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In a Big Rush

Driven comic Chris Tucker is following through on a career plan that goes well beyond the 'Rush Hour' films.

July 29, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar. Gregg Kilday also contributed to this story

There's no charm like Southern charm, and Georgia's pride Chris Tucker has bushels at his disposal. After pulling a disappearing act for his interview a couple of weeks previous, this time Tucker's right on time, showing up in his best Sunday going-to-church clothes--navy-blue pinstripe suit and matching white satin shirt and tie.

In person, the 28-year-old comedian and actor is tall, lithe, much more handsome than the frenetic, rubber-faced characters he's played on screen, with a demeanor that is all molasses and honey. But just beneath the surface there's something else going on, a guy with enough energy to solve California's electricity crisis.

The seams of his garments can barely contain him. He has to will himself into the leather chair of his Santa Monica office while he talks to a reporter. And although he's never less than cooperative, if sometimes as evasive as a politician, Tucker is clearly a man who has traveled far but has many miles to go before he sleeps.

As he says at one point, sometimes the day doesn't have enough hours and "it's night already. Life is real short, real precious and I don't want to waste any time."

Publicity is something Tucker begrudgingly accepts as part of his job description, though it's not high on his list of priorities. Arthur Sarkissian, producer of "Rush Hour" and "Rush Hour 2," explains that Tucker "shies away from interviews. He does them, but he doesn't seek them out. He enjoys being a star, but maybe not being a celebrity."

Tucker cursorily apologizes for his earlier disappearing act, explaining that he was busy traveling to London and Paris and "doing a lot of last-minute stuff getting the movie out," holed up in the editing room massaging "Rush Hour 2," which opens Friday, "finding ways to make it funnier." Even now that the movie is "locked," he is still doing some vocal fine-tuning.

"Rush Hour 2" is vital to Tucker's future. It's his first film since the original three years ago and his first mega-star payday--$20 million, putting him in the elite category of superstar comic actors Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, although he has yet to star solo in a movie. While his "Rush Hour" co-star Jackie Chan, a veteran of Hong Kong and Hollywood films, got $15 million for the sequel, Tucker vaulted into the $20-million club based solely on one major hit.

How he got there so quickly is the story of "a self-made man," according to Michael De Luca, former president of production at New Line Cinema, who saw Tucker's potential in the amiable 1995 low-budget comedy "Friday," in which the comic hit the ground running as a neighborhood screw-up with a fondness for weed.

"I'd never seen him before," De Luca recalls, "and when I was watching the dailies, I saw he was one of those guys who can barely be contained by the movie. It reminded me of the stories I'd heard about Michael Keaton when he first starred in "Night Shift"--the emergence of a great comic personality, and I was rabid to cast him in something else."

Tucker agreed to appear in another small New Line comedy, "Money Talks," opposite Charlie Sheen, but insisted on working with a young video director, Brett Ratner, who had cast him in a Heavy D music video in 1994. It proved to be a fortuitous pairing based on nothing but intuition.

"I'm not afraid to trust my instincts," Tucker says. "I try to keep to who I am, to listen to myself and not just go with the flow."

Ratner brought harmony to Tucker's often cacophonous improvisational style developed as a stand-up comic in clubs and on HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," and sensed when to rein him in and when to let him wail.

"There are just a few directors like that, Brett [Ratner], Gary Gray [who directed 'Friday'] who let us do our thing, who don't keep us in a box," Tucker says. "[Making a movie] is like stand-up: You got to keep doing it to enhance it."

Like "Friday," "Money Talks" was a modest box-office hit that exploded on home video, according to De Luca. The Tucker cult was growing, and all he needed was a breakout hit. That movie proved to be "Rush Hour" in 1998, which had the added difficulty of featuring a co-star, the great martial-arts performer Jackie Chan, whose grasp of American English--particularly street slang--was limited.

"Jackie has a hard enough time with his own dialogue," says Ratner. "The way he remembers dialogue is by remembering the last word of Chris' sentence. Ninety-nine percent of the time that word never comes." Even though Tucker worked out his improvisations in rehearsal, when the cameras rolled, they rarely came out the same way twice and "that was very hard for Jackie. It freaked him out," Ratner adds.

But Tucker was so immersed in what he was doing that he didn't know there was a problem "until the director told me he [Chan] was trippin'." Curiously, the miscommunication between the two characters was part of "Rush Hour's" charm, and a multicultural Hope and Crosby team was born.

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