Kevin Hart On Playing The Straight Man For Once In ‘Central Intelligence’

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The list of great buddy comedy teams is pretty short, but judging by the rapport co-stars Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson demonstrated on the set of Central Intelligence, there’s a chance they could join them. Or at least that’s the impression left on this reporter and a roundtable of others on the film’s set just outside of Boston last July.

Between The Wedding Ringer, Get Hard and the two Ride Along movies, Hart has demonstrated his ability to act opposite others known for comedic or action chops strikingly different from his own. So his work with Johnson in Central Intelligence — the new action-comedy by We’re the Millers director Rawson Marshall Thurber and Mindy Project writers Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen — will presumably be no different. Yet the pair’s fans and the studios backing them seem to think otherwise, especially since they’re already planning a Jumanji remake around the team (and hopefully a few other projects).

In Central Intelligence, Hart plays Calvin, once the most popular guy in high school, now an accountant living an unremarkable life. That changes when an outcast from his past, Bob Stone (Johnson) enters his life, revealing himself to be a CIA operative in need of Calvin’s skills with numbers. It sounds like a typical buddy comedy on the surface, but as Hart revealed while answering our questions during a break from filming, it didn’t feel typical because he’s not used to playing the straight man in a comedy.

It seems your character, Calvin, is more of the straight man than the comic relief.
I think Johnson is actually more of the comic relief in this film. I’ve been lucky enough to get opportunities in the films that I’ve been doing to switch it up a bit from the Think Like a Man roles, where I narrate the story, or About Last Night, in which I’m scoring the funny in a relationship in a raunchy manner. Or the The Wedding Ringer, in which I’m on a completely different level and, for the first time, playing the straight leading man role. Even though it’s funny, it’s about telling a compelling story and making everything work. Ride Along plays with Cube, and it’s comic relief. I’m more like the bitch, the guy who wants to be bad so much but is afraid to do it. Central Intelligence is a different level of that. It’s a different level of a guy who is in a position he doesn’t want to be in, and at some point has to build up enough courage and enough balls to deal with the situation and make the decisions that matter.

That’s what was intriguing about the movie. Plus working with Johnson on an action-comedy that isn’t like the action-comedies I’ve done before. They did a great job of making it unique, and with a story that made sense. I like the fact that Johnson’s character is the guy that you fall for and root for, and not Calvin. He’s the kind of guy who’s having a pity party for himself in his head. Where no one thinks there is anything wrong with his life but himself. Whereas a guy like Bob comes in and he’s so envious of who Calvin was, which builds his self-esteem back up to where it used to be in high school.

Can you tell us about the action. How physical does it get?
It’s a lot of action. It’s not that I’ve gotten really physical, it’s just my character gets thrown all over the place — thrown out of windows, in car accidents, and jumping over sh*t that I don’t want to jump over but I have no choice. It’s definitely what you want to do when you have the idea of doing an action film. I’ve had fun with doing all of the things that I am doing. My stunt man is amazing at making me look good in all of the stunts that he has been required to do. We get to stand next to The Rock and when stunts come up, no matter what you are doing to look good, not only does he have a great stuntman but does all that stuff too. He’s done it so long and he’s polished, so it makes you step up your game and come off of just as good as he does.

What were the flashbacks like?
As far as the flashbacks go, you don’t want to go too crazy. You want to keep it grounded. We already have a crazy premise that we’re doing and Johnson has done a great job pulling off the character that he is pulling off. You believe it. You believe the guy. You believe our relationship. I wouldn’t want to do anything that deters people from paying attention to what they are supposed to. I make sure I keep my stuff subdued when it should be, because ultimately it’s about us both looking good, and making him look good makes us both look good.

What were you ashamed of most in high school?
I used to have a [rat] tail. It never grew, so I had this triangle in the back of my head. It was supposed to grow, but I just twisted it into a little piece of a fingernail and my mom was just like “cut this sh*t off your head.” So she cut it and it hurt my little heart. But she was like, “It’s gotta go.”

Does the plot make you think about how far you’ve come since high school?
I don’t want this to come out wrong, but I was never not a cool guy. So in high school I never had a problem. Even though we weren’t in a financial place to have the nicest clothes or the best sneakers, I had personality, and for me that’s bigger and better than anything you could have. The ability to fit in with any crowd or group of people. In high school I was most popular, most loved, and definitely not the most likely to succeed. Not with those grades. But I had friends all over the board. I didn’t just stick to just one group. I didn’t just have one clique. Everyone in my high school loved me.

Your current schedule is ridiculous. How do you do it?
My schedule is crazy. I am sleeping right now. I’m on autopilot. What I do is I set it up where I can film Monday through Thursdays, then on Thursday nights I wrap, take a plane, fly to the city I’m going to be in, and sleep for the four or five hours I’m on the plane. I’ll do two shows, and after those shows I’ll fly to the next city and do the same thing. I do four to five shows a weekend.

Like the 5K race in San Francisco?
Yeah and I do my 5Ks. Honestly, I’m just on a high that my fan base is supporting me in the way that they are. My tour is breaking records left and right and this is history. You don’t realize it while you are in it, but if you take a second just to peek at it. I am doing multiple shows in arenas and no other comedian has done that. I am about to perform in a football stadium, Lincoln Financial, on Aug. 30. It holds up to 50,000 people and we sold out the place. To see a comedian.

