Interview: Kevin Hart Talks Being More Than a "Black Star," Scary-Ass Robert De Niro, and Why He's the Modern Eddie Murphy

The "Grudge Match" and "Ride Along" star also weighs in on the greatest stand-up comedy outfit ever, his legendary comic friends, and how he'll shut down your sh*tty business.

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Image via Complex Original
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The superstar stand-up comedian and actor is angling for Hollywood leading-man status with his new movies Grudge Match and Ride Along. Here, he talks about his comic mentors, the perils of being an open book, and Robert De Niro's menacing nature.

This feature appears in Complex's December 2013/January 2014 issue.

You’re not a rock star until you have pyrotechnics. Kevin Hart is a rock star. In this past summer’s Let Me Explain, the Philly native emerges onto a stage shooting flames in Madison Square Garden. The theatrical release, Hart’s second stand-up movie, made $32 million—some Eddie-Murphy-in-his-prime-type shit. Hart, who previously found success as a scene-stealer in films like Think Like a Man and The Five-Year Engagement, is now aiming further up the marquee with the upcoming boxing comedy Grudge Match (with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro) and buddy-cop flick Ride Along (with Ice Cube). Cue the fireworks.

Stallone, De Niro, and Ice Cube are all living legends with notorious glares. Who was the most intimidating person to work with?
De Niro was, for the simple fact that he’s so quiet and reserved. He’s a nice, good guy, but I could definitely see how some people would be afraid to approach him.

Did you feel comfortable enough to make jokes around him? Did you alter your personality around him?
No, not at all. I am who I am. That’s why my friends and peers respect and appreciate me. I don’t change or cater my actions to fit my surroundings. I’m myself 24/7. People appreciate that.

For years, the mainstream pegged you as “urban” and didn’t recognize you as one of the world’s top comedians. How close are you to reaching a point where everyone knows your name?
I’m close. I’ve done a great job at being universal in my stand-up, which is why, for Let Me Explain, I toured all over the world. These movies I have coming out—Ride Along, Grudge Match, About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too—are putting me in a position to become universal on an even bigger scale. They’re all big studio movies that are going to put me in the leading-man category in Hollywood. If they perform how I think they will, there’s astronomical potential, to where I’m not just a “black star” or a guy who some people know but a guy who everybody loves, thinks is funny, and relates to. That’s the goal.

Of all the painful experiences you’ve joked about, from your dad’s drug abuse to your mom’s death and your failings in marriage, what was the most difficult to make light of?
The death of my mom. It took a long time to even discuss that. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just dark and grimy. It took a long time to develop what I wanted to say, and how I wanted it to be viewed. I can honestly say, after talking about my mom passing away, I got the biggest weight off of my chest. Comedy is my therapy. That’s how I deal with my problems, my personal battles. I talk about it. I give it to my fans. When they laugh at it, it’s a release, for lack of a better word.

You have a massive Twitter following. Does having millions of people reading your tweets give you a sense of power?
There have been moments when I've felt like my Twitter can definitely be used for good. When I’ve felt like people are mistreating people in a restaurant or a business, I've said, "If you guys don’t get it together here, I’ll send out a tweet and let all my followers know how bad of a business this is. You don’t want the wrath of nine million people." It has a villainous tone but I’m not a jerk. I don’t use Twitter for bad. My Twitter reflects what’s going on with me in my life. It’s happy. My [social media posts] are about letting people in my life: my vacations, what I’m doing in the morning, what I’m doing at night. My life has become an open book. People get to see that I go through the same things in life that they go through, I'm just on television. When you show people that you’re a regular guy, they appreciate you that much more.

Is there anything you wouldn’t share about yourself?
My finances: what I do with my money, whom I choose to give to, my investments. I don’t think you get successful to brag and throw what you have in the world’s face. That’s all private.

Eddie Murphy was the rock star of comedy. He made comedy cool. For our day and age, that’s what I’m doing as a comedian, performing in arenas, putting fire on stage, and having a sense of swagger.

Being an open book makes people feel like they know you personally and can interrupt whatever you're doing and have some of your time. Does that ever bother you?
There are days when you don’t want to be bothered, that’s anybody. But, at the end of the day, I understand it. It’s what I signed up for. You can’t have it the way you want it. It’s the gift and the curse of entertainment. You have to be accessible. These are the people who support me by going to see my movies and my tours. For me to give two minutes of my personal-space time, or five, or 10, that’s huge [for them].

How does that scenario change for you when you’re with your kids?
I don’t take pictures when I’m with my kids, for the sake of my kids. It’s important when you’re as busy as I am that you give your kids your time when you’re with them, and nothing compromises that. I’ve been lucky enough to have fans that understand that. When they ask, "Kevin, can we get a picture?" I say, "I wish I could, guys, but I’m with my kids. Thank you for your support. I appreciate you." And I move on.

What is the key to a good stand-up outfit?
Leather. At some point, all the greats have put it on. You’re paying homage to those before you who set the tone. Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, [Bill] Cosby, [Richard] Pryor, and so many others before me. That’s why I do it.

So what is the greatest stand-up outfit ever?
Eddie Murphy’s red leather outfit in Delirious. It was crazy and groundbreaking back then. It was rock-star shit. When you look at it now, you still go, “What the hell did Eddie Murphy have on?”

Having done a world tour, sold out MSG, and had flames shooting up behind you, how can you possibly do a bigger stand-up show?
I know it sounds crazy but I’m going to do it. I think on this next go-round, when I decide to tour, I’m going to do it in arenas, but do it in the round—and what’s going to be in the middle of that round is to be determined. It has to bigger. It has to be better.

Are you studying how big rock tours have done that?
I look at what Eddie Murphy was when he was at the peak of his comedic career. He was the rock star of comedy. He made comedy cool. Everything that rock ’n’ roll was, he did that for stand-up comedy. For our day and age, that’s what I’m doing as a comedian, performing in arenas, putting fire on stage, and having a sense of swagger.

No comedians were releasing stand-up films theatrically when you put out 2011’s Laugh at My Pain. At what point did you feel confident enough to do that?
Once I started looking at my surroundings and at the people I had in my corner: Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Damon Wayans, the kings of comedy. That’s when you say, “These people are not only cool with you but they also think you’re funny. They’re giving you advice. You can’t fail, being around all this.” I realized that, if I do what I’m supposed to, I can achieve whatever I want to in this business. You can’t fail, being around all this. This is better than any school you could ask to be in. You’re in a crash course of success right now. Take advantage of it, be a sponge, soak it up, and apply it to whatever it is to what you’re doing, what you want to do. Not everybody gets these opportunities.

Judd Apatow, whom you’ve worked with dating back to Undeclared, is another comedy titan in your corner. What’s one thing he taught you?
Write. Create. That’s Judd’s main lesson: Always be productive. There’s no reason why you should not be creating and writing. You don’t wait on somebody to give you content when you can create your own.

Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

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