Hollywood's self-described "Black shrink" opens up about wrestling with a recent learning disorder diagnosis, learning to swim in his 50s, and reassessing the childhood traumas he once joked about: "I had to let it go. I was just dying, dude."
There's a fairly standard list of reasons people typically call Chris Rock.
In no particular order, he rattles them off: There’s the "We’ve got a charity event, it’d be great if you host it" call. The "My kid’s got a thing at his school, can I count on you?" call. The "I’m having trouble with a Black celebrity, can you help me out" call. And finally, the "I haven’t really cast a Black guy in 10 years, who should I go after?" call.
Rock, at this point, is OK with all of them.
"I get it, I’m a lot of people’s Black shrink, or their Black whisperer," he says as we snake our way through midtown Manhattan traffic in search of lunch on an early March afternoon, a week or so before the city goes into lockdown. "I’m sure Quincy Jones did it for years, I’m sure Oprah is still the Black council for a lot of powerful people. But yeah, there are some huge stars who owe getting cast in a big part to me — and I’ll never tell, but you’d be like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.' "
The call that doesn’t come quite as often as Rock would like is the one he got from Noah Hawley.
It was summer 2018, and the Fargo creator was preparing to dive back into his Emmy-winning anthology series and wanted to do so with Rock at its center. The series’ fourth installment was to be set in 1950s Kansas City, and Hawley envisioned Rock as his wily mob boss, Loy Cannon.
"I just thought, 'He’s that guy,' " says Hawley. "Chris had started with nothing, a skinny kid with no permission to get up on that stage, and now he’s a sort of elder statesman — he’d hate me for saying that — someone who has built an empire for himself, and that’s who Loy is, too."
Rock went to meet Hawley on the set of his 2019 film, Lucy in the Sky, and he could hardly say yes fast enough. Great parts "are like great loves," he tells me, "you get two, three if you’re lucky"— and he found himself at a life stage where a role this heavy and dramatic was within reach. At 55, he’s finally on the other side of a messy divorce from his wife of nearly two decades, and in "a ton of therapy" for the first time in his life. He had already worked through plenty on the road, too, exposing his infidelity, porn addiction and custody struggles to sold-out arenas, and later in one of two $20 million Netflix specials.
"I’m talking from hell," he’d say at every stop, often crafting jokes about having to take shitty TV work to cover his alimony payments. And for a period, there was a flurry of announcements — movies, a book, even a Super Bowl ad — that suggested money was, in fact, a motive.
Fargo was different. "This is the best part I’ve ever had," he says as his driver pulls up to Nobu. And he was ready for it in a way he hadn’t been for others. There have been at least a handful of decent roles, too, dating back a few decades — but he rarely knew what to do with them before.
"Sometimes you get a great love and you’re just not ready for it," he says, citing one of his early roles opposite Morgan Freeman in the 2000 dark comedy Nurse Betty. "Great part, and I wasn’t fucking ready. Now, Don Cheadle would’ve been. You ever seen Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress? That motherfucker was ready." When Rock turned up on the Chicago set of Fargo late last year, he was ready, too.
When the call came from Hawley, Rock was already in deep reflective mode. Those who had caught his latest special, as Hawley had, could plainly see a man careening toward some sort of breaking point. He’d prowled the stage, confessing his sins and the excruciating repercussions to his personal life, the worst of which involved his two teenage daughters, with whom he’s managed to remain fiercely close. Now, he explains, in order to make the transition from young comic to a more seasoned one, he had to find a dramatic base to his comedy. "You can still be funny, you can be hysterical, but you’ve got to be hysterical like Midnight in Paris is hysterical," he says, "like Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hysterical, like every Alexander Payne movie is hysterical."
So, his set writing evolved. "It’s a dramatic piece of work with comedy as the seasoning," he says of his more recent material, "but at its core, it’s a fucking sad story."
That story is shaped by a childhood spent in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the oldest of seven kids. His mother, a special-needs teacher, and his father, a newspaper delivery man, set high expectations. Chris was bussed to a school in another neighborhood where he was the only Black student in his grade, regularly greeted with signs reading "N—r, Go Home." But when classmates would pummel his scrawny body or lob balloons full of piss at his head, he knew better than to run home crying. His parents were "from the suck-it-up school," he says. "No matter what I was going through, it paled in comparison to what my mom or my dad went through; so, there wasn’t a lot of dealing with it."
