When we met Kevin Hart on the set of Central Intelligence, he was understandably exhausted. Hart was not only shooting a movie, but was flying on his “off days” to perform four to five standup routines in sold out stadiums every weekend. And on top of that, a unit publicist told us, he’d also run a 5K marathon prior to his San Francisco shows.
The marathon is a proper analogy for how both Hart and his Intelligence co-star, Dwayne Johnson, are approaching their acting careers. When we spoke to Johnson he specifically said that he’s targeting global film properties. And while Hart has been this generation’s most successful standup comedian—in terms of both selling out stadiums and having the most successful box office returns on his standup concert films—he does realize that he has some work to do on the global domination scale. Teaming up with The Rock for an action comedy could help.
The director of Intelligence, Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers), filled us in on his desire to put both Johnson and Hart opposite each other in roles that they don’t normally play. Hart is the straight guy and Johnson is the goofy wise-cracker.
Hart plays an accountant who’s most likely to succeed high school status has turned out more boring than he expected. “He thought he was meant for more,” Thurber said. A 20-year high school reunion is coming up and Calvin (Hart) gets a Facebook message from Bob (Johnson), who’s in town for the reunion and wants to get a drink. Bob was overweight and bullied in high school, but when Calvin goes to meet Bob at a bar, but “Fat Bob is no longer [the body of] Fat Rock, he’s [in the body of] Dwayne Johnson.”
Not only does his body change, but Bob is a trained killer for the C.I.A. “But the joke is that [Bob] still has big cartoon eyes for the coolest guy in high school (Hart) and can’t believe they’re hanging out,” Thurber said. “Even though he’s lethal and huge, he’s a labrador who loves Kevin Hart’s character more than anything.” As a spy for the C.I.A., Bob’s gone rogue in order to clear his name for something he claims he didn’t commit and ropes Hart’s Calvin into helping him because he thinks Calvin is the only one he can trust. “And the hijinks, as they say, ensue,” Thurber said.
We chatted with Hart about his insane schedule, how he still makes time for standup, his weight room talks with Johnson, and how he works with writers. (Plus his attempt to grow out a rat tail in high school.)
We spoke to Dwayne and he said that you guys knew each other for a long time. Does that make the transition of becoming the straight man easier?
Yeah, I think DJ is actually more of the comedic relief in this film. I think I have been lucky enough to get opportunities in the films that I’ve been able to switch it up a bit from the Think Like A Man roles where I come in to narrate the story or About Last Night where I am coloring a romantic comedy in a raunchy manner. With the Ride Along films playing opposite (Ice) Cube, that’s comedy relief, but I’m more of the bitch, the guy who wants to do so much but is afraid to do it.
For my first time playing the straight leading man role, in Central Intelligence even though it’s funny it’s about telling a compelling story and making everything work. It’s a different level of a guy who is in a position he doesn’t want to be in and at some point has to build up enough courage and enough balls to deal with the situation and make right by the situation to grasp hold of it and making decisions that matter. That what was intriguing about the movie, that and working with DJ, doing an action comedy that is separate from the action-comedy that I have already done (was a draw). I like the fact that DJ’s character is the guy that you fall for and root for other than myself. [Calvin is] the kind of guy that was having a pity party all in his head. Where no one thinks there is anything wrong with my life but me. Where as a guy like Bob comes in and he is so envious of who I was, kind of builds up my self esteem to where I used to be (in high school). Throughout the film, I find myself doing it for it for him, too. It’s kind of like a flip-flop motivation for different individuals. It comes full circle.
Can you tell us about the action parts of the movie. How physical it has gotten so far?
It’s a lot of action. It’s not that I have gotten really physical, it’s just my character gets thrown all over the place. I’m thrown out of windows, I am in car accidents, and I am jumping over shit that I don’t want to jump over but I have no choice—it’s definitely what you want to do when you have the idea of doing an action film. I would say that I have had fun with doing all of the things that I am doing, my stunt man is amazing in making me look good in all of the stunts that he has been required to do. We get to stand next to The Rock and when stunts come up, no matter what you are going to look good, not only does he have a great stuntman (his cousin), but he’s done it so long and he’s polished.
Does your character know anything about Bob’s new job or is revealed in out of nowhere moments?
It is, I don’t know the stuff his character knows until he does what he does. So it comes off as a shock and I think the shock factor of me realizing that he is this guy—this trained killer–the funniness is, “Who the hell are you?” This isn’t the guy that I knew from high school, now that we are older, what I am seeing isn’t what I remember.
So we saw the board with all the 90’s fashion and hairstyles in there, did you get to do go far out in the flashbacks and what fashion are you ashamed of from high school?
