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Craig Robinson talks doing drama, porn aspirations and the big L

Ever-chill everydude Craig Robinson tones down the funny—and flaunts some dramatic chops—in Morris from America

Photograph: Ramona Rosales

Right now, Craig Robinson is in a studio behind Hollywood Boulevard with a rose clenched between his teeth like the goofy Casanova we’ve come to love onscreen. You know Robinson: He’s Darryl on The Office; he’s a one-man Black Eyed Peas tribute band in Hot Tub Time Machine; he’s the high henchman in Pineapple Express who gets shot and cries, “I got glass in my ass!”; he’s himself in the apocalyptic bromance This Is the End; he’s the guy who once sang a sexy version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” while tickling the ivories on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Sporting a fresh-out-the-box white T-shirt and running his comb, which lives inside his inner jacket pocket, through an Afro preened to perfection, he’s a hazardously smooth operator in person. Yet he’s also quieter and calmer than the larger-than-life characters that have, until now, been his bread and butter.

In a nutshell, Robinson’s gone serious on us in a big way in Morris from America, in which he plays the widowed father to a 13-year-old son. Applauded at Sundance Film Festival as a brilliant coming-of-age tale about two African-Americans’ attempts to integrate in Heidelberg, Germany—Robinson received a standing ovation for his performance—it’s set to launch the former stand-up joker into more dramatic roles. It’s also responsible for securing him a meaty part in the current season of the WTF-inducing, awesome TV thriller Mr. Robot. Not to suggest that the 44-year-old actor is basking in the exposure. “I just like to stay in my hotel rooms,” he tells me when I press him for his favorite party haunts while shooting the USA smash in New York. “Nobody asks for my picture there.” America: Say hello to the new, more reserved—but don’t worry, still effortlessly cool—Craig Robinson. 

Morris from America feels like a story that needs to be told right now, a movie about discrimination against an African-American father and his son. It jibes with the current political climate…
Wow. Well, I’m a fan of the Black Lives Matter movement. It would be amazing to see this film attached to that; I would be honored. Just you saying that makes me suddenly look at the movie in a different light, so thank you.

You’re welcome. Your onscreen 13-year-old son, Morris, is played by newcomer Markees Christmas. The director just told me he found him on YouTube!
I know! They didn’t even have to audition anybody.

Morris from America

What were you like as a 13-year-old kid growing up in Chicago?
I was just graduating eighth grade, and I was stupid, frantic, smiling all the time. People were always asking, “Why you smiling?!?” My whole family is musical, and our house was like a rehearsal studio. Instruments everywhere: pianos, organ, drums, everything. My mother taught music in high school. Besides music, I’d had a few kisses by that time. I guess you could say I was an early starter. I was still a virgin, though.

In the film, Morris shocks his dad when he stays out all night at a party. Would you have ever tried to pull a stunt like that?
Not in a million years! My character was so cool about that, toeing the line between friendship and fatherhood. My parents were good cop, bad cop. Dad was the bad cop. That would never have happened in my house. We wouldn’t be sitting here right now! 

If you had to give advice to your 13-year-old self, what would you say?
Study. For all these acting parts, you gotta speak these lines like they’re yours. There’s always a chance to go deeper. Also, don’t worry so much about things happening; just enjoy that journey. That’s what Markees is doing: living life. I see that even more now because of him.

You’ve built a career in comedy. How often have you been approached with roles like this?
Not often. I can count them on one finger. Mr. Robot came directly from this. Sam [Esmail, creator] saw Morris and realized I could make that turn. I would love to keep riding on this road. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. Mr. Robot is a dope show that keeps you guessing. Even when they asked me to come on board, they only told me just what I needed to hear and no more. I don’t know what’s really going on.

Is there any type of acting you wouldn’t do?
I was gonna say porn, but, yeah, I’d do porn.

Your first career was as a teacher—you came to acting late. What’s it like to be in your forties and getting standing ovations at Sundance? 
How amazing is that? I was at college for music, and all of a sudden comedy made more sense; it overtook everything. Comedy chose me. I graduated and got a job teaching kids music in Indiana. At the same time, I was doing open mics, building my act, out on the road performing.

Did you practice your material on your classroom kids?
All the time. The best way to get the kids’ attention was to play jokes on them. We would go at it. I would practice my stage presence with the kids. If I could make kids laugh…

You knew you had this. Kids are funny. When was the first time you did stand-up?
First time, it was a dare. I was at a New Year’s party at a friend’s house. I was attracted to this girl there. We all start talking about comedy. One of the guys says there’s an open mic on Wednesday night. By Wednesday they’re all coming, and I’m riding to the show trying to write jokes on the way. I had nothing. I’m super nervous, the girl is there, and I can’t back down, so I sign up, and they call me up. I didn’t do well. People stared at me. It was like an out-of-body experience. They played the music for me to get off. I can still see my friend’s face [makes disappointed frown]. If I had any sense at all, I’d have never done it again.

