Few final sequences in recent cinematic memory have pleased audiences quite as deeply as the ending of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” It is a moment so perfectly worded and spontaneously performed that it warrants comparison with Billy Wilder classics, particularly “The Apartment.” It also launched the career of Chicago comedian Lil Rel Howery into the stratosphere occupied by Hollywood’s A-list. Howery’s scene-stealing performance as Rod, a justifiably paranoid TSA agent, brought Peele’s potently provocative thriller a welcome dose of humor, while delighting viewers with the sort of profane motormouthed quips that have been the comic’s trademark for years. Many of the funniest moments occur when Rod is responding to the ensuing craziness while maintaining a matter-of-fact deadpan demeanor.
The same is true of Dax, the street ball team manager played by Howery in “Uncle Drew,” a warmhearted underdog yarn from “Drumline” director Charles Stone III. In desperate need of players to compete in a Harlem tournament, Dax acquires the help of geriatric sports legend Uncle Drew (well-played under heavy makeup by Kyrie Irving) to reassemble his fellow teammates. And yes, they are all real-life basketball stars in disguise: Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie and Shaquille O’Neal (who is considerably better here than he was in “Kazaam,” a film he mocks in the blooper reel). There are echoes of “The Blues Brothers” in this escapist lark, where much of the pleasure is derived from watching people who are masters of their craft do what they do best, whether it be slam dunks or show-stopping guffaws.
While preparing for the September premiere of his new FOX sitcom, “Rel,” Howery swung by his old stomping ground and spoke with RogerEbert.com about his love for the Bulls, his problem with awards season and his belief in the vitality of laughter.
As someone who grew up in Chicago, you likely idolized Michael Jordan, as I did. My dad still has all six championship games of the Chicago Bulls recorded on VHS.
Wow! I’ve still got Game 4 and 5 from their 1991 championship against the Lakers on VHS. That was an era when we saw teams growing up together, and it was fun watching them over the years. I’ve always been a Bulls fan. I’ll never forget when they beat the Pistons, and the Pistons just walked off the court, refusing to shake hands with the other team. That was a fun year. We actually should’ve swept the Lakers. I think we lost Game 1 because the players were nervous. The reason why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time is because he’s one of the only players I’ve ever seen who made all of his other teammates better. Scottie Pippen became better because of him, and the same is true of Horace Grant. Jordan was a good leader. He could’ve shot the whole game if he wanted to. If you watch the games now, you’ll see that during the first quarter, he’s just throwing the ball down to Bill Cartwright or Luc Longley. Luc would sometimes take the first six shots of a game. Jordan was very generous in that way, but he knew when to turn it on.
Your performance in “Uncle Drew” reminded me a bit of John Candy in how you refuse to make your character simply the butt of a joke. There’s a pain and poignance beneath the humor.
It’s very interesting you say that because in the case of this film, I was okay with playing the straight man. You got dudes in old age makeup onscreen, and I didn’t want to take away from how funny that is. A lot of the time, I’d be setting it up and letting them do their thing. My type of acting method is to do the unselfish thing so everybody can shine. Dax and I are very different, and I didn’t necessarily know people like him, but I knew the heart of his character. I knew the pain of not being able to hit the game-winning shot and losing all your friends and trying to gain respect. It was kind of easy to find that complexity in there. As for Dax’s bond with Uncle Drew, I think Kyrie and I did a good job of figuring out the heart in that relationship. Drew pretty much became Dax’s father figure.
What was the experience like of acting opposite six formidable basketball icons?
They did an amazing job. These were legends, and there were times onset where they’d come up and ask me, “Was that good? Should I do something different?” And they’d listen, man. When I watch this film—and I’ll probably see it a couple more times—I appreciate how we pulled it off. The chemistry was really good. These are people you meet only when you are about to shoot a movie, and we became a family right away. Off camera, we’d talk to each other out of character, but for most of the movie, I only saw them with their makeup on, so I forgot how everybody looked in real life. When Kyrie joined the Celtics, he did a press conference, and I went, “Ah, so that’s how he looks!”, because I had been seeing Uncle Drew for the last two months. I think those makeup artists should get an award for this film.
In the Pepsi Max videos that Irving directed, he pranked real people on public basketball courts by posing as Uncle Drew. Was there any effort to do that in the film?
He played in a couple tournaments with a summer league in Atlanta, and I told him, “You should go as Drew!” Of course, I’m talking to a guy who’d been wearing makeup and prosthetics for eight hours, so he was like, “Bruh, I wanna take this off.” And it was hot in Atalanta. I was hot and I had none of that stuff on my face. [laughs] There’s a huge difference between shorts and features, so Irving let our director, Charles, and our writer, Jay Longino, do their thing. He trusted that they—along with me, his co-star—would make sure that he was steered the right way, and he did a marvelous job.
How much freedom did you have with creating your characters’ quips?
There’s a lot of little stuff in there that I came up with, such as when Dax compares Shaq’s character to Wolverine. Any director I’ve worked with in film and television knows that when they hire me, I’m going to find moments where I do my own thing, and I let those moments happen naturally. I’ll read the script a couple of times beforehand, but I won’t study it. I won’t look at it the night before I arrive onset because I want it to be fresh. I’ll literally show up the day of, look at the dialogue, and then go in front of the camera. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing something overly rehearsed, so it’s in the moment when I usually learn everything.
Your final scene in “Get Out” received one of the most explosive audience reactions I’ve ever heard in a theater, and it was largely due to the impeccable timing of your line, “I mean, I told you not to go in that house.”
