On the Friday before Labor Day, he was speaking by phone from Yellow Springs, Ohio, the rustic village where he’d gone to spend time with Dave Chappelle, his friend and fellow comedian. Rock had previously travelled there in July to perform for a small, socially distanced audience as part of an outdoor comedy series Chappelle has been hosting. But Rock couldn’t decide if this return visit was meant to be clandestine.
“I don’t know if it’s a secret,” he said quietly. “Maybe it is out here.”
He couldn’t easily find the words to describe what he’d been doing just before this trip, either. “I mean, I guess I’ve been acting,” he said.
After a short pause, he added, at a more assuredly Rock-like volume: “In a pandemic.”
In August, Rock had gone to Chicago to finish filming the fourth season of ‘Fargo’, the supremely arch FX crime drama, which makes its debut September 27. The show’s creator, Noah Hawley, had chosen him to star in its latest storyline, set in the dapper gangland of 1950s Kansas City, Missouri, and which casts Rock — the indefatigable standup and comic actor — as a mannered, methodical crime lord named Loy Cannon.
Maybe in a different universe where the show premiered in April as originally planned, the ‘Fargo’ role has already put the 55-year-old Rock on a whole new career trajectory, opening the door to more serious and substantial roles.
But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, production on ‘Fargo’ was halted in March, and Rock and his co-stars (including Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley and Andrew Bird) were all sent packing. Then at the end of the summer, Rock was summoned back to the set, first to spend a week in quarantine and then to complete his acting work under new protocols and not a little bit of stress.
Other prominent projects of his have also been pushed back; he has a starring role in ‘Spiral’, a reboot of the ‘Saw’ horror series, whose release was postponed a full year to May 2021. But Rock wasn’t mourning the delay of any professional gratification, having spent the spring and summer realigning his values for the new reality of pandemic life.
“Maybe for like a day or two, I was like, ‘Oh, me,’” he said with an exaggerated whimper. “But honestly, it was more like, ‘I’ve got to get to my kids and make sure my family is safe.’”
In that time he has also heard countless Americans echoing the lesson he offered in the opening minutes of his 2018 standup special, ‘Tamborine’, where he spoke humorously but emphatically about the ongoing incidents of police violence against Black people. As he said in that routine, law enforcement was among the professions that simply cannot allow “a few bad apples”: “American Airlines can’t be like, ‘You know, most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash in the mountains.’”
Now Rock was feeling mistrustful about the power of his comedy to do anything other than entertain and unsure when he would get to perform it again for large audiences. And he was admittedly wary about this very interview, explaining with a chuckle that when he talks to the print media, he said, “You have to be comfortable with being boring. If you’re not comfortable with being boring, occasionally, you’re going to get in trouble.”
Not that Rock was ever boring in a wide-ranging conversation that encompassed ‘Fargo’ and his broader career. Even in the absence of an audience, Rock was candid, increasingly animated, uncommonly nimble and always looking for the laugh. Now let the trouble begin.
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Was there a time when you thought this ‘Fargo’ season was never going to get finished and that the series might not be seen for a long time, if ever?
I’ve had weird little things in my career — I was supposed to do this Bob Altman movie, ‘Hands on a Hard Body’. We were on the phone a lot, going over my character, and I was so excited about doing the movie. And he died. I was supposed to be Jimmy Olsen in ‘Superman’ with Nic Cage [‘Superman Lives’, which was cancelled in the late 1990s]. I remember going to Warner Bros, doing a costume fitting. Hanging out with Tim [Burton], who I idolised. Like, I’m hanging out with the guy that made ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’, and he’s showing me the models of the sets for ‘Superman’. So, yeah, I definitely thought there’s a chance this might not happen. Fortunately for everyone involved, that was not the case.
How did Noah Hawley approach you about ‘Fargo’?
It was a weird day because it was the day of the Emmy nominations, and I didn’t get nominated for my last special [‘Tamborine’]. I wouldn’t say I was down, but I was a little disappointed, and then I got a call from my agent that Noah Hawley wanted to meet with me.
I get acting offers, but I get more hosting offers than anything. It is not uncommon for somebody to want me to do a high-priced wedding or bar mitzvah; a few years ago, I officiated the wedding of Daniel Ek, the owner of Spotify, and Bruno Mars was the wedding band. I think I sat next to [Mark] Zuckerberg at the reception. [Laughs.] I just assumed Noah had some crazy request like that. The only reason I went is because I love “Fargo.” And I get there, and he offers me this part.
How did he explain the character of Loy Cannon to you?
