Here’s the thing about Craig Robinson: If you have a background in comedy, do not tell him. Within minutes of meeting the ebullient 44-year-old actor (The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine, This Is The End) at the Sundance Film Festival, I mistakenly mention that we attended the same improv school in Chicago. “Great,” he says. “Let’s do a scene. Now.”
That’s how I end up convincing a roomful of confused Sundance volunteers that I am, in fact, pregnant with Craig’s imaginary baby. (FYI, he wants to keep it; I’m not sold.) Our conversation is wrought with ridiculous antics, evidence to the comedian’s confessed difficulty when it comes to “turning off the silliness.”
But in quieter moments, a different Robinson appears. He’s just as comfortable talking about violence in his hometown—or playing a widowed father in the much-talked-about film Morris From America—as he is talking about failed high school love affairs. Or explaining the proper definition of “on fleek.” (“It means really good.”) Here’s what we learned.
Your latest film, Morris From America, is the coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old boy. What were you like at that age?
Oh man, I was stupid—stupider than I’d like to remember. At 13, I was this wide-eyed, awkward kid who knew nothing about the world. My mom drove me to school every day, and I was trusting of anybody and everybody, which isn’t always the best thing on the South Side [of Chicago]. I like to think I was fun, and I know the choir kids had to like me because my mom was their music teacher. I loved playing basketball, too, even though I wasn’t very good. But I could jump out the gym. My thighs were incredible.
I’ll bet those incredible thighs attracted a lot of girls.
Puppy love? Hell yeah. I loved it. There’s nothing like it. I had two girl friends in high school: Jeanine and Tasha. Jeanine was my freshman- and sophomore-year girlfriend. Man, I was head over heels for that girl. Then Tasha came along and, if I remember correctly, I did something stupid with Jeanine…
Presuming you and Tasha aren’t still secretly dating, what ended up happening to her?
We went to college together [at Illinois State University], where I was stupid once again. Come to think of it, both of them were pretty unhappy with me at the end. I’m still single, by the way.
If you really were that stupid and awkward as a teenager—which we’re not sure we believe—how did you end up in comedy?
Getting into comedy was terrifying, so I would read quotes for inspiration. My favorite was this one [by Maud Muller]: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” That quote just fuels me up. It’s easy to say you could have been a great comedian, but it’s another thing entirely to do it. There’s this big wall of fear at the bottom of the stage that you have to bust through. If you don’t, you’ll resent yourself and everyone around you.
Curtis, the character you play in Morris from America, is drastically different from comedic roles you’ve played in the past: he’s a widower and a father. What attracted you?
I really identified with this dude. I don’t know why, because I don’t have any kids, but there was so just much to do with the father-son relationship between Morris [played by Markees Christmas] and Curtis. So I would think about my own father a lot on set—remember him telling me, “I’m not your friend. I’m your father.” That’s what I tried to channel into the role. I was also attracted to this film because it was my first dramatic part outside of a short I did called Memphis Calling. I wanted to do it because I knew it’d be a challenge.
Do you think you’ll play more dramatic parts?
I hope so! People have long said, “I could see you in a drama.” I know now that I enjoy this side of the coin, so I’m really looking forward to sinking my teeth into those kinds of roles. Sure, I love doing comedy, but I also love acting—love the drama of it all. We’ll see what happens.
Is it difficult convincing people to cast you in dramas?
Everyone’s always looking at me for comedy, but I’ve asked my people to start identifying roles that will help me branch out. And it’s true that comedians often make the best dramatic actors—look at Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Michael Keaton. Boom. There are so many actors who came from stand-up comedy. Just gotta show ‘em what I can do.
Even though you’re not ready to live there at the moment, are you following the current race issues in Chicago?
I don’t know what to do. It breaks my heart. I’m racking my brain all the time, trying to think about how I can help. Because there are some real issues affecting Chicago. Damn. Chicago… It’s just dirty. There have already been so many murders in the month of January. But people are starting to realize that law enforcement—that the judges—have been infiltrated. There’s definitely a solution; we just have to find it.
Do you think you’d ever move back there?
That would be insanely incredible, but I feel like I’ve got to see the world first. I love Chicago, and my parents still live there, but I have this romantic fantasy that one day I’ll show up in a city or a place and just feel it. I’ll have that “this is where I’m supposed to be" moment. That hasn’t happened yet, so I’m still on the lookout.
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