It’s been the best of times, the worst of times, and undeniably busy times for Chris Rock.
In September, the comedian, writer, director and actor drew rave reviews for his dramatic turn in the fourth season of Fargo, opposite the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley and J. Nicole Brooks. His character, Loy Cannon, is a ’50s gangster in Missouri whose crime syndicate strikes up a war with the local Italian mob. A month after Fargo debuted, Rock returned to Saturday Night Live to host the sketch show, for the third time since his tenure as a cast member in the 1990s.
But that’s certainly not all. The executive producer and star of Saw reboot, Spiral—which will premiere next year—Rock has lately been working on a pair of scripts. One has been described as a female-centric take on Bad Lieutenant; the other is a project in which he’ll star opposite Adam Sandler and Dave Chappelle.
At the same time, Rock has been working quite hard on himself. Going to therapy seven days a week and swimming has allowed him to make productive use of the downtime at home, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. “This has been a hard year and a great year for me,” says the four-time Emmy winner. “My mind’s never been so clear…but at the same time, Covid’s pretty lonely, you know?”
Below, Rock breaks down the childhood experiences that informed his take on his Fargo baddie role. Teasing the dawn of a new Chris Rock and projects to come, he also shares his hopes for the future of America under Joe Biden.
DEADLINE: You’ve said that the role of Loy Cannon is the best you’ve ever had, and maybe ever will have. Why is that? What about this show, and this character resonated with you?
CHRIS ROCK: I mean, I’ve always been a fan of the show. I watched the first three seasons multiple times, especially Season 2. I was just a tremendous fan of how well everyone’s written—not just the leads, but people that are going to show up for two scenes, and die a minute later. You know what I mean? Everyone’s presence is felt in Fargo. There’s no “extras with lines,” as bad TV or movies can have sometimes. Everybody means something. So, I just responded to the writing, how full it was—not just the gangster of it, but the family man, the wife, the kid. It was just so well rounded. [Loy] was a man of his time, having to deal with the everyday pressures of running a business, but also having to deal with, “I happened to be born in . Now, it’s 1950, and this is the reality.” Maybe 60 years from now, there’ll be a Black president and whatever. But right now, Loy Cannon has to make do with the situation he’s in.
DEADLINE: Reportedly, you based the character not on historical research, but on relatives, and other people you’ve known. What exactly was it that you were tapping into?
ROCK: Well, it’s 1950. I’m born in ’65. So, my dad’s born in ’32, right? So, math, math, math. … You know, this guy would basically be my grandfather. That’s kind of the age of the guy I’m playing. Luckily for me, I spent a lot of time with both my grandfathers and my uncles. My grandfather and my father were pretty legitimate guys, but I’ve got a couple of shady uncles, and relatives in jail. You know, my father had nine brothers and five sisters; even I’ve got six brothers and a sister. My older brother, who’s dead now, was in and out of jail.
So, I’ve been around this element kind of my whole life—maybe not the murder aspect of it, but definitely the shadiness of it. Definitely numbers runners, definitely guys that sold coke or weed. When I look back at my childhood, even without doing research, I was kind of like the kid in Bronx Tale. I was always around this stuff. I could borrow my mother’s car, and there were a couple of dealers that I was always driving around—just like, make a run here, make a run here. “Okay, I need you to sit in the car right here. I’m going to walk down the block. Do not follow me. And when I come back, I’m going to get in the car, and you’re going to take right off.”
So, to answer your question, I’ve been around this stuff a lot. I’ve been around a lot of illegal business, and I tried to give a Wire approach to it… You ever watch The Wire?
DEADLINE: Of course.
ROCK: The beauty of The Wire is, they always knew that no gangster is just a gangster. They always knew that no matter how encompassing your job is, it’s just your job, and your real life is the relationships you have. Even Breaking Bad, it’s like “Yeah, yeah, yeah. This guy’s going to kill him. That guy’s going to kill them. But boy, he doesn’t want his wife mad at him.” [Laughs]
DEADLINE: You’ve said that Noah Hawley and EP Warren Littlefield are among the few who have offered you dramatic roles. Was there ever a point where you felt disheartened at being passed over? Did you ever think of giving up the pursuit of acting?
