Not to brag but S&A is obviously becoming the go-to “must read every day” place, since more and more name actors, as well as independent and Hollywood producers and filmmakers are eager to talk to us. Yes - I do admit that there are those few who are still scared of us, as if we’re going to bite their heads off… and we might), but we’re open and ready to talk to anyone if they’ll give us a chance.
Recent case in point, comedian Craig Robinson, who we have written about several times regarding his various projects, and, of course, his new film Peeples, in which, for the first time, he plays the lead, which opens next Friday.
The former Chicago elementary school music teacher is currently on a cross country promo tour for the film, and, yesterday I met him and we talked about all sorts of things (Well as many things as I could given the limited time allowed).
Our talk began as soon as I walked into his hotel room as he started laughing once he saw me:
ROBINSON: You look just like a good friend of mine, Michael Carlton King.
SERGIO: Poor guy, That’s a terrible tragedy.
ROBINSON: No! It’s a great thing, it’s a great thing.
SERGIO: So I have a doppelganger?
ROBINSON Yes, yes you do.
SERGIO: I have to tell you that I’m going to really try to avoid the usual bullshit questions that you’ll get like: “What was Kerry Washington like to work with?” like, as if you’re going to say it was nightmare. But if it was, that would be interesting…
ROBINSON: It was anything but a nightmare. It was dream.
SERGIO: Especially in that scene in the film when she’s lying on top of you moving back and forth. That must have been real torture.
ROBINSON: (laughs) Exactly. Tough life.
SERGIO: But let me ask you here - are playing the lead for the first time in a film. What is it you think that director Tina Chism saw in you that convinced her that you were the right guy for the role, instead of some more obvious choice like Chris Rock or that really short guy? I forgot his name…
ROBINSON: (laughs) Kevin Hart?
SERGIO: Yeah right him. But they said you were the perfect guy.
ROBINSON Well as Tina Chism told me, Lionsgate told her - because she had a list of people she wanted - what about Craig Robinson? And she had never thought of that. And then it gets twisted, even more twisted, because she came to meet with me and she’ll tell you that I fell asleep during the meeting. Like stone cold, like just out. And yes, I was tired and yes I had been shooting for 15 hours on The Office just before, but it was just a catnap. (laughs)
SERGIO: During the meeting?
ROBINSON: Yes during the meeting! (laughs) Lionsgate was really pushing for me for her to like me, so we met again and it was love at second sight, and we hit it off. But I would be lying if I said I know what they saw in me, to give me this role to play Wade Walker with this amazing cast. So whatever they saw keep on seeing it baby!
SERGIO: Melvin Van Peebles in is the film playing the grand patriarch of the family and you know I just had dinner with him like two weeks ago. The guy is 80 years old and still has the filthy mind of a 16 year old.
ROBINSON: Yeah that’s Melvin! He's a charmer! (laughs)
SERGIO: But you’re in this film with Van Peebles, Diahann Carroll, Kerry Washington, S. Epatha Merkerson and David Alan Grier. You had to bring your "A game" every day while making this movie.
ROBINSON: YES! David Alan Grier - I started watching him in college when he was on In Living Color and I’ve been a major fan of him ever since. So to be on your “A game” you can't sit back and go “OOOOH Look it’s David Alan Grier!!” You have to come ready to play and ready to have an open mind. One of the things I’ve learned being on this movie is that every scene can be mined. Every single scene - there’s some gold that you've got to find. So let’s say as an actor I’ll do an audition and get home and say: "Arggggggh I should have done this!” or you do a scene and later you go: "Owwww I should have done this instead of that.” So I found myself in this movie trying to mine every scene beforehand to see what I could find so that I wouldn't go home and say: "God! I blew it” That’s the worse feeling when you know that there was something else, a stone you left un-turned.
SERGIO: The thing about you and Grier is that the both of you have a sort of similar comic sensibility. Very off beat.
ROBINSON: (nodding) Very off beat. Thank you, that’s a high compliment. He was the father on the set and I think he’s the funniest dude on the planet. It takes a lot to "out-silly” me and he does it, but with class and taste and intelligence. And going up against him, that was the challenge. How do you go up against this giant of a comedic talent?
