Chris Rock could have had a lucrative career playing smartass cops. But did the world really need to see another black comedian with a gun?
March 2001
By Josh Rottenberg
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up on time,” Rock says. “Right place, right time. Too small for Will, too small for a bunch of people, just right for me.”

Stretching his lanky legs out on the desk of his mid‑Manhattan HBO office, Chris Rock thinks back a couple of years to the first time he saw Heaven Can Wait, the 1978 comedy (itself a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan) starring Warren Beatty as a pro quarterback who dies too soon and returns to earth in the body of a tycoon. "The first thing that popped into my mind was, Man, Richard Pryor should have done this," Rock recalls. "This movie would have been so much better with a black guy." An idea struck him, one that would eventually lead to his cowriting and starring in Down to Earth: What if instead of a white football star, it was a struggling black comedian who wound up in the body of the old white millionaire? "If you're doing a fish‑out‑of‑water movie," Rock explains, "you've got to go all the way. I mean, Warren Beatty in a rich guy's house just doesn't seem like much of a stretch."

The 36‑year‑old actor‑writer‑producer‑stand-up comic speaks from a lifetime of research on the fish‑out‑of‑water experience: as a young kid from Brooklyn who was bussed to Andrew Dice Clay's alma mater in mostly white Gerritsen Beach, New   York, where he was "literally beat up every day"; as the underutilized "black guy" on Saturday Night Live from 1990 to 1993; and now, as a comedian notorious for pushing PC‑sensitized buttons on race, sex, and politics at a time when many just want to hear Seinfeldian mus­ings on shoelaces and airline food. "I'm a small guy, like, 134 pounds, and I was picked on as a kid," says Rock, who for four years hosted his own late‑night show on HBO, a skit from which has been spun off as the upcoming movie Pootie Tang. "When a little guy finally gets to beat somebody, boy, it's hard to stop him. And that's like me onstage."

In his film career, Rock has also maintained an outsider's pugilistic stance, spurning the industry‑sanctioned course of broad blockbuster fare (with the notable exception of Lethal Weapon 4) in favor of such quirky independents as Dogma and Nurse Betty. With Down to Earth, however, Rock ‑who stars opposite Regina King‑ makes his first real play for acceptance as a mainstream leading man. The question is, can a comedian best known for his napalm wit tone it down for a romantic comedy with, as he puts it, "a lot of cutesy stuff"? More to the point, will this particular fish make nice with the other critters in the Hollywood pond?

"I'm not sure Hollywood will always know what to do with Chris," predicts Down to Earth codirector Chris Weitz, who reteams with his brother Paul on the heels of their 1999 hit, American Pie. "The obvious thing for him would be to play a fast-talking cop ‑he could easily make a shitload of money that way. But he wants something more. He loves Woody Allen, and I think that's the kind of eventual impression he wants to make.."

“What's the point of another young black comedian with a gun?" asks Rock's longtime collaborator, writer Nelson George. "Martin Lawrence does those movies, Eddie Murphy's done them forever, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx. To put Chris in that box would be ridiculous. He's a comedian with a point of view, and that point of view is not best expressed with him carrying a gat."

Indeed, with a point of view like Rock's, additional firepower would be somewhat redundant.

Did you have any hesitation about injecting race into the premise of Heaven Can Wait?

We wrote Down to Earth as a class movie. Being black helps, but we didn't lean on it. That's the only problem I had with the Weitz brothers. We had a whole week of me hating them, because they had all this black stuff [in the film]. They thought it was a race movie, and I was like, "No, it's not!" It's hardly a race comedy. It's like the old Eddie Murphy movies. Trading Places ‑yeah, it's great with a black guy, but it would work with a white guy too. Beverly Hills Cop would have worked with Adam Sandler. That's the genius of those movies. They wrote these color‑blind movies and put this black guy in them, which gave them a little edge they wouldn't have had otherwise.

What do you make of all the talk recently about a boom in so‑called "black" comedies?

With Jim Carrey doing a serious movie every year, Sandler is, like, the only white guy doing comedy right now. You get four really funny young white guys and none of us would work. {Laughs) But, you know, Big Momma's House, Scary Movie, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps‑ there wasn't anything racial about those movies. Sandler could have starred in Big Momma's House. The fact that people are singling out these movies like there's something different about them just shows their ignorance.

What kinds of scripts do you get sent these days?

A typical script is that you're a busboy or bellhop or whatever, and you can hot‑wire cars and break into places really easily. Then somehow you meet some white male who shows you what real values are, and you're a better person for it. That's the moral of the story: "Thank God for these white people, or else I'd be robbing folks." (Laughs) Actually, a big‑time producer called me up the other day, said he wants to develop this movie for me. He has a script that's really bad, but he said, "We'll make it better." And I'm like, with the exception of the Denzel Washington civil‑rights movies, every big movie with a black male star was an accident‑it was originally written for somebody else. Trading Places, John Belushi. Beverly Hills Cop, Sylvester Stallone. Independence Day, Brad Pitt. Men in Black, Chris O'Donnell. Enemy of the State, Tom Cruise. I'm not making this shit up. Every single one was developed for a white guy, and he fell out, and they lucked out. [Editor's note: Rock overstates the case a bit. Although many of the above actors were considered for these movies, Trading Places, for example, was originally developed for Richard Pyor.) You've got to make your own smart black parts. Nobody's going to write them.

