CHRIS ROCK interview for Good Hair

For Chris Rock, “it’s all about shining a light on the ridiculous”. Maybe that’s the funnyman has just made a documentary all about hair, reckons Paul Byrne.

It might seem like an odd subject matter to take on, but once Good Hair starts rolling, you soon realise that Chris Rock and his director, Jeff Stilson, have stepped into a fascinating and somewhat bonkers world.

For African American women, having straight hair is a major fashion statement. So much so that the fine art of selling relaxants and weaves to this rather large market is now a $9 billion industry.

“The mind just boggles,” says Rock, “and the hair just curls. Which, you know, I thought would make for some interesting explorations. Why do African American women feel this need to straighten their hair, and who’s making all that lovely money?”

It’s the sort of subject matter that could have made a fine stand-up routine for Rock, but, with cameraman in tow, young Chris instead heads along to America’s long-running Bronner Bros convention for its slightly over-the-top hairdressing competition. Where you get to see everyday hairdressing exercises. Such as a quick short, back and sides underwater, in a dirty great big fish tank.

PAUL BYRNE: It’s almost like the Michael Jackson story here, only it’s all about hair, and it’s going on every day…

CHRIS ROCK: It is pretty messed up. I can understand the desire to look pretty, to dress up and, you know, be beautiful, but it’s just the thinking behind these particular desires. And the science, and the business. I kinda looked at it like smoking, in a way – once the customer is hooked, that’s it. They’d happily spend a month’s wages so their hair looked good walking down the street.

For a subject matter that might just make the blood of any right-thinking individual boil, you seem to be pretty dark genial throughout. Despite some shocking discoveries, such as the young Indian girls’ surrendering their hair as a symbol of religious devotion, and Beverly Hills hairdressers proving that, for them, it’s worth more than its weight in gold. Literally.

Well, that’s just kinda surreal. That’s why I went there with a bag of African American hair, to see how much they’d pay for that. I didn’t think it would benefit me much if I went in there, all guns blazing, no matter who I was talking to. I felt I’d get more out of people if I was friendly with them. I’m no Michael Moore, you know, and besides, when women are getting their hair done, they don’t want any arguments. They just want to talk about the weather, about their favourite daytime soap, Oprah, whatever. I had to tread carefully. Otherwise, I might be going into surgery to have a hairbrush removed.

You have to wonder what happened to the Afro though – was all of Pam Grier’s great work in vain?

I think it’s just a part of that need for each generation to make their mark. And that aspiration to hit a universal idea of beauty. As is often the case with fashion, the results might be pretty, but they can be pretty dumb too. And the problem is that there’s an industry that relies heavily on these trends, and they’re going to market the hell out of a new look, knowing that it’s going to cost a pretty penny. The smart ones realise that the natural look is always best. You only have to look at Michael Jackson to realise that.

I always felt that Jackson must have regretted his need to reach middle-America after Thriller, thinking that most of them just wouldn’t buy a record if a ‘real’ African-American was on the sleeve…

I’m sure that was part of it, and I’m sure he must have felt a certain degree of pain when he saw that barrier being broken down through the years following that. You only have to look at the charts now, with The Black Eyed Peas and so many others, to see that being real is no longer a problem. It’s gratifying. But it’s still going on out there, as we see in Good Hair. That need to be someone else, basically, to hide your roots. And not just metaphorically either.

You produce here, something you’ve been doing more and more, putting your name behind the recent remake Death At A Funeral too, having first taken on the role over fifteen years ago with your own co-script music comedy CB4. Gives you more control, but I’m wondering if it gives you bigger headaches? Ain’t easy, spotting a hit these days…

I think the main thing is getting involved in stuff you actually want to make. It’s about having some control over that, and over how that film, how that TV show, is made. It’s a good position to be in, because when it comes to make movies for other people, you can’t always get what you want. At any level. It’s something I’ve always known would be important if I was going to have a long career. I’m not exactly Jerry Bruckheimer here – I’m not looking to make the smash-hit blockbuster of the summer; I just want to have some input into the process, and get those films out there that I feel deserve to be out there. Like Good Hair.

And Pootie Tang. And I Think I Love My Wife. You are producing Is It Something I Said?, a biopic of the great Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III, one of your heroes.

My main hero, really. If we can capture even just a taste of Richard Pryor’s greatness, I’ll be happy. More and more people are being turned on to Richard, and discovering his incredible stand-up. His story was a classic rise and fall in some respects. He was a success all the way through, but the pressures of being a Hollywood leading man changed the picture for this guy. It’s the old Elvis story, of major success just crushing that raw talent. The fact that Richard returned to stand-up, even in a wheelchair, means he was in tune with his greatest talent right till the end.

Marlon Waynes is going to play Pryor – were you tempted to take on the role at all, given your love of the guy’s work, and the fact that you’re a pretty fine stand-up yourself?

I think it would have stuck out, like one singer playing another singer. Besides, I look nothing like the guy really, and I don’t want it to be some kind of vanity project, where I want some of his greatness and glory to rub off on me. It’s not a wish fulfillment kind of movie. I can always make one of those just for my own private use. You know, hire out the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and re-enact his entire act from that 1979 film. That’s the bible right there. That’s the mark I aim for every time I’m performing.

Is stand-up still number one for you? You have so much other stuff going on these days, such as the TV shows and the constant flow of movies…

Yeah, stand-up is still number one. It’s where I work best, I think, and it’s the one place where I’m in complete control. If it ain’t funny, it’s my fault. If it is funny, ‘hey, I did that! I made those people laugh!’. It’s down to that Pryor gig, really, always aiming for the stars, and just the thrill of getting a response from a good line, from an observation that hits home – that’s just incredible. Not that I don’t have fun doing all the other stuff too, of course…

Next up at our local multiplex is Grown Ups, in which you co-star with Adam Sandler and Kevin James, plus David Spade and Rob Schneider, four high school buddies reuniting for a fishing trip. Kind of Sex And The City for lads, right?

Wrong [laughs]. It’s just an excuse to put a bunch of comedians together and make jokes about being middle-aged. Where did all the time go? What have we done with our lives? How come that guy got a good-looking wife and I didn’t? It’s a rich, fertile ground for comedy, and we just thought it would be fun. Which it was.

And did it help you make your peace with being 45, the epicentre of middle-age?

I’m lucky in my line of work in that I never actually do have to grow up – until the hits stop, or the money dries up. So, you know, I’m in this special Hollywood-style arrested development. And I’m loving every minute of it…

Interview by Paul Byrne

Good Hair is now showing in Irish cinemas