Toronto: Chris Rock on Directing 'Top Five,' Why Kris Jenner Is a Visionary and How "Fame Is the New Cocaine"
The comic also declares Kanye West the best celebrity in the world right now
With his latest directing effort, Top Five, funnyman Chris Rock (who also wrote the screenplay and stars) tackles the story of a comedian trying to reinvent himself as a serious actor just as his reality TV star fiancee talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her show. Rosario Dawson, J.B. Smoove and Gabrielle Union co-star, while Rock pals Tracy Morgan, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg also make appearances. Thanks in part to the high-caliber cast, U.S. buyers are keen to check out the UTA-repped project, which has a prime first-Saturday screening slot on Sept. 6. The Hollywood Reporter talked to the 49-year-old married father of three daughters about Leonardo DiCaprio's posse, the hottest Kardashian and why Kanye West is the best celebrity in the world right now.
How autobiographical is this film?
I don't know. As much as Annie Hall or an episode of Louie. It's me, but it's not me. It's a composite of a lot of famous comedians. There's probably a little me in there, and there's probably a little Eddie Murphy. A little Louis [C.K.] and a little Seinfeld, a little Larry David. We're all sprinkled in there.
How did you prepare?
I watched [Woody Allen's] Celebrity and Stardust Memories. A lot.
How has celebrity evolved since you first became famous?
Celebrity used to be a by-product of being really good at something — a good singer or a good actor or dancer or something. Now we're in that weird time where being a celebrity is just about being a good celebrity. Some people are just better celebrities than others.
Like the Kardashians?
Yeah, like Kim Kardashian is a better celebrity than Harrison Ford. It's not even close. I'm not saying she is as talented. But if they had a celebrity contest, she'd kick his ass.
Isn't that kind of a sad statement?
I always say, "Fame is the new cocaine." There was nothing more sad and desperate than someone who wants coke and has no money. Now the only thing more sad and desperate is somebody who wants fame and has no talent. That's what this movie is about. Fame.
New York has a very different celebrity culture than L.A. Is that why you live here and not L.A.?
Yeah, there are places with paparazzi hanging out. But you can avoid all that stuff in New York if you want to. But it's hard to really avoid it in L.A. That’s why I never moved out there. I never wanted my kids out there.
Right, because then your kids would end up on a reality TV show?
Let's hope not. Some of these shows are good. And I don't judge anybody for how they get their mother a house. But, yeah, my kids will not end up on a reality TV show.
What was the mindset behind Top Five taking place over the course of one day?
The day happens to be the day before my character, Andre Allen, is getting married and the day he has a movie coming out. I've just never seen that before. The day a celebrity's movie comes out is like four days in one day. From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, you're constantly doing press, you're constantly in motion. It's like running for president. You're getting results. You're getting the matinees. You're getting tracking. You're getting exit polling. You're, "Oh, I gotta do this radio thing here. I gotta do satellites over here." It's a crazy day. And I've never seen it captured. You can get a lot into that day and have it not be contrived.
There's a perception that films with all or mostly black casts won't play overseas. Do you see that starting to change?
I'm starting to see that change. Denzel [Washington] does great, and Will Smith does great. Frankly, it's the studios. I mean, do you mean to tell me Sidney Poitier was easier to sell in 1955 than Martin Lawrence is in 2014? Stop. I don't want to dis any studios, but the only thing I've noticed is when movies with all-white casts don't do well [here], the studios just shake it off, and they will sell it overseas like nothing happened. They will sell it like it's a hit. But when a black movie doesn't do well in the states, they just drop it. But I think that's changing.
Frankly, I think we're making better black movies. 12 Years a Slave really was the best picture. Think Like a Man is really good. It's hysterical. There's a lot of good stuff. The Help and The Butler. Black success throughout the history of America has never been based on white people being fair. Especially black success in the arts or sports. It's always been based on black people being kind of better than white people. Doing superior art and getting the shot that way. It wasn't enough for Jackie Robinson to be as good as the other players. He had to be better. I think some black filmmakers are saying, "I gotta make better movies than they are." Myself included.