As far as the flashbacks go, you don’t want to go too crazy, I think you want to keep it grounded. We already have a crazy premise to start with, and DJ has done a great job pulling off the character that he is pulling off. You believe it. You believe the guy, you believe our relationship. I wouldn’t want to do anything that deters people from paying attention to what they are supposed to. I make sure I keep my stuff subdued where it should be subdued because ultimately it is about us both looking good and making him look good makes me look good.
As far as me in high school, I used to have a tail. It never grew, so I had this triangle in the back of my head, and it was supposed to grow, but I just twisted it into a little piece of a fingernail and my mom was just like, “cut this shit off your head’” and she cut it and it hurt my little heart. But she was like that tail’s gotta go. And she was probably right.
Does the plot make you think about how far you’ve come from where you were in high school until now and obviously the success you’ve achieved?
I don’t want this to come out wrong but I was like never not a cool guy…. Even though we weren’t in a financial place to have the nicest clothes or the best sneakers, I had personality, and for me that is bigger and better than anything you could have, the ability to fit in any crowd with any group of people. In high school I was most popular, most loved, definitely not most likely to succeed. Not with those grades. But I had friends all over the board. I didn’t just stick to just one group. I didn’t just have one clique, everyone in my high school loved me.
So when you are playing the straight guy here, does it benefit you to also be doing a big comedy tour at the same time to kinda have that normal comedic release? And can you fill us in on how crazy your schedule has been?
My schedule is crazy. I am asleep right now. I am on autotune. What I do is I set it up where I can film Monday through Thursdays on Thursday nights I wrap, take a plane, fly to the city I’m going to be in, sleep for those 4 or 5 hours early. Do two stand-up shows, after those shows fly to the next city, same thing two shows, I do 4 to 5 shows a weekend and then I come back here to work.
And you still fit in the 5K (marathon) in San Francisco?
Yeah and I do my 5k’s. Honestly, I am just on a high that my fan base is supporting me in the way that they are. My tour is breaking records left and right and this is history. You don’t realize it while you are in it but if you take a second just to peek at it. I am doing multiple shows in arenas, no other comedian has done that. I am about to perform in a football stadium Lincoln Financial (Philadelphia), August 30th. 50,000 people; sold out. All to see a comedian. These are things that you smile and you laugh but I have the mindset of not getting comfortable. Because I don’t want to think that this is supposed to happen. That it’s supposed to be this way. Hard work has allowed me to keep it this way so I try to keep that attitude and keep that mentality. So by multitasking—and doing the movie and the tour at the same time—I wanted to make sure it was something that I could do because nothing will ever jeopardize my standup comedy, Nothing comes before that. But the studios were willing to make the schedules work, so I could do it, because I didn’t want a movie like this to go away. So we did make it happen, I make sure I show up 100% every day so that I know that I am giving this film my all and when I go back and look at it, I can see all the hard work and energy that I put into both of these things and [be proud].
So we got to see a secret actor in a scene he has this long monologue and he’s riffing a lot. Despite being the straight guy, do you also get to pop off?
Oh yeah I have a lot of great moments. I think the beauty of being the straight man sometimes is, it’s not about getting all the laughs, It’s not about having all of the great great moments where people are just like oh my god this is crazy—it’s about connecting the dots and making sure that the film works overall. I revert back to The Wedding Ringer and Get Hard because these are two movies where I took a backstep because I had co stars that could take a front step. Josh Gad, whether people know who he was or not, I knew after watching him in a movie people would love him. I think Josh is one one of the funniest people ever. And there were moments where I took steps back to let Josh Gad shine because he deserved to shine. Will Ferrell is Will Ferrell, you know he’s got it. If you have two movies where two guys are trying to out-funny each other you don’t have a movie, you have an unnecessary yelling-and-shouting match of completely unnecessary scenes because everyone is just trying to do what they think the other person can’t do. Me and Will took back steps and when it was time.
I love [working on Central Intelligence] because I am excited that people get to see DJ in a different light. You wanna talk about working hard? My co-star, step-by-step, works just as hard— if not harder—than me. So the fact that he was willing to take a movie with a comedic talent like myself, and was willing to step into that role and know that that is not what he normally does, made me look at him and respect him more. I take that on as a real job. I gotta make sure I make my guy look good. I can’t make you look good if I am trying to be better and funnier than you in these moments. I gotta make you look funny when I am supposed to. And in return when there are moments when I am supposed to be funny I take advantage of these moments.
Overall I think that the balance that we found in this film is a great balance and I think people are going to walk away and not only are you going to laugh, you are going to give the director a lot of credit and you’re going to give the actors a lot of praise because the plot of what we are doing is so ridiculous but we are grounding it to make it believable. That’s what good movies are made of. They are made by people who have hindsight of what their job is and never once do they overstep these boundaries. Right now I think we are all doing a great job of just staying in our lanes.