ROCK: Nah, never. I love acting. I mean, I love it. And I’m a better stand-up, obviously, but I’ve been allowed to grow as an actor. So, getting passed up for stuff has never really bothered me. I mean, there’s so many great actors out there. Don Cheadle’s great, man; Chiwetel [Ejiofor]’s great; Jamie Foxx is great. So, I’d be crazy to be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they went with this great person over me.” [Laughs]
You wait your turn, on some levels. On another level, too, it’s like I always say: You’re born, you look a certain way, you sound a certain way, and if you have a long enough career, you’re going to be about four or five different people. I’m not the guy with the flattop hair that was on Saturday Night Live. That’s literally another guy, right? And I’m not the guy that was in New Jack City, and made CB4 and stuff like that. That’s another two guys. Then, there’s this guy that hosts the MTV Awards, and maybe the first Oscars—you know what I mean? That’s a whole other guy, and by the way, it takes a while for people to realize you’re this other guy.
Now, I’m a guy who’s in his mid-50s, who’s married, divorced, has a kid in college. So, part of it is like, do people think you can do the part? But the other part is just people seeing you as an adult, and sometimes that takes a minute. You know, me and Tom Cruise are the same age; me and Brad Pitt are the same age. But sometimes, people think of me as younger, or less grown up. Especially when you’re a comedian, too, there’s this “you’re just forever 29” kind of thing happening, and it’s weird.
I did this special on Netflix a couple of years ago, Tamborine, and a lot of it was about my divorce. It was a very grown-up special, and I’ve got to say: I would bump into directors, and they particularly noticed that one. So, I think this is like the beginning of grown-up me. And I think the best parts are when you’re grown up, anyway, so let’s bring it on.
DEADLINE: In October, you returned to Saturday Night Live. Your third go-round as host was the first episode to be done live since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Supposedly, cast members Michael Che and Colin Jost had to come to your house to convince you to return. What tipped the scales for you?
ROCK: It wasn’t even that they had to convince me to do it. They just had to walk me through the Covid protocols, more than anything. Because SNL, it’s hectic, man. You’re in contact with a lot of people, so I was really concerned. So, they walked me through just, “Okay, we’re going to get tested every day, and only these people will be allowed in this section.” You know, I love SNL, but not enough to get Covid. [Laughs] Not enough to lose my sense of smell and taste.
DEADLINE: How would you describe the emotional connection you have to the show? It seemed, at one point, like you had mixed feelings, given the fact that you left it to join In Living Color.
ROCK: I have a great relationship with the show; I have a great relationship with Lorne [Michaels]. Maybe someday, my kids will work there: That’s what Lorne always says. I look at it as nothing but a positive. I mean, I’m too old to be complaining about a sketch that didn’t get on in ’92. [Laughs] Come on.
You know, I learned a lot. I learned how to write on deadline, how to produce, how to edit. I didn’t go to college, I went to SNL, and my frat brothers are David Spade, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley. Could I have done more there? Eh, who cares? Some of the biggest people from that show barely were on the show: Ben Stiller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Larry David. So, it’s an amazing thing. I’m very fortunate. You know, as a kid, I dreamed of being on that show, and my dream came true. I have a very Forrest Gump-ish life.
DEADLINE: You’re due to shoot another comedy special for Netflix. Have you started to think about that, and what you’re going to talk about?
ROCK: I mean, I’m like everybody else. I’m waiting for the vaccine. If there’s a vaccine in a few months—or in a few weeks, as everyone’s saying—hopefully, I’ll be on stage all summer. I don’t think I would do a massive tour this summer because the touring business, right now, is like an airport that’s been shut down for a few days. Everybody that had something booked has first dibs on all the buildings right now, so even routing a tour would be hard right now.
But as soon as there’s some break in this Covid thing, I’m ready. I’ve been writing; I just need to work it out. You know, people always suggest, “Why don’t you just do a Zoom special, or do it in front of cars, or whatever?” But I’ve said this, and I’ll say it again: Singers sing to an audience. Actors kind of act to an audience, and comedians actually play the audience. The audience is our instrument; I can’t perform without [it]. [Laughs] It’s like Elton John. The audience is my piano, man. But I’m dying to do it.
DEADLINE: Unfortunately, there are droves of struggling comics at the moment, who might only be able to perform through the kinds of means you mentioned. What would your advice be for them?
