It’s worth noting that Craig Robinson has read an article about “where black people can move if the election doesn’t go your way.” So, keep that in mind, that another repercussion in a long list of terrible outcomes from a Trump presidency is that we might lose Craig Robinson, too. Granted, he hasn’t said he’s leaving, but he has skimmed an article. That’s not a good sign. We can’t lose Craig Robinson.
And it would be a bad time to lose him, right when he’s flexing his acting chops – steering away (just a bit) from his comedy roots to drama: most notably, his turn on Mr. Robot and his critically acclaimed Sundance hit, Morris from America.
I don’t like to editorialize in the introduction to an interview (and, frankly, you all get enough of my opinions), but I’m going to this time: I cannot recommend Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America more than I’m doing right now. In this “summer of shit movies,” here comes this heartwarming story of a father, Curtis (Robinson), and son, Morris (Markees Christmas), living abroad in Germany. Thirteen-year-old Morris is doing his best to fit in at school while Curtis is doing his best as a single parent in a foreign country who has to travel a lot for work as a professional soccer coach. (No, Craig Robinson doesn’t really know much about soccer in real life.)
You know those blurbs you’ll see in commercials for movies, when an actor is, “like you’ve never seen him before.” Well, this is that moment for Robinson. He’s the loving father character we didn’t quite realize we needed right now. (So let’s not lose him, because he’s not taking us with him. I asked.)
This movie is very different for you.
Yeah. It was different. It spoke to me. It challenged me.
What do you mean by challenged?
Because it was like a “Can I pull this off?” kind of thing.
Were you worried?
I mean, it was a perfect kind of blend between comedy and drama. I knew it was more dramatic, more taken seriously. I’ve been used to comedy for so long, but I was up for the challenge.
You obviously know how to do comedy, but here you’re this moral center.
One time I did this dramatic short. I was playing a prisoner and it was called Memphis Calling. I was playing this prisoner. He was on his way to the electric chair and they gave him one last phone call, and he just dialed the number on his jersey. And he ended up getting this random lady and she was expecting a call from the doctor to find out what sex her baby is, right? They stay on the phone and he finds this friend in this lady, and then she gets a phone call and she’s like, “Will you hold on?,” because it was the doctor calling. They say, “Hey, time’s up, Memphis. You’ve got to go.” So he ended up hanging up the phone and looking at the phone like that was his last friend and now he has to go. He couldn’t even say goodbye to her.
And when it showed in the theater, I remember this lady just cracking up because she saw my face.
Yeah. So there was that kind of thing going on: Will they take it seriously? So that was it. But now that the reviews are in, I feel a little better. But I mean, I guess in my heart, I knew I wanted to do it right and I knew I could pull it off.
There’s a great scene when Morris is in trouble and refuses to call his dad, but then you show up…
I also love black audiences’ response, because they’re like, “Awww, man.”
I bet that scene plays differently based on your age. If you’re 15, “Oh, man, that dad’s going to be so mad.” But if you’re an adult, “Oh, that dad loves that kid so much he came all the way down here to get him.”
Right, exactly. It’s completely different from those two different perspectives. And the thing I love about the movie, too, that I didn’t notice until later was that Morris is 13 and he’s finding himself in all these situations where he’s just not ready. He’s just not ready to be with this girl, he’s not ready to be at this party, he’s not ready to hang out and do this stuff. But he’s still going for it and his father has no choice but to be like, “Look, I can’t hold your hand. We’re here. Your mother’s gone.” So it’s like, let’s be on the same team. We can win, but we’ve got to be on the same team.
You get to rap.
A little Biggie. “It Was All a Dream.” [laughs]
When you’re recording that…
You’re known for being musically inclined. Do you have to worsen that up a bit?
I know some of that rap, but I didn’t know it all, so I definitely needed the words. So it was me kind of reading and going along with it. Like Chad was saying, he didn’t even mean for that to be funny, but it just came out hysterical in the background.
At Sundance, they gave us that tape.
You’ve got a tape of me rapping?