But the studios are increasingly moving toward a cultural blandness in an effort to appeal to the world. Will that hurt black storytellers?
Yeah, it's the Starbucks-inization of art. It's Sunglass Hut, the Gap, Banana Republic — just something that people are used to seeing. People want to sell things they've sold already. People want to buy ideas they've seen work already. They don't really want to try new things. But if you want safe, get into banking, get into commodities. Get out of the arts. Some people are safer bets than others. Leo pretty much makes what he wants to make. God bless Leo DiCaprio, but everybody doesn't have that shot. But by the way, everybody doesn't deserve that shot.
What was the film's budget?
I don't think I'm allowed to say. Leo pays his agents more than this movie cost. That's what I'll say. I'm not exaggerating.
In the film, you debate the top five hip-hop artists of all time with Rosario. So who are your top five?
Ice Cube, Jay Z, Kanye, Scarface and Tribe Called Quest. You can throw KRS-One in there, too. But Kanye's probably my favorite. Kanye West is the most interesting artist in this whole hip-hop era we live in. You never know what he's gonna do. He's a combination of old-school-fame celebrity and new-school celebrity. He's really good at something, and he's really good at being a celebrity. He's a much better celebrity than Leo DiCaprio. And Leo DiCaprio's a pretty good celebrity. Leo keeps a model girlfriend, has a posse, does interesting movies. But Kanye raised the bar on celebrities. I have to become a better celebrity. I've been boring.
Are there any Kardashians left to marry?
I like the mom. The mom's the cutest one to me. The mom is hot. The thing about Kris [Jenner] is, we all thought she was crazy. But Kris, in her own way, is a visionary. I would have never thought there was a career in having a great ass and going to parties. But Kris saw the worth of what was there. I'm like, "Make Kris my manager, please."
Was it difficult to finance Top Five?
I had been working with the great Scott Rudin [on the play The Motherfucker With the Hat], and I did a rewrite on a script [High and Low] for Mike Nichols [that Rudin is producing]. So we had a working relationship. And he just liked the script [for Top Five]. He went out and got the money from Barry Diller. But the budget was really low.
Which filmmakers have most influenced you?
Woody … Woody, Woody, Woody, Woody, Woody. Woody is the Bible. [Bob] Fosse. Alexander Payne is just unbelievable. John Landis is a very, very, very underrated filmmaker. Trading Places is one of the best movies that I've ever seen. Spike Lee. The list is long. Paul Thomas Anderson.
Wait, Bob Fosse? Is there a musical in your future?
There's no musical, but Lenny is just a frickin' perfect movie.
You and Jon Stewart both have films at Toronto produced by Scott Rudin, and you both came up together in the New York comedy club scene. Have you been comparing notes?
We compare bruises, Rudin bruises. I meet [Stewart] at the bar, and it's like Jaws. He pulls up his sleeve and shows me a big welt behind his neck: "Yeah, Rudin didn't like the first act." Then I show him my half an ear taken off: "Yeah, Rudin hated the mix."
What's next for you?
Probably I will do some stand-up. Maybe a tour. I would love to do another play. We'll just see. I've never tried to write a play. It's like there's a shortage of good movies. But there's not really a shortage of good plays.
How about TV? I think we've gotten to the point where there's no shortage of good TV shows either.
If somebody called me for True Detective, I'm there. Do I want to be the third person on Two and a Half Men? No interest. God bless 'em, but no interest in it. I'd love to be on a great show. I just don't want to be bored. True Detective. I'd be a detective. I'd be a killer. I'd be whatever. I can die in the first episode, and I'd be happy. I can literally die four minutes into the first episode. I could be the corpse they find, and I would be so happy. They could be investigating my death.
This was the liveliest interview I've had in a long time.
Are you trying to say I'm more entertaining than Bennett Miller? I'm sure his movie's amazing. I can't wait to see [Toronto entry Foxcatcher]. But I'm always gonna be a better interview than Bennett Miller.