He said 1950s gangster, so I know exactly who he’s talking about. My father was born in 1933. It’s not like ‘12 Years a Slave’. It’s literally a guy my grandfather’s age.
Is he different from characters you’ve played before, because he’s older and we don’t know how much longer he’s going to be sitting on his throne?
Yeah, it’s one of those jobs: Because of how well it pays, you could be killed at any moment. It is the best part I’ve ever, ever, ever had. I hope it’s not the best part I ever have. Hey, Morgan Freeman’s done a hundred movies since ‘Shawshank Redemption’. But that’s the best part he ever had.
This role feels like it’s declaring itself as being outside the realm of what you’re best known for. Are you thinking differently about your acting career and where you hope to go with it?
My casting isn’t as weird as it seems if you really watch “Fargo.” Key and Peele are in the first season, and Brad Garrett’s amazing in Season 2. Hey, it’s my turn, OK? I want to work on good stuff. Everything I’ve done hasn’t been great, but I was always striving for greatness. I loved “Marriage Story.” I’d kill for something like that. [Laughs.] You see what [Adam] Sandler did with “Uncut Gems.” But you’ve got to get the call and be ready when your number’s called.
Your 2014 film ‘Top Five’, which you wrote, directed and starred in, was very personal for you. Do you want to make more movies like that?
That’s a vein I intend to keep going in. When I made ‘Top Five’, I got divorced. And like most people that get divorced, I needed money. [Laughs.] I had to pay for stuff. I also went on tour. Because of COVID, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any serious touring until 2022. So I’m a writer-director-actor right now. I’m working on some scripts in the ‘Top Five’ vein, and I honestly hope to direct, sometime after the new year.
You performed at one of Chappelle’s live shows in July. What was that like for you?
When you’re in the clubs, you learn the rain crowd is the best crowd. Anytime it’s raining, they really want to be there. The pandemic crowd is really good. “Dude, not only do we want to be here, there is nothing else to do. There’s nothing else to watch. Thank you.”
What did you talk about?
I talked about our political whatever. America. Part of the reason we’re in the predicament we’re in is, the president’s a landlord. No one has less compassion for humans than a landlord. [Laughs.] And we’re shocked he’s not engaged.
Looking back at the beginning of ‘Tamborine’, the first several minutes is you talking about police violence and raising Black children in a racist country. Does it feel futile when you discuss these issues and it doesn’t change anything?
I remember when ‘Tamborine’ dropped, I got a lot of flak over that cop thing. There was a lot of people trying to start a fire that never really picked up. It’s so weird that, two years later, it’s right on. I remember watching the news, and Trump said “bad apples.” It was like, you did it! You did it!
Did you want to participate in the recent protests?
Me and my kids, we looked from afar. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic, man, and I know people who have absolutely passed from it. I’m like, dude, this Covid thing is real.
You’ve been telling audiences for years that racism isn’t going away and remains a potent force in America. Do you feel like you’ve seen circumstances improve at all?
It’s real. It’s not going away. I said this before, but Obama becoming the president, it’s progress for white people. It’s not progress for Black people. It’s the Jackie Robinson thing. It’s written like he broke a barrier, as if there weren’t Black people that could play before him. And that’s how white people have learnt about racism. They think, when these people work hard enough, they’ll be like Jackie. And the real narrative should be that these people, the Black people, are being abused by a group of people that are mentally handicapped. And we’re trying to get them past their mental handicaps to see that all people are equal.
Humanity isn’t progress; it’s only progress for the person that’s taking your humanity. If a woman’s in an abusive relationship and her husband stops beating her, you wouldn’t say she’s made progress, right? But that’s what we do with Black people. We’re constantly told that we’re making progress. The relationship we’re in — the arranged marriage that we’re in — it’s that we’re getting beat less.
Jimmy Fallon drew significant criticism this past spring for a 20-year-old clip of himself playing you in blackface on ‘Saturday Night Live’. How did you feel about that segment?
Hey, man, I’m friends with Jimmy. Jimmy’s a great guy. And he didn’t mean anything. A lot of people want to say intention doesn’t matter, but it does. And I don’t think Jimmy Fallon intended to hurt me. And he didn’t.
There’s been a wider push to expunge blackface from any movies or TV shows where it previously appeared. Have people taken it too far?
If I say they are, then I’m the worst guy in the world. There’s literally one answer that ends my whole career. Blackface ain’t cool, OK? That’s my quote. Blackface is bad. Who needs it? It’s so sad, we live in a world now where you have to say, I am so against cancer. “I just assumed you liked cancer.” No, no, no, I am so against it. You have to state so many obvious things you’re against.