Ever since the premiere of its eye-catching trailer during the Super Bowl, “Air” has been generating a lot of positive buzz.
Much of the hoopla is driven by the impressive cast, including Oscar winners Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Viola Davis. The dramedy about Nike’s risky mission in 1984 to produce the Air Jordan — a basketball sneaker named after superstar Michael Jordan, and the first time a major shoe line had been linked to a star athlete — marks the third teaming for Damon and Affleck after their 1997 triumph in “Good Will Hunting,” and Affleck’s return to the director’s chair for the first time in seven years.
But the excitement is also driven by the presence of Chris Tucker, the star of the blockbuster “Rush Hour” buddy cop franchise and the 1995 ‘hood comedy “Friday,” who hasn’t appeared in a film in seven years. The actor-comedian plays Howard White, a Nike executive who was crucial in the development of the sneaker and who is now the vice president of Jordan Brand.
Tucker’s dynamic personality highlighted “Friday” and the three “Rush Hour” films. He also displayed his dramatic chops in “Dead Presidents” and “Jackie Brown.” But his film projects have been sporadic. Since his last pairing with Jackie Chan in 2007’s “Rush Hour 3,” Tucker has only played supporting roles in 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and 2016’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” He has focused in the interim on his charitable Chris Tucker Foundation, which offers a variety of services to children and unhoused people, as well as his stand-up career.
Tucker was drawn to “Air” after conversations with Affleck: “There were just too many things that made sense,” he told The Times a few days before the film’s premiere in Westwood. Noting he’s been friends with White for several years, he added, “I think it was God that brought me to this.”
Seated in a Beverly Hills hotel room, the Atlanta native, who has relocated to Las Vegas, was low-key and personable, worlds away from his brash, fast-talking characters. He spoke of writing his own scenes for “Air,” his philosophy about making films and whether he was open to doing another “Rush Hour” or a sequel to “Friday.”
I can tell that people are really thrilled to see you back on the big screen.
I love Michael Jordan. Who doesn’t love Michael Jordan? And I appreciate that people miss me and want to see me in movies. These are the types of roles I’ve been waiting for, material that I love and that inspires me.
It’s such an offbeat idea for a movie.
Ben went to Michael to get his blessing. Mike said he needed two things — for Viola Davis to play his mother, and for Howard White to be a part of the story.
What was the key that brought you to “Air”?
It was a blessing. Ben has told me several times over the years that he wanted to work with me. I thought he was just playing. Then my people came to me and said, “Ben wants you to do this role, but there’s not a lot to it. He wants you to play Howard White.” And I went, “Howard White? I know him. That’s my friend.” I call Howard every year because I need gift bags for my foundation golf tournament, where we raise money for all kinds of things. So I got in touch with him, and he said he had heard about the movie. I said, “I’m checking it out, but I’m not sure I’m going to do it.”
Why were you skeptical?
My part wasn’t even in the script. I had to write it. I could not have done that without getting the information from Howard. He had me talk to people — childhood buddies from when they had played hopscotch, teachers, basketball coaches. He’s still friends with all these people. He mentored Charles Barkley. I put all this information together and wrote my part. That’s the way I like to work anyway. With the “Rush Hour” movies, I’ll use a little bit of what the writers do, but most of the time I want to put it in my own words.
You usually play fictional characters. Was it more challenging playing a real person?
Yes. This is the hardest I’ve ever worked on a character. I locked myself in this hotel for 20 days to take in and go over all this information. Then I had to dissect the script, because Howard wasn’t in it and I didn’t want to mess up the plot. It was fun, but it was hard work.
Do you remember your first pair of Air Jordans?
Yes! I got the Air Jordans 4. I was in 11th or 12th grade, making my own money. I had to save up because they were so expensive — $75, maybe $100, in 1989. I polished them, tried to keep them new. It was like having your first car, a piece of jewelry. It was a status thing. People would step on them. I think I got into a fight and was more worried about the shoe than my eye. And of course Michael was unreal, a superhero.
You could work in movies all the time. Why don’t you do more?
I’m a perfectionist. I get bored doing something just for the money. It’s not fun. I want to be all the way into something. I want to work with great writers and producers and scripts. It comes down to working with creative people who are willing to let you do your thing. I like to have things tailor-made for me. The “Rush Hour” movies were tailor-made for where I was at the time. But now I’m going to be producing and writing more of my stuff.
And you stay busy doing other things, like your charitable foundation.
We do homeless ministry with my church, scholarships. A golf tournament every year. I realized a long time ago it wasn’t all about me. Being successful widened my perspective, and I was really grateful. I knew I would grow as an actor and a person if I was just patient.
And you stay busy doing stand–up.
I love stand-up, being on the road. It keeps me sharp. Live performance is the ultimate thing. That’s my lifeline to my fans.
But the world of comedy has changed so much in the last several years. It’s become so controversial and sometimes dangerous.
My style of comedy has stayed the same. I just try to be entertaining. I don’t get too personal. I stay in my lane. As a comedian, you have to be smart and be careful what you say. Being spiritual and a Christian, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. There are things I’m not going to do that I might have done as a kid.
I have to bring the inevitable up, so I’ll try to ask another way. Do you get annoyed or tired of people asking you about doing another “Rush Hour” movie or a new “Friday”?
I love it. Them asking about it means they love it. But I really don’t have an answer for them because there’s no script. No idea. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. Most people don’t know that there’s a lot of components to get a movie made.
There was a report in the last few days about a new “Rush Hour” moving forward.
I would love to do it. I love Jackie. We had a lot of fun doing those movies. But we have to make sure everything comes together right. It’s a good thing that he wants to do it too. So it may happen.
It seems like the door is more closed when it comes to a new “Friday.”
“Friday” is so different. It was so long ago, and I don’t know if I could tap into what my fans would want to see, the young Chris Tucker. I don’t know if it’s possible. But I never say no. If someone came up with a great idea, or if I talked to [Ice] Cube and he said, “I got this great idea and we can make it work,” I would think about it. You never know. But I doubt it.
Do you watch those movies if you come across them while flipping channels?
All the time. I put my heart and soul into those films, and they have taken on a life of their own. I love them as much as everyone else.