In a candid interview, the comic discusses America's summer of strife, Trump, blackface and his dramatic turn in the new season of Fargo.
Chris Rock wasn't sure if he was hiding out or not.
On the Friday before Labor Day, he was speaking by phone from Yellow Springs, Ohio, the rustic village where he'd gone to spend time with Dave Chappelle, his friend and fellow comedian. Rock had previously travelled there in July to perform for a small, socially distanced audience as part of an outdoor comedy series Chappelle has been hosting. But Rock couldn't decide if this return visit was meant to be clandestine. "I don't know if it's a secret," he said quietly. "Maybe it is out here." He couldn't easily find the words to describe what he'd been doing just before this trip, either. "I mean, I guess I've been acting," he said. After a short pause, he added, at a more assuredly Rock-like volume: "In a pandemic."
In August, Rock had gone to Chicago to finish filming the fourth season of Fargo, the supremely arch FX crime drama, which makes its debut September 27. The show's creator, Noah Hawley, had chosen him to star in its latest storyline, set in the dapper gangland of 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, and which casts Rock — the indefatigable standup and comic actor — as a mannered, methodical crime lord named Loy Cannon.
Maybe in a different universe where the show premiered in April as originally planned, the Fargo role has already put the 55-year-old Rock on a whole new career trajectory, opening the door to more serious and substantial roles and silencing the chorus of fans who still knowingly ask him for "one rib." Maybe in this universe it still will.
But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, production on Fargo was halted in March, and Rock and his co-stars (including Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley and Andrew Bird) were all sent packing. Then at the end of the summer, Rock was summoned back to the set, first to spend a week in quarantine and then to complete his acting work under new protocols and not a little bit of stress.
Other prominent projects of his have also been pushed back; he has a starring role in Spiral, a reboot of the Saw horror series, whose release was postponed a full year to May 2021. But Rock wasn't mourning the delay of any professional gratification, having spent the spring and summer realigning his values for the new reality of pandemic life. "Maybe for like a day or two, I was like, 'Oh, me,'" he said with an exaggerated whimper. "But honestly, it was more like, 'I've got to get to my kids and make sure my family is safe.'"
In that time he has also heard countless Americans echoing the lesson he offered in the opening minutes of his 2018 standup special, Tamborine, where he spoke humorously but emphatically about the ongoing incidents of police violence against Black people. As he said in that routine, law enforcement was among the professions that simply cannot allow "a few bad apples": "American Airlines can't be like, 'You know, most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash in the mountains.'"
Now Rock was feeling mistrustful about the power of his comedy to do anything other than entertain and unsure when he would get to perform it again for large audiences. And he was admittedly wary about this very interview, explaining with a chuckle that when he talks to the print media, he said, "You have to be comfortable with being boring. If you're not comfortable with being boring, occasionally, you're going to get in trouble."
Not that Rock was ever boring in a wide-ranging conversation that encompassed Fargo and his broader career; his latest observations on a nation grappling simultaneously with a pandemic and a reinvigorated longing for racial equality; the resurfacing of a past video in which Jimmy Fallon impersonated him in blackface; and, of course, President Donald Trump. ("No one has less compassion for humans than a landlord," he said.) Even in the absence of an audience, Rock was candid, increasingly animated, uncommonly nimble and always looking for the laugh. Now let the trouble begin.
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Was there a time when you thought this Fargo" season was never going to get finished and that the series might not be seen for a long time, if ever?
I've had weird little things in my career — I was supposed to do this Bob Altman movie, Hands on a Hard Body. We were on the phone a lot, going over my character, and I was so excited about doing the movie. And he died. I was supposed to be Jimmy Olsen in Superman with Nic Cage [Superman Lives, which was cancelled in the late 1990s]. I remember going to Warner Bros., doing a costume fitting. Hanging out with Tim [Burton], who I idolised. Like, I'm hanging out with the guy that made Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and he's showing me the models of the sets for Superman. So, yeah, I definitely thought there's a chance this might not happen. Fortunately for everyone involved, that was not the case.
How did Noah Hawley approach you about Fargo?
It was a weird day because it was the day of the Emmy nominations, and I didn't get nominated for my last special [Tamborine]. I wouldn't say I was down down, but I was a little disappointed, and then I got a call from my agent that Noah Hawley wanted to meet with me.
