Kevin Hart: ‘People love a broad comedy’
The world’s biggest-grossing comedian is everywhere at the moment. He talks about new film The Wedding Ringer, ‘the knack’ of success and growing up in a tough part of Philadelphia
Kevin Hart: ‘My brother made some mistakes and went to the military. My mom wasn’t going to let that happen to me.’ Photograph: Brad Barket/Getty Images
Kevin Hart with Josh Gad in The Wedding Ringer
Kevin Hart, star of the new hit US comedy The Wedding Ringer, smiles down from every other bus and billboard. Look here: he’s presenting the first episode of the new season of Saturday Night Live. Look there: he’s on Soccer AM kicking balls and declaring for Manchester City. And now he’s right in front of me, having alighted in Dublin, attempting to grab a few forkfuls of Caesar salad between interviews.
It’s odd to see him in person. I think I’ve been staring at him for weeks on end. The comedian, actor and sometime record producer is suddenly as visible as I imagine Kim Jong-un is on the streets of Pyongyang. That seems only fair. For years, Hart was America’s best-kept secret. The comic, a long-time pal of Judd Apatow, has enlivened that director’s movies since 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but always from the margins of pictures such as Drillbit Taylor, The Five-Year Engagement, and This Is the End. Movie fans may also recognise him as the scene stealer from Along Came Polly, Little Fockers, and the Think Like a Man franchise.
His leap towards leading-man status has been hard-won. He earned $15 million from his 2009 stand-up tour, Laugh at My Pain, having built a sizeable grassroots following online. “Social media gives you power,” he says. “You can market yourself like nobody else can. It’s up to you to show what you can do with that personal reach.”
That personal reach saw him take three movies to the top of the US box office last year: Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too and About Last Night. And now he’s taking the show on the road.
“People in Ireland love to laugh,” he says. “And the reception they’ve given me. Everywhere I’ve been today people are waiting outside with cameras and stuff to get signed. It’s something I don’t take for granted.”
All the right noises
Bright, articulate and always on, Hart brings to mind Hollywood players such as Tom Cruise or Will Smith. He charms. He works his audience. He makes all the right noises: “My goal is to keep doing everything bigger and better” or “I’m still pinching myself about the fact I’m in Dublin: You can only dream about stuff like this.”
His motor-mouth skills on stage have brought obvious comparisons with Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, two of his inspirations. But the proudly populist Hart is far more self-deprecating than his spiritual predecessors, a trait he contributes to his short stature.
His jokes are never misogynistic or homophobic or mean-spirited, but he’s happy to poke fun at his being 5ft 4in. “What you have to learn to do is to give people what they want,” he says. “People love a broad comedy. They can relate to that material.”
Still, American show business can be an awfully segregated place. Tyler Perry’s movies may have grossed more than $1 billion to date, but they are seldom released outside the US and seem to do most, if not all of their trade in African-American neighbourhoods. Chris Rock has recently spoken out about the idea that Kevin Hart needs to “cross over”. Why should he chase white audiences, goes the argument, when he’s the biggest-grossing comedian in the world?
Hart won’t bow to such categorisation: “I don’t want to do things that alienate people or section audiences off. Ireland is a strong market for me. I’m hoping to bring my show over here later in the year.”
The Wedding Ringer suits Hart’s crowd-pleasing delivery and style. A likeable bromance about a slick professional best man (Hart) and the hapless groom (Josh Gad, something of a sensation since his turn as Frozen’s snowman) who enlists his services, the film hit number two at the US box office when it was released, against a crowded Oscar market, last month.
“I’ve been after this kind of material for a while,” says Hart. “But The Wedding Ringer was the script that I read and thought, You know what? Everybody can get this.”
If he sounds focused, that’s out of necessity. Kevin and his older brother Robert were born in one of the least salubrious boroughs of north Philadelphia, raised by a single mother in a one-bedroom apartment. His dad was a cocaine addict who spent most of Kevin’s childhood drifting in and out of jail.
“Philadelphia was tough,” says the 35-year-old. “I try to go back and give as much as I can. Just to show the youth that are there that regardless of what is going on, you can make it; you can do whatever you put your mind to. Things have gotten worse than when I grew up.”
His mother, Nancy, who died from ovarian cancer in 2007, is frequently cited during his stand-up routines. How did she keep young Kevin on the straight and narrow? “My mom was very strict,” he says. “Not to the point where she was overbearing. But I was a youngest child. My brother had made some mistakes and went to the military. My mom wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to me. I wasn’t allowed to hang around street corners late at night. My mom was very aware of what I was doing all the time. She kept me in extracurricular activities. I got my drive from my mom, a drive to keep working and keeping yourself healthy.”
And so Kevin Hart, a man who sold shoes in order to support his fledging career as a stand-up comedian, is currently sitting on a multimillion dollar empire that encompasses games, music, live performances, movies and the hit TV show Real Husbands of Hollywood.
“I think there is a knack to it,” he says. “I think it’s something that a person has to have in them. And then as you meet people – other successful individuals – and you soak up as much information as you can. And you pay attention to the team of people they have behind them.”
The Wedding Ringer is on general release