Tracy Morgan Makes Comic Splash on Big Screen
by Paul Fischer
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Tracy Morgan is irreverent and unpredictable, and perhaps a big time movie star if reaction to his turn opposite Ice Cube in First Sunday is anything to go by. And when one sits down with the star of the acclaimed TV sitcom 30 Rock, well, what you see is what you get, as Paul Fischer recently discovered in the course of this interview.
Paul Fischer: Somebody said to me this morning that they think First Sunday is gonna be your breakout role, the movie that’s gonna put you on the next level. Do you look at things from that point of view when you select something like this?
Tracy Morgan: No, that’s too much pressure. That’s too much pressure., I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m looking forward to people going to the movie and enjoying it. That’s the main thing—
PF: Why this movie?
TM: Why not? That is the question, why not? When I read the role, LeeJohn, it hit home with me. Almost scared me, because I’ve known that pain, I’ve known that—you see LeeJohn in the beginning of the movie, funny guy, sort of a knucklehead. And then you begin to see the layers being peeled back. And it was being associated with funny my whole career, for a comedian, it’s awesome when you get an opportunity to get emotional. We search for comedy so much. But true comedy lies in drama.
PF: How much did you know Ice beforehand? And did you guys spend some time together before you actually—
TM: No. We didn’t hang out. I did a movie, Are We There Yet?, I did the voice of the bobblehead doll. We hadn’t worked together, but we knew each other. We’d met. I’ve always been a fan of NWA and all that stuff, so it was an honor. And I always knew, we were obviously—know the franchise. He’s the king of franchises, you know? He’s like McDonald’s, you know? Don’t think I didn’t go into this knowing if I didn’t brew this up, it might be—you know, my breakout joint. So, I’m fresh out the box, you know what I’m saying? Then coming out with Ice Cube? So I had to seal it. When I went in that room, the role was mine. I am LeeJohn. When I got the script, the first thing I did, I broke it down. I read it, then I read it again, and then I broke it down and I began to create a history for LeeJohn and Durell, so when I got there, the audition, we did the audition. And right before I left, me and him sitting there talking about our history. This is what it was. This is what it is. This is why we are. And he was like, “Wow.”
We knew each other since first grade. I was always a knucklehead, getting in trouble. You always protected me. Now we are in Baltimore and we’re grown men, and I see you’re in trouble with your son, and I’m gonna do anything to help you win him. And Cube was like, “Wow.” And then he chiming in, and before you knew it, we had a history. So by the time we got to filming, we was already LeeJohn and Durell right there.
PF: So, you did the history of Durell, the whole thing—the whole name thing?
TM: Both of us did. Both of us did. I did the history of LeeJohn. But I didn’t create the—the name of the character or anything. But I created the character.
PF: The back story.
TM: The back story. You know, that’s how you build the character. That’s how you get close to the role. What’s on the paper is one thing. But if you don’t get close to it—most people don’t know how to do that process. So it just looks mechanical on film.
PF: Did you do the same thing with Tracy Jordan?
TM: Tracy Jordan’s my alter ego. Tina Fey, we spent time on Saturday Night Live. We didn’t just work, we partied too. It’s Saturday Night Live. It’s infamous, it’s parties and after-after-parties, and stuff. So she’s brilliant. She saw that. And she just sat back and looked, and created that role. And she said, “Do you.” Which is my alter ego. I call him Chico Devine [laughter>]. Chico’s a great guy. No, I don’t mean, people like, when Chico come down the block. But I get to play Chico. Every week, I get to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. It’s liberating.
PF: Now, Tracy, a.k.a. Chico, is married to a character that’s played by Sherri Shepherd.
PF: What was it like making out with Sherri Shepherd?
