Friday night, Chris Rock goes head-to-head with his New Jersey neighbor Bill Murray when his movie premieres against Murray’s at the Toronto Film Festival. Rock wrote, directed, and stars in Top Five, which features many of his comedian friends, including Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, and Cedric the Entertainer. The movie is about a comedian who’s trying to branch out in more serious roles and simultaneously finds himself in a love triangle with a tough yet beautiful New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) and his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union). In St. Vincent, Bill Murray plays a questionable caretaker to Melissa McCarthy’s son. We spoke to Rock just before his plane to Toronto departed about directing his first movie since 2007, the Jim Carrey curse, and his best story about Joan Rivers. (It’s a good one.)
You’re on your way to Toronto this afternoon. Do you realize you’re missing Bill Murray Day here?
He lives like five minutes from me, so every day is Bill Murray Day for me. He’s Bill Murray, come on! Who’s better than Bill Murray
How do you celebrate?
You know, you watch Ghostbusters, do funny karaoke.
This is the first time you’ve directed a movie since 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife. Why now?
It all starts with the writing. I had an idea for a script, I ran it by [Scott] Rudin, and he liked the idea. And, you know, if I’m gonna write a script, I might as well direct. Why hand it off to somebody? Why put in all that time and effort and then basically let someone else have all the fun?
It’s about a comedian who’s trying to get taken seriously. Is this a phenomenon you’ve felt yourself or something you’re trying to make fun of other comedians doing?
It’s more people trying to stretch and not appreciating what they do well. It’s a phenomenon that I thought needed to be explored. People thinking, Okay, I’ve got to do something else, before they’ve even actually mastered the thing they do. That applies to almost any industry, not just the movies. Michael Jordan played baseball for two years. Come on.
Any examples of people you admire doing that that have made you roll your eyes?
Nah, it’s just people get bored. Kanye West has a clothing line. It just is what it is; it’s just almost exploring that boredom. It’s probably not a great idea to make a movie that explores boredom at all. [Laughs.] Everybody does it. What’s her name with the Harry Potter books writes a romance novel or whatever. It’s just the human condition. Or it might be a very American thing, actually. I’m not sure.
Were you directing this because you were bored?
I mean, I’ve toyed around. I’ve had that kind of boredom. It’s true. For a minute there, I was really considering writing a Nat Turner movie. You know, no one wants to see me in that. I may still write it, but, you know, it’s obviously not my first strength. We all have that thing, of wanting to stretch. And taking for granted something you do well.
Have you had any specific moments when you stretched and were like, “I need to go back to stand-up”?
Not yet. I’m sure it’s going to smack me someday. I guess I did Nurse Betty. I did New Jack [City] a hundred years ago. I think I got drama out of my system early, and I didn’t get hurt. It happens, though. Comedians really want to be taken seriously. Comedians want it both ways. They want to be funny, and they want to be taken seriously.
Jim Carrey is the classic example.
Gabrielle Union plays your reality-TV-star fiancée. Was that inspired by Kanye and Kim?
It’s more Love & Hip Hop than Kanye and Kim. Love & Hip Hop is a better show. It’s a really good show, that Love & Hip Hop! I mean we use little bits and pieces and a bunch of stuff from a lot of reality, so there’s maybe a little Kim in there, but it’s more, What’s going on in the mid-Atlantic?
You have such a great list of people in the movie: Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Rosario Dawson, Sherri Shepherd, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Questlove did the soundtrack. Are you paying them money, or did you bribe them?
Uh, I had to call in specific favors. Some people just owed me. You know, I’ve done enough Sandler movies for him to bless me, I think. I mean, he did pay me for those movies and stuff. I think this is payback with Jerry for Bee Movie. A day for a day. Cedric’s got a great part, but I go way back with Cedric. They’re all friends, and they all came through. And they’re really talented at the exact same time. Everybody’s really good in the movie. Everybody has a scene where they score. No one is just there being famous, helping us raise money or something like that. Everybody does something funny in the movie.
Was anyone tough to lure in? Did Tracy Morgan require Benihana or something?
You know, I’m actually kind of amazed. Everybody kind of called back immediately. Even the guys that are busy gave me dates that I could work around. Jerry’s always on tour. Adam, I mean, who works more than Adam? I didn’t really have to beg anybody, to tell you the truth.
What’s your favorite comedic moment? Can you give a preview?
I think people are going to be surprised with Jerry. I think that’s going to be the big shock of the movie. I mean, it’s Jerry Seinfeld in an R-rated movie, so it’s kind of like a special effect in itself. He did a little bit of it on Louie this year, where you see mean Jerry, you see realistic Jerry, kind-of-dramatic Jerry. I think Jerry’s going to surprise everybody. Everybody’s really good, but I think Jerry’s going to be like, “Wow! Never thought I’d see that.”
