You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Chris Rock & ‘Top Five’ Cast Talk Acting in Movies vs Doing Stand-up, Freedom to Improvise in the Film & More

Chris Rock & 'Top Five' Cast Talk Acting in Movies vs Doing Stand-up, Freedom to Improvise in the Film & More

At a recent New York City press junket, Shadow and Act was present as the cast of “Top Five” spoke about the film, and their experiences with Chris Rock as the writer-director and star of the film. 

Present were Chris Rock (Writer/Director/ Andre Allen), Rosario Dawson (Chelsea Brown), Ben Vereen (Carl Allen), J.B. Smoove (Silk), Gabrielle Union (Erica Long), Sherri Shepherd (Vanessa).

Here are some of the highlights:

“Top Five” vs. Chris Rock’s Stand-Up

Chris Rock: I made this movie just like my stand-up.  I use to have a movie process and a stand-up process.  I use to say, these are the jokes for the movie and then I’d have a whole other file for stand-up.  Not this one. I feel like I put it all together. I work-shopped it a long time; like I do with my stand-up. I treated it just like my stand-up. That was kind of the goal, to get a movie that felt just like my stand-up.  [A movie] that kind of went all over the place…and could be all about relationships and have a political component to it also.

On the editing process

Chris Rock: That’s one of the big differences between this movie and other movies I’ve done.  I treated the editing like it was writing again. It was, ok, yes we have all of this footage but it doesn’t matter. Let’s make music, let’s do something different.  

Films that influenced “Top Five”

Chris Rock: You know Woody (Allen) has been known to jump around.  (Quentin) Tarantino has been known to stop a movie in the middle, and cut back to that scene an hour later or whatever.

On working with Chris Rock and having a role in “Top Five”

Sherri Shepherd: You know this was like being at the Pancake House to order my food.

J.B. Smoove: There is no Chris approached me about the project because whatever Chris the hell does, he better put my ass in it.  When Chris calls you about doing a project you say, what is it? He’ll tell you what it is, he’ll tell you what he wants from you. Typically when someone calls J.B. they want the over the top J.B. But this shows this man’s growth and what he wants from a particular project.  I didn’t have to play the over-the-top crazy J.B. I got to be in his character’s corner because I had his back. You can’t have two over the top people they cancel each other out. So I’m happy that I had a chance to play a role that this guy wanted me to play, and he helped me because now my range has just increased. It was amazing to have the opportunity to work with the man.

Sherri Shepherd: Can I say one thing though, because I got my pancake order?  In my scene where it was a bunch of comics, it’s very hard to corral a bunch of comics. I had to give it to Chris because he was able to let everybody have a certain amount of freedom and then corral everybody back, and that’s a hard thing to do. He’s very intensely focused on the directing aspect of it, so that was a surprise; because you know when you work with Chris doing stand-up…he’s very focused and he knows what he wants. It was an awesome experience.

Ben Vereen’s involvement in “Top Five”

Ben Vereen: I’ve known of Chris a long time and I’ve always wanted to work with him, and I don’t think he knew that. I found out that he was doing this film and I read for it.

Chris Rock: You met for it

Ben Vereen: Ok, we met for it and we read for the part. And for me, playing his father, I had to go to a certain place because this guy was really dysfunctional. And I remember the first day I came on the set, in my mind, he was a little bit too dressed up.  And so Chris and I began to break him down, and we broke him down, and broke him down and he became this guy. And what’s so wonderful about Chris is that he allows the artist to find the character within there and with boundaries. It’s like almost being a Michelangelo.

An atypical “Chris Rock Film” with a relationship at its core.

Chris Rock: I knew the relationship would be the heart of the movie. As far as edgy, I knew that I wanted to do what I do and not have it so filtered down. And I thought I had a decent idea. That’s why I went to Scott (Rudin). I’ve been writing movies for years and I’ve never had the balls to go to [Scott] with anything else. So I thought I kind of had something and was in a good headspace to pull it off.

