-picture deals, or whatever, so we’re kind of more or less starting from scratch.
Yes, it’s tougher now to make movies.
It is tougher. It is tougher. But you know, this is movies—you’re basically asking somebody for a loan you don’t have to pay back. That should be hard to get.
I’ve heard your film referred to many times as your Annie Hall.
Oh, I’m not sensing Annie Hall, man. It’s nothing to Annie Hall.
But that was a transition movie, of sorts, for Woody Allen, from just the straight-out really funny, funny stuff, to something a little more personal, a little different. That’s what I think Top Five is in a lot of ways. It’s outrageously funny, but it seems to be a more personal project for you.
I guess you can say that. I did a play a year or two years ago, The Motherfucker With The Hat. And the cool thing about the play is it was really dramatic and it was really funny. I don’t know. I knew coming into this movie that I got confidence from the play that made me realize, “OK, the drama is as important or more important than the comedy.” And I tried to take the lessons I learned and apply them to Top Five. So, yeah, it is a little more personal. It’s a lot more grounded than anything I’ve done.
I love the premise of it because I’ve seen a lot of comedians take on very heavy dramatic roles and it doesn’t always work out. Though some of the best dramatic actors I’ve ever seen are comedians…
Sometimes. In a weird way, the movie is about: Don’t take what you do well for granted. You know? It’s OK to stretch here and there, but don’t take what you do for granted. People like you for a reason—because you do a certain thing—so you kind of have a slight obligation to give the people what they want. Do a couple of things for yourself. It’s always sad when you like somebody and they won’t “Do the thing,” you know? You go see Radiohead and they don’t sing “Creep.” Come on, sing “Creep,” sing “Creep!” Why won’t you do “Creep?” The other songs, don’t get me wrong, but “Creep.” I don’t get it.
Sometimes I feel as if comedians take on dramatic roles, those kind of Oscar bait roles, to try and win an Academy Award. I don’t think you’ve ever been tempted, necessarily, to do that, but is there a strong dramatic, no-comedy kind of role that you’ve wanted to do?
Yeah, there’s a couple. There are different types of drama. There’s the plotting drama, you know. I’m trying to think, “What’s a plotting drama?” I’m trying to think. Oh man. God, I’m drawing a blank…
After Ghostbusters, the first thing Bill Murray did was Razor’s Edge and I thought that was a very plotting drama. He’s brilliant in St. Vincent and Lost in Translation. Razor’s Edge just struck me as an attempt to be as far away from what he was known for.
A plotting drama would be Moneyball. I mean, (Brad Pitt) is amazing in it, but there’s not a lot to do. So, you know, as a comedian, if you’re going to do a drama you’ve got to really do a fucking drama. Like, some shit has to happen for people to accept that you’re not making them laugh. There’s things I wouldn’t mind doing dramatically, but they’re kind of more action-y. I would love to be Coalhouse Walker in some modern-day depiction of Ragtime. I would love to play Nat Turner, you know, Confessions of Nat Turner—that’s a great part. There’s a lot going on there. There’s a lot to play so you’re not just sitting there acting, you’re doing.
You said you were inspired to write Top Five from your Broadway experience. I heard you actually wrote it while you were making Grown Ups 2.
I was making Grown Ups 2. The most cushy job you can have in Hollywood is No. 3 on the call sheet of a movie that costs more than $80,000,000 dollars, because you’re literally going to get paid a lot of money and you’re going to have nothing to do for weeks at a time. You’re going to have breaks—four days off here, three days off there. So, you know, Grown Ups is fun, but I want to be in the game. Put it that way. I’m definitely a supporting player in it. So I thought, “OK, I’m going to start a movie. What kind of movie do I want to start? I want to start a movie that I would go see, the kind of movies that I like.” I just started scribbling down notes and scenes, not particularly with a movie in mind, just really funny scenes. I don’t know. I love Louie, I love Seinfeld, I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love all of these dads playing versions of themselves. I was like, “You know what? No one has done a movie like that.” No one has really done it with a movie, or when they do it’s so dramatic. Funny People is really dramatic, Adam (Sandler’s character) gets cancer. So that was kind of where it came from. And like in Stardust Memories, people go, “I love your films, especially the early, funny ones.” You know people do that with me, too? “I love your work, especially the standup.” I’m like, “OK, let me see if I can write a movie that plays like my standup and feels like my standup.” If I could be proud for a second, I think the movie feels like my standup.
It’s definitely different than what I’ve seen you do as a director, writer and star on a film. That’s what I mean when I say it seemed more personal to me than what I’ve seen you do before.
It helped that Scott Rudin produced Motherfucker With The Hat, so we both kind of knew what it could be. He was never steering me into, “Hey, let’s make another fake Eddie Murphy movie.” You know what happens when you’re a black standup in Hollywood? “Hey, can we make another knock-off of Trading Places? A knockoff of Beverly Hills Cop?” Or whatever. But that was one of the great things about having Rudin around.
He’s a producer with great taste, I have to say. He’s the kind of a guy who you know if he’s putting his name on a movie there’s going to be something behind it.
Yeah, and I’ve seen him take his name off stuff. Fairly quickly.
Do you like being in control of the whole film—writing, directing, starring—as opposed to just an acting gig like Grown Ups 2?
Hey, I’d love someone to cast me in something great and I just had to learn my part. But that hasn’t happened that often, so I like to work. I’d love to be Matt Damon. I’d love to just pop up in Interstellar and be great.
Right. Nobody knew he was in it.
No one knew he was in it. When the pod started to open up I was like, “Please be Will Ferrell.” Yeah. I would love that. I would love somebody to write Bourne movies for me, but that is not going to happen, so you kind of have to write stuff. I would love some great A-list director that wanted to direct my movie, but once you get to the B-list you might as well do it yourself. Once you’re not in the A-list it’s kind of a crapshoot, especially in comedy, so you might as well do it yourself. You write to live, you write to survive. So I like it, but hey, it would be great to get cast in something. I’m a nice guy on the set.
This will probably help.
Yeah, so I’m campaigning for any part.
There has been some awards talk, too, for Top Five, now that is has a December opening. Awards could be a plus, certainly in the Golden Globes and then in the Oscars with the screenplay category, for sure. You don’t know how far this can go. Is it intriguing for you to see awards action?
It’s intriguing. You don’t do it for that, you just do it because you want to be good. First of all, the awards season is great because you just bump into people you haven’t seen in a while and you get to hang out. I’ve never been nominated for anything, but I remember when I hosted the Oscars, hanging out with everybody, getting invites to the parties, not having to call my publicist: “You think you can get me into Vanity Fair?” I’m hosting, I can just walk in. I hope I get nominated just so I don’t have to beg to get into parties.
Would you want to host the Oscars again?
I would love to do the Oscars again. But I think they got the right guy (this year). Neil Patrick Harris is about as talented as they come. He’s the best host in the world. He really is.
I want to ask about the title, Top Five, because I think this is going to become a catchy thing. How did you come up with that?
You know, it just happened. The movie was always called Untitled Chris Rock Movie. It never had a name. The audience really responded when we were testing the movie to when I asked Rosario (Dawson) her top five. It didn’t seem like we were trying to be a whacky comedy, it didn’t seem like we were trying to say this is romantic. It just seemed like a good name, honestly.
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