I get acting offers, but I get more hosting offers than anything. It is not uncommon for somebody to want me to do a high-priced wedding or bar mitzvah; a few years ago, I officiated the wedding of Daniel Ek, the owner of Spotify, and Bruno Mars was the wedding band. I think I sat next to [Mark] Zuckerberg at the reception. [Laughs.] I just assumed Noah had some crazy request like that. The only reason I went is because I love Fargo. And I get there, and he offers me this part.
How did he explain the character of Loy Cannon to you?
He said 1950s gangster, so I know exactly who he's talking about. My father was born in 1933. It's not like 12 Years a Slave. It's literally a guy my grandfather's age.
In the first episode, we see Loy pitching the idea for credit cards to an uninterested white banker. Is he a man who wants to be part of polite society, but it doesn't want him?
I mean, I remember having a production overall deal at HBO, and I came in with one person to sell a talk show with them. And they wouldn't. That person's name is Wendy Williams. [Laughs.] That's $100 million that I never made. I was selling Leslie Jones to people, to agents and managers, for 10 years before she got on SNL. I'm very familiar with selling a no-brainer that people go, "Huh? Why that?"
Is he different from characters you've played before, because he's older and we don't know how much longer he's going to be sitting on his throne?
Yeah, it's one of those jobs: Because of how well it pays, you could be killed at any moment. It is the best part I've ever, ever, ever had. I hope it's not the best part I ever have. Hey, Morgan Freeman's done a hundred movies since Shawshank Redemption. But that's the best part he ever had.
This role feels like it's declaring itself as being outside the realm of what you're best known for. Are you thinking differently about your acting career and where you hope to go with it?
My casting isn't as weird as it seems if you really watch Fargo. Key and Peele are in the first season, and Brad Garrett's amazing in Season 2. Hey, it's my turn, OK? I want to work on good stuff. Everything I've done hasn't been great, but I was always striving for greatness. I loved Marriage Story. I'd kill for something like that. [Laughs.] You see what [Adam] Sandler did with Uncut Gems. But you've got to get the call and be ready when your number's called.
Your 2014 film Top Five, which you wrote, directed and starred in, was very personal for you. Do you want to make more movies like that?
That's a vein I intend to keep going in. When I made Top Five, I got divorced. And like most people that get divorced, I needed money. [Laughs.] I had to pay for stuff. I also went on tour. Because of Covid, it doesn't look like there's going to be any serious touring until 2022. So I'm a writer-director-actor right now. I'm working on some scripts in the Top Five vein, and I honestly hope to direct, sometime after the new year.
How much of Fargo did you have to finish during the pandemic?
It was like an episode and a half — the whole last episode and some scenes from the one before it. It's weird, quarantine when you're acting. Acting can be isolating anyway, and then you throw quarantine into that. You're in solitary confinement with Netflix and Uber Eats. But let's not get it too twisted. Somebody that's in solitary is like, shut the [expletive] up. And then to actually act, and get tested every other day, and wear a mask whenever you're not saying your lines. And be cognisant of which zone you're in. Because for Zone A, everyone's been tested, but in Zone B, not everyone's been tested. Zone C is just, everyone's got Covid.
You performed at one of Chappelle's live shows in July. What was that like for you?
When you're in the clubs, you learn the rain crowd is the best crowd. Anytime it's raining, they really want to be there. The pandemic crowd is really good. "Dude, not only do we want to be here, there is nothing else to do. There's nothing else to watch. Thank you."
What did you talk about?
I talked about our political whatever. America. Part of the reason we're in the predicament we're in is, the president's a landlord. No one has less compassion for humans than a landlord. [Laughs.] And we're shocked he's not engaged.
Did you ever see that movie The Last Emperor, where, like, a 5-year-old is the emperor of China? There's a kid and he's the king. So I'm like, it's all the Democrats' fault. Because you knew that the emperor was 5 years old. And when the emperor's 5 years old, they only lead in theory. There's usually an adult who's like, "OK, this is what we're really going to do." And it was totally up to Pelosi and the Democrats. Their thing was, "We're going to get him impeached," which was never going to happen. You let the pandemic come in. Yes, we can blame Trump, but he's really the 5-year-old.
Put it this way: Republicans tell outright lies. Democrats leave out key pieces of the truth that would lead to a more nuanced argument. In a sense, it's all fake news.
Looking back at the beginning of Tamborine, the first several minutes is you talking about police violence and raising Black children in a racist country. Does it feel futile when you discuss these issues and it doesn't change anything?
