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Interview: Dylan Baker and Ali Leroi

03.26.2003

A few Sundays ago, I left the cozy confines of Jersey and crossed the Hudson River with Rock on my mind. No I wasn't humming Foghat, I was gearing up to sit down with actor/comedian Chris Rock, who was adding "director" to his resume with HEAD OF STATE. But before we jump into my chats with Chris and co-star Bernie Mac, let's first start with writer/producer Ali LeRoi (an alumni of Rock's HBO series) and Dylan Baker who you likely remember as that creepy pedophile from HAPPINESS. Both turned out to be really funny, friendly guys. Even more so than...um, nevermind. Here's Ali:

ALI LEROI

Did you know as you were writing that Chris was going to direct?

We knew early on that that was the idea.

Did that free you up as you were writing as far as being able to do some things that you knew Chris would allow?

"Let's go with every idea in the book that we think is funny." Cause you were looking at the guy who was going to direct it. He's gonna be the director, he's gonna be the star, he's writing the script. And it's not an ego thing at all. It's just, I got these ideas and other people don't hear em. When I tell him, why don't you try this or why don't you try that or this crazy thing, most people would go "ehhh..." Then you have to have a debate about something that's funny and you're the guy on the magazine cover as the Funniest Man of the Year but nobody wants to listen to you when it comes to funny. Why am I in a debate with somebody else over what's funny. Michael Jordan doesn't have to listen to anybody else's tips on basketball. "Mmm, Michael...we don't know about this jump shot thing." (laughs) Anyway...

Who today could be a black president?

Everybody says Colin Powell could've done it. But he's like "Hey, I'm not crazy. You're not getting into my background. I was in the Army. There's WAY too much stuff in my past. You're not coming by my house with a TV crew everyday. Trying to see about what I used to do." It's a hell of a position. You know you've got to be insane to want to be president? You have to be nuts. There’s a guy sitting around his house going, "you know, I think I could rule the free world"? I've been married for two years and I can barely manage my household. For a guy to think he can handle the free world, you've got to be nuts. And once you're in there you basically have a bunch of people sitting around saying, "What's happening in Bosnia?" "What do you think we should do?" "I dunno, what do you think we should do?"

Was there a lot of improvisation in the movie?

I would say a good 85% of it is scripted and all the improvisations are based on scripted scenes and material. The Bernie Mac run with his first set of interviews, part of that is scripted. But Ivan Scott, the guy he does the NATO bit with, he and Bernie just sat down and we rolled cameras. And Ivan is a real commentator so he could handle the straight man. He didn't break. He knew how to ask the questions; he had all his information to draw from. And Bernie, as a comedian, would sit there and just riff. We just took the best stuff and threw it in there.

Do you think Mays Gilliam would have a realistic shot to become president out of the movie world?

If I were a person who loved that someone had more of my interests at heart, sure I would vote for that person. Why not vote for Ross Perot? Why not vote for Al Gore or whoever it is you're looking at. This guy represents me, that's all people do anyway. It depends on what you're going for or what you're afraid of. Either you're going for someone who can help you or you're going for someone who will stop other people from trying to kill me.

What kind of political preparation did you do to research?

Just living in the United States. Picking up the US Government Constitution Guide or whatever that book is called and just flipping through the pages. That's how I found out what the requirements are to become president. You know there are certain things that aren't elite. In order to be president there are three things you gotta be: 35, you gotta live in the US and you have to have been a citizen for the past 13 years. That’s it. Anybody can run for president. I could run for president right now. They'd have to let me. These are the sorts of ideas that are constructed so that it's not about who has the most money, but somehow the money won out.

How do you and Chris write together?

It's very Dick Van Dyke/Buddy Sorrell. Really. Chris is active, on his feet type thinker/writer. SO he walks around throwing things off the top of his head. I'm a much more structural person. I can sit down... I can't write unless I'm at a keyboard. That's how I write. I sit down and write things out. Chris comes up with things and then gets em down. So together we just... first we put together a treatment for the film. That's just him walking around the room just riffing and me writing everything down and then we come up with what we're gonna do. When we were done with the treatment I actually went into another room and hammered out all of the scenes. Put words in the actors' mouths and so-and-so. Then I would hand him the pages and he would go back and rewrite, just taking a legal pad and rewriting scenes I had written and rewrite dialogue and hand me back a pile of paper. Half-typewritten, half-legal pad with arrows and diagrams...it looked like a football playbook (laughs). But we understand how to work with each other so it works well.