These are things that make you smile and laugh, but I have the mindset of not getting comfortable. Because I don’t want to think that this is supposed to happen. That it’s supposed to be this way. Hard work has allowed me to keep it this way, so I try to keep that attitude and mentality. So by multitasking and doing the movie and the tour at the same time, I wanted to make sure it was something that I did because nothing will ever jeopardize my stand-up comedy. Nothing comes before it. But the studios were willing to make the schedules work so I could do it, because I didn’t want a movie like this to go away. We made it happen, and I make sure to show up 100 percent every day so that I know that I’m giving this film my all. So when I go back and look at it, I can see all the hard work and energy that I put into both of these things.

We got to watch a scene with a lot of riffing by another actor. Do you ever get a chance to do the same in the movie?
Oh yeah, I have a lot of great moments. I think the beauty of being the straight man sometimes is, it’s not about getting all the laughs. It’s not about having all of the great moments where people are just like, “Oh my God this is crazy!” It’s about connecting the dots and making sure the film looks good and is good. I revert back to The Wedding Ringer and Get Hard because these are two movies where I took a step back because I had co-stars taking steps forward. I knew after watching Josh Gad in the first that people would love him. I think Josh is one of the funniest people ever. And there were moments where I took steps back to let him shine because he deserved to shine. And Will Ferrell is Will Ferrell. If you have two movies where two guys are trying to out-funny each other, you don’t have a movie — you have an unnecessary yelling and shouting match with useless scenes because everyone is just trying to do what they think the other person can’t. Me and Will both took steps back when appropriate.

I love it because I am excited people get to see Johnson in a different light. His works just as hard, if not harder, than me. So the fact that he was willing to make a movie with a comedic talent like myself, and was willing to step into that role knowing that that is not what he does, made me look at and respect him more. So I take that as a real job. I gotta make sure I make my guy look good. I can’t make you look good if I’m trying to be better and funnier than you. I gotta make you look funny when I am supposed to. In return, when there are moments when I am supposed to be funny, I take advantage. I think the balance that we found in this film is great, and I think people are going to walk away happy. Not only are you going to laugh, but you’re going to give the director a lot of credit and the actors a lot of praise, because the plot is so ridiculous yet we’re grounding it to make it believable. That’s what good movies are made of. They are made of people who have hindsight of what their job is and never once do they overstep these boundaries. Right now, I think we are all doing a great job of just staying in our lanes.

We’ve seen you and Johnson’s dueling Instagrams. What’s the relationship on set like?
You can’t use the word “respect” enough. Both of our days start at different times. We’re both early risers, we both bang out our gym sessions then but we don’t work together. We come and we get to set and ask, “Did you get yours in today?” “Yeah, what did you work?” “Back. What did you work?” “Legs.” “Good sh*t.” Normally we are f*cking dead tired so we head to our trailers and nod off. Then we come back in and we’re energized about our work. Our conversations on set are about our lives and our kids, or what’s next, and what we like and don’t like about the business. What are our fears? We have such cool conversations that require a person’s full attention. No one is high-siding the other. We’re not the “Who’s more famous?” types. “I’m not going to set until he’s on set.” None of that. It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re coming to work smiling because we’re having a good time. I think the crew and everyone else around here can attest to that. These are our last eight days and I don’t ever get sad, and I’m not sad now, but this is one where I was like, “This was a good one.” There were no fights, no attitudes, nobody was yelling or screaming. There wasn’t a bad day when someone was left feeling uncomfortable. To me, you chalk this up in the books as a new one. It all starts with your stars, and me and Johnson both did a good job of setting the tone and making everyone feel comfortable.

You, Johnson and Rawson seem to have a really good, almost silly rapport on set.
Both me and Johnson think that Rawson is the nicest guy in the world. The reason why we joke with him is that when you are a writer that gets hired as a director, you come from the world or writing. Rawson has done several movies, but if you write those movies, you spend so much time on them and so much time with those words that that’s what you hear. You know those words. You are literally waiting for the day to hear another person say the words that you have spent eight months creating. So when those words are said, it’s an intense feeling. “I did this!” We tease Rawson because he just wants to hear the stuff that he worked on being said. Granted, you can play around with it but he always wants that one take where he can hear the words he wrote and then say “Cut, no that’s not it!” So it’s an ongoing joke that we have. I love that he tracks stories so well, and that he’s willing to have a conversation with us. Directors aren’t always right, but when you can get a group together that can converse and all come together and agree, that is a great thing. There’s no, “It’s my way or the highway.” We all get to a place where we understand each other’s value, and we add it all to the scene.

How involved are you with the writers of the movies you work on?
A lot. The writers are always going to be the writers. The creative people are always going to be the creative people. But once you sign on to do a movie with a person, you should go over the script page by page and go over your stuff. What you feel, what you don’t like, what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. What the character would and wouldn’t do. You always give the writer the respect he deserves, but it’s a conversation. You shouldn’t come off as the guy who’s like, “All of this has to change! This is sh*t!” You come off as a guy who cares enough about the script to provide his input and see if there’s something we can find together. It’s not about making it worse, it’s about elevating the material. That’s a process I’m adamant about on everything I do, and I always try to have that relationship with my director. I know how to track a character and track a character’s story, and I understand what the character brings to the table and make him awesome.

Central Intelligence infiltrates theaters on Friday, June 17. Until then, here’s a preview…