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Chris Rock, Putting On A Blue New 'Hat'

Chris Rock's movie roles have encompassed everything from Playboy Mansion Valet (in 1987's Beverly Hills Cop II) to presidential candidate Mays Gilliam in 2003's Head of State. ( )

"To tell you the truth, I just assumed they would change the title," says Chris Rock. "I didn't think it would get this far."

That's because the show that is bringing Rock to Broadway — after 20 years of performing stand-up on stages large and small — has a title that is kind of unprintable. On the radio, we had to use a bleep. For the Web, we'll go with The Motherf----- with the Hat.

It's a five-person ensemble show that deals with addiction, friendship and betrayal in New York City — not a frothy comedy, by any stretch.

"I haven't done anything like this since I did New Jack City, where I was a crack addict," Rock tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "Now I'm an older drug counselor."

As for character research?

"I'm a comedian," Rock says, leaning into the stereotype. "I don't know if studies have been done, but I would say 40 percent of comedians are in some form of recovery."

Or they're headed there, maybe?

"Or they're headed there," Rock agrees. "I mean, we work in bars, you know what I mean? They give us free drinks at a young age, and we kinda get hooked. I know a ton of guys in AA and NA — comedians are very addictive people."

'That's The Real Progress'

Rock sells out shows across the country. He has done movies, solo HBO specials — even hosted the Oscars. You might think a little thing like a play wouldn't be enough to make him nervous.

"Stand-up still makes me nervous, and the play makes me nervous," he says. "The nicest compliment I ever got was from Conan O'Brien; I did the show and it went well, and he said, 'You know what I like about you? You're still smart enough to be scared.' He said a lot of guys come — big-name comics — and they're overly confident, and they bomb. He said, 'I've got to dig them out of the hole they put themselves in.' "

Rock's philosophy: "Anything you can suck at should make you nervous. One should always be cognizant of how bad it could go."

For The Black List, a multimedia conversation conceived by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and film critic Elvis Mitchell, Rock voiced another philosophy of suck:

"True equality," the comic said in a video, "is the equality to suck like the white man. That's really Martin Luther King's dream coming true, is guys sucking."

By that standard, would terrible reviews for Motherf----- With the Hat be a kind of victory?

"No, no, no," he says — then amplifies.

"Barack Obama, arguably one of the greatest speakers of the last 40 years, is the first black president. When we have a black president with a speech impediment, that's the real progress. This guy? Of course he's president."

'I Knew It Would Make Me A Better Actor'

Rock went to the theater a lot as a kid, he says — "my mother used to take me to the Negro Ensemble Company," he recalls, and the outings were frequent enough that he can't remember the first play he saw.

In fact, he cites theater as a formative influence — "everything in showbiz had an impact on me," he says — so in some ways it's a surprise that it took 20 years for a stage play to show up on his resume.

But, it's simple: "This is the first script in 20 years I've been offered that was right for me," Rock says. "Sometimes people offer you plays, they offer you parts, but they only offer it because I'm famous. It's like 'OK, he'll bring in people,' but even I know I'm not right for it."

The Motherf----- with The Hat, though: It's a play by the scorchingly talented Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose other dramas include Jesus Hopped the A Train and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

And for Rock, it's a way to sharpen his skills.

"Here's what I knew about doing a play: I knew it would make me a better actor," he says. "In a weird way, it was like I was shoved into this great graduate school."

He has acted in films, of course — Death at a Funeral, Head of State, the animated Madagascar films and more — but "you can fake a movie," Rock says.

"Movies have takes," he laughs. "But plays are like life — you don't really get takes."

Plus there are the practical considerations. At 46, Rock has done his share of touring. When you're doing a Broadway show, you can live more or less over the shop.

"You know, I have a family," Rock says. "My kids are in school — Lola's in third [grade], Zahra's in first. So, yeah, I didn't want to go anywhere."

He puts on a plaintive voice.

"I just want my kids to know me," he says. "How's that?"

One thing they won't get to know — not firsthand, if he can help it — is what dad looks like in The Motherf----- with the Hat.

"They are not going to see my opening night," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Chris Rock has spent 20 years near the top of the comedy pyramid. He sells out shows across the country. He's done movies and HBO specials. He's even hosted the Oscars.

Now he's making his Broadway debut. Rock is known for his profanity, so no surprise.

Ready with the bleep, Brian?

BRIAN: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: The play is called "The Mother(bleep) with the Hat."

Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Comedian-Actor): Known for my profanity? You say that like I -like there's profanity that I've invented.

SHAPIRO: Oh, you don't invent it, but you use it.

Mr. ROCK: So it would not be my profanity. This would be somebody else's profanity.

SHAPIRO: Your pro - no, no. You employ it. You employ it in your routines, no?

Mr. ROCK: W.C. Fields' profanity and Redd Foxx's profanity.

SHAPIRO: In any case, the play is a five-person ensemble. It deals with addiction, friendship and betrayal in New York City. Rock joined us from New York to discuss his latest project.

Welcome.

Mr. ROCK: Thanks for having, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So why pick a play that's so difficult to talk about the title on the air without a bleep?

Mr. ROCK: I didn't - you know, it's weird. I didn't pick the play for the title. To tell you the truth, I just assumed they would change the title.

SHAPIRO: Really?

Mr. ROCK: I didn't think it would get this far.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember the first time you saw theater, or the first Broadway play that you saw?

Mr. ROCK: What is the first Broadway play I saw? Man, my mother used to take me to the Negro Ensemble Company.

SHAPIRO: Did the theater have a big impact on you as a kid?