Everyone who saw that premiere at Sundance has a cassette of you singing that.
Jeez, can I get one of those, please?
In this movie, you’re a soccer coach in Europe.
Do you know anything about soccer?
It’s a 90 minute movie.
So it would be fair to say you know as much about soccer as the average American.
Yeah, I don’t know much about soccer. As a matter of fact, there was a scene where I’m encouraging the players and I didn’t know how to say, you know, “kick the ball or pass,” or whatever.
And you’re supposed to be this great coach.
I’m saying, “My wife is dead.” You know, the dialogue from earlier. “My wife is dead. My finger is too fat to take the ring off.” So that was my extent. Yeah, I was just yelling dialogue.
Maybe your character is just an eccentric coach. Like, it’s not what the players expect to hear from a coach about his wife being dead, but it’s motivational and they win.
[Laughing.] Exactly. That’s exactly what it is, yeah.
Do you want to do more movies like this?
It’s a new learning curve. You know, like doing Mr. Robot, that came from Sam Esmail seeing my turns in Morris from America. So it’s gain that trust.
That’s a pretty good year, Morris from America and Mr. Robot.
No kidding. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to more of this kind of thing and delving more into it, seeing what it’s like being in a romantic relationship in this kind of genre and stuff like that.
When you started on The Office, was that always supposed to progress into the character it did?
I don’t know how they saw it in the beginning. I would hear about stories a year in advance, not knowing it was a year in advance. Like they would say, “Yeah, you and Kelly are going to make out.” And then a year later, it happened. I’m thinking, Oh, whatever happened to that? And next thing you know, it was happening. So I don’t know how it transpired to what it did, but I was glad it did.
But when you first sign on, were you thinking that was a small role that might not continue?
Yeah. You have no idea. They were remaking a British show, which is one of the hardest things to do.
When you think back to 2005 when that came on, people were like, “Oh, this will never work.”
Never work. And the first script was like verbatim the British script, so it really wasn’t popping. And then it’s just the little engine that could, and then with some help from powers that be, it turned into what it did. So I never knew. You know, I had this really sweet schedule: I would come in maybe a week here and then have a few weeks off and then they would do the Christmas episode. It was nice. And then it kind of grew and I got to be in seven episodes out of 13. Next thing you know, I was a regular. And that’s something to think about if you don’t get something else – like if I had gotten another show or something?
When, at the time, you were doing a few episodes and another series was offering a full season.
Yeah, and then that got canceled and then I wouldn’t have been able to be there at all. So, when I don’t get something else, it’s like, okay, there must be something better down the way.
And now you’re on Mr. Robot.
Mr. Robot. yeah. I mean, that’s the most different thing I’ve done, including Morris, and it’s the most dialogue I’ve had. I think I’ve spoken more dialogue in Mr. Robot than I have in my entire career combined.
It’s a dialogue-heavy show. There’s a lot going on.
Yeah, man. And it’s like in 25-minute takes.
Oh, man. I remember one take, I was very early on in the show and it must have been ten minutes of shooting before I come in. And you’re talking about 10 minutes, it was straight through and you can barely hear them talking. So it was silent. So I’m just waiting and waiting.
So you mess up and it all starts over.
I was like, Oh, God, okay, don’t miss your part. So there I come in for seven minutes and then they finish another eight minutes or whatever it is. So it’s crazy, man.
Well, after this movie, at least you might have a better idea of how to move to another country if Trump wins.
I just skimmed past this article, it’s about places black people can go in case the election doesn’t go your way.
Why just black people? Why can’t I come?
[Laughs.] I think Canada’s cool. The prime minister is real cool over there.
Oh, I read a piece a few weeks ago that says it’s really hard to move to Canada.
They don’t want us.
They might take you because you’re famous. They’re not taking me.
“I’m here to work on movies.” Yeah, man, people ask what do you want people to take away from this, and in this climate we’re in, it’s like, we’re on the same team. You know? We’re on the human team. Let’s respect each other and let’s see past our differences and come together, you know? That’s what it has turned into.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.