Laughing all the way to the bank!
Craig Robinson is without question one of today’s fastest rising comedy stars. Known for his roles, over 40 to date, in TV shows like “The Office” and “Eastbound and Down”; in films such as Pineapple Express and Knocked Up; and soon in two other films coming out this summer, This is the End and Rapture-Palooza – Craig’s weird, eccentric and totally original style of comedy have made him a comedy superstar.
Now he reaches new heights when his new film Peeples, produced by Tyler Perry and written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism, in which Robinson plays the lead for the first time, opens May 10th. The film centers on Robinson’s character, a young man enduring the weekend from hell when he surprises his girlfriend (Kerry Washington) by showing up to meet her parents.
The former Chicago elementary school music teacher is currently on a cross-country promo tour for the movie. N’DIGO met him and talked about his new film, his career, and the comedian who inspires him the most, whom he stars against in the movie. Our talk began as soon as I walked in the hotel room and he started laughing as soon as he saw me:
Craig Robinson: You look just like a good friend of mine, Michael Carlton King.
N’DIGO: Poor guy, that’s a terrible tragedy.
No! It’s a great thing; it’s a great thing.
So I have a doppelganger?
Yes, yes you do.
I’m going to try to avoid the usual b.s. questions you get like: “What was Kerry Washington like to work with?” – as if you’re going to say it was a nightmare. But if it was, that would be interesting…
It was anything but a nightmare. It was a dream.
Especially in that scene in the film when she’s lying on top of you moving back and forth. That must have been real torture.
(Laughs) Exactly. Tough life.
You are playing the lead for the first time in a film. What is it you think director Tina Chism saw in you that convinced her you were the right guy for the role instead of some more obvious choice like Chris Rock or that really short guy? I forget his name…
(Laughs) Kevin Hart?
Yeah right, him. But they said you were the perfect guy.
Well as Tina told me, Lionsgate told her, because she had a list of people she wanted, what about Craig Robinson? And she had never thought of that. And then it gets twisted, even more twisted, because she came to meet with me and she’ll tell you that I fell asleep during the meeting. Like stone cold, just out. And yes, I was tired and yes I had been shooting for 15 hours on The Office just before, but it was just a catnap.
During the meeting?
Yes during the meeting! (laughs) Lionsgate was really pushing for her to like me so we met again and it was love at second sight and we hit it off. But I would be lying if I said I know what they saw in me to give me this role to play Wade Walker with this amazing cast. So whatever they saw, keep on seeing it, baby!
You’re in this film with Melvin Van Peebles, Diahann Carroll, Kerry Washington, S. Epatha Merkerson and David Alan Grier. You had to bring your “A game” every day while making this movie.
YES! David Alan Grier – I started watching him in college when he was on In Living Color and I’ve been a major fan of his ever since.
But to be on your “A game”, you can’t sit back and go, “Oooh look, it’s David Alan Grier!!” You have to come ready to play and ready to have an open mind. One of the things I learned being in this movie is that every scene can be mine. Every single scene there’s some gold that you’ve got to find.
So let’s say as an actor I’ll do an audition and get home and say: “Arggggggh, I should have done this!” or you do a scene and later you go: “Owwww, I should have done this instead of that.” So I found myself in this movie trying to mine every scene beforehand to see what I could find so that I wouldn’t go home and say: “God! I blew it!” That’s the worse feeling when you know that there was something else, a stone you left unturned.
The thing about you and Grier is that the both of you have a sort of similar comic sensibility. Very off beat.
(Nodding) Very off beat. Thank you, that’s high compliment. He was the father on the set and I think he’s the funniest dude on the planet. It takes a lot to “out-silly” me, and he does it, but with class and taste and intelligence. And going up against him, that was the challenge. How do you go up against this giant of a comedic talent?
Did you ever see his Comedy Central stand up special from about 10 years ago, The Book of David; The Cult Figure’s Manifesto? He was dressed as Chairman Mao or some Red Chinese Communist plutocrat from the 1960s and on the stage he had as a backdrop this enormous 1960s Communist Chinese propaganda poster. But instead of Mao’s face on top of the poster, it was Grier’s. He’s on a different wavelength definitely. Not your usual Black comedian. Everybody goes right, he goes left.
Yeah exactly. He told me one time: “Do what scares you.” He said that’s what made him do Broadway, for example, in David Mamet’s play Race with Kerry Washington or Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. That stayed with me – do what scares you. If it scares you go ahead and tackle it.
Do you think you can be used to being a leading man?
I had a blast. I don’t know if I’m a leading man and all. My challenge was not to have that voice in my head saying: “You’re the leading man so you must act this way.” The cast was family. Nothing changes you. Just go in and do what you do and do it well.
But it was great playing those different layers and not having to play “a beginning, middle and an end” character in one scene. It was great just watching my story develop over a course of time being funny and dramatic. I just relished it.
[box_light]Chicago’s Very Own![/box_light]
You’re back here in Chicago where you started out as an elementary school teacher. Do you look back in amazement at the journey you’ve had?
This is my city. I come back here to recharge my batteries, so first and foremost that’s what it’s like. Getting a recharge.
When did you know that you were funny? I mean everybody thinks they’re funny, but when did you first realize you have the talent to make other people laugh?
I’ve always been silly, but I’ll give you two examples. I knew I could improvise back when I was a kid. I was reading The Three Little Pigs to my father and when the second little pig’s house was blown down, I said the second little pig put on his gym shoes and ran off…and my father said “What?” and just busted out laughing. I just improvised it right there, but saw the reaction it got.
The second time is when we would be riding in the car and making my father laugh was the ultimate goal. He was this hard-core guy. He was an attorney; he came up in the projects; his father died when he was 12, so he had to be the man in the house since he was 12.
We would ride around in the car and my little stage would be the back seat and then these things would come to me and I would be in this creative space of making up these characters and situations and having the whole family cracking up. So that was always real special to me. I never knew it was going to happen; it just happened.
When did you come to the decision that doing comedy would be your calling?
In college I bought a keyboard. I wanted to be a singer and write songs. And then soon after I got that keyboard, comedy just sort of swooped in and took me. I mean I’m just so silly. People would tell me things that I said that made them laugh, which were basically comedy bits.
Then a few people did comedy at a talent show in college and I was like, “What? Real people do this?” Because I thought comedians on TV were super heroes, like this huge presence. So after seeing them do comedy at the talent show, I’m hooked, this is it. I started reading books on comedy and began to figure out how you build an act. And then when I started developing my comedy act, I started taking acting classes. I went to Act One and Second City in Chicago and one thing lead to another.
But you’re also talking about finding your own unique comedy voice.
It’s an ongoing process. A matter of fact, I’m in that place right now where I’ve said all these things in my act, which everybody hasn’t seen. But do I still go down that road or do I start to talk about some other stuff that’s going on? That stuff is good, but that stuff over here is the real good stuff. So it’s definitely a process. I’m going to have to sit down one day and go: “Okay, let me see who you really are. What kind of balls do you really have?”
I have to ask my standard last question – what do you know now that you wish you had known before you got into this business?
(Pauses and laughs) The first thing that comes to mind is that I need to get some arthroscopic knee surgery, so I wish I had known to take better care of my knees!
But as far as show business goes, my naivety is so strong I don’t know if it would have made a difference. Because you know, I sort of just rolled into this. I’ve had great success with my team around me and it’s been all blessings. I wouldn’t change a thing in other words.