TM: She’s the only thing that checked me. She checked me. You—woman—what a strong woman! Shepherd can put you right in check. Get in pocket. And that’s how it is. Because my real wife is like that. You know? My real wife don’t play. But she’s the soothing effect. She’s the reason why I went for it. Cuz when I told everybody I was gonna be a comedian back in the days they said, “You”—even my mother, she said, “You know what? UPS is hiring.” [laughter>] My wife was the one that inspired me and said, “Go for it.”
PF: What did your Momma think after you became successful?
TM: Well, that’s my Moms. My Mom’s always believed in me, man. She carried me for nine months. You know what I’m saying? So after I became successful, she was even more proud. But she’s always been proud of all her children. We’ve never disappointed my Moms. My brothers and my sisters, we’re all good people. We all have great families. And this show business stuff is—it makes her happy, but she loves her grandkids.
PF: Did you expect 30 Rock to be the breakout hit that it’s become? I mean, why do you think it struck such a chord?
TM: Because the characters on the show are the most unlikely. Me and Alec Baldwin? I mean, you know, Tina Fey? You gotta watch that show. It’s a little bit of something that—for everybody in there, that can identify and relate to. And plus, it’s an HBO show on network. We push the envelope. And that’s what TV needs. I’m sick of this politically correctness. It’s killing comedy. I mean, we used to make fun back in the days. Archie Bunker, and George Jefferson—we used to make fun of racism. Now you can’t say nothing. Without people wanting to protest, and all that stuff. I came up in a different generation of TV. You know when Redd Foxx was like on Sanford and Son? Anything came out his mouth. And that was comedy.
PF: What do you want to say that you can’t say? What do you want to say?
TM: I want to be able to say whatever I want to say. Freedom of speech! Not “Watch what you say.”
PF: Go ahead.
TM: I—now? [laughter>] Now? I’m on the spot, now.
PF: You had some very dramatic scenes in this movie, very emotional scenes in this movie. Was it a little difficult for you to let go kind of in that direction?
TM: Well, LeeJohn had dramatic scenes. I like to separate that. I don’t want to end up taking pills the rest of my life. I understand reality from fiction. This is LeeJohn that had these scenes in the movie. You get to see the layers being pulled—like I said, the layers being peeled back. And it starts with the little boy. LeeJohn recognizes himself in that little boy. He sees this little boy as hope, where he lost it. It’s tragic when people don’t care enough to even find your birth certificate. So it touches you. And people who have taken buses in this room, we all know what pain feels like. That’s the only thing that’s really real in this world. People—they act like happiness is a fantasy. I mean, joy is a fantasy. So pain, it touched you. It touched you.
PF: But where do you go as an actor, to find the character—to find that place?
TM: Where do you go as an actor?
PF: Yeah. I mean, what do you do as an actor, to—
TM: Most people live their lives trying to run from it, where as an actor, you gotta be able to go do it. Maybe that dark room. Maybe that dark room. Maybe something that happened, maybe you lost a puppy when you was little. Maybe your puppy got hit by a car or something. You gotta be able to go there. I don’t know what’s in your life! You don’t want to open up this can of worms, man! You don’t want to open up this can of worms, man! You gotta sit there, and you gotta imagine, what is he thinking!
PF: How much of this role was scripted, or—versus you adding your own spin on it?
TM: Well, what you see on the film—you’re only given one take. What you see on the film is what you get on the screen. But we could do a million take—we could do a million takes. But I’m not in that editing room. I could say—what you see on the film, that’s 85 percent script. [Writer/director] Dave—David E. Talbert is a genius. That’s my Obi Wan Kenobi, by the way. He showed me how to use my life force—my light saber. And he showed me how to get to the Dagobah System. But [laughter>]—hey, old timer. What’s up? And—and, he let you play. We do one, we do what’s on the paper first. And then he lets you play. Go on and live. And I love that. Keenan Ivory Wayans was like that, too. We do one or two on script. And then he said, “Go play. Let me see what you got. Let me see what you got.” And he put the batteries in your pack. They put the batteries—Damon used to put the batteries in my pack every day. Put the battery—fresh pack, too.
