Craig Robinson on Morris From America and Patrice O’Neal’s Boston Side
Fans are used to seeing Craig Robinson’s comedic side, but the actor has been testing the dramatic waters lately with roles in USA’s hit series Mr. Robot and his latest movie Morris From America. The film, which opens in Boston this weekend, is about a single African American father and his son who rely on each other in order to get through both the fun and the sad times while living abroad in Germany. Ahead, Robinson reveals why he signed up for the role and reminisces about his late The Office co-star and Roxbury native Patrice O’Neal.
You’ve been in a lot of high-profile movies and shows over the years. What drew you to this character and a smaller project like Morris From America?
One of the first things that stood out to me was his vernacular. I felt like I talked like this guy. I love how he was into music and hip-hop and used that with his son. He’s just like a different kind of father. He had to tow that line between friendship and fatherhood because he understands what situation he brought his son into being in Germany and all that. There were these levels to him that I thought were rich and interesting. I was intrigued at the chance to play that.
Music has been such a big part of your life and career. How did it factor into the theme of this film?
Markees [Christmas], who plays Morris, he is a rapper, and one of the strongest points for me was when Curtis, my character, there’s a scene where he gets upset with Morris about his lyrics. Morris is all, “What’s the problem? You curse all the time.” Curtis is like it’s not about being explicit, it’s about being real. This is not real. That just hit, like wow. It shows he’s supporting him and he gave him an early lesson. I’m disappointed because he’s out there bsing, when he has a unique perspective and can be using that.
Stemming from that scene, it seems like comics and musicians are always getting flak for jokes or lyrics. Are they held to a higher standard than other artists because they’re coming up with their own material?
You’re definitely more responsible because it is coming from you. A bunch of comedians have gotten in “trouble” for sharing their views. When an actor or an artist or might come out saying something political or whatever, then it becomes about that view. I think it’s about the views that, I guess, divides people.
Between Mr. Robot and Morris From America, you’ve recently been taking on roles with darker sides to them. Since comedy and drama are so intertwined, is it easier or harder for you to tap into that seriousness considering your comedic background?
You know that artistic mask with the two faces on it? The happy, smiling face on one side and the sad face on the other side? It’s all there. For so long, I’ve been doing the comedy part, but even on The Office, there were dramatic moments or what have you. I think those comedy roles prepared me for doing these dramatic roles. I don’t know if easy is the word I would use, because you have to go to a place. You have to dig deeper. It’s a well of both. You got to go to that well. Even in comedy, you have to be real. It’s all about being real. It’s how real can you be? That’s the challenge. How much are you willing to take on for your character?
Unfortunately this is the fifth year anniversary of Patrice O’Neal’s passing. What were you favorite memories from working with him and did anything in particular ever bring out his Boston side?
Let me tell you something. I first met Patrice at Nick Swardson’s painting party. Nick Swardson used to have birthday paint parties. They were phenomenal. Patrice was sitting a table, almost like a lunch table from grammar school, Patrice was sitting there and there were several other black comedians around. I just sat down at that table with them, and Patrice was sitting behind, and he was just leveling us with joke after joke, statement after statement. Instantly, I loved the dude. Fast forward a year or so later, we had become friendly and I called him one day like, “We’re going to work together man. One day, I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to do something together.” He said, “Well, let this be the start of a beautiful non-gay relationship.”
Then we ended up on The Office together, and I don’t know if it was his Boston side or whatever, but they wanted to put Patrice in more episodes, but he didn’t want to be out in L.A. They even, at one point, hit me up and were like, “Craig, do you know where Patrice is? We have a check for him.” He was a different kind of cat, man, and there was no one funnier.
‘Morris From America’ is now playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.