There’s no charm like Southern charm, and Georgia’s pride Chris Tucker has bushels at his disposal. After pulling a disappearing act for his interview a couple of weeks previous, this time Tucker’s right on time, showing up in his best Sunday going-to-church clothes--navy-blue pinstripe suit and matching white satin shirt and tie.
In person, the 28-year-old comedian and actor is tall, lithe, much more handsome than the frenetic, rubber-faced characters he’s played on screen, with a demeanor that is all molasses and honey. But just beneath the surface there’s something else going on, a guy with enough energy to solve California’s electricity crisis.
The seams of his garments can barely contain him. He has to will himself into the leather chair of his Santa Monica office while he talks to a reporter. And although he’s never less than cooperative, if sometimes as evasive as a politician, Tucker is clearly a man who has traveled far but has many miles to go before he sleeps.
As he says at one point, sometimes the day doesn’t have enough hours and “it’s night already. Life is real short, real precious and I don’t want to waste any time.”
Publicity is something Tucker begrudgingly accepts as part of his job description, though it’s not high on his list of priorities. Arthur Sarkissian, producer of “Rush Hour” and “Rush Hour 2,” explains that Tucker “shies away from interviews. He does them, but he doesn’t seek them out. He enjoys being a star, but maybe not being a celebrity.”
Tucker cursorily apologizes for his earlier disappearing act, explaining that he was busy traveling to London and Paris and “doing a lot of last-minute stuff getting the movie out,” holed up in the editing room massaging “Rush Hour 2,” which opens Friday, “finding ways to make it funnier.” Even now that the movie is “locked,” he is still doing some vocal fine-tuning.
“Rush Hour 2" is vital to Tucker’s future. It’s his first film since the original three years ago and his first mega-star payday--$20 million, putting him in the elite category of superstar comic actors Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, although he has yet to star solo in a movie. While his “Rush Hour” co-star Jackie Chan, a veteran of Hong Kong and Hollywood films, got $15 million for the sequel, Tucker vaulted into the $20-million club based solely on one major hit.
How he got there so quickly is the story of “a self-made man,” according to Michael De Luca, former president of production at New Line Cinema, who saw Tucker’s potential in the amiable 1995 low-budget comedy “Friday,” in which the comic hit the ground running as a neighborhood screw-up with a fondness for weed.
“I’d never seen him before,” De Luca recalls, “and when I was watching the dailies, I saw he was one of those guys who can barely be contained by the movie. It reminded me of the stories I’d heard about Michael Keaton when he first starred in “Night Shift"--the emergence of a great comic personality, and I was rabid to cast him in something else.”
Tucker agreed to appear in another small New Line comedy, “Money Talks,” opposite Charlie Sheen, but insisted on working with a young video director, Brett Ratner, who had cast him in a Heavy D music video in 1994. It proved to be a fortuitous pairing based on nothing but intuition.
“I’m not afraid to trust my instincts,” Tucker says. “I try to keep to who I am, to listen to myself and not just go with the flow.”
Ratner brought harmony to Tucker’s often cacophonous improvisational style developed as a stand-up comic in clubs and on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” and sensed when to rein him in and when to let him wail.
“There are just a few directors like that, Brett [Ratner], Gary Gray [who directed ‘Friday’] who let us do our thing, who don’t keep us in a box,” Tucker says. "[Making a movie] is like stand-up: You got to keep doing it to enhance it.”
Like “Friday,” “Money Talks” was a modest box-office hit that exploded on home video, according to De Luca. The Tucker cult was growing, and all he needed was a breakout hit. That movie proved to be “Rush Hour” in 1998, which had the added difficulty of featuring a co-star, the great martial-arts performer Jackie Chan, whose grasp of American English--particularly street slang--was limited.
“Jackie has a hard enough time with his own dialogue,” says Ratner. “The way he remembers dialogue is by remembering the last word of Chris’ sentence. Ninety-nine percent of the time that word never comes.” Even though Tucker worked out his improvisations in rehearsal, when the cameras rolled, they rarely came out the same way twice and “that was very hard for Jackie. It freaked him out,” Ratner adds.
