There’s no question that Chris Rock is really f*cking funny. If you’ve witnessed his standup in person, you know it can be paralytically funny (I experienced it once and almost developed a hernia). But the comedian is also an accomplished writer/director who has made three feature-length films now, on top of conceiving his own TV show and the social documentary “Good Hair.” His latest film is “Top Five,” a celebrity-skewering comedy that makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. Written and directed by Rock, the art-imitating-life comedy sees the actor playing a comedian turned serious film star. Rosario Dawson co-stars as the New York Times journalist shadowing him for a profile. During what becomes a long sparring match between the two of them, the writer forces the comedian to confront the career that has made him famous and the life he left behind.
Co-starring Gabrielle Union (who plays his wife), Kevin Hart (who plays his manic agent), plus Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove, Sherri Shepherd, Anders Holm, Romany Malco, Leslie Jones, Michael Che and Jay Pharoah, “Top Five” riffs on notions of fame, wealth, celebrity and more. We talked with Rock by phone on the eve of his Toronto debut.
Alright, no one has seen this movie yet. Tell us what it’s about.
It’s basically a famous comedian — kind of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker artist type guy — who’s got a big movie coming out and is getting married on the same day, the same weekend. And it’s basically just all the things that you have to do when you’ve got a movie coming out and you’re getting married. Plus, the movie he’s got coming out is a drama. He’s just a guy that has been running away from what he actually does well. It happens with a lot of comedians. It happens with everybody in art, even in sports sometimes. We take for granted the things we do well. You feel a need to stretch your wings, but it’s not always the best idea.
So the idea of when a comedian takes on a dramatic, serious role, is that what you mean about running away?
Exactly. So yes, one of the biggest comedians in the world has got a movie coming out about the Haitian revolution [laughs]. You don’t even have to write jokes, you’re already like, “what?”
How much is this a thinly veiled commentary on yourself or some sort of autobiography?
I haven’t really done that. There’s just a bunch of comedians out there that frustrate me. You see them do these serious roles and you think, “just be funny!”
Oh yeah? So who?
I’m not going to name names. But I’ve been like, “can you just be funny!?” I’ve actually screamed that at the TV screen.
So the true self is comedic and they’re trying to run away to do something like win an Oscar.
Exactly. I want to win an Oscar, don’t get me wrong [laughs]. But you’ve got to give the people what they want a little bit.
Your Oscar is coming eventually, right?
I guess [chuckles]. I kind of want to do a Nat Turner [an African-American slave who led a Virginia rebellion in 1831] movie, but every time I start I talk myself out of it.
So what was the impetus for this? Other than seeing other comedians try too hard?
I don’t know. It’s just on the page. I mean there’s a part of me… I’m good with “Louie,” I’m just obsessed with his show. There’s a part of me that’s like okay, I like Louie’s show, I like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I like “Seinfeld,” ‘Larry Sanders.’ Who’s done a movie? No one’s really done a movie that’s… you know, day in the life of a comedian. No one’s tackled that. We’ve done movies with comedians like “Lenny,” but that’s dark.
Tell me about some of the cast members, you’ve got all your friends in here and Rosario Dawson’s in here too.
Rosario plays a reporter that’s starting to follow me around. Like Rolling Stone-style interviewing people — she’s doing a profile piece on me so she’s got to follow me around as I do press for this movie and prep for my wedding. Kind of like Kanye West last year; the album and the wedding at the same time. She’s kind of the devil’s advocate. The whole film is like she’s Tony Roberts to my Woody Allen. There’s a lot of satirizing reality TV too.
Your character has something to do with reality TV, yes?
The woman I’m marrying, Gabrielle Union, is a reality TV star. So a lot of the movie’s about fame and how some people take it for granted and some people are desperate for it. I always say fame’s the new cocaine, people pretty much do anything for it.
What’s your take on fame?
I feel like I’m an artist. I do something that people seem to like so it’s a byproduct of this thing I do. The new fame is hard to even explain. I don’t want to sound old, like Little Richard taking about rap records. So I’m not going to diss it.
“New Fame” sounds like the title of a Kanye track.
Yeah, maybe that should have been the name of the movie. New fame is a weird one. Even when my friends get newly famous I give them a year before they become semi-normal. Because of the Internet, social media, you can really get famous fast. You never used to get famous just for trying, you know what I mean?
Right, you had to connect and execute.
You actually had to execute. Effort was never enough. But now, effort is pretty much all it takes in a lot of instances.
So what’s your character’s take on fame? How is he different from who you are in real life?
My character’s marrying a reality star and has a bigger view of fame. One of the things we have to ask constantly in the movie is, “Is he with this girl because he loves her or is it because she’s good for his career?” You see a lot of relationships now in show business that aren’t even real relationships, they’re kind of partnerships.
Right, and there are practically fabricated relationships.
Yes. I have single friends now famous, they get calls from publicists all the time, to date certain girls just to be seen with them. I’m not going to say names, but I have a particular famous single guy friend [who gets these offers]… sometimes you’re rewarded monetarily to carry on a fake relationship.
Is your film a scathing take on celebrity and fame?
I don’t think it’s scathing. A long time ago I remember talking to Mike Meyers during SNL about the difference between ‘Bill & Ted’ and “Wayne’s World.” And Mike explained it me, “You have to understand, I love Wayne and Garth. It’s better because I love them” You have to make fun of things you love or else it just comes off as mean. So I love fame. I love being famous, it’s fine. So I’m just taking the word scathing out. Whenever someone tries to be scathing it’s mean, and then you’re Little Richard talking about rap records, know what I mean? You’re just out of touch.
This is the third feature you’ve made. Do you ever get the sense that people don’t recognize you for being a writer/director and still see you as the comedian?
I’m always going to be a comedian. I haven’t had a big directorial movie yet. People like my standup, that’s what they want to see me do. It’s great that people want to see me do anything. I can’t take that for granted. Hopefully I’ll do some standup again soon. It takes me way from my kids so I don’t really do it like I used to. My kids are only going to be young once.
Your new project is skewering comedic actors who take on dramatic work, but weren’t you going to remake Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” at one point?
Not exactly. I wasn’t going to remake it, I wrote a draft. [Producer] Scott Rudin and Mike Nichols asked me to write a draft.
Are you guys going to make that?
I don’t know. I did write a draft though.
Was that something you would have starred in?
No. It definitely wasn’t for me to star. Rudin and I were having a conversation and that movie came up and I had an interesting take on it and he liked it and he sold it to Mike Nichols. And Mike Nichols liked my take and wanted me to write it. I’m not really into writing for other people, but it was an excuse to have a bunch of lunches with Mike Nichols, so I’ll take it.
Your film “I Think I Love My Wife” is a remake of Eric Rohmer’s “Chloe In The Afternoon” – you’ve got some cinephiley taste.
[Laughs] Yeah, I got nerdy taste. Hey man, I like movies about relationships, that’s just me. I like complicated relationships.
“Top Five” makes its world premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival. Catch up with all our coverage from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival here.