PF: How much improv is there on 30 Rock?
TM: Not much. We don’t have room for that stuff. This is TV, so if we do, we’ll go with it. But the writers—the writers are great. Robert Garlock and those guys, Coca-Cola and them. They’re great.
PF: The whole premise of robbing a church.
TM: Heavy duty, right?
PF: Talk about that.
TM: Well, I didn’t write the movie. [laughter>] Clear that up for the press. I am not a crook. But—it’s heavy, but we also wanted to show redemption, and we wanted to show the church forgiving us, and us forgiving the church. So it’s not just about us robbing the church, even though you see the guns. The church is also robbing us in this movie. You know, with his grandmother. And she don’t even get a ride to the church? So you gotta pay attention. It’s like a finger pointing the way to the moon. Don’t focus on the finger, or you’re gonna miss all this other heavenly glory.
PF: After this movie opens, can you go to church?
TM: I’ve never been to church. I went to church there. I have never been to church that much than on that movie. And people was really in church. So I didn’t know how to act. I was cutting up, and the Reggie Bottoms was rolling the eyes, and snapping the teeth, and, “You’re in church.” I’m like, “Wait a minute, this is a movie.” [laughter>] “Ain’t this a movie?”
PF: But were you? Like, somebody who goes to church like that—
TM: People—let me tell you. We was in that movie—I mean, camera men, grip guys, every—key, grip guys, everybody’s behaving except for me. We all got that, “You don’t kid in church.”
PF: What were you doing that was really bad?
TM: I don’t remember. But I know I got kicked out a couple of times. “Mr. Morgan, you got to go. Come on, you got to go now. You just got to go. You’re making all this noise in the back.” I was locked up with the drum set and everything.
PF: How is the writers’ strike affecting your work at the moment? Are you taking—
TM: See, for me, it’s—for me, it’s different. Cuz I just hit the road and do stand-up.
PF: And are you doing a lot of that now?
TM: I’m doing stand-up right now as we speak, I’m doing concerts all over the country. But for everybody it’s not like that.
PF: What kind of stuff are you doing in stand-up now that you might not have done when you first hit the road?
TM: When I first started doing stand-up, I was young. Maybe 15 years ago. A lot of my material was based on imagination. Now I’m an adult. A lot of my material’s based on observation. Because I’m seeing a lot of stuff every day. And it’s hilarious.
PF: Like, for example?
TM: Tragedy, funny, all that stuff. What I see is what I’m saying. What I see is what I’m staying on stage. I’m just gonna inject my sense of humor and make it funny. Cuz if you don’t laugh, guess what? You won’t cry. And I’m tired of crying. So I’m laughing about it all.
PF: Are your kids following in your footsteps?
TM: I hope not. [laughter>] They don’t gotta wear alcohol detective bracelet. I hope not! Don’t get caught, brother! No, these guys are gonna be great guys. One is 22, one is 20, and one is 16.
TM: Yeah! Hey, listen. In the ghetto, we use sex as a sedative, man. It eases the pain of poverty. We couldn’t afford a puppy. Make a baby. You need something to love in this broken house.
PF: How old were you when you had your first kid?
TM: I used to drop it like it was hot and pick it up when it was cold. I was exposed early. If it wasn’t this industry, I would have been in the porn industry. You should see me. My nickname is Donkey. [laughter>] They call me “Manaconda.” I got you! I got you! I was aiming for you. I am on target!
PF: What are you gonna do next?
TM: I don’t know. People ask me what I’m gonna do next. My favorite answer is, I’m gonna leave it all in God’s hands, man. I’m—I can’t call it, I might spoil it. So I’d rather just leave it in, as best in his hands. I just want to follow through. I know he has a plan for me, and I just want to follow through. I want to do it all. I want to do it all., but I know enough not to let my wants hurt me. I’m talking about what I need. And what I need is Jesus in my life. As you all can see that. [laughter>] I’m a mess. I’m a mess.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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