Do you still do standup?

I haven't done standup in a while. I got a family and I can only be out of the house doing so much stuff before I come back and there's nobody there (laughs). "I used to have a wife and some kids...wonder what happened to them?"

Do you miss it?

I ended up in standup on a fluke. When I was a kid I loved the "Dick Van Dyke Show." Used to LOVE, I can't emphasize that enough, the "Dick Van Dyke Show." And I wound up being Dick Van Dyke. Wound up married with a couple of kids, living in the suburbs writing with a guy who was the star of a big hit variety show. There was a point in my life when I realized, "How did that happen?" But the standup part was a diversion. And I enjoyed it and it was fun but personally I'm a little more comfortable behind-the-scenes. You know I'll go out and do a little standup from time to time, but I don't crave it.

What are you guys working on next? Any ideas?...

Yeah we do have some ideas. We've gotta take our time. For him, it doesn't work for Chris to rush. There were three or four years between the standup specials "Bring the Pain" and "Bigger and Blacker." We did the HBO show...part of the reason for him leaving the show was that he found he couldn't do a good show and a good movie at the same time. If you're really gonna be good you've got to dedicate yourself to one thing or the other. Any guy who's at the top of his field in any genre in any media will show you that. Michael Jordan, you know what? He's a good basketball player but he can't play baseball and be good at basketball. So he quits basketball and goes to baseball then realizes, "you know what, I suck at this baseball thing, let me go back to basketball."

Are you working on anything without Chris?

I'm entertaining certain script offers. I'm looking to direct something.

Really?

Yeah looking to direct something soon. But I have a curse. My personal curse is that I've worked with good people on good material and most of the stuff I've done has worked out. So I don't want to do just anything. What if I pick the wrong people to work with? Plus I have good working relationships. I've worked with Bernie for years. He's a real funny guy. He respects my opinion. I've worked with Chris Rock who's a really funny guy who respects my opinion. So I've got really high standards. It's hard for me to listen to people who I don't think are really on par with these other guys. I'm trying not to be egotistic and back off a little bit and see what the next best thing to do is.

DYLAN BAKER

Was it hard to keep a straight face working with Chris and Bernie?

There was definitely some muscle strain involved in clenching every muscle in my body and not laugh as Chris and Bernie were going off. It was a good time going to work, I'll put it that way. But I knew what our job was. To be the straight man while everybody flashing all around us. So it was fun.

How did you get involved with this project and Chris?

I actually read the script and was warned by my agents that it's Chris Rock's first time as a filmmaker, as a director. "We can't save you if you get in trouble..." What are you going to save me from? But I went in for the audition and Chris Rock and Ali LeRoi were there and there're just giggling like little girls...pointing at me. I'm thinking, "Is my fly down?" And they finally said, "You're that guy from HAPPINESS?" (Laughs.) "You were that guy." And I said, "Yes, yes" and finally talked them into doing the audition and reading the scene. So I did the audition and they continued giggling until I left and called my agent and said, "that was the worst thing I've ever been through in my life! I'm never gonna get this job!" And later I asked Chris, "What was that all about?" He said, "Well we had decided you were THAT GUY and we didn't think we could use THAT GUY." And I wanted to watch the tape later on and so he put the tape in and he giggled some more and then he said, "ohh, I think I could use him..." And he decided the Lynn Whitfield and I would sort of be the bedrock of the film, the two guys you can believe would be the campaign managers handed this pitiful candidate and told to elevate him to the highest office in the land. So he wanted to work it that way and he also said he was going to take it as his personal mission to make Dylan Baker funny.

Does that HAPPINESS role seem to follow you wherever you go?

Well thank God it's a film I take great pride in. That I loved and also thought was a good film and loved working with Todd Solodnz, cause it has been some strange boating along the way. I was at the Toronto Film Festival when it premiered, HAPPINESS, and there was closed circuit programming in the hotel rooms and there were these two guys that would review all the films and they'd talk about them and such. I was waiting and watching for them to talk about HAPPINESS and they never got to it and my last day there, I had my bags all packed and I was ready to go. And all the sudden they start talking about HAPPINESS so I sat down and started listening. One of them just hated it and was violent about his distaste for the movie. The over one LOVED it - "how can you say that?!" - and they were arguing back and forth. I was watching this, picking up my bags, ready to go and the one guy said, "there's one thing we can agree on: Dylan Baker will never work again." (Laughs.)

