Kevin Hart is nothing if not a man with a plan. And so far, that plan appears to be working remarkably well.
After years of honing his talents as a stand-up comic — and, yes, after a few false starts while branching out into movies and television — the North Philadelphia-born phenom has broken out as a multimedia star. He routinely sells out live performances throughout the world, his faux reality series “Real Husbands of Hollywood” is one of the highest-rated shows on the BET cable network, and his films, well, let’s put it like this: There have been few actors as ubiquitous on movie screens as Hart is right now since the 1960s and ’70s heydays of Michael Caine and Gene Hackman.
Consider: During the past two-and-a-half years, Hart has loomed large in such diverse fare as “Think Like a Man,” “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain” (a follow-up to his 2011 breakout comedy concert film “Laugh at My Pain”), “Grudge Match,” “Ride Along” and “About Last Night.” (And mind you, that’s not counting cameos in “This is the End,” “The Five-Year Engagement” and the indie comedy “Exit Strategy.“)
“Think Like a Man Too” — the much buzzed-about sequel in which he reprises his scene-stealing performance as the manic, motormouth Cedric — opens Friday in theaters and drive-ins everywhere. Coming soon: “The Wedding Ringer” (which has Hart cast as an entrepreneur who provides best men for friendless grooms), “Get Hard” (a co-starring gig opposite Will Ferrell), “Captain Underpants” (Hart’s first stint as vocal talent for an animated feature) and, of course, “Ride Along 2.”
Hart, who turns 35 next month, in spite of bad press for his latest, isn’t about to slow down anytime soon. Despite his current success, he still sees himself as making up for lost time after a few early fumbles. “Really,” he said during a recent promotional swing through Houston, “I don’t understand how people work very hard to be successful, and then stop. How they can put all that effort and time and energy in their life, and then think, ‘I’m at a successful point. They’re paying me. I’m going to stop.’ I don’t understand that. I can’t fathom that.”
On the other hand, Hart was willing to pause long enough to discuss the grand strategy he has devised for his career.
I’ve seen this phenomenon before: An actor lays some groundwork over a period of time with a few standout performances, and then all of a sudden — wham! — everybody wants to make a movie with this guy. I remember talking about this years ago with Matt Damon, around the time of “Good Will Hunting,” when he seemed to be everywhere all at once. Do you think you’ve reached the point where everybody wants to be in the Kevin Hart business?
Yes. At the end of the day studios, studio execs, they follow box office revenue. When you show that you sell tickets and that people respond to your product, people want to be in business with that. At the end of the day, the key word is business. As a talent, it’s your job to control that business to the best of your ability. All it takes is one or two things not to come out the way that you thought they would after investing so much — and then you’re responsible for it.
What happens then?
You become flavor of the month. That’s why I say you have to be careful — because you can be a flavor of the month if you don’t represent yourself correctly. The difference between myself and other people, I think, is I’m a brand. It’s not just movies. I think the great thing about me is I’m spread so far, and I do so much more that studios can’t control. Social media is powerful now. You’re looking at somebody that’s got 35, 36 million people at the click of a button that studios can’t control.
When they have these younger actors or actresses that have these followings — that’s what studios can’t buy right now. The success of my films and the success of anything I’m doing comes from the way that I promote myself. Granted, I’m putting out great product, great content, but the studio goes, “This guy is a business as well.” That’s where my longevity comes in. You can’t outdo me because I control what I want to do, and I spread it out. I’m a company. I’m a CEO. That’s always good. We have a CEO mindset going into anything we do.
This whole notion of establishing yourself as a brand — that really came across in your last stand-up comedy concert film, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain“. It showed how much you’d established yourself as a live performer throughout the world — even in places where the people are even whiter than I am.
[Laughs] You’re looking at the end result of years of groundwork. You know what I mean? I’ve been touring, well, it’s 2014. I’ve been doing standup since 1998. Once it got to a point where I could start to go further, I did. I would say 2010, 2011, is probably when I started to go over the border and just do little dabbles here and there. As you grow, your fan base grows. You just can’t be afraid to take a bump on the head. If you go over there and you don’t sell out, your tickets don’t sell, it’s okay. You can go back. So many people are afraid of that failure. I wasn’t afraid of the failure, so my audiences grew as I grew, which is why I then started going to Scandinavia. I’m in Denmark. I’m in the UK. I’m going to Germany.