We’ve seen the dueling Instagrams with you and Dwayne, can you just speak on y’all’s relationship on set?
You can’t use the word “respect” enough. Both of our days start at different times, we are both early risers, we both bang out our gym sessions, but we don’t workout together. We come in, get to set, we ask “Did you get yours in today?” “Yeah, man, what did you work?” “I worked my back. What did you work” “Legs, man.” “Good shit, good shit.” Normally we are fucking dead tired. We head to our trailers, nod off, and then we come and we’re energized the scenes. But our conversations on set are about our life and about our kids or about what’s next and what we like and what we don’t like about the business. What are our fears? We have such cool conversations where you require a person’s full attention.
It’s such a good feeling to know, we’re coming to work and you’re smiling and having a good time. We don’t have to make it work and I think that the crew and everyone around can attest to that. This is our last eights days and i don’t ever get sad about a movie ending, and I am not sad now, but this is one where I am feeling like, this is a good one. There were no fights, no attitudes, nobody was yelling or screaming. There wasn’t a bad day when someone was left feeling uncomfortable. To me, you chalk this up in the books as a good one.
Can you talk about the other actors Aaron Paul and Amy Ryan, we haven’t heard a lot about them.
You got a lot of talented actors. I mean, Amy Ryan? Goodness, She’s as talented as they get. And I love the fact that she is playing this crazy bad CIA cop. She is scary in it. Like honestly she is scary. There are some takes where I am like, “Is this what it’s like at home? Jesus Christ.” She is really good. Aaron Paul, goddamn, man. I mean I have known him, and I met him before and I was a fan of Breaking Bad just like everyone else but I have never seen him out of that light. I wasn’t privy to anything else, so getting a chance to see him in [person] was so dope because he really is someone else. He didn’t come in as Jesse from Breaking Bad he came in as the character as he was playing. He goes toe to toe with DJ in this film and he does a good job, there is some good toe-to-toe action. Danielle Nicolet, who plays my wife, Maggie, our chemistry is great. The movie is cast very well. I don’t have any room for complaints or error. I think we got very lucky in getting who we got for this one.
First of all, both me and DJ think that (director) Rawson Marshall Thurber is the nicest guy in the world. The reason why we joke with him is that when you are a writer that gets hired as a director, you come from the world or writing. Rawson has done several movies. But if you write those movies you spend so much time on those movies and so much time with those words that that’s what you hear. You know those words. You are literally waiting for the day to hear another person say the words that you have spent eight months creating. So when those words are said, it should bring a tear. But we tease Rawson because he just wants to hear the [lines] that he worked on, being said. You can play and you can do stuff but you can improve sections, but he always wants that one take where he can hear the words he wrote and then say “cut.” So it’s an ongoing joke that we have. And I love that he tracks stories so well. And he is willing to have a conversation with us. Actors are not always right, and neither are directors, but when you can get a group together that can converse and all come to a head and agree on a direction, then that is a great thing.
How involved are you with the writers of the movies that you work on?
At this point in my career, a lot. The writers are always going to be the writers, the creative people are always going to be the creative people but once you sign on to do a movie with a person you should go over the script page by page and go over your stuff, what you feel, what you don’t like and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. You should always give [the writer] the respect they deserve in having a conversation with you; you don’t want to come off as the guy [who says], “Change this is shit!” You have to come off as a guy who cares enough about the script to put his input and see if there is something we can find together and 9 times out of 10 you always do. It’s not about making it worse, it’s about elevating the material. And I’ll say that’s a process that I am adamant about. I have that relationship with my director and I know how to track a character and track a character’s story and understand what that character brings to the table and make him awesome.
Would you say that Dwayne’s character is a villain to your character?
He’s not a villain. “Villain” is such a strong word. I guess it’s the correct word, in this case, though. He is a complex individual. Lines get blurred. From my vantage point, I don’t know what’s what. And the position that he puts me in is a tough position for any civilian that lives a 9-to-5 life and steps into the world that he pushes me into. Everything becomes a question, everything becomes a thought of what is not real and what is not. When those lines get blurred and those tables turn, it puts me in a position where I don’t have the answers and when you don’t have those answers you just turn to not trusting and shit hits the fan. Some of the shit, [Calvin] is responsible for. Some we are both responsible for. I think that is where the movie takes a great turn, because in an action-comedy, you want to see one part where the whole movie makes sense and you see what the movie is about. Shit gets real.
Central Intelligence opens nationwide on June 17.