Chris Rock writes, directs and stars in “Top Five,” as Andre Allen, a famous comedian attempting to tackle serious movie roles. While Rock himself hasn’t followed that trajectory, he’s no stranger to the challenges of crafting a career on his own terms. As he explained in an extensive interview last week with New York Magazine, followed by an editorial in The Hollywood Reporter where he deemed the film business “a white industry,” Rock has strong feelings about racial boundaries of the entertainment world. But that’s only a fraction of the target in the persistently engaging “Top Five,” in which Andre spends most of the time wandering New York City with a trenchant reporter (Rosario Dawson) from The New York Times eager to explore the actor’s career setbacks.
The movie, which contains memorable cameos ranging from Adam Sandler to Whoopi Goldberg, was a crowd-pleaser at the Toronto International Film Festival last September — and ultimately landed the biggest deal of the festival, selling to Paramount for $12.5 million. With the studio releasing “Top Five” this Friday, Rock spoke by phone with Indiewire about his preference for producing his films in the independent arena and elaborated on some of the hot-button topics already circulating from his earlier press.
When I saw you at the Paramount holiday party, I brought up your “Lost in Translation” analogy in New York magazine — that the movie is a good reflection of what it feels like to be black and famous — and you started geeking out about some upcoming party at Bill Murray’s house.
Oh, my god! Did we miss the Bill Murray party yesterday? We left Monday night! I missed the Bill Murray party. That sucks. I just got so busy that I missed the Bill Murray party.
There’s a lot of anticipation for this movie. Paramount seems to have faith in its commercial prospects. Why wasn’t it a studio production from the outset?
I don’t know, I mean, it’s about a day in the life of a guy. It’s a pretty artsy movie with un-artsy laughs. Nobody else would have let me do this movie. There’s a bunch of things in this movie no studio would ever let me do, which is great for the movie — the layers and the faults that the lead character has. But most studio comedies, especially with black people, the lead character has no faults.
What sort of faults are you talking about with your character?
He’s got marital problems, he’s an alcoholic. I mean, show me one comedy where the lead guy’s an alcoholic struggling with sobriety. No mainstream comedy.
But then a studio, Paramount, came along and bought your movie. So has that impacted the way you think about mainstream filmmaking?
I mean, I got to make the movie I wanted to make. We found the money. I got no qualms. It all worked out. I go to do pretty much what I wanted to do.
So you prefer working in the indie arena?
I would probably prefer to go this route — raise some money and then sell it later. It seems easier, you deal with less people…I lucked out. I got Barry Diller backing me. He’s his own studio in a sense. The guy really believed in me. It couldn’t have worked out better.
Have you seen many acclaimed American indies about black characters?
I like “Medicine for Melancholy.” It’s really good.
Barry Jenkins hasn’t made a movie since then.
It might just be him. I haven’t seen a Todd Solondz movie in a while either. It’s hard! Movies are hard, man. The little movies are harder than big movies. You probably have a better shot of making something that cost $200 million than something that cost $2 million.
You’ve mentioned Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy as inspiring “Top Five.” What’s your relationship to those movies?
I love the Linklater stuff. This movie has a lot of that stuff. It’s got big studio laughs but I don’t think it’s really a big studio movie. I mean, “Sideways” is like that — it gets humongous laughs, but it’s still kind of a small movie.
This character has a lot of money and fame, but feels very unhappy. It’s not that his struggle doesn’t come across as sincere, but part of the time I had to wonder: Is it really that bad to be a comedian who wants to be taken seriously?
Yeah, I mean, it’s not cancer. [laughs] It’s not being unable to pay your rent. On that level, yeah, there is a bit of rich people’s problems in the movie. I’m not going to deny that. But artists struggle, too.
How much do you relate to the tension between Andre and Rosario Dawson’s character, the conniving New York Times journalist?
There are some people who are private people and some people who are public. The guy in the movie happens to be famous and wants to be a private person. But the person he is with is not. Especially in today’s society, I can see that being a problem people deal with.
What kind of feedback did you get on this movie? Do you have a cabal of director friends?
Yeah. Ben Stiller definitely helped me out. He was a sounding board. Louie [C.K.] was a sounding board. Judd [Apatow]. I got a core group of guys about the same age. Malcolm Lee was good at giving me feedback. We all show each other our stuff.
What surprised you about the way the movie came together?
I cut out more comedy than I thought I would. It helped the dramatic stuff work. People see this movie and say it’s got so many jokes, but I cut a lot of them out to help the story along. Once I cut out a quarter of the jokes, the movie felt like a real movie, as opposed to a Zucker brothers set piece-to-set piece movie.
A lot of standup comedians who direct movies — you, Louie, Bobcat Goldthwait — don’t produce work that feels in any way like an adaptation of one of your routines. Why is that?
I’m kind of always doing standup. Being a standup, you do have this weird thing where you know how to make an audience laugh that most directors may not have. Maybe that helps. They’re such different things. When you’re doing standup, there’s no script, even if there is one — you can jump off it at any time. With a movie, you don’t have that leeway. You can lose the audience really quickly if you don’t treat the story very seriously.
“Top Five” isn’t exclusively about race. But with your New York magazine interview and op ed in The Hollywood Reporter coming out the same week, you’ve contributed to a narrative around its release involving the whiteness of the entertainment industry. In the Reporter, you wrote that “It’s a white industry. It just is…I’m a guy who’s accepted it all.” But don’t you want to be the guy who’s changing it all?
I’m 50 years-old. I’m not changing anything. I don’t know how many more years people want to see me doing anything. I don’t know. Am I resigned? It is what it is! It is what it is. I can do good work, and work. If I can continue to do good work, great, and I can’t, I’ll be on some reality show or something.
But what do you make of the African American films that have done well this year? “Dear White People” was a hit and “Selma” is getting awards season buzz…
Yeah, that stuff’s great. I saw “Dear White People.” I liked it a lot. It’s pretty cool. If I’m going to do my next film, I’m just going to have to write a script and try to get some money. They’re all the same: You write a script, get some actors in the room to read it through, and if went very well, you invite some money people to hear it. It’s hard but simple. The hard part is writing the good script.
No Kickstarter campaigns, then?
I hope not. But, hey, if it comes to it — I’ve got no shame. I got no shame at all.