I did so many different versions of that scene. Jordan and I speak the same comedy language. He would give me a line and I’d go on a run. He’ll tell me the situation, and I’ll go on a rant and do whatever I do. That line you mentioned…I think I just said that during the take. I always forget what’s scripted and what isn’t. Once I’m done with something, I do not remember what I ad-libbed and what was actually written, so a lot of times, I just give credit to the writer. When we did a panel with Jordan, I was like, “Yeah, Jordan scripted it,” and he was like, “Nah, bruh, the stuff that made the movie was the stuff you just said when the camera rolled.” And I was like, “Oh wow, alright…” [laughs] That dude is brilliant. Everything Jordan did with “Get Out” is what I would’ve done if I had directed that movie. I’ve worked with some great directors—including Charles Stone III and Gerry Cohen, who are two of my favorites—but I’ve never had chemistry with someone on a set like I had with Jordan. We just got each other.
“Get Out” won an Oscar in the same category that “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” was victorious in exactly 50 years ago: Best Original Screenplay. What does the half-century chasm between these cultural touchstones reflect in terms of progress?
It shows the lack thereof. Progress has to happen, and to be honest with you, I believe “Get Out” is going to bring about some big change. I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get Best Picture. I never understand how a film can win Best Screenplay and not get Best Picture too. What does that mean, man? Were the actors bad? The Golden Globes put “Get Out” in the comedy category, and I couldn’t get mad at that because Jordan did put comedy in the film. At the same time, I was like, “If you all thought this was a comedy, then I should be up for Best Actor!” [laughs] I’ve learned a lot about the little nuances and rules that guide the awards season. It’s very outdated. For some reason, MTV has figured out a way to change the typical categories, and I think the Oscars and the Golden Globes just need to update everything. These are old rules written a trillion years ago, and they’re choosing to stick with them. I’m like, “Dude, it’s 2018. Times have changed.”
I was enraged when a credit-related technicality prevented you and Betty Gabriel from being recognized as part of the “Get Out” ensemble at the SAG Awards.
It was a really weird technicality and hopefully that will change too. How could we not be a part of the ensemble cast? Once again, it’s one of those old rules that doesn’t make sense. And this is the award that we pay our dues to as actors! They should just make up categories to make us feel like we’re getting our money’s worth. [laughs]
Who are some of the performers you looked up to earlier in life?
Robin Williams is one of my favorite actors of all time, as is Bernie Mac and Eddie Murphy. I’ve actually learned something recently. Look at Tom Hanks. He’s played a bunch of characters in a bunch of movies, but he’s always been basically Tom Hanks. Same thing with Denzel Washington. He’s played a bunch of different characters, but he’s still Denzel in all of them. This realization has inspired me to always put myself in each of my characters. When you do that, the audience will end up liking you, no matter who you’re playing. I thought about that one day and was like, “You know something? Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks in everything. And I love it. But it’s just Tom Hanks. Same thing with Will Smith.”
Has the titular character in your upcoming FOX show, “Rel,” spawned from any of your past characters or stage persona?
Nope, this show is based on me. This is more me than anything I’ve ever done. Though my character has a different job and some of his stories are a little different from what really happened to me, “Rel” is loosely based on my life. The writer’s room started work this week, and I just talked to them. I can’t be in the room with them because I’m traveling and doing press for the movie, but I’m always touching base with them and offering tips. I’ll say, “Make sure you write about stuff that annoys me.” I get annoyed quite often. I’m a lot like Larry David more than people think. [laughs] This is going to be such a fun show, man. The pilot turned out exactly how I wanted it. We shot it in front of an audience, and it felt like we were shooting our seventh episode. The energy was insane, and it was just a pilot! I think this show is going to be big. With all this coming out—the movies and the show—I’m weirdly interested to see what 2019 looks like.
“Uncle Drew” contains some enjoyable digs at Trump, such as when a guy sees Nate Robinson in a club and hollers, “Hey, Frederick Douglass! Hear you’re doing an amazing job!”
Comedy has always been used as a weapon, but it’s also the most consistent thing that everybody needs because people need to laugh. You gotta laugh through crazy times, and yes, what we’re living through right now is crazy, but there have been other insane times throughout history, and laughter has always stood out in their midst. Oftentimes when you watch documentaries set during a particular era, you’ll see a joke from a comedian that reflected the times in some way. I looked at that great documentary on Moms Mabley, a comedienne who was so powerful in her words, and some of the stuff she said then applies to now. She knew how to make us laugh while giving us information, and that’s what we’re doing now with comedy. You just gotta laugh. When Nick Kroll’s character reveals that he went to Trump University, all the while saying the most insane stuff, I’m like, “Alright, that makes sense.” [laughs] I love making people smile through my comedy. It’s just a dope gift to have.
Were there any audience responses to “Get Out” that were particularly meaningful for you?
I’m on the road now and when I get onstage to do standup, the audience applauds for a full two minutes. That’s been fascinating. Last March, I went to the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. “Get Out” had been in theaters for only two weeks. I just wanted to do a set, and when the crowd saw that it was me, they lost it. I had gone up a million times before, and people would show love, but not like this. I took that moment in and went, “Okay, things are different now.” [laughs] Chicago got me ready for the world. This is where I was a star first. I have fans here, and they gave me confidence that I could go anywhere else and succeed. I’d think, “You may not know me, Hollywood, but guess what, Chicago does, so that’s where I’m gonna build that confidence.” When I went to Hollywood and New York, people used to say to me, “You seem really comfortable and confident. Why?” And I’d say, “Because of Chicago.”