Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Chris Rock

Rock of Ages

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

March 17, 2003—One of Chris Rock's earliest influences was Eddie Murphy. The 36 year-old comedian acknowledges Murphy for not only inspiring him, but discovering him. Murphy even cast Rock in small roles in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) and Boomerang (1992).

Rock further followed in his mentor's footsteps by joining the cast of "Saturday Night Live," and performing a series of trash-talking stand-up comedy specials. Not ready to rest on his laurels, he also created "The Chris Rock Show" in 1997 and took on a series of supporting, character-driven roles, such as Pookie the junkie in New Jack City (1991), Rufus the Thirteenth Apostle in Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999) and the hitman Wesley in Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty.

Now Rock has followed in the footsteps of his other big hero, Woody Allen. After working as a comedian, a gag-writer and a screenwriter, Allen turned film director. And so Rock has done likewise and tried his hand behind the camera. His first effort, Head of State, opens today in Bay Area theaters.

"I'm a Woody Allen-phile. I love Woody Allen," he says during a recent visit to San Francisco. He admits that he has wanted to step behind the camera for some time. "It was just a matter of which one it was. This seemed like the one I could pull it off with."

Rock also admits that he jumped in the director's chair to save time. "Studios only want to make four movies: one stars Tom Hanks, one stars Tom Cruise, one stars Julia Roberts and the other one is just one they end up making. 'We need something for the third quarter.' Unless you're one of those huge stars, it's really about momentum when you write a movie."

"So you sell the movie. If you have your director, you can go. If you gotta look for a director, you're f---ed. If you find a director, he's going to want to do his re-write, and it adds a year to the process."

But after two years cooking from start to finish, Head of State emerges at a strange time. With the United States at war and the president questioning Americans' patriotism, Rock has made an irreverent film about the first black U.S. president.

In the film, which he also co-wrote, he plays Mays Gilliam, an alderman who becomes the replacement Democratic nominee when the original candidate dies in a plane crash. While the Republican nominee (from Texas) spouts rhetoric like, "God bless America and no place else," Gilliam speaks the truth. He wonders about the hard questions, like why Americans have to work two jobs just to stay broke.

His catch phrase becomes, "That ain't right!" -- a phrase many Americans today could easily latch onto about any number of problems.

In person, Rock stays away from politics. "It's easier to market it to the kids. If you say, 'Hey this movie's really political!' It's, 'I'll pass.' But if you say, 'Hey this movie's really funny!' Then, 'hey!'"

Still, he did do his research. "I don't want to seem like an idiot in the president movie. People would definitely slam it if the politics weren't thought out." As a stand-up comic, Rock worked both the Democratic and Republican conventions. He also has an idea of what campaigning is like, comparing it to life on a tour bus.

Rock says that the seed for Head of State came a long time ago, when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate for the 1984 election; she was the first female vice-presidential candidate, ever.

"It seemed like a similar scenario: 'we're probably going to lose. Let's pick a vice presidential candidate that'll make us look good down the line.' It was the same year that they announced the results too early on the West Coast, and so a lot of people didn't vote."

As for the movie's timing, Rock dismisses any connection, and does not wish to cash in on current events to sell his movie. "Come on, war's not good for anybody. There's always something political going on. I got a feeling that no matter what time this movie came out, people would be making some connection."

Rock has attended several preview screenings and has been surprised at the response. "I didn't expect a passionate response; I just was hoping to get some laughs," he says. "I was trying to get old school, but I got something else."

Partial Chris Rock Filmography:
I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)
Boomerang (1992)
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
Dogma (1999)
Nurse Betty (2000)
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
Head of State (2003)
The Longest Yard (2005)
Madagascar (2005) [voice]
I Think I Love My Wife (2007)
Grown Ups (2010)
2 Days in New York (2012)
Top Five (2014)

Movies Unlimtied