[The audiences are] so wide because everybody loves to do one thing. The one thing we all share is laughter. If you make yourself universal, you can appeal to that. The reason why I’m so focused on that is because with movies, the big thing is that studios don’t feel that African-American movies translate overseas. The best way for me to get overseas is, I go there by myself and I sell out. I do X, Y, and Z. Then Ride Along performs overseas. You have to give me the opportunity to build my fan base.
The reason why I do that is because I want to push and break ground, and do what hasn’t been done. Once again, that’s what I say separates me from other talent, other entertainers. I’m a business. I understand the business. If you don’t send me, I’ll go over to Germany myself. I’ll stay over there for three weeks to promote myself. I’ll go and I’ll put out my next concert film, and I’ll do it for X amount of dollars, but I’ll get it released internationally and it’ll perform. I’ll just make that revenue. You’re going to be forced to be in business with me.
Movies like “Think Like a Man” — and now “Think Like a Man Too” — would seem to have a universal appeal. But, as you say, there is a feeling that so-called “black films” simply won’t connect with audiences outside the United States.
We don’t do well overseas because we’re not given the opportunity to fail overseas. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. I’ve heard it said that there are some countries where Tyler Perry’s films never get theatrical play, and always go direct to video.
Look, I’m not saying that every movie should be promoted internationally. It’s expensive for a studio. I get that. But if you have movies that are putting up certain numbers domestically — when you start to break that hundred-million-dollar mark domestically — those movies translate to all races. A hundred million dollars is not one race supporting the film in any way, shape, or form. When the studios see that, they have to say, “Okay, we’ve made X amount of dollars on this. We can take this small amount here and throw in seven million dollars P&A, and let’s see how it performs.”
Worse come to worst, you’ll make your seven million back on P&A. But you’ve already tripled your money, because the movies that we’re doing aren’t costing a shitload. They’re not fifty-million-dollar budgets. You’re looking at 15-, 20-million-dollar budgets. If you look at my success record now, “Ride Along” was a 27-million-dollar budget. It’s at a $150 million [worldwide gross]. “About Last Night” was 12, 13 million dollars. I think it’s at like $50 million. “Think Like A Man”? The first one was 13 million. It’s at $90 million dollars. This one here, “Think Like a Man Too,” we didn’t spend more than 25. These aren’t expensive movies.
Let’s back up a bit. When you first started doing stand-up…
I was getting paid in food. Seriously. When I stated out in 1998, they paid me in food. Then I took twelve-hour drives to go make seventy-five dollars. Man, I got stories. My journey was a real journey. I’ve been smacked in the face with reality.
What was the hardest smack you had to take early on?
“Soul Plane.” I was 23, and I got a movie I’m starring in. Yeah, “Soul Plane.” I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I’m about to be a star.” Well, “Soul Plane” bombs at the box office. It gets bootlegged like crazy. But the studios — they’re thinking “All right, we thought this kid was going to be blah, blah, blah.” Even the critics thought the movie was going to perform. It didn’t. Then, all bad write-ups. “Kevin Hart, yuck.” And my TV show [“The Big House“] is canceled. “Yuck. This kid is blah, blah, blah.” I had to overcome that. I had to step back, restart, do another five or six years. Create a different identify.
How did you go about re-creating yourself?
I’m very fortunate. Very fortunate, and very blessed. What I mean by that is, all the training and lumps that I took when I was younger were for a reason. If you watch me in “Soul Plane,” and you watch me in “Along Came Polly,” you watch me in my TV show — you see I wasn’t ready for success back then. I was young. My voice was squeaky. I wasn’t really a great actor. I understood situations, but I didn’t really have levels. Things were just like, “Oh my God. He’s popping out.” In “Paper Soldiers” , I was nineteen. I’m frail. I’m skinny. I wasn’t ready to be a leading man back then. I was a child.
But the thing that I got that a lot of people weren’t getting back then is — I got practice firsthand. I got thrown into situations that weren’t necessarily situations for me. I’ve done tons of pilots that didn’t get picked up. Tons of failed TV shows. But as I’ve gotten older, I see. I watch myself. I see where this is bad, this isn’t good. I watch professionals. I learned from the guys that I was on set with, and just sat back and shut my mouth and watched behind the camera and in front of the camera.
Then I said, “You know what? I got to go get an acting coach. I got to go get somebody to hone this craft of mine. I got to go work with somebody individually, not in a class.” I needed to hone my craft because everything that you think is just a God-given talent, isn’t. You always need help. You can always get better. I took advantage of those moments where other people wouldn’t. I went and got help. I got mad at not getting auditions. I wanted to do something about it. Let me go to an audition guy that can help me. All right, I understand now. I’m going to approach this differently.
