What happens when two of the world’s premier comedians get together? A barrel of laughs and a movie titled Head of State. Chris Rock stars in and makes his directorial debut in this comedic flick about Mays Gilliam a presidential candidate who asks his older brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) to become his running mate. “I got [this idea] a long time ago,” says Rock. “But [with] Colin [Powell] and Condoleeza [Rice] in [the White House] I was like, ‘Wow, I better do this movie soon or I won’t have a movie.’ ” Mac adds, laughing: “Chris is one of the best comics today [with] political issues. Now what he does on film… You know, I tell Chris he can’t act. He better hope somebody like Harrison Ford is with him, but he’s a funny mutha*****.”
With a team of experts that includes Lynn Whitfield as adviser Debra Lassiter (whose original plan is to help her candidate lose), Gilliam’s campaign trail is filled with no-holds-barred laughs, lessons and several significant messages, like being true to yourself. “The image of the first African-American president is important, and to have people laughing all the way to the inauguration, OK, I am down with that,” Whitfield says. It’s a very intelligent movie. The speeches talk about important things, they open up a dialog about issues that aren’t being acknowledged in this country right now, and it’s funny.”
But don’t let the messages get in the way of the jokes. Rock definitely wanted to put together a grade-A funny movie. In fact, that was a top priority for Rock and his co-writer Ali LeRoi. “There is always a joke first,” says Rock laughing. “[People] don’t even know the point got across because they are too busy laughing. When they get home [they are like] what’s this in my pocket—message—maaaaaaaaaan, who put this in here.” Adds LeRoi “We had one soul intent—to make a funny and entertaining film. It doesn’t cost $10 to go to a movie. It costs $100. It costs $20 to get into the movie and $70 for a babysitter and $20 for dinner. So when someone takes out three hours of their day to come see you, it damn-well better be entertaining.”
As for plans for a sequel: “Chris will probably do it depending on how it does,” says Mac. “I’m gonna tell them if there is a sequel, I hope they kill me at beginning— [let me] get hit by a car or something.”
We caught up with Chris and Bernie at the Swissotel in New York and chatted about decisions they’d make as politicians, why Head of State is an important movie, and what the two funnymen have lined up next.
If you were president or vice president of the United States, respectively, what would be your first executive decision?
Chris Rock: I’d probably sell one of the Carolinas. [laughs]. We need money, so I’m selling land. [I’d also] get rid of New Mexico. Everyone goes to old Mexico—do we even need New Mexico? [laughs] But I am never going to be president—I've done too many drugs and had too many affairs. [laughs] This is it. Show business is good enough for me."
Bernie Mac: [I can’t be a politician]. Politics is full of s*** —that’s just what it is. I am too straightforward. You don’t want to lose the gay vote, the woman vote or the minority vote. You can’t say this; you can’t say that. I am not a practicing Christian, but my spirituality is intact. I’ve been studying the Bible since I was a little boy [and] you can’t serve two Gods, and that’s what you are talking about [doing when] trying to be a politician. I know where I came from, [and] I know where my heart is gonna lay. But during tax time, I know where my taxes are gonna lay. So you can’t mix the two. I wouldn’t know where to start. I have my own community. I have a bunch of nieces and nephews that need my attention right now. In fact, I got family issues soon as I get home. I got a nephew that just got arrested and I have to cuss his a** out. I told my aunt I am not bailing him out, I hope they bust his a** wide open. Put some Kool-Aid on his lips. [laughs] Now you gotta tell it like it is. I [also] have a niece that ain’t been to school in 36 days. We are all dealing with it. I could not be president; I would be shot.
What made you want to do this movie?
Chris Rock: It’s the type of movie you are only going to get one shot at. I’ve done a couple of action movies; I’ve done a romantic comedy, and I can do that again. But in a movie where you run for president, that’s it, one shot at it, so you gotta get it right. It’s gotta be funny enough yet have some heart to it. I originally got this idea when Geraldine Ferraro was running [for vice president.] And I was like they are gonna lose! So, it seemed like something to do to make us look good down the line. I always concentrate on funny first [though]. Funny, funny, funny, funny, funny, because there are places to get messages, but there isn’t a lot of funny stuff out there. So if you get a message great. But I am no Mos Def.
Bernie Mac: Well you know Black people are somethin' else. I've known Chris and [writer] Ali [LeRoi] for a long time [and they] came to me with the homeboy routine. They put my brother's name in front of Gilliam—Mitch Gilliam— to try to lure me into the film. Friends are something else. Then they told me a big lie that they wrote it specifically for me. Tried to stroke my ego, which doesn't need stroking. Then they said, 'Man, you got the freedom to do this, the freedom to do that.' I said, 'Okay.' Then they came on the set [The Bernie Mac Show] — my two buddies Ali and Chris — and I knew they wanted something because they sat for four hours. Ali was like, ‘Look brother, we got this script we just want you to look at it.’ And Chris was like ‘Yeah Bernie, we wrote it for you.’ The next day they called me and said, ‘Did you read it?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ but I hadn’t read it. They said, ‘What did you think?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s pretty good.’ And they said, ‘You gonna do it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘They kept telling me I had to do this film and finally I read it and by them being my buddies, I agreed. So that's how I got that.
Chris was there a particular message to this movie? And do you feel we’ll see a Black president in this lifetime?
Yeah, I think it’s gonna happen. I mean Condoleezza Rice is in the White House; Colin Powell is in the White House. We just need to get somebody in the chair. They're right there. I think whoever the Black president is, they're not gonna run as the Black president. They're gonna run as just another guy for president. The movie is about an election. The movie is not really about a Black president because I don't think a Black president is gonna be that much different than a White president. I mean maybe he'll flip out once he gets in the office [laughs], but he ain't gonna get nominated [and say], ‘I'm gonna do something different.'
Bernie, what do you think makes a good comedian and who are your influences?
Pain. You look at all your great comedians—it’s pain. It’s an element that you reach that you seek out for comfort. I don't know what's funny to me until it's funny. I'm so spontaneous I just enjoy [the] laugh. It doesn't matter where it comes from. As far as comedians, I'm an old—school cat. I have so many people who've influenced me—Jackie Gleason, Redd Foxx, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett—all of them. I took a page out of their notebooks. To make someone laugh and cry at the same time, man, that's powerful. Now that Kings of Comedy is a beautiful thang. But if Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Redd Fox and George Kirby would have gotten together, we couldn’t have even come close to naming it the jacks of comedy. You just got to tell it like it is and give homage to everybody.
What do you all have lined up next?
Chris: Nothing. I put all of my eggs in this basket. Artistically I’d like to tour. Financially, I’d love to be the villain in a Spiderman/Superman type movie. My goal is to [eventually] do a special in South Africa. I just remember watching Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and him talking about going to Africa and somewhere in my mind—even though Richard can’t talk [now]— I think he would have done it. You know how people say what would Jesus do? I say what would Richard do—if Richard wasn’t high what would he have done. That’s how I try and live my career.
Bernie: My grandmother told me how you start is how you finish. I never wanted to do television. Television is a bad business; you gotta really have your stuff together. My show has been great. Fox has been good because they know I am gonna walk [if things aren’t done my way]. But now I am caught because I have grown to like 145 people that I really fell for—writers, cast and crew. If it was just me, I would do stand-up and my film. But big momma always said, finish what you started. The show is in great shape but television is what it is, so I gotta stick it out for all the 145 people. It’s a good show, and it’s gonna get better, and I am in it to win it.
Photo Credit: Photo: Philliip Caruso