I remember when Tamborine dropped, I got a lot of flak over that cop thing. There was a lot of people trying to start a fire that never really picked up. It's so weird that, two years later, it's right on. I remember watching the news, and Trump said "bad apples." It was like, you did it! You did it!
But you told people two years ago —
I did. But so did Public Enemy. So did KRS-One. So did Marvin Gaye. There's something about seeing things on camera. If O.J. kills Nicole on camera, the trial is two days. [Laughs.] It's two days trying to figure out what kind of cell he deserves. It's just Johnnie going, [Johnnie Cochran voice] "Well, I think he needs at least a 12-by-8. Can he have ESPN?" That would be the whole trial.
But there was videotape of Rodney King's beating, too. It doesn't assure any particular outcome.
Yeah, man. Put it this way: This is the second great civil rights movement. And Dr. King and those guys were amazing. But they knew nothing about money. They didn't ask for anything. At the end of the day, the things we got — it was just, hey, can you guys be humane? All we got was, like, humanity. If they had it to do all over again, in hindsight, there would be some attention paid to the financial disparity of all the years of — let's not even count slavery, let's just count Jim Crow.
You're talking about a system that really didn't end until about 1973. And I'm born in '65 in South Carolina. I'm probably in a segregated wing of a hospital; there's no way in the world I was next to a white baby. Even if the hospital wasn't segregated, I was in a whole other room, and that room didn't have the good milk and the good sheets. My parents couldn't own property in certain neighbourhoods when I was born. There was an economic disparity there, and that was not addressed in the original civil rights movement. It was a huge oversight. So there's no money, and there's no land. If you don't have either one of those, you don't really have much.
Did you want to participate in the recent protests?
Me and my kids, we looked from afar. But we're in the middle of a pandemic, man, and I know people who have absolutely passed from it. I'm like, dude, this Covid thing is real.
You've been telling audiences for years that racism isn't going away and remains a potent force in America. Do you feel like you've seen circumstances improve at all?
It's real. It's not going away. I said this before, but Obama becoming the president, it's progress for white people. It's not progress for Black people. It's the Jackie Robinson thing. It's written like he broke a barrier, as if there weren't Black people that could play before him. And that's how white people have learned about racism. They think, when these people work hard enough, they'll be like Jackie. And the real narrative should be that these people, the Black people, are being abused by a group of people that are mentally handicapped. And we're trying to get them past their mental handicaps to see that all people are equal.
Humanity isn't progress; it's only progress for the person that's taking your humanity. If a woman's in an abusive relationship and her husband stops beating her, you wouldn't say she's made progress, right? But that's what we do with Black people. We're constantly told that we're making progress. The relationship we're in — the arranged marriage that we're in — it's that we're getting beat less.
Jimmy Fallon drew significant criticism this past spring for a 20-year-old clip of himself playing you in blackface on Saturday Night Live. How did you feel about that segment?
Hey, man, I'm friends with Jimmy. Jimmy's a great guy. And he didn't mean anything. A lot of people want to say intention doesn't matter, but it does. And I don't think Jimmy Fallon intended to hurt me. And he didn't.
There's been a wider push to expunge blackface from any movies or TV shows where it previously appeared. Have people taken it too far?
If I say they are, then I'm the worst guy in the world. There's literally one answer that ends my whole career. Blackface ain't cool, OK? That's my quote. Blackface is bad. Who needs it? It's so sad, we live in a world now where you have to say, I am so against cancer. "I just assumed you liked cancer." No, no, no, I am so against it. You have to state so many obvious things you're against.
Who do you hang with these days? Who's your peer group?
I hang with Dave [Chappelle]. I hang with my kids. I hang with Nelson George. There's not a lot of hanging in the Covid world. The better question is, who do you FaceTime with?
So who do you FaceTime with?
The other day I realised I've never met an elderly person that was cared for by their friends. Every elderly person I know that's got any trouble is cared for by a spouse or a child. Sometimes they have, like, five kids, but only one helps. Where are your friends? Your friends are probably not going to be there when it really counts. [Laughs.] When my dad was dying in the hospital, where were his friends? My grandmother, where were her friends? Don't get me wrong, you get sick in your 20s, your friends will come to the hospital. It's an adventure. [Laughs.] You get sick in your 60s, they farm it out. "You go Wednesday, and I'll go Sunday."
Enjoy them while you have them. But if you think your friends are your long-term solution to loneliness, you're an idiot.
Written by: Dave Itzkoff
Photographs by: Dana Scruggs
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES