Rock campaigns for head of box office

Comedian claims big-screen victory with political farce

April 02, 2003|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - In Head of State, a news report flashes that Chris Rock's character, a presidential candidate, is about to win the election. The bulletin sends hundreds of white people running out of their houses to vote against him.

The movie, which opened Friday, is a comedy, of course. Rock hopes the nation would not react so adversely in real life.

"It depends on the candidate," he says. "If the next president is [about to be] Al Sharpton, yes, there'd probably be a scene like that in the white suburbs."

Film and television have already depicted sitting black presidents-like David Palmer's character on the Fox series, 24. A black man campaigning for the office seemed fresher, Rock says.

Rock, 33, has Emmy-validated success on four years of HBO's Chris Rock Show and a string of hit comedy albums that include the 1997 Grammy-winning Roll With the New. But when he pitched Head of State, a few executives scoffed at the idea of his directing a feature for the first time.

"A couple of studios wanted to make the movie but not have me direct, which was a real insult," he says. "It's like, `We think you're funny, but we don't think you're competent. We don't think you can pick out drapes.'"

Head of State's production included late-summer filming in and around Baltimore, including stops at Camden Yards, the State House in Annapolis, Sykesville and at a Hampstead school.

The movie Rock had to fight to direct is, by the way, No. 1 at the box office this week.

DreamWorks gave Rock the green light for Head of State, and Rock won out in his attempt to create a parallel universe in Washington, with no lookalikes and only one reference to terrorism.

Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a Washington alderman with the common touch. When his party's nominee for president dies, the poobahs turn to Gilliam, hoping he can take the fall so the party can regroup for the next election. But, of course, Gilliam has designs on winning and recruits his brother, a street tough bail bondsman played by Bernie Mac, to be his running mate.

A warm day in New York finds skinny 5-foot-11 Rock wearing khaki pants and out-of-the-box white sneakers. A basketball game on television and perhaps a touch of spring fever have left him slightly distracted. Rock drove over the George Washington Bridge from his home in Alpine, N.J., as he does when he works in his TriBeCa office. He's a commuting dad now. He and his wife, Malaak, have a 9-month-old daughter, Lola, who makes Rock question his impulse to return to stand-up comedy this year. Building a one-hour act is draining, he says while pulling out his Palm planner to reveal three files slugged "stand-up."

"It's hard to leave your nice house some nights," he says. "`OK, guys, I'm going to leave you to go to a smoky club.' That's rough."

Even if he does miss his wife and daughter, he will not resort to family shtick. "I think I'll have the Eminem approach," Rock says. "He has a daughter, and I haven't seen him mellow out."

A Cal Ripken work ethic forged by his father, a New York Daily News deliveryman, drives Rock.

"I had the disciplinarian dad, which served me fine," he says. "I have no problems with him. My dad beat me and made me Chris Rock."

Rock is trying to pass on his comedy experience - which itself can be a beating - to others. From time to time, he publishes the Illtop Journal, a black Harvard Lampoon, out of Howard University. Rock strikes a surprisingly conservative chord with his young staff.

"Hey, no need to write something bad about Oprah or Cosby," he says. "No need of offending rich black people who could actually help you out, kids. Learn that one."

Rock's Beltway in Head of State has schemers of all races. His comedy routines have rarely painted a black-and-white world. "If you watch TV, you would think black people are half the population," he says. "It's a white world with some black in it. What are we, 13 percent of the population?"

Though Head of State will not be critic-proof, Rock has learned from previous experience that the audience will be the ultimate judge. One of his previous movies, the reincarnation comedy Down to Earth, was skewered by critics but managed to parlay its $30 million budget into more than $64 million in ticket receipts.

"I think Head of State is my best movie," he says. "It's better than Down to Earth, better than Bad Company. The way I see it is, eventually, I'm going to direct a great film."

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