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INTERVIEW: Chris Rock Gets Down to Earth

Eyeing the movie industry, the raunchy comic takes situation comedy from 'PG-13' all the way to 'R'

Eyeing the movie industry, the raunchy comic takes situation comedy from 'PG-13' all the way to 'R'

Chris Rock hits hard and takes no prisoners. Unencumbered and unrelenting, Rock’s outrageously forthright brand of comedy levels potshots at white America, black America, the rich, the poor and, in the end, leaves everyone both a bit insulted and a bit amused.

Now, after success in stand-up and on TV, Rock sets his sights on ruling the movie industry. In his latest film Down To Earth, Rock takes the roles of writer, producer and star. Rock spent some time speaking with The Hatchet recently, offering the scoop on his plans for the future and an inside glimpse at Down to Earth.

The new film is loosely based on the old Warren Beatty Classic Heaven Can Wait. Rock said the classic was crying out for a new spin.

“I watched the movie a bunch of times,” Rock said. “I thought I could make a big, funny, lot of laughs comedy out of that movie. It’s like an enchanted story. I just saw all those spots for comedy.”

In Down to Earth, Rock plays struggling comedian Lance Barton, an inspired, if not talented, kid who dreams of doing a successful routine at the world famous Apollo Theatre. Before Lance can take his big shot at stardom, he finds himself among the stars, literally, after being hit by oncoming traffic. Arriving in heaven, Lance finds out his death was a mistake and he should have lived several decades longer.

The premise of Down To Earth lends itself to a less intense brand of comedy than the kind Rock is generally associated with, but the comedian said he is happy to expand his horizons.

“I wanted to do a romantic comedy,” Rock said. “It’s not like I was coerced into doing this movie. Romantic comedies are generally PG, it’s not an R genre.”

As the story continues Mr. Keyes (Eugene Levy) and Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), two Heaven employees, arrange for Lance to return to Earth in a new body. The catch is that the new body is that of the rich, white fat cat, Charles Wellington. Wellington is a detestable old man who has everyone gunning for him. In this body Lance seeks to revitalize his comedy act and woo Sonte Jenkins (Regina King), a young activist who is waging a public war against Wellington’s company.

Down to Earth mixes Rock’s rollicking comedy style with moderately serious themes. The transition of Rock from stand-up comedian to actor is at times a bit forced. This is not a deep film, but it is well done for what it is.

For his new film, Rock worked closely with several writers from his HBO series ” The Chris Rock Show.”

“That’s who I should be working with at this point,” he said. “I mean you want the Method Man to work with the Rza, right? Method Man without the Rza, it sucks. I should be working with the gang.”

Rock also played an active role assembling the cast and crew for the film. Actor Eugene Levy and Directors Chris and Paul Weitz hail from last year’s blockbuster comedy hit American Pie. Chris admits he was greatly taken by the movie.

“I saw American Pie and I was like `Oh, this looks good, this is going to be a big hit,’” Rock said. “So, you know, you want big hit directors to direct your stuff.”

From stage to big screen

Rock’s unabashed attitude and piercing smile have earned him the right to work with some of the most prestigious stars in Hollywood. Rock, who was discovered by Eddie Murphy in the early ’80s, stars in films with the likes of Mel Gibson and Joe Pesci. Although the comedian continues to climb to the upper reaches of stardom, he harbors a skeptical tone.

“No one has told me what I can’t do, so far,” he said. “So we’ll see, we’ll see how long that lasts.”

As for regrets, Rock said he has few:

“I don’t know. Maybe Beverley Hills Ninja,” Rock jokes. “But you know, I had just bought a house. I had my mortgage.”

Although Rock is still relatively new to movie acting, he said he learns more from every film.

“It’s like girls,” Rock said. “They just get you ready for the next one. I don’t mean that in a bad, whore-ish tone. I just mean every role prepares you for the next one.”

Rock said he is currently entranced by the allure of the big screen, but he still holds a special place in his heart for stand-up comedy.

“Stand-up’s my girl,” he said. “It brought me to the dance. As long as I can bring it, I’m not going to stop. I can tell you that, as long as I can do it at a higher level.”

Down to Earth delivers a number of hilarious sound bites that stem directly from Rock’s stand-up routines. His tirades in the movie feature previously unheard material, some new and some borrowed.

“The stuff at the end I had to write specifically for the movie,” Rock said. “The mall stuff didn’t make it in the `Bigger and Blacker’ special so I was like `OK, this didn’t make the cut.’ The stuff at the end, at the Apollo, was specially written for this project.”

Because Rock returns to Earth as a white man, Down to Earth raises a number of racial issues, such as when he performs his routine comparing a “black mall” to the “white mall” in front of a black crowd. But the movie only touches lightly on racial taboos, with no serious commentary about race relations.

“I just didn’t want to boggle the movie down in race, to tell you the truth,” Rock told The Hatchet. “Except for two or three jokes, Adam Sandler could have done this movie.”

Although the movie may not reflect it, Rock maintains strong feelings about his role as a black actor and comedian. He levels challenges at those who criticize him by saying his work perpetuates the idea that black actors can only play the comic relief.

“It’s such an ignorant argument,” Rock said. “It’s like black people say, `There’s to much comedy.’ It makes the most money. I mean you don’t hear Arabs going, `Why do you just want our oil? All they want is our oil.’ If you want a drama, write a good one.”

This type of self-empowerment is what Rock stands for. He rejects idea of joining the ranks as simply a “black actor.”

“Why can’t I just be an artist? Why do I have to be a conglomerate?” Rock says.

As for the future, Rock is set to start work on the new Joel Shoemaker film Black Sheep in early March. He will star with Anthony Hopkins and visit D.C. for some of the filming.

Rock’s comedy, which is often political, is set to take on a whole new presidential administration, and his presence in D.C. may act as a fueling agent for future stand-up routines.

“I’m just waiting to see what (President George W.) Bush is,” he said. “He can’t be as dumb as everyone says he is, it’s impossible. I get mad when I hear white people go, `He’s kind of racist.’ I go `how many black people work for you?’”

This article appeared in the February 15, 2001 issue of the Hatchet.

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