Mr. ROCK: Everything in show business has had an impact on me. So yes, it did have an impact on me. And I got into stand-up, because probably that was the easiest part of show business for me to get into.

SHAPIRO: But it surprises me that you went to the theater a lot as a kid, got into stand-up, did really well at it, and then it took you 20 years to do your first play.

Mr. ROCK: This is the first script in 20 years I've been offered that was right for me. You know, because sometimes people offer you plays, they offer you parts, but they only offer it to me because I'm famous.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Mr. ROCK: And it's like, okay, he'll bring in people. But even I know I'm not right for it.

SHAPIRO: So there's been a lot of that, you know, Denzel Washington on Broadway, Julia Roberts on Broadway. How do you get beyond that with this play?

Mr. ROCK: The thing with this is it's a new play. So I think the play is ultimately going to be bigger than me.

SHAPIRO: Was there a moment in your life that you thought: I really want to be an actor, I really want to be on stage?

Mr. ROCK: Here's what I knew about doing a play: I knew it would make me a better actor. I mean, in a weird way, it's like I was shoved into, like, this great graduate school.

SHAPIRO: Why does a play do that more than a movie?

Mr. ROCK: Because you can fake a movie. You know what I mean? Movies have takes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCK: But plays are like life. You don't really get takes.

SHAPIRO: Why, at this point in your life, did you want that challenge?

Mr. ROCK: You know, I have a family. My kids are in school, you know. Lola's in third, Zahra's in first. So, yeah, I didn't want to go anywhere. I just want my kids to know me. How's that?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Mr. ROCK: You know, and I like doing stand-up, but, you know, you have to travel. And didn't want to go on the road, read a good play and said, you know what? Let's do this.

SHAPIRO: When you say it's a good play, it's substantive. This is not a frothy comedy.

Mr. ROCK: No, it's not a frothy comedy at all. No. No. No. No. I haven't done something like this since I did, like, "New Jack City." That's probably 20 years ago, where I was a crack addict. Now I'm an older drug counselor.

SHAPIRO: How much did you know about AA before you started doing this role?

Mr. ROCK: I'm a comedian. I don't know if studies have been done, but I would say 40 percent of comedians are in some form of recovery.

SHAPIRO: Or they're headed there.

Mr. ROCK: Or they're headed there. I mean, we work in bars. You know what I mean? So, you know, they give us free drinks at a young age, and we kind of get hooked. So I know a ton of guys in AA and NA, and comedians are very addictive people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: I assume that stand-up no longer makes you nervous. Does this play make you nervous?

Mr. ROCK: Stand-up still makes me nervous, and the play makes me nervous. Now, here's the nicest compliment I ever got, was from Conan O'Brien, actually. I did the show, and it went well. And he said, you know what I like about you? You're still smart enough to be scared. He said a lot of guys come - big-name comics - and they're overly confident, and they bomb. He said, I got to dig them out of the hole they put themselves in.

So anything you can suck at should make you nervous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCK: One should always be cognizant of how bad it could go.

SHAPIRO: Okay. Well, this reminds me of a clip that I want to play for you.

Mr. ROCK: Okay.

SHAPIRO: This you something you said for a project called "The Black List."

(Soundbite of show, "The Black List")

Mr. ROCK: True equality is the equality to suck, like the white man. That's really Martin Luther King's dream coming true, is guys sucking.

SHAPIRO: So that by standard, would a terrible review of this play be victory?

Mr. ROCK: No. No. No. By that standard, Barack Obama, arguably one of the greatest speakers of the last 40 years, is the first black president. When we have a black president with a speech impediment, that's the real progress. It's like, oh, this guy - of course he's president. See what I'm saying?

SHAPIRO: But we're not there yet, you think.

Mr. ROCK: Oh, no. We're not there yet.

SHAPIRO: You said in that same interview that you're waiting to see the black Barbra Streisand.

Mr. ROCK: Yeah, I would love - I wish some of our actresses got more involved in the writing process and the producing process. I think there's a lot of smart women out there.

SHAPIRO: Does some of this come from having daughters?

Mr. ROCK: Some of it comes from having daughters and just wanting to work. It's like, dude, I got a GED. I've written about six movies. So I see all these great, college-educated actresses. It's like, dude, write a script.

SHAPIRO: So I have to ask...

Mr. ROCK: Sure.

SHAPIRO: You have these two young daughters...

Mr. ROCK: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Their father is making his Broadway debut...

Mr. ROCK: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...in a play that is so full of graphic descriptions: swearing, sex, drugs. Are they going to come see your opening night?

Mr. ROCK: They are not going to see my opening night.

SHAPIRO: Are they ever going to see the play?

Mr. ROCK: I don't know. You know, put it this way. I'm never going to plan on bringing them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCK: But who knows? Who knows if my wife breaks her toe or something, and I got...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCK: ...the kids in the theater. I don't know what's going to happen.

SHAPIRO: Do you let them watch your stand-up?

Mr. ROCK: No. They have not watched my stand-up. But there's tons of stuff to watch me on. You know, I'm the zebra in "Madagascar." There's more than enough stuff for my kids to see.

SHAPIRO: For your two young girls, their dad is the guy who's the zebra on "Madagascar."

Mr. ROCK: I'm the zebra. When I was a kid, I used to love Goofy. Now I am Goofy.

SHAPIRO: Chris Rock, the comedian, is also the star of the new Broadway play -ready with the bleep again - "The Mother(bleep) with the Hat."

Thanks a lot.

Mr. ROCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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