Freedom and improv in the film

Gabrielle Union: In the moment he said we have it; we have what I wrote, let’s just play. Let’s see where the scene takes us; where the moment takes us. He gave us his script, he gave us his baby, and he wasn’t like my baby is perfect, I’ve got the most genius baby.  He wasn’t saying I’ve got the next Schindler’s List.  He’s saying I want to get there, please give me real feedback… I didn’t assemble a bunch of people just to kiss my ass. It was amazing; it was let’s all work together, and please give me real notes so that I can create magic. And he started that way and he continued the whole process that way.

Sherri Shepherd: I know I found with Rosario and myself,  [Chris] did what was on the script and then [he] kept going and you kept going.  And you’re like is he going to say cut at any point? And he let you go and go and go.  And that’s where you found that magic.

Rosario Dawson: Especially that one scene where you see me when we first walk in, and you give me that look.

Sherri Shepherd: Oh because, I didn’t know who you were, I was planning on getting with Chris.

Rosario Dawson: I remember we were working on it and I go, did you see that look she gave me?  And I’m like that’s the look; we feel that look. I kept calling [Chris] a conductor. He had all of these different people, and it can be noise or it can be music. You can put it together and have all of these incredible people together, but it might not work. Just because you have that much talent doesn’t mean it’s going to be watchable.  I thought that was something that was really remarkable. He did that, but he was different with everyone. Every single person that came on set every single day; there was something slightly different he would give them. It was amazing. He just knew what everybody’s sweet spot was, which is something that I really appreciate. Tarantino…I think he’s done that so brilliantly in his career. He would get people we hadn’t seen in a really long time and he would get them to do the exact thing that he wanted them to do.  You saw them onscreen and you’d say this is amazing, and it’s still felt fresh and new and original. It wasn’t manipulative. It was just creating the perfect space for people to fill, and I thought that was something that was really remarkable. Being there throughout so much of that movie because my character is sort of that fly on the wall.  It was so interesting watching how that went and it really felt like he was a conductor. It was really beautiful.

Fears in the film and entertainment industry

Chris Rock: Unemployment

Sherri Shepherd: When you get into something that’s comfortable, stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying something new and reinventing yourself.  It’s why I so love what Chris has done, because it’s stepping outside of his comfort zone and going, I’m going to take a risk. That’s always hard when somebody knows you a certain way; to step out and not worry about if you’re going to be accepted or not. But in stand-up comedy, or just putting your heart out there and trusting that folks will come along for the journey.

On hip-hop in film

Chris Rock: I would say this is a movie with a bunch of characters that grew up on rap and we don’t question it. We don’t even call it hip-hop, it’s just music. We treat it like it’s any other music and most movies they treat hip-hop music or rap music like it’s this new thing. Only old people call it “the internet”.  For young people it’s just whatever it is.  They don’t think about it.

Ben Vereen: It’s music. Music in time has always moved the society and society’s voice is in that music, so therefore we are moving with it. And you call it hip-hop it’s just music, it’s called art.

On Getting Off-Track and Feeling Overwhelmed

Chris Rock: That’s what pre-production is for. You can’t make anything really good unless you know how much it can suck.  So I was aware of how much it could suck. The worst movies tend to have the best people in them because they aggressively suck. Lazy movies just do safe stuff during the whole thing and it kind of sucks, but it’s lazy you’ve seen it before. Then there’s Howard the Duck; they’re just trying. I knew I was going to try but luckily we didn’t suck.

Sherri Shepherd: It was a chemistry that had become with all of these comics and we would sit there and Chris as well. We were just silly every single day and it bred this thing so it was a natural kind of process, once those cameras started rolling. [It was] chaos that he organized into something really special, so by the time that {Top Five] scene came around it was so much chemistry with everybody that it just flowed, Chris flowed.