Why do you think that is?

The problem is, they involve race in every page of the script. Do these Hollywood executives think we just talk about being black? When a guy comes to fix my air‑conditioning, do we talk about being black? Race is about 5 percent of my day. It's an intense percent, but ... Hollywood execs are way race-conscious. You'll read something good, but you can't even go in because, "Oh, we've already hired a white girl." You'll hear it all the time: "We're not going black." I couldn't get in for Spider‑Man. I couldn't get a part the other day because of ... who was it? Ethan Hawke. I mean, he's a good actor, but you'd think it would be easier for me to get a movie than Ethan Hawke. But they didn't want to go so I couldn't even get in. Put it this way: If I were casting a movie right now, looking for an African‑American girl, and Winona Ryder wanted to read for it, I've gotta give her the respect. To deny somebody the chance to show what they have, based on their race ‑that's just mean. Would I have cast her in Down to Earth? Probably not. But if she wanted to read, who the fuck am I to say no?

Is the audience more color‑blind than these execs and casting agents?

The audience just wants to see stars. I mean, more white peo­ple like Eddie Murphy than like Nicolas Cage. [Laughs] You put Brad Pitt and Nic Cage in a movie together, and ask any white person in America, "Who would you rather see, them or Eddie?"‑they're probably going to say Eddie.

Are there people involved in your career who'd like to see you do more Lethal Weapon 4‑type blockbusters and not so many of the off-beat Dogmas and Nurse Bettys?

Oh, I'm sure: my manager, my agent, my wife. [Laughs] I could be in a different financial situation right now if I'd taken some other things. Lethal Weapon 4 was… When you're a black artist and it's time to get money, the first thing they say is, "You're not known worldwide." Lethal Weapon 4 was an instant way to be known worldwide. That was the first thing I looked at. But I don't want to do work just for the money. I need more stimuli than dough.

For someone who talks about worldwide recognition, you don't seem entirely at ease with being famous.

The thing is, when you're famous, there's no such thing as a whisper. Everything you say is loud. Nobody views you as a subtle human being. If you think something is okay, it's like, "He thinks it's horrible!" Or, "He loves it!"

Could you imagine being comfortable with stardom on the scale of say, Eddie Murphy's?

Hey, Eddie is my idol. It would be nice to get that big just so I could get the opportunities. It's all about, the next time they make an Edward Scissorhands, somebody calls me. Or Big. Or Fantastic Four, and my skin wouldn't play a part ‑ I could be Johnny Storm or something. That's what you want. Right now, my job is that I'm like an ambulance chaser. I've got to look for movies with white guys falling out of them. And at the same time, I've got to write my own movies. That's just the truth: My next movie will either be something I wrote or something John Cusack almost did.

Are you tempted to try more‑dramatic roles, like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams have?

I have no desire to star in a drama. I'll take a good supporting part any day. But nobody ever says, "You know that guy who makes me laugh? It would be great to see him not make me laugh." It's like, "You know that girl who blows me every time I see her? It would be great to just hang out with her, go to a movie." [Laughs) To subject anybody to 120 minutes of dramatic Chris Rock would be very selfish.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a good movie where there were a lot of improv. Ain’t on the page, ain’t on the stage.”

Still, does it bother you that drama seems to command greater respect than comedy, at least when the Academy Awards roll around?

Who cares what the Academy thinks? American Beauty is a great movie, but Dumb & Dumber is a much better time at the theater. It just feels better. Nothing's harder than making people laugh, and nothing brings more joy in a movie theater. All that "you've got to do drama," that's just critic nonsense. Michael Johnson is the fastest man in the world ‑so, what, he's got to run the marathon now? Fuck no. [Laughs)

Does it seem that Hollywood is afraid of touching race in a way that it wasn't in, say, the '70s?

Hollywood has a really negative take on black people. You're either J.C. Watts or Busta Rhymes. There's no middle of the road. [Laughs) But what's going on in Hollywood goes on in every facet of business. Blacks, women, gays, whatever ‑you just have to create your own thing. That's how it's always been and how it always will be. I'm not Spike Lee or anything. That's just reality.

What do you mean, "I'm not Spike Lee"?

I'm just saying, I'm not complaining. I'd be a fool to think the way Hollywood works is going to change in my lifetime. It's not. So you just accept it, work around it.

Are you comfortable being a lightning rod for these sorts of discussions of racial politics, or is that a role that's just been thrust on you?

That's not my gig. I'm not Dick Gregory. I'm not going to be one of these people who start taking themselves really seriously. I tell jokes. That's my job. [Pauses) You know, only dumb people try to impress smart people. Smart people just do what they do.

Josh Rottenberg profiled Jim Carrey for the March 1997 cover of PREMIERE