ROCK: Oh, I’m fortunate to be where I’m at. I mean, this is 20, 30 years of doing this, and I feel for guys. I’ve got a lot of friends being squeezed right now that are doing virtual platforms, or segueing into writing. It’s just like, “Okay, where do I fit in?” Because they’re making a ton of TV right now.
I am not qualified to tell a young guy what to do; I’m just [trying to] help the guys I know to ride this out. But, yeah. This is a hard time, man, for a lot of people.
DEADLINE: You’ve been doing so much of late, as an actor, writer and producer. But is there one project in particular right now that’s really lighting you up? Something that’s grabbing most of your attention?
ROCK: I’ve got a script I’m kind of working on. I guess it’s good enough to show [producer Scott] Rudin. How about that? [Laughs] I’ve got a script I just showed Rudin. That’s your barometer, if you’re confident enough to show Rudin. So, I showed Rudin, and he gave me the least amount of notes he’s ever given me, because I’ve had the most time to write that I’ve ever had. And hopefully, probably soon, we’ll see.
DEADLINE: In recent interviews, you’ve addressed America’s political situation, expressing great skepticism of Democrats and Republicans alike. But what is your take on our current moment, now that Joe Biden has been named as our next president? What is your feeling about the change we need to see in our country?
ROCK: I don’t know. When Biden won, I wasn’t jumping for joy. I was like Tom Hanks in Cast Away; I just wanted to hug Helen Hunt [Laughs]. You know, he’s not jumping for joy when he sees the ship. He’s just like, “Where’s Helen Hunt, man? I’ve been eating coconuts for years. Can I just f*cking hold Helen Hunt?”
How do I feel? I mean, I’m kind of optimistic. I just hope that all that’s happened, that this whole year was not in vain, and that people and the government doesn’t just go back to business as usual. Like, basically, there’s a 9/11 everyday. 3000 people died in 9/11. Somehow, we got the Department of Homeland Security, and no one questioned that. But now, we have a situation where, whatever— 300,000, a half-a-million people are going to die. Right? So, what I hope is that we do something. The same way we had the Department of Homeland Security after 3000 people died, I would hope that Mr. Biden institutes some scientific department—like, the Supreme Court of Science, just for the lack of a better name—that would be in charge of anything medical or environmental. Basically, I would hope that the government instills a mechanism, so that if there’s ever anything environmental or medical, this mechanism would take over—thus, eliminating politics out of a life-and-death situation.
Because we didn’t just experience a pandemic. You know, Donald Trump did this thing… Like, when security companies build new locks or security systems, they hire crooks to show you the weaknesses of the system. Well, Donald Trump showed us the weakness of our government. Now, it’s up to Joe Biden and Congress and the Senate to get rid of those weaknesses—to instill safeguards that actually protect us from unqualified, mad men and mad women, so that we never have to be at the mercy of a person that does not exhibit empathy and competence.
DEADLINE: You’ve said you’ve been receiving offers of meaty, dramatic roles, on the heels of Fargo. Is anything confirmed at this point? Anything that will fulfill a long-held dream?
ROCK: I can’t say. Maybe. Let’s hope.
DEADLINE: This year, you’ve done a lot of work on yourself, going to therapy seven days a week, taking ayahuasca, and generally looking inward. What led you to make these changes, and how have you benefited from them so far?
ROCK: You know, with this pandemic, it’s like, what are you going to do with this free time? I wanted to make the most of the free time, and I just thought working on me would be the best use of it, especially having teenage daughters. Anybody that has teenagers will tell you, you’re going to lose them at some point. It’s going to be hard at some point. So, you know, I went through some stuff with my kids, and you learn it’s not just about lashing out. It’s about looking in. So, I’m trying to be a better dad, a better partner, a better friend, and it just feels like I got everything out of that last guy. You know what I mean? So now, it’s time for this guy.
DEADLINE: So, you feel that 2020 has really sparked some change in you?
ROCK: Yeah. You know, I’ve never been so awake. I’m in the best shape of my life, swimming and running. But at the same time, Covid’s just a lonely thing. You don’t see your parents; you don’t see a lot of people. So, you can sit around drinking wine and eating edibles all day—which, don’t get me wrong, there was a period of it—or you can shake it off and do some actual work.