Rock dropped out of high school and, in time, found an outlet in comedy. "It was the first thing I was ever good at," he says. By 19 or so, he was making the rounds in the New York clubs, where he’d catch the eye of his hero turned mentor, Eddie Murphy. Rock parlayed a bit part in Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop II into other work, eventually following in Murphy’s footsteps to Saturday Night Live, where he was the only Black guy in the cast.
It was supposed to be the break of a lifetime, but it fell woefully short. "Everyone knew Chris was Eddie’s guy," says former SNL producer Marci Klein, "which is a huge responsibility to come in with." Harder still, his time on the show coincided with a Black comedy renaissance, fueled by rival sketch show In Living Color, which Rock wasn’t a part of. After three lackluster years at SNL, he made the leap to In Living Color, but it was too late. The show was canceled shortly after, and Rock was back to grinding it out on the club circuit.
It was during that period that his longtime friend, writer-producer Nelson George, came to appreciate Rock’s grit, as he tirelessly worked every crappy stage that would have him. At one point, he lined the basement of his carriage house in Brooklyn with mirrors so he could watch himself closely and hone his physical delivery. "He really wanted to be the greatest stand-up in the world," says George, who recalls Rock saying as much, often. "There was just such a seriousness with which he took it all."
Rock reflects on those early years through a different lens now. "I had this great combination of big ego and low self-esteem," he says. "And the ego gets you out onstage, but the low self-esteem is the thing that makes you practice so much because you don’t believe in yourself at all. You think you’re a total fucking fraud — and you don’t think anybody could love you for being you, so you have to be good at this thing."
Fear, it turns out, was a great motivator. It drove Rock for decades: fear of failing; fear of letting people down; fear of not being rich and famous anymore. But it took a toll on his act, his relationships, his entire sense of self. Right up until he couldn’t take it anymore. "It just depletes you," he says. "I had to let it go. I was just dying, dude."
So now, at age 55, he’s in therapy.
On this late-winter afternoon, as platters of sushi are delivered to our table, easily the best in the restaurant, Rock won’t say what, exactly, got him there, just that he’s dealing with his past in a non-comedic way for the first time, and that reliving parts of his childhood has been traumatic. "I’m not belittling today’s youth, but I wish somebody had sent me a bad text when I was a kid," he says. "These motherfuckers were trying to kill me."
The thing about Rock is he did become one of the greatest stand-ups of all time. George remembers the precise moment that that became clear to those outside his circle. It was June 1, 1996, the day HBO released Rock’s first hour special, Bring the Pain, a searing commentary on Blackness in America that masqueraded as comedy. George had been in the audience at D.C.’s Takoma Theatre for the taping, and he knew what he’d witnessed there was historic. "It was like, 'Who the fuck is this guy?' " he says. "It all just came together — this very working-class Black crowd got all the jokes, and the room was electric." It debuted on HBO on a Saturday night, and by that Monday Rock’s whole life had changed.
"He went from 'that kid who acts like a watered-down Eddie Murphy' to the straight-up voice of a generation," NPR critic Eric Deggans wrote many years later.
Doors flew open. Rock’s heroes became his friends and often his collaborators. "Does he remind me of me?" said Richard Pryor. "I’m afraid so." The special had earned Rock two Emmys and carte blanche to do virtually anything he wanted — an eponymous HBO show, well ahead of its time, a best-selling book, a few Grammy-winning albums, some commercial spots, a documentary and a slew of films. He also hosted the Oscars (twice), appeared as a correspondent on Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher and, for a time, was seriously considered to replace Jon Stewart at The Daily Show. Not everything he did was of the highest caliber, but every few years Rock would release another hour of stand-up so breathtakingly good that any missteps were forgotten.
