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Kevin Hart on offence, awards shows and Jo Koy: ‘Those rooms can be cold. I don’t consider them good gigs’

The in-demand actor and industry player talks to Louis Chilton about his new heist film, why feuds with other comics are beneath him and how people getting upset about comedians like him or Dave Chappelle ‘have the option of just not watching’

Tuesday 16 January 2024 08:45 GMT
‘I consider myself to be grounded and intact with reality'
‘I consider myself to be grounded and intact with reality' (Netflix)

Hold on,” says Kevin Hart, dialling a number on his mobile phone. If, for some reason, I’d needed convincing of the comedian’s full-on lifestyle, I am about to get it. We’re sitting in an otherwise vacant hotel room in central London, but Hart’s head is already back stateside; I listen as he asks some unseen aide to send over various details about an imminent trip to Boston, Massachusetts. It’s the kind of urgent-seeming, hang-on-I-have-another-call-coming-in aside that you might expect from a man who has built, over the past two decades, his own corporate empire: his production company Hartbeat, founded in 2009, sits alongside his own streaming network (Laugh Out Loud) and a venture capital firm in his lucrative portfolio.

Venture capital? Corporate empire? These are hardly the sort of words that accompany profiles of livewire stand-up comedians. But “comedian” doesn’t really do justice to a person whose Instagram page has more followers than the populations of most countries (178 million). Today, I’m braced for a room full of PRs and assistants; instead, I sit alone opposite Hart at a small table, an arrangement of water bottles and unopened takeaway bags between us. Hart rests with a kind of firm composure, beard neatly groomed, wearing a smart cardigan and a wristwatch that I can only assume cost more than my salary.

Yet for Hart, the rise to global superstardom hasn’t been a struggle so much as a reaction to the market. “I’ve never had to argue or fight for status,” he says. “I think that my road to success has been one of ‘proof of concept’. I wasn’t pitching myself. I came in as a person that was putting asses in the seats.” In short, it’s Hart’s popularity with audiences that propelled him to fame. Still just 44, he’s got a deep repertoire of box office hits, including Scary Movie 3The Secret Life of Pets and buddy cop comedy Ride Along, and he regularly plays to arena crowds as a touring stand-up.

Hart’s latest film, Lift, sees him play a kind of daring, ultra-competent heist man, tasked with getting his hands on a payload of gold bullion. It’s one of a handful of projects Hart has produced for Netflix, alongside last year’s mistaken identity comedy The Man from Toronto, the more sombre single-dad dramedy Fatherhood and the action series Die HartLift includes a long set piece on a plane, the filming of which Hart describes as “intense”, involving harnesses, gimbals and cables. “The action can take a toll,” he admits. “That was the most difficult part… because you’re in confined spaces.”

He has good reason to be cautious of stunt work: in 2019, a car crash left the actor partially paralysed (though he has since recovered), after he and the driver of his vintage Plymouth Barracuda veered into a ditch off Mulholland Drive. Midway through last year, Hart attempted to race former NFL running back Stevan Ridley in a 40-yard-dash, and tore muscles in his abdomen, hip and leg. “Health and wellness have always been something that I prioritised,” he insists. “And recovery gets the same level of prioritisation.” During the shooting of Lift, however, Hart says that he was back to “100 per cent”. With the Netflix content mill churning out multiple new releases for him every year, how does Lift distinguish itself? “The challenge is just trying to find progression,” he replies, “so that the conversation attached to your career is one of always moving forward, not being stagnant. With Lift, the fun was in the creative… in putting on the production hat.”

Often, Hart speaks in a sort of business-analyst argot. At one point he mentions that he has started “operating in the world of development”. Asked about his financial clout, he explains that studios have to have “a nice balance of solution and solve… of understanding within the investment what you’re guaranteeing”. It’s a far cry from the sort of punchy, accessible tone he has mastered onstage.

Heist to meet you: Viveik Kalra as Luke and Kevin Hart as Cyrus in 'Lift’ (Matt Towers/Netflix)

Hart has almost fallen backwards into his role as an action movie leading man, breaking into the genre playing the comic relief opposite Ice Cube in Ride Along, and later alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in films such as the CIA comedy Central Intelligence and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The humour of the pairing was essentially rooted in physical incongruity (Johnson is a muscular 6ft 4in, while Hart stands at 5ft 2in) and their disparate demeanours (Johnson stoic and straight-faced, Hart loud and energetic).

