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Chris Tucker – Serving Up Chinese Soul Food

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Story by Terry Shropshire
Images by Kahlill Van Zant for Steed Media Service
CHICAGO – Maybe he started smelling himself, some folks deduced. Maybe his head started swelling up like a bag of microwave popcorn. Maybe, after experiencing some success, he had become as fake as silicone breast implants. Maybe he took time off to go to war with the other Chris, Chris Rock, a ridiculous rumor weaving its way recklessly through the ‘hood the way Lindsay Lohan weaves behind the wheel of a car (they both are allegedly working separately to produce and star in a comedy about the nation’s first black president). Maybe he’s been coolin’ it ever since he was arrested for peeling back slabs of concrete on the Atlanta highways in his 2005 Bentley, treating the speed limit like it was something optional, and driving faster than his fuel-injected explanation to the policeman (he said he was late for church). Whatever the reason, Christopher Tucker was making movies about as often as George W. Bush delivers an eloquent speech. Which is to say hardly ever. It seemed as soon as the American Dream started glittering on the horizon – in the form of the Ice Cube-led Friday, and then with Rush Hour – Tucker recoiled from the spotlight and cordoned himself off from the Hollywood hype machine.


What’s he been up to? Well, he hasn’t just lying on top of those bundled bags of Benjamins he brought back from the first two Rush Hour films. After taking six years off between movies – a fatal move for most thespians – some fans believed that Tucker’s career was a flatliner. But he’s here to show you that his game was never even in critical condition. Turns out that Tucker has been treating the world like an after-church buffet, devouring life and all of its flavorful offerings – but he’s been doing it on his own terms. In the interim, Tucker has procured a higher sense of true happiness and success that runs counter to Tinseltown conventionality.


The high-pitched, hyperactive master of Hollywood hijinks has been orchestrating his career just right, it turns out. Tucker secured a cool $25 mill to reprise the role of wisecracking Officer Carter in what’s been a box-office blockbuster series. Rush Hour 3 whisks Carter and Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) through the legendary romantic city of Paris in order to obliterate the most dangerous and ruthless crime syndicate in the world, the Chinese Triad. Tucker resembles an executive chef sampling the food of his underlings when it comes to meticulously musing over movie roles.


“Well, you know, I’m a perfectionist. And I don’t want to make movies just to make [them]. I want to make films that inspire me. That’s the reason I chose the first Rush Hour,” says Tucker, who’ll turn 35 in August, in the middle of a national promotional tour that’ll end in San Francisco. “I knew that it was fresh, it was new. No one had ever seen that kind of comedy before. You’ve seen buddy cop movies, but not a black guy and an Asian guy.”


His renowned pickiness over roles is why Tucker defied convention and rejected Ice Cube’s offer to remake Friday. Then he rejected Any Given Sunday. At first, industry folks looked at him like he was wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants. But it’s hard to question his decision after the first two Rush Hour films have reached Beverly Hills Cop levels in terms of box-office receipts, longevity and lovability.


But even though he and the iconic Eddie Murphy are friends, he says the two didn’t discuss how to withstand an avalanche of immediate accolades. Instead, Tucker came to his own conclusions.


“When I was growing up, all I thought about was being the hottest comedian and the biggest comedian. But when I stepped back, I found out that it’s not all about me. Whatever I do, doing a movie, making people laugh, it’s giving,” says the lifelong Atlanta resident. “Whether it’s traveling to South Africa to speak to kids in Soweto, it’s giving. When you give, you receive. So I learned in my own way how to deal with fame.”


What Tucker did was gain some perspective on the real world. Like his good friend, Dave Chappelle, who rocked the comedy world when he left $50 million on the table and recoiled into the comfortable recesses of his mind, thereby avoiding insanity, Tucker did something similar between films:


“What I did, is that I stepped back and grew up a little bit, traveled the world, and found something I felt was just as important: helping people. You have to balance it out. You gotta give. Use that fame to your advantage – not just being in a mansion and people taking pictures of you every time you walk out of the door. You gotta go give, give, and give, and then you gotta get a sense of reality,” he says.


What really crystallized how truly privileged Tucker is occurred during his numerous visits to the Motherland. Tucker was tagged to accompany President Bill Clinton and actor Kevin Spacey in order to fight AIDS and encourage economic development in Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Mozambique and South Africa. Another trip included living legend Bono of rock group U2. Tucker was stunned to be more recognized in Africa than Bono. But it was the sight of starving children and families that stabbed at Tucker’s heart. It helped sober him up from an intoxicating lifestyle that had blurred his vision like a bad hangover. And it helped him discard truly diva-like behavior that had crept incognito into his personality.


“You appreciate water. I went to places in Africa that had no clean water because [an] animal died in the water [source]. So they need to build wells to keep the water clean. I used to come home and brush my teeth with Avian water. I don’t do that anymore. I use sink water. Because I was like ‘damn, I can’t just be wasting water like this,’ ” he says, his voice coated in somberness. “And then I went to orphanages full of babies with like two nuns taking care of all these babies. I said, ‘these babies can’t possibly get enough attention when they start crying.’ I’ve seen some stuff that’s like, ‘I ain’t got nothing to be complaining about. It ain’t about me.’ So it really changed my whole life and my whole perspective of life.”


A balanced perspective helped him probe things from a different mental viewfinder. It also helped him sharpen his artistic gifts.


“Chris is truly a comedic genius,” says Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner, who has done all three films in the franchise. “He’s an incredibly gifted comedian, a guy who can say anything and make it funny. And it’s not even in the words – his face is better than a thousand words.”


Humbly, Tucker gives props to his heroes for helping him sculpt his stage persona. “I grew up watching Richard Pryor. I grew up watching [Eddie Murphy’s] Raw. And I see all the other comics, they’re doing their thing. I feel like I gotta do [a comedy film] because I came from the stand-up world. I’m originally a stand-up comedian.”


Why not? Martin Lawrence and Eddie Griffin have done it. But the ultimate validation of his skills happened when the late legend Richard Pryor sprinkled verbal gold dust on Tucker’s 6-foot-1 frame. “I’ll never forget it,” Tucker told Playboy mag. It was as if the royal King of Comedy had bequeathed his throne to Tucker that night. “It was when Richard Pryor came to one of my shows and told me I was funny. This was early on, and he was in a wheelchair, but he was still communicating well. It just blew me away.”


Ratner believes Tucker will blow audiences away. “It’s going to be innovative. You know Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were the innovators for this format. Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip; Eddie Murphy Raw. And now Chris is going to be the next generation of that.”


Much like the other Chris, Tucker’s sociopolitical leanings motivates him to make the movie about a black president, albeit with comedic undercurrents. In 1995, Tucker’s starred in “African American Lives,” a PBS special with renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., where he traced his roots to the Mbundu tribe living in Angola. He experienced a power surge from that experience and believes irrefutably that he can do anything. Including playing dramatic and romantic roles.


“Oh, yeah, definitely. I know I can do it,” he says. “And my fans know I can do it. Because I established that early in my career when I did Dead Presidents with the Hughes Brothers. It was a serious film. And I showed some of my seriousness. So I definitely want to explore all those different sides of me that people might not have seen.”


Whatever Tucker decides to do, it will surely be done on his own timetable. And in related news, we’re still waiting for President Bush to hire a speech coach.