Cedric the Entertainer has done the whole drama thing before.
You know the thing I’m talking about, where comedians take on serious roles meant to defy the wheelhouse Hollywood slots them into. Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation.” Mo’Nique in “Precious.” Mary Tyler Moore in “Ordinary People.”
The year was 2008. Cedric’s reinvention bid was a Broadway play written by none other than David Mamet, the loquacious firebrand whose heady work has been a rite of passage for actors as varied as Al Pacino, Madonna, Patti LuPone and Alec Baldwin.
“Cedric the Entertainer thought he’d try being Cedric the Actor,” The New York Times quipped, expressing understandable surprise over seeing someone with such a stable comedic presence appear in an edgy crime drama.
The production, co-starring John Leguizamo and Haley Joel Osment, closed almost as quickly as it opened. Cedric the Actor never truly took off.
But he’s trying again. With this year’s somber provocation “First Reformed,” opening in limited release May 18, Cedric has found a larger platform to showcase the serious chops that so many comic performers long to mine. A workaholic who is best known for “Barbershop” and “The Original Kings of Comedy,” he’s risen to the occasion. In the film, he plays the compassionate, steely head pastor of a church in upstate New York, where a junior reverend (Ethan Hawke) is struck by grief and a crisis of faith. In a departure from his usual scene-stealing antics, Cedric grounds his performance with watchful dignity.
Casting Cedric the Entertainer, credited in the movie as Cedric Kyles, marks a full-circle moment for Paul Schrader, the “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo” scribe who wrote and directed “First Reformed.” In his 1979 directorial debut “Blue Collar,” Schrader employed Richard Pryor as a hard-up autoworker who robs his company’s union headquarters. Pryor didn’t get enough plaudits for that movie, which means we can’t let Hollywood undervalue just how solid Cedric is in “First Reformed.”
The day before I called Cedric to talk about his career evolution, CBS announced that it had picked up his new multi-camera sitcom, “Welcome to the Neighborhood” ― a mere two weeks after TBS ordered a second season of the Tracy Morgan comeback vehicle “The Last O.G.,” in which Cedric has a supporting role.
During our conversation, we talked about the politicization of comedy, what it’s like to audition for the first time in years, Bernie Mac holograms and who bit Beyoncé.
With “First Reformed,” “The Last O.G.” and your new CBS series, you’re suddenly inhabiting a few different creative realms. Since these projects tend to get made in vacuums, do you feel like you’re shifting from one headspace to the next right now?
For me, it is that kind of thing. I definitely always felt very versatile, and now it’s all coming at once. As a comedic actor, we always want to look for roles and opportunities to be seen seriously, where people go, “Oh, OK, I didn’t know you had that in you. I like that.”
Had you told your agents you wanted serious material?
Yeah, that definitely was a conversation. We did the third or fourth “Barbershop,” and I’d done a sitcom, “The Soul Man,” for five seasons. That was a real conversation, and it was one where we knew, to be in the dramatic roles, you may have to go audition. You have to take the idea that you’re a big deal and put that on the back burner, and decide, yeah, you’re going to go in and meet with people and convince folks.
Even the opportunity to appear in the movie “Why Him?” was one, as well. That was another small movie, but with James Franco and Bryan Cranston, really dope actors, that you show up and you have to go audition for. You go in and you make your splash.
So this all fell in that same realm, where I was willing to do the work, willing to go meet the people, willing to try to convince Paul Schrader to do something different. He actually wanted to cast differently for this role, and it just kind of worked out that, when we met, it made sense for him.
Do you have an idea of what he was looking for?
From my understanding, he knew he had Ethan [Hawke] and Amanda [Seyfried]. It seemed like he wanted somebody who was going to be a shocking cast, in a way. A casting where people go, “Oh, shit, I wasn’t expecting that.” But he didn’t want comedy at all, so he wasn’t sure he wanted a comedian.
It was another preacher, and I’ve played preachers in comedies, so that was one of the things I was a little apprehensive about. I was like, man, my audience is not really going to see me do anything different if I’m playing a preacher. But after meeting with Paul and understanding what he was looking for, I was like, this movie is going to be dark. I read the script, and there’s no way for you to see me as the same “Soul Man” preacher watching this movie. These are not the same dudes at all.
So you did audition?
I didn’t have to audition. It was a meeting. And from the meeting, we were able to go, “All right, I like it. Let’s do it.”
I did have to go and audition for “Why Him?,” which was weird because the audition process is ― you go in and all your friends are there. I was finishing up “Soul Man,” and I was the executive producer and No. 1 on the call sheet. I’m sitting in there with [people who auditioned for “Soul Man”], and it’s like, “We’re the same now. This is Hollywood.”
Before “Why Him?” it must have been years since you’d auditioned for anything.
Yeah, it had been quite a while. Everything was usually a call: “Hey, we want you to be part of it” and “Ced, are you available?” You know, the great side of Hollywood, when life is good and you’re drinking seltzer water.
Do you see it as a mark of achievement that you don’t have to audition, rather than a sign that Hollywood slots you into the same roles over and over?
In the way that Hollywood is built, once you’re offer-only, as they call it, you take on this attitude that you’ve built up this pedigree. People know you’re either going to make me an offer [without auditioning] or you’re not, in which case I’m going to keep on moving.
For me, the parallel to your question is that I know people are going to offer-only me for comedy spots, but not necessarily for dramatic roles. So I have to be willing to go in and audition [for dramatic roles]. I have to show people that I’m willing to put in the work and want to do something different here.
You’ve talked about how you arrived at Cedric the Entertainer as your professional name, but this is the first time you’re credited as Cedric Kyles. Did that decision come out of a desire to be seen as a more serious actor?
Yeah. In trying to have the opportunity to be seen as a dramatic screen actor, I understand that, after 30 years of building this thing as Cedric the Entertainer, with great stand-up properties and Netflix specials and “Kings of Comedy,” and then to do movies and television as well, it’s one of these things where you know that when people see the name, they’re going to instantly think it’s comedy. If you see me onscreen, you expect to see the comedy.
But now, if you see Cedric Kyles, I feel like it’s the opportunity to grow an audience in a different direction ― to have not only my audience look at me that way, but casting directors and writers. “Oh, I like Cedric. I like the humanity that he brings,” as opposed to the comedian that’s expected to show up.
Paul wanted to know if I was willing to do it. And it was something that we had been considering as part of my team, as well. We all went over it many different times, like, “Should I change my name?” You’ve got branding that’s been working for 30 years, and certain things you don’t want to give up. In this particular case, it made sense. This was the opportunity for me to say I’m the more dramatic character now.
In the future, do you think you’ll use Cedric the Entertainer for comedic work and Cedric Kyles for dramatic roles?
We don’t know. You definitely don’t want to keep pulling people in two directions. We’re going to try to massage that. I said, “Well, if you have Bono and Sting and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, they get to still be certain names into their 60s.” The Edge! If you get to be The Edge when you’re 69, I get to be the Entertainer all the way through.
It’s different for rock stars, I guess, but you do wonder. I’m a little concerned about all the littles in the world. I don’t know how little you can stay for a long time. I don’t know if you can be Lil Wayne when you’re 65, but let’s give it a shot.
Have you ever asked any of the littles about their plans? Maybe they become bigs next.
I literally just thought of that sitting here talking to you, so this is actually new material right now. Thanks for writing jokes with me, buddy. Check’s in the mail.
I’ll be dining out on those royalties for a long time. Obviously, you have tremendous clout in Hollywood, but do you feel you’ve gotten your due? Do you think your career has been taken seriously enough as a comedian and an entertainer?
Of course, you see people get credit, and the world is starting to spin really fast from a stand-up point of view. You had the big tiff come up with Mo’Nique about Netflix paying certain comedians right. You’ll see yourself in that argument as, you know, really being the guy that people can trust, from “Kings of Comedy” to being consistent for 30 years to selling out concerts all the time. If you spend your money to go see me, you’re going to get a good time. I’m not a call-it-in kind of guy.
You wonder, “Wow, am I getting the proper accolades for that? Why am I not considered in the top blah-blah-blah?” That happens. And then when you’re consistently in film and on television — and I say this about John Goodman and actors where, no matter what they’re in, you know they’re going to kill it — what is that worth?
So yeah, you consider that sometimes. I think it is a world where there’s a lot of media where people get behind hype. There’s a lot of voices, including individual bloggers who have the ability to say, “Hey, you should pay attention to this guy.” I think it’s important for the actor to pay attention to them, too, because you recognize that they have unique and important jobs of really transferring your message to other people that you don’t know how to get to.
That’s something I have to learn. When you’re from the old school, you’re used to people giving you props. You get your props, you take that and then you kind of spin it. But now you have to go and re-earn an audience.
That’s the thing about being in this town. You realize if you don’t have 20 million followers that Hollywood somehow is going, “I don’t know if you’re really super A-list.” And you’re like, “Really? I’m 30 years deep with this brand.” It’s, “But you gotta have 7 million followers, otherwise we’re not putting you on our Met Gala list.”
So Cedric wants a Met Gala invitation. That makes sense. Do you think it’s easier for white actors to cross over in their careers? John Goodman is the perfect example of someone who navigates different worlds. Have you struggled as a performer of color in that regard?
I don’t know. I can’t really put my finger on anybody who has that same kind of ability to get cast like that. Maybe Anthony Mackie. Maybe. He can show up in different things. Usually, it’s dramatic, but he’s the kind of guy who can transfer from an all-urban film to a bigger film.
But I think, in Hollywood, there’s not a lot of versatility like that where people get to cross over. I’ve had a lot of versatility, when you think about it, from the opportunity to do a movie with the Coen brothers, “Intolerable Cruelty,” and then “Be Cool.” Then you come back and you do a “Barbershop” series. But I think that in the course of the last year or so, with the big emergence of urban film and writers and directors, that these opportunities may open up a little bit more.
The last time people banged the drum for Cedric the Serious Actor was in 2008, when you appeared on Broadway in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” Mamet’s writing is considered very highbrow and literary. That play didn’t stay open for long, but did you see it as your entryway into serious parts?
Definitely. It was definitely the first step. To do that at the time was really just to say, “OK, I want to do Broadway. I want to have that on my résumé.”
But when I went to do the work, I was surprised. I was working with John Leguizamo, who’s a Broadway legend who loves doing it and is also a great dramatic actor. It was the kind of experience where I had to work the most I’d ever worked. I didn’t realize how serious it was, and I didn’t have what would be my normal go-to tools in the sense that I’ve got a sense of humor and I’m an observationist. I can improvise, I can jump off the page, I can make up something on the spur of the moment. Even when you’re in comedic films, I’ve kind of earned the leisure to do that. In all the “Barbershop” movies, if I feel like saying something different in a take, it’s just A-OK because it’s Cedric and it’s going to be funny.
But when you do Broadway, you can’t.
So without having my regular stuff out of my toolbox that I get to use, I found myself really having to put in a lot of work. I did look at that as an opportunity to platform me into more dramatic roles. My personal reviews were good, but because it was a short run, I didn’t get to maximize on that. But it definitely was the thing that sparked me to want to do more dramatic roles like “First Reformed.”
Around the same time, you said you wanted to develop a Marcus Garvey movie. What happened?
I’ve been trying to find the right writer. I haven’t found anybody. I just recently came across a person who had the skeleton of a screenplay that I liked. I went to Costa Rica and found this little town where Marcus Garvey lived. I thought it was a more interesting tale. I’m looking for a really specific tale. It’s something I’m still on. I feel like I can’t take a chance where I just throw anything out there and it looks like a Lifetime movie. It’s got to be something that I’m really surprised by. But it’s definitely a passion project.
Do you have a lot of projects that you’ve tried to get off the ground over the years that haven’t come to fruition?
Oh yes. Oh man, a million of them, including “Johnson Family Vacation 2.” It’s so hard to do a movie. That’s one where the studio green-lit the basics of the idea. I do write, but I don’t necessarily have the time to write the whole script because I’m constantly being booked. That’s one of the things now, just finding writing talent that can transfer what you say, put it on paper and make it a story that you want to do so you can go forward and shoot the movie.
A couple of great ideas I love: a Columbo-esque, “Monk”-type character that I’ve wanted to develop for a while. That’s the type of character I grew up on. When “Monk” came out, it reminded me of that same kind of eccentric character that solves weird crimes. I have a character, Sudden Flavors, that’s another thing I want to do.
You’d wanted to get the Original Kings of Comedy back together at one point.
Yeah, we tried. We were very close. We had a couple of scripted ideas, and then we had the idea of just getting back together to do a mini-tour. It was right around the time Bernie [Mac] was ill. A lot of people didn’t know how ill he was. We thought we could squeeze it in, but unfortunately the timing on that didn’t work out.
Since then, nobody really wanted to do it without him. It was this weird thing: Do we replace Bernie with someone? Do we do it without him? Do we do him as a hologram like at Coachella with Tupac? How weird do we want to go with this? It just became an idea where eventually Steve [Harvey] took on his 137th show. He just couldn’t do it. He’s hosting “Family Feud” and “Little Big Shots” and a radio show, and I’m like, “OK, Steve, that’s it.”
Did you really talk about a Bernie Mac hologram?
It did come about. It was one of those things. The technology was supposedly getting a lot better, and maybe we would do a short bit where we put Bernie up in this hologram situation. It was gonna be an expensive task. MTV still had the rights to the film, and I think they were transitioning into some other things. The idea never manifested all the way.
During the 2016 election, you more or less stayed away from Trump material because his mishaps were so constant. Now, they’ve only gotten worse. At this point, the jokes must write themselves. Do you feel an obligation to incorporate Trump fodder?
It is such a Trump fatigue. I feel like I got a couple of great jokes that I would be remiss if the audience didn’t hear ’em. But it’s definitely not a big part of my set. I’ve got a couple of nice punches I like, and I’ll do those things, but then I just kind of move on.
Even more so when I’m on the tour with the guys. D.L. [Hughley] is an extremely political comedian. George [Lopez], being Mexican, took it straight personal. He did a whole HBO special called “The Wall.” And [Eddie] Griffin is the same way, just an outspoken character about all things. So I go last, and when I’m onstage I definitely try to just stay away from it in general. It ends up being a thing where, if you don’t repeat it a lot, you find it being less and less a part of your act.
It’s almost like you’re a palate cleanser. “We’ve gotten Trump out of the way, now let’s talk about the rest of life.”
Word. But the fact that he’s about to take credit for getting these prisoners out, I just can’t even imagine how cocky he’s about to be right now. He might be like, “Melania, come hold my hand; you saw me get these men out.” He’s gonna be the new Ike Turner right now. He’s gonna change his hair. He’s gonna slick it back now like a blond Pat Riley. He’ll open up his shirt.
In terms of the cycle of joke-writing, by the time you’re done with an act, four more catastrophes have happened and we’ve already moved on to the next trauma.
That’s the truth. You gotta write the kind of jokes that can sustain over time. My tour manager takes notes while I’m on stage if I get up there and do something I’ve never done. He’ll be like, “Oh, that’s great.” I”ll be like, “That joke was for today, man. I’m not going to keep doing that joke. It went with the moment.” He’s like, “Why do you think like that?”
Certain things I can tell have a shelf life, and certain things you go, “It happened today. It was perfect for today. It may last till next weekend, but it’s not a joke I’m going to keep in my set.”
In “The Original Kings of Comedy,” one of your popular jokes discussed how differently a black president would have responded to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In thinking about how little Trump’s base seems to care about his sex scandals, does that joke make you think about how much those same people would have eviscerated President Barack Obama were he embroiled in harassment allegations and the Stormy Daniels story?
You know, it is really interesting to think about that. But I do think it is probably really the DNA of the society at the time. When Clinton came out, his story was like the new “Dallas.” It was something you wanted to watch because we had never really heard anything like that. Even if you go back to JFK in the ’60s, it was actually applauded. For him to be mashing Marilyn Monroe, people was like, “Yeah! That’s the dude!” It reminds you of “Mad Men.” It reminds you of the idea that misogyny and guys who had become successful had the right to be whatever they wanted to be. “You’re successful, so you should have it all.”
When you get to Obama, you recognize he was in the Twitter age and the early Instagram age. You definitely realize that, being a first, he would not have any of the leisure to blow off a scandal of any type, especially one of paying prostitutes and having unprotected sex with people that’s not your wife.
This Stormy Daniels stuff sounds crazy, but we live in a world now where we’re fatigued. We went through Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons and Brett Ratner and Matt Lauer. Everyone’s like, “OK, so people are having sex, and so did the president. Big deal.” That’s basically how he spins it. He’s the most unique spin artist I’ve ever seen. This guy, if you played ping-pong with him, you would not be able to hit his backhand. That’s for sure. I’ve never seen anybody take a story and say, “Look, guys, that’s nothing. Sure, I did it. Maybe my lawyer did pay her and I didn’t know about it.” And then Rudy Giuliani comes on, and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And that’s the answer we’re supposed to accept? “He’s new, guys, he doesn’t know everything.” Really, guys? Y’all are going to accept that as the answer? It’s so interesting.
But I think, to your point, within four hours, there’s going to be another new story. But I believe Trump, as a reality show personality and a superstar at it, he knew how to do a reality show. People loved “The Apprentice,” and I think he recognized that if you can just survive through the next news cycle, don’t worry about it.
I’m like, man, I wish Tiger Woods would have learned that, because he would have never had to fall so hard. But he took it so personal when he felt like the world hated him. Really, all you had to do was go, “Yeah, I messed up, guys, but let’s keep moving.” When he took it all personally, he fell out of the limelight for five, six, seven years. He lost all his confidence. Trump doesn’t have that in him at all. And now he’s a hero for getting three people out of North Korea, and that’s going to be the news.
Political fodder is commonplace in stand-up, but do you find that the film scripts you’re reading are more politically driven than the material you were handed earlier in your career? I’m thinking about the third “Barbershop” movie, which smartly addresses gang culture, the prison system, gentrification.
I definitely think so. I think about all the projects that I’ve been doing, including “The Last O.G.” and now “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” They all have a political undertone to them. Even in “First Reformed,” it’s religious, but it’s still this idea of choice and this idea of questioning big institutions, things where we say, “All right, these are big institutions in our world, and they should never be challenged.”
I think you’re right. It’s more common. From a writer’s point of view, what you feel the audience is expecting is this need to make sure that, even if you’re going to make something comedic, you need to have something real in there, some kind of message that people can be drawn to so you’re not just coming off with a degree of buffoonery, I guess. Most of the projects I see have a thing where it’s important to make this subversive, politically toned consciousness — a behavioral, cultural reference to something.
Having hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, did you watch Michelle Wolf’s set?
Yeah, I thought she was amazing. I’ve done that before, and I know how stark that room can be. It’s a room of political people who come from all different sides. I did it for George W., so it was a very Republican White House.
But, in my opinion, even though it was a Republican Party behind him, he didn’t have that kind of “we toe the line for this guy” grouping behind him that Donald Trump has. Trump has almost a gang mentality. The Republican Party just rock with him strictly because they’re on that side, like, “We’ve claimed it, and therefore that’s it. We don’t look at the policies, we don’t look at the man. We’re Republicans, and we’re with this guy no matter what he does.”
That’s hard, for [Wolf] to stay true to her set even in the moments when the jokes weren’t going great. She started out with some great laughs, and then she had a little lull. But she stayed focused, and I really appreciated that. I thought she did great.
Final question: You appeared on Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and worked with Tiffany Haddish on “The Last O.G.” Who bit Beyoncé?
[Laughs.] That is the question. And I always say it’s pretty obvious. It goes back to my Columbo-“Monk”-type character: Who is the celebrity we know would be in the same place, has the same access, that is known for biting people?
It was Mike Tyson, guys. He just left a bite mark; he didn’t take the whole ear. But he’s a biter! Nobody’s saying anything. Nobody wants Mike to flare up again, so we just keep it down.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.