But Hart is a comedian at his core. It was his peppery onstage magnetism that got him booked to host the Academy Awards in 2019, before a furore over resurfaced homophobic jokes he had made on Twitter years before saw him step down. Speaking of the Oscars, our conversation turns to Jo Koy, the stand-up whose hosting stint at the Golden Globes earlier this month seemed to antagonise the room full of A-listers.

“Look, the climate of comedy attached to award shows has just changed drastically,” Hart argues. “And as a talent, if you don’t have the relationships that are in that room, those rooms can be cold. I don’t consider [awards shows] to be good gigs at this point.” Perhaps, he suggests, a certain intra-Hollywood chumminess is needed to really thrive in that kind of gig.

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Thief element: Hart as a cucumber-cool heist man in ‘Lift' (Christopher Barr/Netflix)

“When you look at those that have had a high level of success – Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock or Steve Martin – you’re looking at industry comics,” he continues. “Of course they crush in the world of stand-up. But they’re also actively involved with a lot of the personnel in those rooms. So there are relationships. It’s one of those things where nobody wants to be talked about, nobody wants to be teased and because of that, everybody’s so uptight.”

Hart – still unmoving, the bags of food still untouched – seems generous about his contemporaries and makes sure to stress that Koy is a “phenomenal” comedian in his element. But there are exceptions. Earlier this month, stand-up and actor Katt Williams took a swipe at Hart during a podcast interview. Williams, who has exchanged barbed words with Hart through the media previously, accused Hart of being an industry “plant”, remarking: “In 15 years in Hollywood, no one in Hollywood has a memory of a sold-out Kevin Hart show, there being a line for him, ever getting a standing ovation at any comedy club.”

Today, Hart seems to play down the attack, stating that it “comes with the territory”. He adds: “It’s not worth my time for a response or an engagement. It’s extremely beneath me in the position that I’m currently in… I think those that can’t talk about those that can.”

He is far warmer when discussing Dave Chappelle, the American stand-up whose recent specials – controversial for their repeated jokes targeting transgender people – sit alongside Hart’s films as part of Netflix’s original content slate. “We’re just in a time now where the microscope is significantly pointed in the direction of the comic, and what the comic is saying,” Hart says. “But you have the option of just not watching someone you don’t find funny or entertaining. That’s something extremely simple that people are forgetting. I don’t feel like everybody should love me. I don’t feel like everybody should think I’m funny. It’s perfectly fine.”

Cop to it: Ice Cube and Hart in ‘Ride Along’ (Universal)

Does he ever get offended by comedy? “I don’t,” Hart replies, musing for a second. “But that doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t. I think that you have to be extremely present and aware of the damage that can come from words. It just means that you’re paying attention. But: you have to understand that comedy does come with a shock factor. Some comics like the idea of the shocking response that leads to the laugh. Some don’t. I just take it for what it is.”

Hart remains placid, neither genial nor unfriendly. It might just be the clothes, but affluence seems to radiate out of him like an aura. It’s somewhat surprising that he still manages to connect to people on screen, or to the throngs of normal people who attend his live performances. “You don’t have to be disconnected because of your level of success,” he contends. “I consider myself to be grounded and intact with reality. Just because your finances have changed… a good heart is a good heart.”

Many of the industry’s biggest stand-ups – the Ricky Gervaises and Jerry Seinfelds of the world – have struggled to maintain this connection, this essential capacity for relatable observation, after ballooning to stardom. Hart – by his own reasoning – is keeping it real. “All of my stand up is based off my personal experiences, my interactions, my beliefs, my opinions, my family, my friends… I’m giving people a look at my POV, and in a way where you relate. And if you don’t relate, you understand after watching.

“I just think it’s funny, talking about the stories and adventures of the little Black man Kevin Hart,” he adds, slipping for the first time into something resembling shtick. “I think my life is hysterical. And to date, it seems like other people think it is too.”

‘Lift’ is streaming on Netflix now

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