It was such a great performance though.

Well thanks. It's funny, every once in a while I'll be at my daughter's school and one of the other mothers will jump up and go running out of the room, then she'll realize it was a movie and I'm an actor...

But it really hasn't slowed you down? You have really an ideal career, constantly working in great roles.

Well it's opened the doors to other things. I'm going to be doing this series for Fox called "The Pitts." It is a sitcom that's coming on Sunday nights right after "Malcolm in the Middle" starting March 30th. It's all about this family, The Pitts. I'm Bob Pitt and my wife is Liz Pitt and the creators, Mike Scully and Julie Thacker from "The Simpsons" had said they wanted the ideal perfect family start to a couple with pure family values. So he saw me in HAPPINESS and got Kellie Waymire to play my wife who plays the prostitute on "Six Feet Under" and said, "There's America." So it has opened doors in other ways.

Have you finished filming the initial run?

Yeah, they're going to begin airing March 30th.

How was doing a sitcom different than doing a movie?

Certainly in terms of comedy, a studio audience out there who's responding to you and telling you when things are funny, is incredibly helpful. When you're doing "The Pitts," we were lucky because the scripts that were coming out week-to-week were really funny. We thought they were funny at the read-through and then the audience would keep laughing and you'd know it was going good. But with HEAD OF STATE, you have to rely on the director. Chris Rock knew what he wanted and got it and got it in the can and moved on. There were times scenes weren't working and he'd put his screenwriting cap on and start moving things around and we'd fix it. The guy had a real clear vision of what he wanted. And the question is with a first time director is whether he'll be able to translate that and I saw the screening and doggone he did it.

Out of stage, TV and film, which do you prefer?

I really enjoy being able to pop back and forth from one to the next. I usually go to the script first and read it and when I find something I can really respond to, and interesting character or director or if there are great people to work with, that's where you go. I had never really thought much about doing a sitcom but I read the script for "The Pitts" and thought, "this is funny stuff." It had a point of view I had never seen before, so I jumped into that. And I haven't at all been let down in my expectations.

So were you a big "Simpsons" fan before you started working with Mike Scully on "The Pitts?"

Huge "Simpsons" fan. My daughter is being schooled in "The Simpsons." She’s ten so she should know everything about "The Simpsons." Luckily that's something we both can watch. She thinks it's hilarious and then I'll start laughing at something and she'll say, "what was funny about that?" But I think "The Pitts" is gonna be the same thing. A show where kids will think it's funny for one reason but adults will catch some of the double entendre. Cause Mike and Julie have a wicked, wicked sense of humor.

Did you have to do any research for your role or did you just trust the script and your own instincts?

I have always loved political processes and presidential campaigns so it's been a part of my reading. All about different campaigns. What was that book? What did that guy write about? The '88 election..."What It Takes," I think it was called. A book like that I love. I think that's a wonderful, interesting thing. That movie THE WAR ROOM - the documentary about Clinton's war room. I've kinda thought about things like that. But the thing I liked about this character that I took away from all that was that I felt he was a guy who believes MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON can still happen. He believes somewhere deep inside him that there could be someone whose ideas would carry them someplace.

So you're a pretty political guy?

Yeah I think so. I came from two lawyers, so I definitely see both side of the stories too often. My stands are kind of wishy-washy...I go back and forth.

How do you feel about the current state of affairs? I know a lot of actors are speaking out now...

Again I keep going back and forth but I've been reading a lot of Thomas L. Friedman. I think he's got a point. It's very possible that this is the right war. That we should be going in there and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But at the same time we need to prepare the country for what follows. We need to prepare for rebuilding Iraq. I don’t know that this country is at all aware of what it would take to do that. Friedman also pointed out that the world community is not ready to support us on either end. So until you do that background work you can't slap hands on one end and expect them to turn around and be at your beck and call. So I'm mystified. But I think it might be the right time to fight this war but I'm scared to death.

Source: JoBlo.com

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