But Tucker was so immersed in what he was doing that he didn’t know there was a problem “until the director told me he [Chan] was trippin’.” Curiously, the miscommunication between the two characters was part of “Rush Hour’s” charm, and a multicultural Hope and Crosby team was born.
In the sequel, the tables are turned--much of the movie takes place in Hong Kong and Tucker had to learn Cantonese.
“That language is hard,” he says, laughing. With a bigger budget--reportedly $90 million, compared with $35 million for the first--"Rush Hour 2" is able to more fully exploit Chan’s acrobatic brilliance. “There are a lot more fight scenes,” Tucker says. “Jackie saved up some of his best stuff for this one.” Although Tucker wanted to use a double in some scenes, Chan insisted they do all their own stunts. “When we’re 40 feet up hanging on a bamboo pole, we’re really 40 feet up,” Tucker says, and he knew enough to get out of the way of the master.
“Jackie’s a little genius,” Tucker says admiringly of his co-star. “He’d get there the day before and pick up a trash can and a broom and work it into the action. Then he’d tell me, ‘You do one, two, three punches’ "--he demonstrates with his fists--"and make it so simple I looked like I knew what I was doing. I never interfered. I’d just say, ‘You work it out and call me to the set when you’re ready.”’
Born in Decatur, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, Tucker is the youngest of six children. The continual teasing and torture from his three older brothers meant he had to either stand up for himself or be pummeled into the pavement. He decided on the former. “As a kid, there was a lot of crying and fighting with my brothers--for days.”
That feisty, competitive spirit has never left him. “You should have seen me when I was playing basketball the other day. I change into another person. When I win, I remember. When I lose, I remember how good it felt to win.”
Not only is Tucker competitive, he possesses a driving ambition. Comparisons to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy may sound facile, but they are also dead accurate. “I had a dream as a kid: I wanted to be big, big like Richard and Eddie. I imagined it. I studied it. I had a passion.”
By the time he hit the comedy club stage in Atlanta at age 19, he had fused elements from the two performers, Pryor’s broad facial and vocal contortions and Murphy’s assured presence. Pryor and Murphy (and before them, Bill Cosby) had ushered the way for African American performers to use their everyday experiences as comic fodder.
“What made them was their realness,” Tucker says. “They came from a real place. And Atlanta is real. It’s not like L.A. I used my family, funerals, weddings, growing up in the church--not just punch-line jokes. People related to that. They could feel it.”
One of his natural gifts proved to be his high voice, which he ratchets even higher on stage and in movies to great comic effect. At the encouragement of comics such as Martin Lawrence and Jamie Foxx, who caught his act in Atlanta while they were on tour, he migrated to the West Coast, where he was scooped up by Russell Simmons for his show “Def Comedy Jam” and almost immediately broke ahead of the pack.
After stealing the show in “Friday” and taking a small, over-the-top role in the sci-fi film “The Fifth Element” (along with turning in two credible dramatic performances, supporting roles in 1995’s “Dead Presidents” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” in 1997), Tucker rapidly rose to the $20-million club as much for the films he made as the ones he didn’t make.
The actor who was paid $3 million for “Rush Hour” was offered $7 million to star in Universal’s James Bond spoof “00Soul,” and a reported $13 million to $15 million plus a profit percentage for “The Black Knight,” a time-travel comedy at 20th Century Fox. He eventually walked away from both films.
“It was either script problems or director problems or both,” he says. He decided that not working was better than just doing it for the paycheck, even if it meant being off the screen for almost three years. “I’m young,” he says, shrugging. “I got plenty of time. My fan base isn’t going anywhere.”
By the time he was ready to sign his deal for “Rush Hour 2,” his asking price had risen to $20 million. And he got it.
“I think you should make as much as the movies make,” he says with a polite smile. “The studios don’t give you anything unless they’re making a lot themselves.” (“Rush Hour” grossed $245 million worldwide).
Along the way he shed his agent and any semblance of an entourage, and revised his game plan, returning to his roots, professionally and personally. As has happened to many a live performer who made the transition to movies or television, Tucker realized that he was in danger of losing touch with the very elements that made him unique.
“When you start out, it’s just you and your dream and that’s how you become well-known. And suddenly there are a lot of new people--agents, managers, even your family--and everyone has an agenda. It happens to everyone. It happened to me. But I got back to the clubs and restructured my life.”