SERGIO: Did you ever see his Comedy Central stand up special from about ten years ago, The Book of David; The Cult Figure’s Manifesto? He was dressed as Chairman Mao or some Chinese Communist plutocrat from the 1960’s, and on the stage he had as a backdrop this enormous 1960's Communist Chinese propaganda poster. But instead of Mao’s face on top of the poster it was Grier’s. He’s on a different wavelength definitely. Not your usual black comedian. Everybody goes right, he goes left.
ROBINSON Yeah, exactly, exactly. He told me one time: “Do what scares you.” He said that’s what made him do Broadway, for example, in David Mamet’s play Race with Kerry Washington, or Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess. And that stayed with me. Do what scares you. If it scares you go ahead and tackle it.
(Robinson suddenly starts to reach over for my recorder)
SERGIO: Hey what are doing? You’re cutting it off? I’m that bad?
ROBINSON: (laughs) No see, I…I was shifting it trying to make sure the light was on…(laughs)
SERGIO Yeah right! (laughs). So you think you can be used to being a leading man?
ROBINSON: I had a blast. I don't know if I’m a leading man and all. My challenge was not to have that voice in my head saying: "You're the leading man so you must act this way.” The cast was family. Nothing changes you. Just go in and do what you do and do it well. But it was great playing those different layers not having to play “a beginning, middle and an end” character in one scene. It was great just watching my story develop over a course of time being funny and dramatic. I just relished it.
SERGIO : So when did you know that you were funny? I mean everybody thinks they’re funny, but I mean when you first learned that you have the talent to make other people laugh?
ROBINSON: Well I've always been silly but I’ll give you two examples: I know I could improvise. Back when I was a kid I was reading the Three Little Pigs to my father and when I read the second little pig's house was blown down, I said, then the second little pig put on his gym shoes and ran off; and my father said “WHAT?” He just busted out laughing. I just improvised it right there, but saw the reaction it got.
And then the second time is when we would be riding in the car, and making my father laugh was the ultimate goal. He was this hardcore guy. He was an attorney, he came up in the projects, his father died when he was 12, so he had to be the man in the house since he was 12. So we would be riding around in the car and my little stage would be the back seat, and then these things would come to me, and I would be in this creative space of making up these characters and situations and having the whole family cracking up. So that was always real special to me. I never knew it was going to happen, it just happened.
SERGIO: So then when did you come to the decision that doing comedy would be your calling?
ROBINSON: Well in college I bought a keyboard. I wanted to be a singer and write songs. And then soon after I got that keyboard, comedy just sort of swooped in and took me. I mean I’m just so silly. People would later come back to me and tell me things that I said that made them laugh, which were basically comedy bits. So a few people did comedy at talent shows in college and I was like “What? Real people do this?” Because I thought comedians on TV were like superheroes, like this huge presence. So after seeing them do comedy at the talent show, I’m hooked, this is it. So I started reading books on comedy and began to figure out how you build an act. And then when I started developing my comedy act, I started taking acting classes. I went to Act One and Second City in Chicago and one thing lead to another.
SERGIO: But you’re also talking about finding your own unique comedy voice.
ROBINSON: It’s a process and it’s an ongoing process. A matter of fact I’m in that place right now where… “O.K. I’ve said all these things in my act which, O.K., everybody hasn't seen.” But do I still go down that road; or do I start to talk about some other stuff that’s going on. That stuff is good, but that stuff over here is the real good stuff. So it’s definitely a process. I’m going to have to sit down one day and go: "O.K. let me see who you really are. What kind of balls do you really do have?”
SERGIO: I always have to ask my last question - what do you know now that you wish you had known before you got into this business?
ROBINSON: (pauses and laughs) Well the first thing that comes to mind is that I need to get some arthroscopic knee surgery. So I wish I had known to take better care of my knees.
(Another long pause)
But as far as show business goes, my naivety is so strong, I don’t know if it would have made a difference. Because you know, I sort of just rolled into this. I've had great success with my team around me and it's been all blessings. I wouldn’t change a thing in other words.