It’s been five years since he last appeared in a film, but Chris Tucker is back with a winning turn in David O. Russell’s award-worthy black comedy, Silver Linings Playbook, in theaters Friday. The actor opens up to Marlow Stern about his tax problems, hanging with Obama and Michael Jackson, and his road back.
The rise of Chris Tucker from Burger King janitor in rural Georgia to Hollywood’s highest paid actor is just as astonishing as his fall, epitomized by a report in February claiming he owed a whopping $12 million in back taxes to good ol’ Uncle Sam.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Back in 2006, Tucker, the comedic actor known for his shrill voice and manic energy, negotiated the highest base salary in Hollywood history: $25 million for Rush Hour 3, the third installment in the cross-cultural action-comedy franchise that paired him with Jackie Chan. The first two Rush Hour films, helmed by renowned over-sharer Brett Ratner, had grossed close to $600 million worldwide, but Tucker’s fee was a major head-scratcher considering he hadn’t starred in a non–Rush Hour film since 1997’s Jackie Brown.
Rush Hour 3 was released in 2007. Despite dismal reviews and a ludicrous $140 million budget, the film was a minor box-office success. This was the last time people would see its star, Chris Tucker, on the silver screen until this week, when Silver Linings Playbook opens in theaters.
Tucker turns in an impressive supporting performance as Danny, a former meth addict who befriended the central character, Pat (Bradley Cooper), in a mental institution. Now that they’re free, Pat is placed into the care of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) but has delusions of winning back his estranged wife. His precious plan hits a snag when he crosses paths with a widow, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who is equally troubled. Much like his previous film, The Fighter, David O. Russell has crafted a poignant portrait of working-class familial dysfunction, with Tucker’s outré onscreen persona proving a fine fit in the director’s motley ensemble. And Silver Linings Playbook is getting loads of (well-deserved) Oscar buzz.
But what the hell has Chris Tucker been up to for the past five years?
After starring in the three Rush Hour films from 1998 to 2007, Tucker was searching for what he calls “the next level above Rush Hour.” He thought he’d found it when, in 2007, New Line Cinema—which had distributed nearly every Tucker film dating back to his debut, Friday—announced he was set to star in Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra. Directed by Ratner, the film would feature Tucker as Sinatra’s valet, George Jacobs, and was based on Jacobs’s acclaimed autobiography of the same name. It could have been Tucker’s Ray. But when New Line Cinema downsized the following year, the project fell through the cracks.
“Well, the break wasn’t planned—it just happened that way,” says Tucker at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. “I waited a long time and the right things weren’t coming to me—the roles I was offered weren’t that challenging—so I started trying to develop a bunch of projects for myself.”
He continues: “I was always looking and hoping the right thing would come. I knew stepping back a bit and going back to my stand-up roots would help me gain perspective.”
So in 2011 Tucker began touring again as a stand-up, starting out in comedy clubs before graduating to theaters. He just filmed a stand-up comedy movie last weekend in Atlanta that’s going to be released in theaters early next year.
“It’s going to be like Eddie Murphy’s Raw or Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip,” he says with a grin. “That’s my dream because those are my idols who I grew up watching.”
Tucker was born the youngest of six kids in Decatur, Ga. His father ran a janitorial business and Tucker would help out by working as a janitor as the local Burger King. After graduating from high school, at 18 he decided to move out to Los Angeles.
“Georgia was a great place to live, but I wanted to get out because I knew the opportunities for what I was doing, stand-up comedy and eventually acting, were in Los Angeles,” he says. “I moved at an early age because I figured I’d have nothing to lose, and if it didn’t work out I could just move back.”
He soon garnered a reputation as a stellar stand-up comic, making regular appearances on Def Comedy Jam. Then, in 1995, he was given his first starring role as Smokey, a motor-mouthed pothead in F. Gary Gray’s comedy, Friday. The film would become stoner-comedy classic, paving the way for impressive druggie turns in the underrated Vietnam War saga Dead Presidents and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Despite his penchant for wasted characters, Tucker, who is a devout Christian, claims he’s never gotten into drugs himself.
“Never,” he says emphatically. “My mom raised me to never have anything control me.”
The blockbuster Rush Hour films soon followed, immediately vaulting Tucker to the A-list. Tucker’s had a revolving door of legendary celebrity pals, including Tupac, who he met when he filmed a cameo in his music video “California Love,” and most famously, Michael Jackson. The pair struck up a friendship over their mutual admiration of one another, and Tucker would later star in Jackson’s music video for “You Rock My World,” playing the King of Pop’s partner in crime.
“We met right here in New York City at the Four Seasons Hotel,” Tucker recalls. “It was like meeting the pope! We hung out, talked for a bit, met up at a few places if he was in town. I even went to Neverland. What struck me the most was how kind and nice he was. He cared about everybody.”
He also managed to hang out with a then-prospective senator in Los Angeles by the name of Barack Obama.
“Obama was going to another charity event in L.A. and me and him shared a car together,” says Tucker. “I didn’t know he was going to be president! He signed a book for me, and we talked about basketball … and chicken. No, I’m kidding about the chicken. But that’s why I ended up voting for him cause I knew he was a good guy.”
After the lucrative Rush Hour films, Tucker found himself in a bit of a financial mess, reportedly owing the federal government just over $12 million in back taxes. The tax problems may have precipitated Tucker’s return to stand-up comedy touring in 2011, but the actor remains relatively mum about his financial situation.
“It gave me stuff to talk about and got me to take care of business,” he says. “I can’t tell the details of it. I wish I could. But stuff happens, you learn, and you just take care of it.”
The Chris Tucker comeback tour also includes Silver Linings Playbook. Directed by Russell, It’s his first film by a celebrated auteur since 1997’s Jackie Brown—which also, coincidentally, costarred Robert De Niro.
“[My representation] were surprised I was interested in it, but it was a meaty role,” he says. “David is very hands-on and right there with you, and I enjoyed it so much because there was a lot of improv.”
As for future projects, in addition to the stand-up comedy film, Tucker and Chan are “talking about” doing Rush Hour 4 in order to, according to Tucker, “reclaim the magic of the first one” after a less than stellar third entry. He’s also trying to bring the intriguing Sinatra project to fruition with Ratner.
During his recent stand-up comedy shows, Tucker has joked that he’s already had his fair share of amazing experiences, and he’s not hustling to right his financial situation in order to provide for his son, who is 14.
“Comedy comes from a place of hurt,” he says. “Charlie Chaplin was starving and broke in London, and that’s where he got his character ‘the tramp’ from. It’s a bad situation that he transformed into comedic one.”