Chris Rock is not your everyday funnyman. His rollicking stand up specials are a testament to his exceptional ability to write a comedy bit that can be hilarious, raunchy, and incisive all at once. He doesn’t tell jokes just to make us laugh, he tells jokes to point out what’s wrong in our society. In his 1999 career-defining comedy special, Bigger and Blacker, he famously posited, “You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control. We need to control the bullets, that’s right. I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… five thousand dollars per bullet… You know why? Cause if a bullet cost five thousand dollars there would be no more innocent bystanders.”
Now, he’s injected this brand of brash, irreverent social commentary into his newest project Top Five, a movie he wrote, directed and starred in alongside his longtime friend Rosario Dawson. Her character, Chelsea Brown, is a film critic and entertainment reporter who’s been assigned to profile Andre Allen (played by Rock), a stand up comedian turned Hollywood actor. She follows him around, from recording radio spots to press junkets, to meeting up with old neighborhood pals while promoting a new indie film that no one will probably see.
In the hands of Dawson, Chelsea Brown is an eager but street smart Latina single mom who’s optimistic that change is coming. “Wake up and smell the progress!” she tells the much more cynical Andre. She’s convinced that we’ll have a female president soon and that she could be Latina, and maybe even gay.
Chelsea’s rosy outlook is no accident, Dawson put a lot of herself into the character when prompted by Rock for her input. Working together in numerous rehearsals and later, on-set improvising dialogue, the pair took the spark behind their friendship — the good-natured banter that happens when Dawson’s practical optimism clashes with Rock’s biting social commentary — and translated it to the big screen. The result is a captivating film, albeit at times flawed in its execution, that is always spot-on with its criticism of the Hollywood machine, the press’ obsession with celebrity, and what it means to be black and famous (spoiler alert: it’s not the same as being white and famous.)
We got the chance to talk to Rosario Dawson about her role in Top Five, which she explains Rock wrote specifically for her. She also weighs in on the much-circulated Op-Ed penned for The Hollywood Reporter by Rock, in which he calls out the entertainment industry for its blatantly racist treatment of Latinos.
How were you first approached to be part of this movie?
“He talked to me about this script for a long time, saying that it was written for me and he wanted me to be a part of it.”
Dawson: He had talked to me about this script for a long time, saying that it was written for me and that he wanted me to be a part of it. When I read it, I just really loved the script and I thought it was really powerful. He has really taken it up a notch, but I was still hesitant to jump onboard because of these other things personally going on in my life, my grandmother having passed a few years before and some other stuff. But, he convinced me to come onboard.
We met over it and had a lot of tea and a lot of conversation. It was awesome. I could see how passionate he was about it and he really wanted to take things to another level and I think he really did. He had an acting coach on set that we worked with. We rehearsed rigorously beforehand. He’d taken three years to write the script and had all types of readings. He called all his friends onboard to come to make the movie with him, and he did it knowing that he was going to really honor who they were, it would not just be a string of cameos, but actual performances, even if they were small.
And he was right, this was the time to call everybody to be onboard. It was special. I’m glad he convinced me.
It makes sense now that Chris wrote the role for you, because as I was watching it, it seemed like a perfect fit for you. It was also really refreshing to see a Latina character in this movie, alongside all these strong black performers. Did you help develop the character when it was still a script?
Dawson: The initial sort of idea around this was wanting to have a character that would follow him around, a reporter, and wanting to do something about Cinderella, because his daughter’s are really into Cinderella. He was kind of up to his ears with Cinderella but that’s kind of where it first started and then he kind of moved on from there.
We’ve known each other since I was 19. We met just before he had gotten married. It was just sort of looking at an idea of someone who is about to get married and how they’re building their life. So, his character [in the movie] is about to get married as well.
“Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time.”
He really encouraged my input, and he really wanted me to make this character my own. So even the part of saying “Cindereya” instead of saying, “Cinderella,” that’s something that I wanted to put in there and really kind of emphasize certain things about myself.
I really wanted to inject a lot of myself in the character. I’d already shaved my head, half my head for Sin City. And I was shooting in New York and I just really wanted to do something that I really loved but it didn’t need to be something so completely different from myself. I got to show a side of myself that I don’t get to show very often, which is how discerning and kind of investigative and smart — she’s smart but street smart as well. It’s just multiple, different sort of layers that I wanted to add to it and he was really into that. He wanted me to put my “stank on it,” as he says, and it was awesome!
The film has some moments that seem so real, they have this sort of liveliness and freshness to them. Was there a lot of improvising during the shoot? There’s a scene in particular where Chelsea and Andre are riding the train and you are talking about literature. Your character quotes a line from Love in the Time of Cholera…
Dawson: Yeah, that was totally improvised. We did talk about it a little bit beforehand and then we improvised it and ended up shooting it over and over. He had said, “Let’s do a scene where we’re just talking.” I’m was supposed to interview him and ask him questions about different comedians and then I’m going to talk about the different literature that I love. I had just finished reading Truman Capote and Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time. And that line I say in the movie, is a line that I actually thought for a long time that I might even get it tattooed because I just loved it so much. When Marquez says, “Too much love is as bad for this as no love at all” which is from Love in the Time of Cholera. That scene was just really fun.
“This is how he and I talk to each other, we’ve been doing that for 16 years now.”
But, even though a lot of it feels very spontaneous, it was incredibly rehearsed. We prepared like crazy. I like doing a lot of research, he likes doing a lot of preparation. It took him three years to write this. He treated this like he was doing standup. He’s touring, doing his jokes, by the time he’s recording his special he’s told that joke 100 times. And so, even though we rehearsed it like crazy, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re watching it because that’s just how we are. We are very open, very present people. So, as much as we prepared, we throw that out the window and then just perform and just kind of interact with each other. It was great.
We basically in a lot of ways translated our personal banter to the screen. This is how he and I talk to each other; we’ve been doing that for 16 years now. And we found it incredibly entertaining, so I hope other people do too.
Chris recently published an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter saying that, “L.A. is a slave state,” and made a lot of scathing comments about racism in Hollywood and in particular about the way Mexicans are treated in Los Angeles. I’m curious about your thoughts on his comments and how it compares to your experience as a Latina working in Hollywood?
Dawson: For me, personally, what I just love about what Chris does and what he does in general is he takes things that are very serious, and quite often not even remotely funny, and he’s able to make you laugh about them, but do it in a way that makes you think about it. And that’s his form of activism.
You know I’ve been an advocate and an activist for a lot of years and I like that we both do it in our particular way — with Voto Latino and different organizations that I’ve worked with before. Absolutely there’s a lot that needs to happen to make the real changes that we need. But, I do things from a different perspective.
“It’s not that there aren’t a bunch of Robert Rodriguezs out there, it’s that they don’t have someone helping them show their work.”
I’ve always been somebody who’s really tried to talk about it and find positive examples, to point, “Look at how we are, look at the technology we have today. Look at the opportunities we have. Look at people like Robert Rodriguez.” — I don’t understand why there isn’t a hundred more of these. I figured the way I came in and started that I could see a bunch of Robert Rodriguez’s popping up and then that didn’t happen. And I realized that it was because I created and had the people around me create a space for my content. And I just need to create a space for other people’s content that we can bring people out from behind the shadows. And it’s not that there aren’t a bunch of Robert Rodriguezs out there, it’s that they don’t have someone helping them show their work.
I think it’s really important to point the fingers on a lot of things that are issues. And I think it’s important that we continue to talk about them, not only just talk and think about it, that we actually do something about it and recognize the people who are actually already doing it.
This is not the first time people have marched for injustice, but it could actually prevent a lot of the horrible things happening to our young people by standing up and voting and making sure that the people who are elected officials actually represent our communities.
I love Chris and I’m so grateful that he says the things that he says and from the perspective that he has, and that he makes people think and that he encourages more people to have this conversation. They’re definitely happening. I’m sure there are a lot of people think like him and it’s important to give a voice to that. Because then people can go to college and recognize, “Oh, it’s not just me. Let’s all work together to do something about it.” That’s what I’m excited about doing, organizing.
Top Five opens in theaters on December 12, 2014.