Did you see the girl again?
Never! I wouldn’t wanna see me again.

What changed?
I realized that I wanted to figure this out. In college I wrote out for myself: “You are going to be a great comedian.” Then I crossed out “going to be,” so it just said, “You are a great comedian.” And, well, here I am.

You’re in a crew of comedians including Seth Rogen and James Franco. Who in that group makes your sides split hardest?
Damn, that’s a hard question. Jonah Hill cracks me up, as does Seth. If I had to choose one, it’s Danny McBride. He is unpredictable, super smart, catches the jokes in his head and just lays it out there. He’s smooth.

In This Is the End, you share a dance floor with the Backstreet Boys. Did you school them on any moves?
Oh, no! They gave us the video to learn. They had choreographers help us. Those Backstreet Boys guys are really good. They know what’s up! I can’t tell you their names. They were cool, though, real nice. I liked the guy with all the issues, even though he was sober by the time I got to him.

On the street, what do fans approach you about most?
People come up to me about The Office all the time: “You’re the best!” I’m like, “What are you talking about?!? There are 17 cast members! Why do you love Darryl?”

Do you think the American version of The Office is better than the original?
No! We found our legs with the U.S. version, but you can’t compare them. The first time I saw [the British] Office, I was on a plane, sitting in my seat hollering so loud, “What is this?!?” Afterward, I was looking for it like, “Man, I wish I could figure out what that was.” Thankfully, one day I saw Ricky Gervais’s picture on the side of a 7-Eleven and realized what it was.

You’ve been “Club Doorman” in Knocked Up, an extra in Curb Your Enthusiasm
I wasn’t an extra! I had a role; I was an orderly! [Editor’s note: Technically, he was “Attendant #1.”] Those are all my proudest moments onscreen. I’d just go in and audition, and now I look back and feel like it’s all been preparing me. I got to be on The Bernie Mac Show; I’ve worked with Steve Carell and Larry David. I steal a little bit of something from everybody. I know how hard you have to work to be in that lead spot.

You still play in your funk band, the Nasty Delicious. Why that name?
You know when you’re eating something and it’s so good that you make a face [pulls the face]? That face when something’s too delicious? That’s how I feel when my musicians are playing. Nasty.

Who’s your musical inspiration?
Earth, Wind & Fire. I followed them one time around the world for 10 shows in a row. You know, I love the funk, Nile Rodgers, George Clinton, Parliament Funkadelic. I’ve shared the stage with all of them, been brought up to dance with them. “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire feels like it takes place in the clouds! The words are beautiful. [Starts singing] “Come to see victory, in the land called fantasy.…” The way it slowly comes in, you feel the bass all up in your hair. That song is everything.

Chicago is on the map musically again because of Kanye West and Chance the Rapper. Is it inspiring to see that?
It’s a gigantic feeling of pride. Kanye is easily one of the most important artists of our time. In order to understand him, you have to be from his planet, you know? The things he does make sense to me. He could change the world. Him and [Mark] Zuckerberg? Together? Homelessness would be a thing of the past.

“All we can do is spread love. We can’t just say that love conquers evil; we gotta be the love. Show it.”

Craig RobinsonPhotograph: Ramona Rosales

Do you embrace L.A.’s culture of celebrity?
Some of the parties can’t be topped. I’ve been to post-Grammy parties with Nile Rodgers and Elton John. Billy Idol performed after the Emmys once. I’m blessed to be invited. Sometimes I’m not invited, and that’s cool, too. I’ve had to learn not to drink so much at these parties because, man, the alcohol is off the chain.

You were arrested in Culver City, California, in 2008 for drug possession, just as your career was taking off. Was that the first time you realized how much you stood to lose?
Yeah! You think of everything and everybody you ever met. How will they react? Even people you don’t know. MySpace was around then, and these strangers would hit me up: “Man, I’m so disappointed in you.” I don’t even know you! I had supporters, people saying I wasn’t alone. My parents supported me. I got people who love me. That’s what I found out.

This year has been rife with political unrest and tragic attacks like those in Orlando and Nice, France. What’s your take on celebrities weighing in on issues like those?
Lately, when I do my comedy shows, I say that if somebody tells you Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group, they’re lying to your face. That’s my route. To each his own. I hate how you can’t even start a discussion without people saying your opinion is stupid. A lot of the time, people are stuck in their ways no matter what, and they fight to the death even if they know they’re wrong. All we can do is take one moment at a time and spread love. That’s what I say to my crowd. We can’t just say that love conquers evil; we gotta be the love. Show it.

Morris from America opens in theaters Aug 19 and is available on DirecTV through Aug 17.

Behind the scenes of the Craig Robinson cover shoot for Time Out New York

Watch the trailer for Morris from America

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