There was a noticeable shift about a decade ago, when Rock made his Broadway debut in The Motherfucker With the Hat, under the tutelage of uber-producer Scott Rudin. "Once he was in Rudin’s world, I think he realized, 'I’m an artist,' which he was probably loath to call himself prior to that,' " says his comedian pal Neal Brennan, who is a co-producer on Rock’s last special. The 2014 indie rom-com Top Five, which Rock wrote, directed and starred in, working again with Rudin, solidified that status. "It was the first thing where he wasn’t trying to make a Black [Adam] Sandler movie," adds Brennan. "It was as smart as his act, and we were all like, 'Oh, OK.' "
When Rock was writing Top Five, he included a scene in which his character, a giant comedy star desperate to be taken seriously, is humiliated by long lines for a made-up Tyler Perry movie called Boo! while his wrenching slavery drama bombs. Somebody from Lionsgate, which distributes Perry’s movies, suggested Perry actually make a movie called Boo!, which, incredibly, he did. It was a runaway success that begat a sequel, both of which used art from the Top Five version. A truly weird case of life imitating art imitating life — and wait, it gets weirder.
Not long after, Rock ran into the head of Lionsgate’s film group at a friend’s wedding and remarked to him, half-jokingly, that he’d never seen a cent from Boo! "I don’t even think I got a special thanks," he says now. "And I’m not complaining, I’m just saying, I’ve seen a bone thrown for a lot less." The conversation got friendlier from there, as Rock complimented the studio’s Saw horror franchise and, having given it no prior thought, suggested they make the next one in the comedic style of Murphy’s 48 Hours. A few weeks later, he got a call from Saw producer Mark Burg, and a deal was struck for Rock to not only help develop such an idea but also to star. Spiral, which they’d later title his film, wrapped production in Toronto last spring. Rock would have directed it, too, if not for his Fargo commitment. The movie was slated for a big release in May, a few weeks after the new season of Fargo would have debuted on FX, an enviable one-two punch for Rock.
The novel coronavirus disrupted all of that, of course. Though Spiral was in the can and its theatrical release could simply be postponed, Fargo still had two episodes left to shoot. "I had to go to Chris and say, 'This is it, the last scene we’re going to do,' " says Hawley. "And I remember he was like, 'Wow, this is really it,' and I could see him processing that this enormous life moment that he’d been anticipating was not going to happen any time soon. And he’s not an optimist, so I could tell in that moment there was a real possibility in his mind that it was never going to happen."
When we connect again, half a year after our sushi lunch in a fully functioning Manhattan, Rock’s just finished shooting the final two episodes of Fargo — which will begin rolling out Sept. 27 — amid a dizzying set of protocols. He confesses that while preparing for scenes with other actors, he’d often be thinking, "Oh, I hope this motherfucker don’t have COVID."
Rock went from Chicago to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he is now, for his buddy Dave Chappelle’s comedy summit. He’d done a set for 50 people in a cornfield the night before, and plans to do another that night. He sounds considerably calmer than he had — more self-reflective, even a little ... happy? The past six months, as scary and awful as they’ve been at points, forced a reset he never imagined he’d get, allowing him the space to do some much-needed work on himself. The pandemic, for him, was like what an off-season is for an athlete. "What people don’t realize is that athletes get that time," he says, "and you can’t obtain greatness without the time to rest and work on yourself and your faults."
He also accomplished something he had been talking about for years — he learned to swim, part of a new fitness regimen that’s contributed to what are now countable ab muscles. "Do you know how fucking hard it is for a grown-up to learn how to swim? You’ve got to not be scared to die," he tells me, before acknowledging the absurdity of having a pool that he couldn’t previously use at his Alpine, New Jersey, home. "The other day, this guy says to me, 'OK, you’re going to dive into the deep end and swim to the other side,' and I’m like, 'Are you fucking crazy?' But then I dove into the deep end and I swam to the other side, and it’s a metaphor for what I’ve been trying to do during this time."
The far bigger commitment has been therapy, however; seven hours a week, he says with unmistakable pride. His decision to seek meaningful help for the first time in his life was precipitated by a friend’s suggestion that he may have Asperger’s. It prompted a nine-hour battery of cognitive tests earlier this year, from which doctors diagnosed Rock with a condition called nonverbal learning disorder, or NVLD. As he’s come to understand it, he has tremendous difficulty with non-verbal signals — which doesn’t sound too drastic until, as he explains, you consider that some 80 percent of communication is nonverbal. "And all I understand are the words," he says.