Rosario Dawson: I can say for me though that I definitely had those fears. Chelsea was the one character that wasn’t just perfectly on the page. I saw what she could potentially be but I just felt like, I wasn’t sure; I didn’t feel like I read her perfectly.  So it was interesting and it was also comedy. It wasn’t my comfort zone at all, and there were many times when Chris would look at me and be like I know what you’re thinking right now. And he say, you’re scared right now but don’t worry about it I got you. I felt like this was one of the most collaborative if not the most collaborative project I’ve ever worked on. In that same way I trusted him to tune my instrument, he also let me do my thing; he let me have my solo. [Chris] wasn’t worried and him not being worried was really helpful because this was a big film; this was a really big idea. This wasn’t something we’d seen before; I call this a very modern film. This is a film for our ADHD kind of culture, we can sit there and it goes in all of those places.  It’s as poignant as you want it to be; you feel that these characters are really real and that what they are saying resonates. But it’s also as silly as it needs to be. And yes, it is like his standup in that way. I just felt really honored and really lifted and supported in the whole process, which I needed because it was not something that was in my comfort zone. It was not something that I’d done before. This is a Chris Rock movie and I’m really excited to be apart of it.

On Addiction

Gabrielle Union: I think that for my character and also with me in real life, it’s an addiction to please and to be liked; to be validated by other people.  In the film you have this girl who doesn’t have any discernible talent, any quantifiable talent except who she is, and that people have decided that they like her and… are interested in her wedding. There is addiction to constantly feed the beast. How do I stay relevant? How do I keep it going? How do I avoid unemployment? And I think that that becomes addictive. I think that’s something that everyone, everywhere can relate to. Wanting to be liked and chosen. With reality TV we’ve just taken it a little step further; to be publicly chosen and now a lot of people know about it. But in our own lives you want to be chosen, you want to be picked. All of these things are common threads that are addictive.

Ben Vereen:  You know speaking of addiction there’s choices. I play a character who is very addictive. Who is very wrapped in his disease, so much that he cannot get out of it.  And his anger is the fact that his son has gone on to be greater, and he’s stuck in this place of his own manure. So when his son comes back to him, he’s glad to see him, but his pain won’t let him. The thing about addiction, it’s a choice in life. Even in this business we choose to serve because we love this business that we do.  I love being on that stage; Chris loves what he does.  That is our choice that’s what we choose. We don’t choose the dark shadows; we go there to bring it back to you to say this is what it looks like. And some of us get stuck there like his father in this movie. He got stuck there and couldn’t get back.  So you choose it. What addiction do you want today? You can choose a good addiction or you can choose a bad addiction. My choice for you, choose the good.

On the writer-director-actor experience

Ben Vereen: The thing I was going to ask Chris is what does it feel like to be a director, actor and writer? I can remember being on set with him, and we were doing my scene. I was having problems with a line and I’m looking at him, and he would be mouthing the lines to me. That’s a unique gift, so what was that like?

Chris Rock: I forget who said this to me but I’m not the director, I’m the protector.  I write a script and it’s my job, and Scott’s (Scott Rudin) job to protect this idea that I came up with. You have to protect it because there is nothing worse then a bad comedy. [With] drama you actually get credit from completion. I like Gone Girl you can make nine different versions of Gone Girl that work.  But when you’re doing a comedy there’s one version that works. And you miss anything … and you’ve got nothing. So it’s my job to make sure all this stuff works.

J.B. Smoove: It goes back to the whole stand-up thing. In stand-up there’s pace, there’s delivery. There’s timing and I think you’re right, I think the way Chris did this movie there is a standup feel to it. And it has to have a certain amount of laughs per minute.  All of the rules of comedy apply here.

Rosario Dawson: It’s interesting, he would say that while we were filming, We’d be doing something really serious and… he’d go, ok yeah we need a joke right about here. And he wouldn’t say the beginning of the scene, the end of the scene; he would say right here we need something to lighten it up. That’s why I kept going to a conductor. It was like music, he knew right when it needed to have something. It was interesting and it was amazing and it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before from any other director and how they talked about it.

Chris Rock’s “Top Five” is in theaters this Friday, December 12th.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged