DALLAS—“Pardon my Tony Soprano look here,” says Cedric the Entertainer, wearing a bathrobe and a knit ski cap, as he shuffles into a suite last month at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas. The 43-year-old comic has come to town to promote “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” a new comedy about a successful TV host who returns to his small hometown. (Cedric plays Martin Lawrence’s cousin and childhood rival.)
Born in St. Louis, Cedric first hit the comedy-club circuit in the early 1990s, before winning a co-starring role on his pal Steve Harvey’s eponymous TV show. But it was “The Original Kings of Comedy”—a 2000 concert documentary, directed by Spike Lee, about the stand-up tour featuring Harvey, Cedric, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac—that launched him into the mainstream.
As our interview began, Cedric had just woken from a nap. But he didn’t hold anything back in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the controversy surrounding the movie “Barbershop” (Cedric played a character who was critical of Rosa Parks), the presidential election and his quest to become a superstar.
Did you realize when you were on “The Original Kings of Comedy” tour that it was going to transform your career?
We toured for three years before we shot (the documentary). You knew things were changing. ... I think it was the right time. There was a large influx of black comedians, with Def Comedy Jam—you’d see black comedians everywhere. After a while it started seeming the same. But this was like, “Four of these hot guys, all together in one place.” It turned it into more of an event.
How immediate an impact did that movie have on your career?
Oh, it was pretty immediate. It opened really big that weekend, and it caught everybody off guard. And that’s pretty much what you need in Hollywood, to catch people off guard.
And you’ve been working pretty much uninterrupted since then?
I still haven’t found that super blockbuster that represents who I am, but definitely I’ve been working consistently.
It’s a movie that maybe you can make into a franchise—or where you have some great character that people can really grab a hold to. ... Something where the audience thinks, “I would go see two of this movie.” Or, “Now I get his comedy, and I would go to see pretty much anything with him.”
Why has it been so tricky to find that vehicle?
It doesn’t necessarily always depend on you as an artist. ... You have studios that have agendas. They decide, you know, “It’s a good movie, but we’ll put you up against `Spider-Man.’” And you’re like, “OK, I’m getting ready to get my (butt) kicked. I don’t have any cups at Burger King.” And then people say, “Hey, your movie didn’t do well.” And I’m like, “Well, I was up against `Pirates of the Caribbean Part 7.’”
Has the success of Tyler Perry’s movies made it easier or harder for other black actors to get their movies made?
In Hollywood, it’s all based on formulas. With Tyler Perry, his formula is doing it cheap. So that means that gone are the days of a budget of 15 (million) to 20 million (dollars). Now it’s like, “If you can’t do this movie for 5 million (dollars), we’re not going to green-light it.”
And you find yourself compromising things. And if you keep compromising, the next thing you know, you lose your own cachet.
Did your career suffer any over the “Barbershop” controversy?
It was temporary. There was a backlash. Fans of mine were offended by the statements. ... If you say anything negative about that historical period, you have black people jumping all over you. (But I’m saying,) “Here’s another point of view. Why don’t you look at it from another angle?”
That must be frustrating. You’re trying to start a dialogue, but the audience doesn’t want that. People just want you to be funny.
That’s the thing. There’s a lot of controversy now with the presidential race. It’s like black people are automatically supposed to vote for Barack (Obama) because he’s a black man. But Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists didn’t fight for the voting rights act and civil rights so that you could go and vote for someone just because he’s black and you’re black. That’s not what that’s about. It’s about the right to be a voter, and the right to have a choice ..... On one hand you got a black guy running for president. So yeah, give him some thought. But at the same time we have a country that’s in turmoil, a lot of stuff is going on—(to) look for who’s the better person to guide the country.
In “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” you’re sharing the screen with Martin Lawrence. Is it difficult to put your ego aside and appear opposite a big star?
I walked in and said, “OK, this is your ship, I’m the co-star.” I thought it was really commendable for him, because there are so many big personalities in the movie—Mo’nique, Mike Epps. They have the kind of comedy that’s always on.
Yeah, it’s like Martin’s the straight man in this.
That’s what happens. And I’ve been in that situation before, where you end up the person who’s supposed to hold the movie together, and you find yourself being the straight man. You’re like, “All right, let me come off as a thespian. Let me be the Ac-Tor. You be the funny one, and I’ll ... I’ll get the Golden Globe.”