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In His Element

In 'The Fifth Element,' comic Chris Tucker plays a flamboyant 23rd century TV host.

May 08, 1997|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The biggest surprise in director Luc Besson's shrouded-in-secrecy fantasy "The Fifth Element" doesn't involve a plot twist or computer-generated spaceship. It's the discovery that its most outrageous special effect is a human being.

The $90-million "Element's" secret weapon is stand-up comic-turned-actor Chris Tucker, who plays the 23rd century's most flamboyant--and narcissistic--TV host, Ruby Rhod. Decked in Jean-Paul Gaultier's gender-bending wardrobe and sporting a cone-shaped blond 'do that makes Ace Ventura's hair seem discreet, Tucker sashays away with every scene he's in, whether he's whispering rapper-style seductions, dissing flunkies with a bee-like bzzzzz or squealing in sudden terror.

"It's the most out-there performance on the screen since Tim Curry in 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' " says "Fifth Element's" co-writer Robert Mark Kamen. "And that's Chris. He's out there."

Adds another fan, Bruce Willis: "Chris really has lost his mind--which is a shame, because he had such a promising career. He's hilarious."

In person, Tucker can deliver an even greater shock. Soft-spoken to the point of reticence, but quick to grin at a passing baby, the 24-year-old Atlanta native shows no signs of his cartoonish screen persona. But watch him long enough and you'll spot one thing he shares with the speed-freak Ruby: They know what they want, and they're getting it fast.

Tucker was a ripe old 20 when his stand-up work on TV's "Def Comedy Jam" landed him a showy bit in his first feature, "House Party 3." Within a year, he was co-starring with Ice Cube in the low-budget hit "Friday" and playing serious roles in "Panther" and "Dead Presidents" (which gave him a memorable death scene; as soldier-turned-pimp Skippy, he ODs on heroin while watching a vintage "Soul Train" telecast).

Two short years later on a hot April afternoon, Tucker is squeezing in lunch near his Valley address before picking up his tux for the Cannes Film Festival, where "The Fifth Element" would premiere on Cannes' opening night. This October, he'll return to American movie screens, co-starring with Charlie Sheen in what he calls a "black 'Fugitive' " comedy, "Money Talks"--a film he also executive produced.

He'll follow it with a starring role opposite Jackie Chan, a cameo in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," a stand-up comedy album and probably a stand-up feature.

A confident performer, Tucker admits his courage was shaken at first when director Besson ("La Femme Nikita") pushed him to play such a sexually ambiguous character in "The Fifth Element."

"It made me nervous--a lot. I went places I never thought I'd do. But that's my job as an actor."

Besson's vision of a future in which gender lines blur was the scariest part for Tucker, whose stand-up material hasn't avoided gay stereotyping.

His reaction when Besson pushed for Ruby Rhod to wear a dress? "Heyyy-ell no. I wanted to keep my manhood. I didn't want the brothers to think I was going out."

But Tucker said he used two sexually ambiguous role models for his part. "I mixed two characters, Michael Jackson and Prince. I just looked at this character as an entertainer--a real spoiled entertainer."

It's a description no one's ready to apply to Ruby's alter ego.

"Chris is the sweetest guy in the world," observes screenwriter Kamen. "He's real street. One of the reasons Luc cast him was because he's not a film actor, he's a stand-up comedian, which was also a frustration.

"He'd say [the lines] and ask, 'Can I do it again?' And he'd do it completely differently! We'd say, 'No, no, you gotta follow the words!' "

Tucker first discovered his improv skills growing up with two sisters and three brothers in Atlanta. "Mom'd go off to church, and we'd entertain each other, do shows around the house."

Voted Most Humorous in high school, he was soon hosting talent shows and doing stand-up, something he says remains his first love.

"I perform every other night, I'll never stop doin' that. Actors go to acting class--stand-up is my acting class. You get the timing down pat, [and] when you get to the movies, you know what's funny."

Tucker seems less certain about how friends and fans will react to his potentially career-making role in "The Fifth Element," which could bring him his widest mainstream audience.

But he is sure that--despite Robert Mark Kamen's comparison--he was not influenced by "The Rocky Horror Picture Show's" Tim Curry.

"Never seen it," Tucker tosses off, before noticing his listener's surprise.

"Hey--I'm young! I'm 24!"

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