Rock often takes things too literally as a result and, like others with the condition, suffers from a kind of all-or-nothing thinking. "By the way, all of those things are really great for writing jokes — they’re just not great for one-on-one relationships," he says. Until now, it’s made much of Rock’s life uncomfortable. "And I’d always just chalked it up to being famous. Any time someone would respond to me in a negative way, I’d think, 'Whatever, they’re responding to something that has to do with who they think I am.' Now, I’m realizing it was me. A lot of it was me."
So, with the aid of two therapists, he’s been trying to make sense of his limitations and the toll that childhood trauma has taken on him. Sure, he’s been joking about the latter for decades — at one point, it fueled an entire sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris, which ran for four celebrated seasons in the mid-2000s. And because he was able to laugh about it, he thought he was over it. "I thought I was actually dealing with it, and the reality is I never dealt with it," he says. "The reality was the pain and the fear that that brought me, I was experiencing it every day."
Brennan can’t help but appreciate the irony, given how much Rock ribbed him over the years for his own embrace of therapy. "He’d call it 'white people problems' or 'rich people problems,' and I’d be like, ' Dude, your body doesn’t know what fucking class you’re in,' " says the comic. Now, instead of arguing about feelings, the two actually talk about them. "Chris will still write as a caustic person because he’s got a fucking bleak point of view, but now he can do it with a bit of empathy for himself."
There's still plenty more that Rock plans to do, and even more he’d love to do. For one, he’s itching to get back to Broadway — something he would’ve done already had it not been for those "ridiculous" alimony obligations; and he’s banked at least two film scripts. The first will pair him with his buddies Sandler and Chappelle; the second he describes as "Bad Lieutenant, starring an insane actress." He’s light with details, but borderline giddy about both.
For now, though, Rock’s focused on the new material that will feed into his next Netflix special, where politics will almost certainly be front and center. In the midst of the pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, Rock has a lot to say. And while he’s been addressing systemic racism and the targeting of Black people by police for 30 years, he has regrets about not doing more.
"Even though I talked about it and I joked about it, there’s a part of me that’s ashamed at how much of it I just accepted," he says. He would very likely unload on the coming election, too, if only he had a stage readily available to him. At this time four years ago, he stood at mic after mic predicting Donald Trump’s victory. "Of-the-moment candidates" like Trump or Obama always beat the "it’s your turn" options, he’d say, often to boos.
Rock has been around long enough to remember running into Trump on the New York nightlife circuit. "I remember Eddie, Arsenio [Hall], Prince and me at a club one night," he says, "and Donald Trump walks in and all these girls just start running to that side of the room because a fucking 6-foot-whatever blond billionaire with his name on all the buildings walks in — like if that room was a seesaw, we’d be in the air." Years later, Rock would find himself in Brian Grazer’s office in L.A., as Murphy pitched a heist flick — a kind of Black Ocean’s Eleven, starring him, Rock, Chappelle, Chris Tucker and a few others — about a gang that robs Trump Tower. Murphy envisioned Trump as the movie’s villain. "Like Alan Rickman in Die Hard," says Rock. What happened from there is another classic Hollywood story: The movie became Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner, starring Ben Stiller with Murphy and "a bunch of white people."
He is considerably less animated by the outrage hurricanes that blow through Hollywood. This spring, Rock’s name was dragged into one, when a clip surfaced of Jimmy Fallon doing a Blackface impersonation of Rock in a 2000 episode of SNL. Rock says he doesn’t remember seeing it at the time and writes it off as just "bad comedy." Fallon "doesn’t have a racist bone in his body," he says, adding that he called his old friend after he issued a public apology to tell him that he loves him. In a matter of weeks, he’ll appear on Fallon’s Tonight Show to promote the new series.
Fargo plus all the therapy and the swimming and the time to just be has left Rock feeling at the peak of his creative powers. He recently watched a cut of Questlove’s Black Woodstock documentary — about a legendary concert in Harlem in 1969 — and he’s found himself inspired by the greatness of Stevie Wonder. "By '69, he’d already done 'My Cherie Amour,' 'Uptight' and 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life,' he was a superstar, and it hadn’t even started yet," says Rock, his voice rising a few octaves with enthusiasm. "He hadn’t done Talking Book yet. He hadn’t done fucking Songs in the Key of Life. The last special I did was my sixth. Know what Prince’s sixth album was? Purple Rain, and he did a lot of great shit after that."
Then Rock has to run, he says. He’s got to "go cry in therapy."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.