Chris Rock’s new movie Top Five is out in cinemas today. Here the famous comedian talks about the challenges of being an actor and director at the same time and what inspired him to produce the movie.
QUESTION: What did you set out to write a movie about? What impulse did the story come out of?
CHRIS ROCK: I wanted to make a movie that felt like my stand-up, you know, with that kind of edge that made people laugh, and made people uncomfortable, and was sweet, and edgy at the same time. I hadn’t felt I’d done that yet—in the movies.
Q: Early on, did you know that you wanted the main character to be a guy who had done stand-up and acting?
CR: Early on I definitely knew I wanted to play a comedian. I always liked the Seinfeld show and I always liked Louis CK’s show, and I always liked “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and even the movie Lenny —which isn’t a comedy. When I looked at those guys with those TV shows, I thought—there’s an idea for a movie about a day in the life of a comedian. And, you know, we made it a high stakes day, but it’s still a day in the life.
Q: What was the thinking behind having the movie take place all in one day, and in New York?
CR: You gotta write what you know, right? And anybody that’s ever made a movie knows there’s nothing like the Friday your movie comes out. It’s hard to describe—it’s like the Olympics in a sense, how two years, or five years, or even in some cases movies take ten years of your life—and all of that can be summed up in one day. In one day you literally know if success or failure’s gonna happen. That was the idea behind the events of the movie taking place in a single day. Do the Right Thing took place in one day. Many of the Linklater movies happen in one day. I thought it would keep us honest too—and it does make you write harder. It can be limiting, but it made me work to come up with certain solutions for things; there are probably no flashbacks if the movie doesn’t take place in a day, you know what I mean? But honestly, making the movie in one day was more freeing than having the movie take place over 20 years.
Q: What about New York City?
CR: I love New York movies. I love Woody and Nora Ephron and Spike. But one thing I always notice about movies in New York—it’s not even a bad thing, but they always take place in one part of New York. It’s very segregated. It’s like they happen just in one part of the city. My New York shifts economically a lot, you know. One minute you’re in the projects, and one minute you’re at a press junket, and those things can be five minutes apart. In New York, you’re always five minutes away from the projects no matter where you are. It’s the beautiful thing about New York. Let’s hope that never disappears. The poor and the rich kind of live close by. And I wanted to see that in the movie.
Q: What movies did you find yourself watching in preparation for the film?
CR: Collateral’s a movie I watched a lot because it’s all at night, and most of this movie takes place at night. Another movie I watched a lot, another night movie, was Belly, directed by Hype Williams; every shot is just amazing. It has all these great slow-mos. Some people really know how to shoot the night. Some people really know how to make the night much more exciting than the day. And in a sense New York is kind of more—New York’s absolutely more beautiful at night than in the day, you could say.
Q: What was the toughest job on this movie as a director?
CR: The big challenge as a director is always just working with limited resources. And—by the way—it’s challenging but also freeing. It’s challenging ’cause you gotta really, really, really make absolute decisions on the fly. You really don’t have time to get coverage of everything. You just don’t. But it’s freeing because sometimes people direct in a way that’s just scared. Sometimes when you have too much money it’s just scared directing, and “Let’s get every angle, and let’s get everything we possibly can”, and it just comes out of a place of fear. Instead of creating, you’re just covering your ass. Not having a ton of money makes you think more clearly about the task at hand.
Q: Did the director part of you ever have to say to the writer part of you— “I know you love that scene, but we’re gonna move on?”
CR: Oh yeah. One of the problems was the actor actually had to have more power than the director because—the movie doesn’t work without the actor giving his best performance. Directors guide
Q: Was there any scene that was particularly challenging for you as an actor?
CR: The scene in the projects was challenging only because it wasn’t really written out. A lot of it was improvised, and it was—literally it was like Double Dutch, like “OK, where do I fit in? Where do I get in? Where do I get in? Where do I get in?” You got all these guys joking—joke after joke after joke coming—with these hungry, young comedians coming in like they’re in the ring, and they’re trying to kill you. They want your job, you know what I mean? And I gotta show these boys, “Hey, I’m Chris motherfucking Rock, dude.” I gotta really bring it. I’m expected to be funnier than these guys. So that was a challenging scene just as an actor, and trying to be funnier than these guys while still being in character, and having it make sense in the context of the movie. Actually one of the hard parts is Rosario and I really like each other—and I mean in a respectful way—and a lot of time it wasn’t conducive for us to like each other in different parts of the movie. We have fun together—we’re friends. But a lot of times, you know, I’d watch myself and I could see—we’d have goo-goo eyes for each other. And I’d say, let’s tone it down…. I’ve heard Hanks and Meg Ryan had the same problem—like, “Okay, we’re not supposed to like each other until an hour from now.” So, that was—I don’t want to say hard—but it was challenging.
Q: Can you envision a time when you won’t ever want to return to stand-up?
CR: Here’s the thing with stand-up—I love doing standup, it’s my most favorite thing in the world. But there’s a part of me that’s kind of painted myself in a corner. I’m kind of in the fastball business. The kind of stand-up I do, I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to do it and hit like that. People don’t normally hit like that for long periods of time, you know? There is a line in the LL Cool J song ‘I’m Bad’ that goes: “I’m bad, other rappers know when I enter the center, they say, yo, yo, there he go!” And I’ve gotten to the point in comedy where when I enter the center, they say yo, yo, there he go. The center is where all the rappers hang out and the center is where they all rap. This was before there was even rap records. I’ll do stand-up as long as I’m bad, as long as when I enter all the comedians say—‘Yo, yo, there he go.’ I like being that guy. I’m shy about a lot of other things, and I’m humble and I love the craft, but man, I was bad for so long that now that I’m kind of good—I don’t ever want to go back to being the guy who sucked. I like my slot, I like that people expect me to be really good when I do it. So I hope and pray that I don’t spend too much money, and when I’m not throwing fastballs, when I’m not knocking people out—that I quit. But until then, I’m gonna do it. As long as I could hurt you, I’m gonna do it.
Q: Where did the top five idea come from?
CR: Get a bunch of guys together in a barbershop, and they’ll be doing top fives. Top five running backs—Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, O.J., Jim Brown, Walter Peyton—and it’s, “What? No Barry Sanders?!” It’s like that. It always happens. Always when you get a bunch of guys—especially a bunch of black guys—together you know, and girls even, the “top five” conversations are gonna come up.
Q: Did anyone throw a surprising top five at you while you were making the movie?
CR: It always depends on what was going on in your era, you know what I mean? The old guys are gonna have Big Daddy Kane and Rakim on their list, and the young guys are gonna have, you know, Young Jeezy, or Kanye, or even Drake. I’ve heard people put Drake, and I’m like Drake? Okay. But that’s a young person talking. So.
Q: Do you have a top five?
CR: I’m a little older, so my top five is…Jay Z would be in my top five, and Ice Cube would be in my top five, and—let me see—Kanye would be in my top five, and Mr. Scarface would be in my top five, and Run DMC. Okay that’s five. And then you know, my sixth man, I don’t know. LL Cool J. Yeah—I don’t care. Dis me, yeah. Go ahead, get mad.