ASTON, Penn. — It’s hard to think of a more potent force in the entertainment world these days than Kevin Hart.
The diminutive performer has had a string of huge movie hits in buddy comedies pairing with Will Ferrell (“Get Hard”), Ice Cube (the “Ride Along” series) Dwayne Johnson (“Central Intelligence”), voiceovers in animated fare (“The Secret Life of Pets” and the upcoming “Captain Underpants”), while his standup act sells out stadiums. And he has a book coming out in June: “I Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Life Lessons.”
But until now the 37-year-old Hart hasn’t tackled a true dramatic role, which is what brings him to this set outside of his native Philadelphia where he’s shooting an American remake of the French international blockbuster “The Intouchables.”
The untitled film also stars Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor Bryan Cranston, along with Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman.
“I can’t think of a better way to get into serious acting than with this group of people,” says Hart.
“I’m learning a lot from this guy,” he adds, pointing to Cranston a few feet away. “He’s helping me out a lot — you know, he’s not a bad guy to learn from.”
After hearing Hart’s compliment, Cranston, 61, steps toward his co-star and pats him on the back. “This guy is not just one of the great talents working, but he’s an extraordinary human being,” declares Cranston. “He’s like a magical leprechaun.”
“The Intouchables” was a 2012 French film about the relationship between Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a repressed, wealthy man disabled after a paragliding accident, and his spirited Senegalese caregiver, Driss (Omar Sy). It received generally positive reviews and was a modest success at the U.S. box office ($10 million) but it was a phenomenon internationally, taking in more than $400 million.
Home video and streaming brought the film even more fans in this country, followed by talk of a possible English-language remake. Five years later, the American remake is underway with Cranston playing Phillip, the rich wheelchair-bound financial advisor, Hart as Dell, his medical aide, now from the South Bronx, and Kidman as Yvonne, Cranston’s efficient assistant.
The Weinstein Co. film is directed by Neil Burger (“Divergent,” “Limitless”), who’s confident Hart can pull off the mostly dramatic role (though comedy is part of the mix as well).
I knew Kevin could do this and I think he’s going to blow people away.
“I knew Kevin could do this and I think he’s going to blow people away,” Burger says while shooting scenes at Sun Center Studio soundstage here in March.
Spreading his acting wings and tackling a dramatic role was always a career goal, explains Hart from the Sun Center set that has been converted into Phillip’s majestic Park Avenue apartment — modeled on the famous Art Deco-styled 740 Park Ave. building.
While the action has shifted from the original film’s setting of Paris to New York City, the production has shifted to Philadelphia and its environs, first throughout the busy Center City area where a speedy car sequence featuring a Ferrari was staged on bustling JFK Boulevard and now on soundstages in neighboring Delaware County, where nearby resident M. Night Shyamalan has shot parts of such films as “After Earth” and “Split.”
At one time, Colin Firth was to play Phillip, while Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock and Idris Elba were in the pool for the role of Dell. Such directors as Tom Shadyac (“Liar, Liar”) and Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), who wrote an earlier version of the script, were also involved in the production’s earliest stages.
“The project came back to me twice, and it has been around a little while,” says Burger, 54, during a break in shooting. “When I got it a second time it has a new script [written by Jon Hartmere] that I think worked better.”
Asked about the main differences between this version of the story and the French original, Burger replies, “We opened up the story, delved into the backgrounds of both men and looked into how the relationship between them worked. The important thing is we found a way to get into and unlock the heads of the lead characters. Now the gap between them is measured by small acts of compassion and respect.”
A memorable part of “The Intouchables” was the music: The wealthy, cultured Philippe prefers opera and classical music, while the streetwise Driss favors classic American R&B by such groups as Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool and the Gang.
“Music will also be essential in ‘Untouchable,’” says Burger, “but there will be more of it, especially in regard to the Phillip character.” Added to the film are key scenes showcasing music by Aretha Franklin.
The tricky part is not being able to move my body in emotional scenes, I am so used to using my hands to express my feelings when acting.
On set it’s apparent that the “Breaking Bad” star Cranston and Hart, the hyperactive comedy king who has appeared in films that have brought in more than $1 billion at the box-office, have a serious “bromance” going on that extends beyond the usual 12-hour days of filming.
“It’s important to get the friendship right and the chemistry has to work and be real in a certain way in order to allow us into their [Phillip and Dell’s] world,” says Burger. “They [Cranston and Hart] became friends from working together, so that has helped immensely.”
While staying serious may have been difficult at times for Hart, Cranston’s challenge has to do with the mechanics of acting, setting aside his performing instincts while playing a person limited in motion.
“The tricky part is not being able to move my body in emotional scenes,” Cranston says. “I am so used to using my hands to express my feelings when acting.”
Adds Burger: “Bryan is acting with essentially his face and in his eyes because of the character’s situation. For such an expressive actor, it’s not easy.”
Cranston researched the role with doctors, therapists and experts on people with disabilities. He and Burger also visited rehabilitation centers in the Philadelphia area and elsewhere.
Behind the scenes, producers Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal are watching the sequence being shot from different angles on the monitor between phone calls with the Weinstein Co. about the release date for “Untouchable.” The date seems to be up in flux because of Kevin Hart’s role in a big-budget reboot of the 1995 family fantasy “Jumanji” with Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black, due in theaters Christmas time.
The producers came on board the on-again, off-again “Untouchable” project while they worked on “Southpaw,” the 2015 Jake Gyllenhaal boxing movie for the Weinstein Co., in Pittsburgh.
“We were big fans of the original and learned that Weinstein had retained the [remake] rights,” explains Blumenthal, 48, whose company, Escape Artists, recently produced “The Magnificent Seven” and “Fences.” “They had talks with another director who we knew, but things didn’t work out. Things stalled for a while.
“There was movement, then there was no movement. Then Neil Burger came on. We didn’t let up on it and when Neil came on we offered to help him produce it. Bryan and Kevin were close to committing, then everything got locked in.”
As the cast gets ready to shoot another scene, Hart has one more thing to say.
“Make sure you tell everyone that I’ve won BET Awards, People’s Choice Awards and Kids’ Choice Awards,” he jokes.
Nearby, Cranston hovers, laughing at his new friend’s shtick.