With a role in the R-rated animation Sausage Party, a high profile stint on Mr. Robot, his upcoming Spike TV game show, and a surprising award-winning turn in the Sundance darling Morris From America, we are currently experiencing a bountiful moment in the career of stand-up-turned-actor Craig Robinson. One might even call it a creative renaissance for the Office, Hot Tub Time Machine, and This Is The End star: a Craig Robinsonaissance.
“It’s about the opportunities!” Robinson beams appreciatively on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, where he’s come full circle with Morris From America, an indie gem from writer-director Chad Hartigan that’s brought new dramatic prospects into his horizon. In it he plays Curtis, the widower father of a 13-year-old boy (newcomer Markees Christmas) who’s just beginning to feel his first pangs of rebellion and interest in girls while feeling awkwardly out of place in the German town his dad has moved them to.
Inspired by Hartigan’s own adolescence feeling awkwardly out of place abroad, the sweetly perceptive coming-of-age tale is infused with hip-hop songs that bond father and son, including a memorably cringe-worthy Robinson rendition of a Biggie classic. “I like that Chad knows more about hip-hop than me,” he laughs, dropping two lines of “Juicy” before trailing off, admitting he can’t remember the words. “I love hip-hop, but hip-hop is a way of life.”
It’s also a refreshingly loving film about African-American adolescence and family. “That’s another thing that made me want to do this,” says Robinson. “I don’t see that relationship often in television or movies. And the relationship itself, between fatherhood and friendship, the respect that is given, the sense that we are one, we’re in this together—I love all those things.”
The film also handles itself gracefully when Morris, the only black kid in town, is confronted by subtle and overt racism. “Chad didn’t make that what the movie’s about,” Robinson notes. “He just didn’t ignore that these things happen.”
While Robinson’s paternal chemistry with Christmas flows with a familiar ease, it’s the 44-year-old comedy veteran’s silently wrought grief that helped earn the actor Sundance’s Special Jury Award for his performance. The plaudit caught him by surprise and helped put his turn in Morris on the industry’s radar, leading to his casting as Ray, an enigmatic figure with a deep, dark online life on the current season of Mr. Robot.
“[I was] mind. Blown. Just mind-blown,” he said, shaking his head. “I so respect Sundance. I’d been hearing about it for years. It was a huge honor.” In the next few years, he says, he wants to pursue more dramatic roles. “I want to go deeper.”
Robinson’s charisma buoys his turn as a man sympathetically watching his son hit the turbulent teens in a strange land, striking a lovely note that earned Robinson the laurel of “Woke Dad Of The Year.” He smiles at the phrase, crediting his own parents for raising him to be as chill as Curtis in real life.
“You might see somebody comment on something on the internet. You might think there’s a whole racial thing going on, but instead of name-calling, let’s all realize we’re in the same boat. Let’s have a discussion,” he offers. He says he’s never been the type to escalate a conflict, which also might explain why the unflustered Craig Robinson we know from the movies seems so much like the unflustered Craig Robinson you meet in person.
“Yeah! Why should I name-call? I’m not going to resort to that,” he said. “I think I said something mean when I was little and my mother snapped on me. I was just like, ‘I’m sorry!’ I could relate. If I had cursed out my dad, I probably would be just waking up.”
There’s a sense that one thing’s led to another in Robinson’s life and career. He’s long been a part of the extended Judd Apatow universe that led him to voicing a box of grits opposite Seth Rogen’s heroic wiener in Sausage Party, and it was his Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green who recommended him to Hartigan. “Chad says David said, ‘Craig Robinson can do anything—he’s just afraid of small spaces,” he says. “It’s true! I’m claustrophobic.”
One pitfall of getting more recognizable over the years, he tells me, is that fame has made it difficult to hit the karaoke bars. That’s a fate I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. He at least gets to scratch that itch on Spike TV’s Caraoke Showdown, a game show on wheels that’s something like “Carpool Karaoke” meets Cash Cab, in which he drives strangers around in a car playing zany karaoke games.
“Karaoke… I’ll destroy you,” he challenges, a grin spreading across his face. He throws his head back, conjuring memories of karaoke nights past. “I’ve had some good moments at karaoke. Back in the day, oh my gosh… before I was more in the public eye. Nowadays I don’t do it as much because if you do, it’s going to be on the internet. But man, when I was…”
His go-tos? “Purple Rain. Smells Like Teen Spirit. Our Time Is Running Out by Muse. Johnny Cash’s Hurt. Creep. I’ve seen some people, one person sang Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ It was this guy, and the aura around him… I think he was also kind of out of his mind with drugs, but whoooo! I can still see him. He also had a tutu on. It was amazing.”
Karaoke, however, was not involved the night he serendipitously met and befriended Michael Fassbender in New Orleans when 12 Years A Slave and This Is The End happened to be filming at the same time.
“No, there was no Fassbender karaoke,” he recalls. He breaks into a huge grin. “I was drunk… Fassbender, I think he had some drinks. I sat next to him—I didn’t know who he was yet—but immediately we clicked. He’s that dude. We shot pool!”
“I remember at one point it was probably three in the morning and I had to be up at 7. I was about to say, ‘I’m about to go to bed.’ Before I could he said, ‘Shall we play some blackjack?’ I was like, ‘NO!’”
One of his next films is James Franco’s adaptation of Zeroville, a movie stuffed with more pals like Franco, Rogen, and Danny McBride. “I befriend people,” a smiling Robinson shrugs. “People befriend me.”