“Think Like a Man Too“ is your third movie with director Tim Story. Have you two begun to develop a kind of shorthand to communicate while working together?
The beautiful thing about our relationship is we joke around… but we say that we pulled each other out the grave. Right before we did the first “Think Like a Man,” Tim Story was in director’s jail. I was in actor’s jail. Go look at Tim Story’s last projects [before “Think Like a Man”]. And if you go look at my last couple of movies… I was in the “Scary Movies” 3, 5, 9, whatever. And, I mean, I was like Black Guy No. 7 in a couple movies. I was in anything I could get, whatever I could grab.
Then [producer] Will Packer approached me about “Think Like a Man.” He said they wanted me to do it, that I’d be great in it, that they wanted to come to me first. I was like, “Are you serious?” He’s like, “Dude, things are going well with your standup. You’ve got a following. We think this could be big.”
Then Tim Story and I met. We talked, hit it off. And we had such a great rapport on set. I was improvising, and I was doing stuff, and he never once stopped or questioned anything. Any problem we had, we talked. “Kevin, listen, I want you to do this.” I was, “Yeah, whatever. Whatever you need.” We had a great working relationship.
And the rest is history.
Yeah, “Think Like a Man” comes out. Boom. Everybody wants to work with Tim Story. Everybody wants to work with Kevin Hart. I said, “Tim…” And I grabbed his hand. I said, “Now we can either go out and get taken by the wolves, or we can stick together.” I said, “I recommend that we stick together and we keep our producer with us and we form a triangle. We can do it ourselves. We can create our content.” And he and Will said: “Kevin, we’re with you.”
So we do “Think Like a Man Too,” “Ride Along” — and we’re about to do “Ride Along 2.” Me and Will Packer did “Wedding Ringer.” Me and Will Packer did “About Last Night.” I stay in my comfort circle. The first time I went outside was for Will Farrell for “Get Hard.” That’s because Will Farrell’s team, I know them. I said, “Okay. Well, I’ll step out, but I want to be a part of the scriptwriting process.” I developed with the director the whole script. As for me and Will Farrell’s chemistry — we already knew each other. It was amazing.
But it’s about comfort level. You do these projects, and you go work with the director. He may be the guy that likes to yell at everybody and talk down to people. “I told you, you stupid person.” Then you got people on the set that’s uncomfortable. You don’t want to work in that environment. You need an environment where you know the guys, and everybody’s showing up every day happy. We are going to get the best product possible. Tim Story is my guy for that. I’m going to roll with Tim Story until the wheels fall off.
You know, Tim Story directed a couple of “Fantastic Four“ movies. Given the current popularity of comic book movies, have you ever asked Story: “Hey, Tim, I could wear a cape and a mask, so why not…?”
[Laughs] There are two things you won’t see me in. You won’t see me in a superhero film. And you won’t see me in a period piece where I have to say things like, “Thou art not.” That will never happen. That’s jumping out of my league right there. I’m not that guy. I know that people would laugh at seeing me attempt to be that guy. I’d say something like, “What do thou take thoueth.” And people would say, “What is Kevin doing? When did he go this route?” So, no.
Finally: You’ve said that you look at Chris Rock as a role model in terms of planning and sustaining a career. He’s done quite a wide diversity of movies, and made some surprising choices. Is there any kind of film or role that you might want to try — that might surprise us?
At this point in my career, no. The reason why I say that is because, right now, it’s about me molding what my films are. At this point, it’s my job to create an identity for a Kevin Hart film. It’s like, right now, if you see “Happy Madison Productions,” you know it’s an Adam Sandler type movie. You know what type of comedy to expect from Happy Madison. Ben Stiller is another example. You see a Ben Stiller movie, you recognize: “Ah, Ben Stiller. This is going to be funny.” These are guys that have branded themselves in comedy. I want to have the same thing, where you recognize the genre of film.
When you talk about the roles that I’ll take — that’s for further down the line. Right now I’m creating content that can be identified as my content. That’s my view of comedy. And as an African-American man — right now, when you think about comedy, who has branded a genre of film, outside of Tyler Perry? Who else has done it? Nobody else has done it. That’s why I say my level of thinking, my drive, what motivates me — I’m way up there with my thought process. Way up there. As it all comes together, eventually people will go “Holy shit. We saw it go. We saw him build it. We saw a plan be executed.” That’s my goal.