'Top Five' Star Sherri Shepherd on Working with Chris Rock and Her 5 Favorite Rappers

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"Chris came up to me and said ‘You are funny, you need to go on the road,’ says Shepherd on her "Top Five" co-star.

Sherri Shepherd stars alongside Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Tracy Morgan and other A-listers in the new comedy, Top Five—written and directed by Rock. An ode to hip-hop, the film explores fame meshed with an unexpected romance. In it, Shepherd plays Vanessa, the ex-girlfriend to Rock’s character Andre Allen—a stand-up comic who longs to redefine himself. At the advance screening for the film in NYC, Shepherd spoke with ESSENCE.com about her spicy role in the film, being nurtured by Chris Rock and her top five favorite female lyricists of all time. 

What were some of your initial reactions when you read the script for Top Five?
I didn’t know how it was going to play [on screen] because some scripts you read and it’s so funny but then when you see it [it’s not so good.] I read the script and I said ‘okay’ ‘alright,’ I was a little confused about where everybody was going but then it came together so beautifully. I am very happy for Chris because he has always been a good guy and I’m excited and feel very blessed that he wanted me to be apart of this.

Was the role offered to you or did you have to audition?
They didn’t offer anything to me, I auditioned for this role. I wish I could say I [just had to call Chris] but I had to audition. There are things that I get offered and there are things that I have to audition for. I do believe they called me in because Chris had seen me do stand-up and he didn’t know [I did standup]. He thought I just did The View. But, one day I was in Gotham Comedy Club, and Chris Rock came in and he said ‘You do stand-up?’ And I got on stage and wrecked shop and Chris came up to me and said ‘You are funny, you need to go on the road, there’s a space that’s wide open for someone like you whose clean and whose saying something.’ So I believed Chris remembered me.

What did you learn from him on set?
Chris says ‘I’m not a director, I’m a protector.’ For me, I felt I was protected because being in a room full of comics and being a girl, it’s hard.  Being in the room with [great comics] like Tracy Morgan and other comics, we just have egos like that. So you’re in the room with six comics and they all want to be the funniest person in the room. Girl! [Chris] always made me feel so good. He would say, ‘You are really good, you are not only a standup but you are a really good actress.’ That brought out a lot in me. I rested on that foundation and it allowed me to have a certain amount of freedom.

Do you know how Tracy Morgan is doing?
Tracy is making that road to recovery. He’s cranky, which is a good sign. I haven’t spoken to him, but he has spoken to a lot of other people and they say he sounds wonderful.

There’s a hilarious neighborhood scene in the film with you, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Leslie Jones and other comics. How did you keep from cracking up?
Chris just let those cameras roll! And kudos to him for being able to corral all the comics together, because literally, you couldn’t shut us up. We all knew each other, so we were singing songs and cracking jokes. Tracy was holding court, and Chris just sat at the edge of the table and wouldn’t say anything, so it was all this chemistry that was built up. By the time we got to who’s your top five favorite rappers, we had been acting stupid the entire time. So when he just let those cameras roll it literally wasn’t scripted anymore, that’s what I think was so great. Everyone was very passionate about what they were saying.

Can you share a funny behind-the-scenes moment?
Girl—that damn Tracy Morgan is a nutcase! As soon as I walked in, I was like ‘You here too?’ cause he wasn’t at the table read. It was literally like being at a family reunion with my cousins. So much so, that we were there during our lunch and we just stayed there, laughing. We filmed in the projects on E 102nd in New York and there were real roaches and I said, ‘Chris y’all couldn’t find another apartment that wasn’t infested?’ The first time we saw roaches Rosario was like ‘Oh shoot, oh shoot’ and I’m jumping on the coach and we were screaming and hollering and Chris was like ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t know.’ The roaches got in the cameraman’s equipment; they were everywhere. So when I was in the hallway doing my scene with Rosario, one roach crawled on the wall, I saw it out the corner of my eye, so I hit it and just kept doing my scene because I was going good. The first time I saw one, I screamed, but since we were having magic together, I just hit it and kept going. I’m not going to let a roach mess up my scene.

Finally, the film centers on steamy debates about who are your top five favorite rappers. Tell us your top five.
Oh yes! Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, Da Brat, Mc Lyte, Eve, and [bonus] Lil Kim.

Top Five opens in theaters this Friday, December 12th.

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