Films

Kevin Hart on stardom, stand-up and stretching

Kevin Hart is a gigantic deal in the US. But, as he tells ShortList’s Tom Ellen, now he wants the world...

During the half-hour slot for his exclusive interview with ShortList, Kevin Hart also fits in the following things: 1) lunch (three chicken thighs), 2) a brief business meeting (mainly him repeating the phrase, “I’ll read the script on the jet”), and 3) a series of post-workout stretches.

“Some people just tell you how busy they are,” Hart says, touching his toes. “I’m actually showing you, man.”

Hart may be the hardest-working man in showbusiness right now. He’s at this sprawling North Hollywood studio to promote Ride Along 2 – the follow-up to the buddy-cop action-comedy mega-hit that broke US box office records in 2014 – but afterwards he’s off to shoot an advert, prep his new international stand-up tour, and – as noted – read a script on a jet. And that’s not to mention the maintenance of his Twitter and Instagram accounts, reaching a combined 50 million people. Hart dubs himself a ‘comedic rock star’, and his lifestyle is entirely in sync with that tag.

“I’ve had some pinch-yourself moments lately,” he laughs. “I was in Abu Dhabi for the Grand Prix with Lewis Hamilton and Ludacris, and, at one point, I’m at the house of the [Abu Dhabi] royal family. Just hanging out, with lions and tigers running around us. I was thinking to myself, ‘Jesus, Kev, you were just a young kid from Philadelphia... How did you get here?’”

ROCK‘N’ROLL STAR

It’s a fair question, one British readers, in particular, may need an answer to. In the US, Hart is a megastar; his films routinely top the box office, and his stand-up tours can fill NFL arenas (he performed to 53,000 people at the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium last year). In the UK, people might be surprised to learn that the diminutive (5ft 4in) chap they’ve seen on the odd bus stop film poster is the biggest comedy star on Earth. This is something Hart is keen to rectify.

“I don’t want to do comedy for one group,” he says. “Chris Rock once told me: ‘Don’t be a local talent.’ Everyone in the world likes to laugh, you know? So, I want to be an international star. That’s the goal.”

With dates at Wembley and the O2 this weekend – and Ride Along 2 out in the UK tomorrow – he’s on his way to achieving it, but it’s been a slog to get here. Hart started out as a gigging stand-up, performing anywhere from tiny comedy clubs, family parties and a male strip joint. “It was called ‘Sweet Cheeks’,” he chuckles. “Hey, man, I needed the money! The strippers took a break, and it was like, ‘All right, ladies, we got some comedy for you now...’ I got laughs, though.”

He kept getting laughs, and gradually worked his way up to venues at which audiences were larger and fellow performers fully clothed. By 2010 he was playing to thousands-strong crowds, and taking cues not from comics, but rappers and rock bands. He wore tight leather outfits, flaunted golden mic-stands, performed beneath Kanye-at-Glastonbury-esque lighting rigs. He tells me, “I’ve talked to Jay Z and Kanye – they’re friends – and they think what I’m doing is amazing. Why can’t comedy be as sexy, crazy and cool as rock‘n’roll?”

Why not indeed, but does Hart worry that this on-stage gimmickry might detract from his material? For his 2013 tour Let Me Explain, the theatres were rigged to shoot 6ft columns of fire. Surely there’s a fine line between being the comedic equivalent of Led Zeppelin and the comedic equivalent of Gwar?

“The fire is just silly, man,” he shrugs. “It’s like the fire is the period [full stop] to my punchlines. The audience has already laughed at the joke; the fire is just... the punctuation.”

With heroes like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, the move from stand-up to cinema was always a goal for Hart, and while his films haven’t been well-reviewed, they make a lot of money. “I couldn’t give a sh*t about critics,” he says. “I’ve never had one movie that’s been reviewed amazingly, but they’ve all performed. Box office is the important thing.”

BOX OFFICE TITAN

Last year saw Hart ‘perform’ beyond all expectation. After the monstrous success of 2014’s Ride Along, which grossed $135 million in the US, he headed up two huge 2015 commercial hits: prison comedy Get Hard, which saw his character ‘train up’ Will Ferrell for a stint behind bars, and Bridesmaids-for-guys rom-com The Wedding Ringer, which only missed the US box office top slot because, as Hart says, “American Sniper came out that week and destroyed everything.” Does it feel like he’s stepping up a gear right now?

“I try not to think about it. At the moment, my success level speaks for itself, but I don’t want to relish it because I know there’s so much more I can do. But yeah,” he concedes, smiling, “it does feel like the movies are getting bigger and bigger.”

Hart’s on-screen characters tend to be cut from the same hyperactive, lovably bungling cloth as his stand-up persona; something the Ride Along franchise makes good use of, with Hart as a well-meaning coward trying to impress his steely, policeman brother-in-law (Ice Cube). But despite his celluloid success, Hart insists touring is where his passion lies: “Stand-up always comes first. It’s therapeutic; you’re getting stuff off your chest. When my mother passed away, I talked about her funeral in my set; that was my way of getting past it. So, I’ll never stop doing stand-up. I might slow down, but slowing down just means a 50-city tour, rather than 115.”

For someone whose routines are reliant on self-deprecation, it’s fair to say Hart is earnest in person. During our 30 minutes together, his tone pinballs between Premier League footballer (“I’m always giving 110 per cent”), fortune cookie (“Stay true to your dreams”), and Apprentice candidate (“the brand of Kevin Hart is what fuels the engine of Kevin Hart”).

ONE MAN BRAND

In fact, the only actual joke he makes is to deadpan, “Yep, I tick every black stereotype” as he plonks down his plate of chicken. This is unusual, as Hart’s act rarely touches on race. “I don’t want to alienate anyone,” he explains. “I like to talk about universal things; relationships, kids, parents, that stuff. I want to do comedy for the whole world.” Hart sees himself not as an actor or comic, but as a ‘brand’.

And with good reason; as well as his stand-up and film work, he’s a social media powerhouse, CEO of self-founded promotion companies and, as a self-confessed “health nut”, he’s now exploring ventures in the fitness industry (“I don’t have time for the gym, so I’m doing 100 crunches between interviews”). He even cites David Beckham as an influence, because “he makes smart decisions, he’s involved in all aspects of his brand”. He tells me: “I’m going to be a mogul. I can fit into any category; comedy, TV, fashion, fitness, health. I’m knocking goals off my list. Every time I tick one off, I have to add another one on.”

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So, what inspired this quest for world domination? He shrugs: “The bigger you get, the more possibilities you see. Dave Chappelle told me, ‘When you get money, you get to peek behind the curtain’. And there’s so much sh*t behind this curtain you didn’t know about. You’re like, ‘Wait, I can do this now?’ As these doors open, you think, ‘Wow, no one else has done this. I can be the first.’”

This seems to be Hart’s endgame: not financial gain, but the idea of reaching a level no other comedian has reached. There’s a great scene in Hart’s excellent ‘mockumentary’ series Real Husbands Of Hollywood, in which Chris Rock says: “You’re not a star, Kev, you’re popular. I’m like Prince; you’re like Trey Songz.” It’s a funny bit, but you sense Hart is well aware that all the money and Abu Dhabi anecdotes in the world can’t make you an all-time great.

“I know right now I’m a big deal, but there’s a level above that,” he says. “You want to have a seat with the people who’ve made history, and right now, I am doing that. I’m making history. But I’m still not content. I don’t want people to think I’m anywhere near finished.”

And with that, he does another five core stretches. 

Ride Along 2 is at cinemas 22 January