At a Q&A session with a sneak-preview audience last week, comedian Chris Rock had a straightforward answer to why he decided to step behind the camera and direct himself in his new screwball political parody "Head of State," in which he plays the first minority major party nominee to run for president of the United States.
"I'd rather just act, but sometimes your movies end up sh**ty," the former stand-up said with a rim-shot emphasis on the last word that garnered a round of laughter from the crowd.
Rock played the straight man most of the night as the audience members stepped up to microphones in the theater and asked disappointingly serious questions about breaking into showbiz and Rock's politics. But ever the wisecracker, when given the opportunity, he let fly with a joke.
What would he do if he were president? "Sell one of the Carolinas," the comic deadpanned, "to raise some cash."
The next morning at his suite in a local hotel, Rock laughs off questions about genuine political ambitions ("Are you kidding?") but does say he understands what it was like to be on the campaign trail.
"Campaigning for president is not all that different from going on tour," he says as he plops down in a huge, over-stuffed chair, looking a bit beat from being up at an ungodly hour to promote the film -- in which his character is supposed to lose the election but make the Democrats look good for running a black candidate -- on a couple radio and TV morning shows.
Before making this movie, he says he boosted his understanding of politics through one of his TV gigs. "I covered both conventions for Comedy Central."
Was doing the Comedy Central coverage what lead to the idea for "Head of State"?
"The seed came a long time ago. It was Geraldine Ferrarro," Rock says, referring to Democratic candidate Walter Mondale's running mate in the 1984 election -- and the first woman to run for vice president. "It seemed like a similar scenario."
Adopting a pompous politician pose, he slips into mockery mode: "Well, we're probably gonna lose. Let's pick a vice presidential candidate that will make us look good down the line."
But how did the actor end up at the helm of the movie? He pleads studio politics and claims it was a way to get the film made faster.
"You know, studios only wanna make like four movies (a year). One stars Tom Hanks, one stars Tom Cruise, one stars Julia Roberts. Then the fourth one is one they just ended up making. It's like, 'We need something for the 4th quarter!' You know what I mean?" he laughs.
"So unless you're one of these huge stars, it's really about momentum when you write a movie. You sell your movie, and if you have your director, you can go. If you gotta look for a director, then you're kinda f**ked. And even if you find a director, he's gonna wanna do his rewrite -- it adds a year to the process. So this seemed like the quickest way to get it done."
Rock does admit, however, to having directing ambitions for some time, and it was just a matter of deciding on the right material -- in this case something he wrote himself.
"It seemed natural," he says. "I'm a Woody Allen-o-phile. I love Woody Allen. He did stand-up. He acted. He wrote. He started to direct. This seemed like the one (in which) I could pull that off. You gotta know what you want."
What the neophyte director wanted was comedy above all else, and he balks at the idea of "Head of State" having any political message, saying that making a message movie would hardly draw the Chris Rock crowd.
"The movie's really political!...Yeah, I'll pass," he says sarcastically, holding out one hand before making his point putting out the other to compare: "The movie's really funny!...Hey, all right!"
But is Rock still concerned about saying what's on his mind? "A little bit. You know, I don't want to seem like an idiot in the president movie. But no, I didn't expect (a) passionate response. I was just hoping to get some laughs."
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