After largely abandoning stand-up for movies, he’s returned to the circuit, touring on the outskirts of L.A. and honing a new routine that will incorporate his old material as well as observations on his rise to stardom, his travels and even the current political climate. “My character has evolved a lot since ‘Def Jam,’ ” he says. “Before I was just a kid growing up, but now I’ve experienced so much, met a lot of people. My scale is much broader than back then.”
Also waylaid for a time were his spiritual roots. Having been raised in a very religious family, that component remains vital to him. “In this business and in life you have to be spiritual,” he says. “You have to have that base. If you’re just living an earthly life, you’re not living it to the fullest.”
As a star he’s aware that some of his younger fans now look up to him in the same way he idolized Pryor or Murphy. For that reason, he says, he’ll no longer take on certain kinds of roles, like the casual drug user he portrayed in “Friday.”
“I won’t do things in movies that I wouldn’t do in real life,” he says. He would still tackle the part of a veteran he played in “Dead Presidents” because it illuminated a moment in recent history, the real-life drug problems of many returning Vietnam veterans.
“Harry Belafonte once told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Movies shouldn’t be how life is, but how it’s supposed to be.’ That’s what I’m striving for.”
Tucker is disarming and not at all sanctimonious about his beliefs and sees them as a way to enhance his career goals. “If I do a comedy now, it’s on another level. I’m more important than the movie. The better I get [as a person], the better I perform in the movie. What you are comes first.”
Now that he’s a $20-million-a-picture star, Chris Tucker makes it clear that he’s not satisfied. He wants to be a bigger star. “My dream is way higher. I got to keep going.” In the meantime he’s enjoying the perks of stardom, although not the typical extravagances. He’s bought a comfortable, but not ostentatious, home in the San Fernando Valley, and travels about the state in his home away from home, a fully equipped bus.
The real perks, however, are travel and meeting famous people from all walks of life--politicians, celebrities, sports heroes. Anyone who watched the last game of the Lakers championship in Philadelphia got a chance to see Tucker fraternizing in the locker room afterward with the NBA victors.
“I went down there because I figured it might never happen again that Kobe and Shaq and Iverson would all be playing together, though I hope it happens again next year. It was a good game. There’s nothing like winning in someone else’s hometown.”
While shopping on South Street in Philadelphia, he purchased a Lakers warmup suit. Because he’d agreed to let “Entertainment Tonight” follow him from the hotel to the game, when he arrived “and they saw the cameras, they thought I was a player and I walked straight in with the team.”
Anyone who’s forgotten about Tucker’s fascination with Michael Jackson will get a refresher course in “Rush Hour 2,” when the actor pitches a fit at a karaoke bar over the mangling of the singer’s “Don’t Stop (Till You Get Enough)” and jumps on the stage to show how it’s properly done. Although he’s met sports legends, former President Clinton, Jesse Jackson and even Nelson Mandela (on a recent trip to Africa), Tucker says the greatest perk of all was the chance to spend time with the gloved one.
The introduction came through a mutual friend, a young boy named Gavin, who was, at the time, suffering from cancer. “He’ll be glad to see his name in the paper,” Tucker says, laughing. “He’s always saying, ‘Why don’t you tell anyone I’m the one who introduced you to Michael?’
“We both just clicked,” he adds of his meeting with Jackson. Tucker found Jackson “a regular person, real humble.” (Humility ranks high on Tucker’s list of admirable character traits, and he mentions it several times during the interview when talking about various people.) Jackson imparted the following advice on long-term success: “Stay focused, always be creative and keep on reinventing yourself,” and that’s exactly “what I want to do,” Tucker adds.
In the short term, Tucker’s reinvention includes a concert film, which he will begin shooting shortly, with plans for a December release. Then he’ll star (solo this time) in the political comedy “Guess Who’s the President?,” in which he’ll play the commander in chief. No director has been signed for either project and he’s considering directing the political comedy himself. If “Rush Hour 2" is a hit, “Rush Hour 3" is a distinct possibility.
Beyond that, he wants to move toward drama, and he says that after a long drought, some good material is finally coming his way. “I know what I want. I want to work with the best people,” he says. “I’m ready to work.”