Is that closer to how he is in real life than what we see on TV?
You know, Jerry’s a real guy. He curses or whatever. The guy he is in the movie is closer to who he is in real life. He does not suffer fools. [Laughs.]
Your movie premieres tonight. Are you going to do anything particularly Canadian while at the Toronto Film Festival?
I’m going to buy my daughter some maple syrup.
Say “sorry” whenever you bump into someone?
Pretty much. I’m trying to catch Sandler’s movie, the Jason Reitman one [Men, Women & Children] and the other one, too [Tom McCarthy’s The Cobbler]. I want to see Denzel [Washington, in The Equalizer]. There’s a bunch of stuff I want to see.
You’re staying a while. That’s rare, I think. Most celebrities are in and out of TIFF so fast.
I’m staying till Sunday or Monday. Here’s the thing, too. A movie … you have your premiere, but honestly, you know if you’ve got something special by the third screening. When I had Good Hair, I remember having that at Sundance and just every screening was crazier. People couldn’t get in and all that stuff. So I’m tracking that here. The premiere isn’t the indicator if people like it. You’ve got to wait for word of mouth, and for me, you can tell on the third screening. Like, by then, the word is out. To me, if you’re still sold out by the third screening, you’ve got something.
Have you learned anything about directing from your other movies?
I think what I learned, more than anything, doing this movie, was that the best person available is only a phone call away. That’s what I learned. You can always get really good people. You’ve just got to be willing to call them and talk to them. And I learned a lot—I did a play like six years ago [2011’s The Motherfucker With the Hat], and the play taught me a lot about acting, so the weird thing about this movie is I wasn’t so married to the script as I was in the past. You know, the script was a suggestion that I gave to the actors and really let the actors create characters.
I want to ask a few random things before we close out. You didn’t keep the foul ball from the Yankees game, right?
No, I gave it to a little kid who was sitting in the next row.
Was it a special moment for you, catching the foul ball, or was that routine?
No! The thing is, I didn’t catch it, I picked it up. I haven’t caught a foul ball in, whatever, a hundred baseball games. When I was a kid I used to go with my glove. I’m just mad I didn’t catch the ball. I got it after it went under my shoes. I shoulda caught the ball!
Was that because you didn’t bring your glove, or was your catching technique off that day?
You know what it was? I just never thought it was coming to me. I’ve just been to too many baseball games where I thought the ball was coming to me and it came around the back or whatever. I’ve still never caught a foul ball! I don’t know, between me and Bobby Cannavale, we shoulda caught it.
The comedy world lost a legend yesterday with Joan Rivers. Do you have any good Joan Rivers stories?
Who doesn’t have appreciation for her? I mean, I love Joan Rivers. I bumped into her from time to time. I did the very last Joan Rivers Show when she was at Fox. [Editor’s note: The official name was The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, and she was fired in May 1987 and replaced by Arsenio Hall.] She was just an amazing woman. Honestly, I think everybody that keeps saying she was a pioneer for women is doing her a disrespect. She’s one of the greatest comedians to ever live. She’s better than 90 percent of the—she’s better than Robin! Put it that way. She believes it.
You think she’s better than Robin Williams?
Yeah, well, put it this way, she could definitely follow him. That’s it. You as a reporter might go one way or the other. But put a bunch of comedians in a room and go, “Okay, who’s going to have a good set?” Who could Joan Rivers NOT follow? You’re not going to come up with anybody’s name. There’s literally no one in the world Joan Rivers couldn’t follow and blow off the stage.
It’s problematic to label her a female comedian?
You know, she did do a lot for women, but she did a lot for comedy. Please! A lot of my style is Joan Rivers. A lot! But, you know, nobody would ever say that because we don’t look alike. She’s one of the greatest to ever live!
What do you mean a lot of your style is Joan Rivers?
I mean, just watch me on any awards show telling jokes about celebrities. Who started that shit? Joan Rivers! [Laughs.]
What was it like being on the last Joan Rivers Show?
I mean, it was a weird day. Her husband had just killed himself and her show had just gotten canceled. It was probably the saddest day in her life, when she met me. Me, Pee-wee Herman, and Howie Mandell were her last guests, you know. [Laughs.] I mean, it was weird. Her husband had just died—he had killed himself!—her show was canceled, and she was doing it. I got an education in the show must go on. She did the show, she was a little broken up during commercial breaks, but when that camera cut on, she was funny.
Were you friends back then? How did you wind up being a guest on her last show?
I don’t know how that happened. You know what? I think it was one of those situations where they announced the show was canceled that day and I just happened to be booked on the show. I’d never been on TV before. My first television appearance was the last Joan Rivers Show.