From Saturday Night Live to hilarious comedy specials to blockbusters including Lethal Weapon 4 and the Madagascar franchise, Chris Rock has proved to be one of Hollywood's funniest men. Yet with his third directorial effort, Top Five (the title references a running joke in the movie about the top five rappers of all time), Rock reminds us he's a comic with far more depth than he receives credit for. He plays Andre Allen, a comedian and recovering alcoholic gearing up for the release of his first-ever dramatic movie. With cameos from a bevy of celebs, Rock, 49, tells a story that's as brutally honest and intelligent as it is funny, exploring the highs and lows of fame. The star recently talked with ESSENCE about his own prerelease jitters, working with leading lady Rosario Dawson and his future as a filmmaker.
ESSENCE: There was a bidding war for Top Five at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. That buzz has triggered talk about awards, including the Oscars. That has to feel incredibly satisfying—and maybe a little scary?
CHRIS ROCK: I'm just happy people like the movie. When we showed it at Toronto, I had just finished the final mix four days earlier. I had no idea what the reaction would be. Getting an Oscar would be nice, but I can't even begin to process that. I'll be happy with a Soul Train Award!
ESSENCE: Your character Andre feels very familiar. Watching him felt like seeing Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and Kevin Hart all rolled into one. Was that intentional?
C.R.: He is a gumbo of me and all those comedic greats. We've all gone through this whole "Black comedian" experience. But no one's told that story. Ever. Shows like Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm or even Seinfeld don't fully tell our story. So I wanted to capture that.
ESSENCE: Top Five really goes beyond capturing our story and into elevating it. You showed a nuanced style of directing, which is different from what one might expect from a comic in general and from Chris Rock specifically. What inspired you to dig deeper?
C.R.: I did a movie with Julie Delpy called 2 Days in New York. Watching her direct and write had an impact on me. Although that film wasn't a [commercial success], we got great feedback. That made me realize, Oh. okay, this is the lane i should be in.
ESSENCE: Another surprising element in the film is Rosario Dawson. She's an amazing actress but she's never been known for comedy.
C.R.: Offstage Rosario is really funny! I don't wanna say she plays herself, "cause she does great acting, but this character's probably closer to her than anything she's played.
ESSENCE: This project seems to have a dramatic tone. Are you heading in a more serious direction, especially as an actor?
C.R.: I'm Pookie from New Jack City. I've done drama, just not in a long time. Hey, I love 12 Years a Slave, but I would have loved it more if I was the slave. I'm inspired by what actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Don Cheadle do. Would I love those kinds of opportunities? Sure. But people don't think of me that way.
ESSENCE: Naturally, a conversation about a movie called Top Five is not complete without asking you your top five rappers. Who are they?
C.R.: [Laughs] Jay Z, Nas, Rakim, Ice Cube and Kanye West!
This article was originally featured in the January 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newstands now.