Leading by Example

Craig Robinson talks the parent-child dynamic at the heart of Morris from America

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Leading by Example

In Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America, Craig Robinson plays Curtis, a soccer coach and American expat living in the German city of Heidelberg with his son, 13-year-old Morris, who aspires to rap stardom in a country where people do not listen to EDM so much as they live it. As teenagers tend to do when they feel isolated and unwanted, Morris acts out, kicking lurid rhymes in a talent show hosted by a local youth center, skipping town to tour with his crush and her slick DJ boyfriend, staying out at all hours and making his dad sick with anxiety that would be cured by a single text. Morris thinks he’s alone in his loneliness without catching on to the obvious: Curtis knows exactly how he feels, and perhaps doubly by virtue of his widower status.

Robinson is known best for comedy roles, from The Office to films with paid passage on the Judd Apatow train (Pineapple Express, Knocked Up), to collaborations with fellow Apatow vets (This is the End), and the Hot Tub Time Machine movies. So think of 2016 as the year when mainstream audiences get to see Robinson from new angles, not just in theaters, but on USA’s Mr. Robot, where he plays a Silk Road-level purveyor of online black marketing. Robinson has branched out his identity as a comic actor in recent years, of course—see 2014’s Get On Up—but Mr. Robot, and especially Morris from America, both let him flex actorly muscles that even his most devoted followers probably didn’t know he possessed.

Paste spoke with Robinson about Hartigan’s film, plus his role on Mr. Robot, and the inseparable link between comedy and drama, how boredom in adulthood really isn’t that bad, being a friend versus being a parent to a child, and yearning for layered roles as an actor.

Paste: I gotta start off just by saying, grounding a kid for not respecting Jeru the Damaja? That’s my kind of father right there.
Craig Robinson: [laughs] Right on. Yeah, man, he got grounded because he likes terrible music.

I think it speaks to, you know, once you get to know that character a little bit more, you see that Morris wants to be a rapper, so Curtis is showing him that this is what it’s really about. It’s like, “Hey man, you gotta get on the right bus.”

Paste: Yeah. It’s all part of making sure that Morris is raised right, you know? He’s gotta respect the greats.
Robinson: Exactly!

Paste: I like that rap is such an important element here. It represents common ground for Curtis and for Morris. It’s how they relate. Would you say that’s part of their intimate bond as father and son?
Robinson: Absolutely. I think he supports Morris in his endeavor to be a rapper. You know the scene where he gets upset with him because of his lyrics? Morris thinks it’s because they’re explicit, but no, it’s because you’re not saying what’s real. You’re not saying what’s real to you.

Paste: Yeah. At the end, Curtis talks about having a unique perspective, too, which I thought was really important to the whole movie. If this movie is all about honesty, and talking about what you know, and having this unique perspective, about coming of age and the lonesome adulthood Curtis is going through, I’m curious what you brought from your life, from your personal perspective, into playing Curtis, and into playing Morris’ dad.
Robinson: First of all, he’s my parents. They had a good cop, bad cop kind of thing, and he’s kind of drawing an impossible line between friendship and fatherhood. One of the things I recall my father actually saying was, “I’m his father, not his friend,” you know, when I was younger. That really spoke to me in terms of this role, because it was like, okay: You are the authoritarian, but your wife has died, so his mother’s dead, you have him in this foreign land, and you know he’s got to be out there. You don’t have all the time in the world to be with him, and you have to guide him. So there are all these things that Curtis knows are coming at his son, and Curtis has gotta be there for him. So, you know, I saw it as how my father would be the bad cop, and my mother would be the good cop, and that’s what I brought to it.

Paste: And it works, because you and Markees Christmas have such genuine chemistry together in every scene you share. Did you get to spend a lot of time getting to know him before the shoot began?
Robinson: No. We met once, right before he came to Germany, and then I came over three weeks later, and then next thing you know, we’re on set.

Paste: That’s incredible.
Robinson: I think a lot of it has to do with the way Chad wrote it. And Chad worked with him before I got there. Markees was always prepared, and always ready to run. He was open to everything. If you’ve got that, you can work with anybody, pretty much.

Paste: I have to agree with that. That’s truth right there. I’m curious, for you personally, Curtis feels very much to me like a Craig Robinson character, but a little more doleful. He’s a little bit more broken. What did you find different about playing this type of role in this type of movie versus other roles that you’ve played? Did you enjoy the change in tone?
Robinson: I did enjoy it, because when I looked at it, I saw the challenge of playing Curtis, because he’s got these layers. He also realizes through telling Morris, “You know, you’ve got to go out, you’ve got to meet girls, you’ve got to do this,” he realizes that he has to do the same things too. He has to lead by example. I saw the challenge of playing those layers, and trying to find out the core of who he is. And yeah, it’s tremendously satisfying to go deeper as an actor. These are the things you yearn for. I’m definitely open to doing more of this. I do want to go deeper and deeper, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Paste: I feel like you’re doing a bit of that, too, in Mr. Robot, which, obviously, Ray is a very sharp contrast to Curtis. Like, I would hang out with Curtis in a heartbeat. He’s a cool guy. I would say my prayers if I ever ran into Ray, and just hope that it ends for the best. But yeah, it seems like you’re trying to expand with these two roles, you know?
Robinson: The timing and everything is just incredible. Being on Mr. Robot is very intense. It’s intense. I mean, it’s fun, and there are some fun times, but you know what it’s about. That intensity has to permeate, and that’s what makes the show so incredible, because people are so serious about it.

Paste: It’s cool to be able to see you in these two different capacities at the same time. I like that a lot. Getting back to Curtis—I don’t want to derail us or anything—the movie’s assessment about being grown up is that it’s kind of boring. Do you agree with that? Do you look at Markees, and Morris, and think to yourself, “This kid’s got the time of his life ahead of him”?
Robinson: I think you are responsible for your own boredom, your own excitement. It’s all about knowing what excites you, and how much of that can you handle, or do you want. Yeah, it is amazing to watch Markees. He has inspired some, “Oh yeah, this is fun, this is amazing and crazy, to be a part of this life,” you know? Not that I would change it or nothing, but watching a person’s first time on a plane, his first time in a movie, it’s awesome to see, and behold. But ultimately, you’re the only one who can make yourself excited and happy, and be okay with boredom. Boredom is not the worst thing in the world, once you’ve lived a little bit. Don’t forget that’s all you.

Paste: Yeah, of course. And to clarify—I’m not trying to suggest that Curtis’ life is totally boring, because Morris definitely keeps his life interesting, and you’ve clearly got not a very boring life because you’re doing movies like this, and you’re doing shows like Mr. Robot. Not trying to say you’re boring, or anything like that!
Robinson: Oh, I didn’t take it like that. I mean, that’s how Chad shot it, too! We did DVD commentary yesterday, and there was a scene of Morris, I think, playing a videogame in bed, and Chad was like, “I wish I gave a wider shot to show more of the room.” And the very next shot was me in the kitchen, sitting down, and he says, “See that’s what I mean, see how there’s really nothing going on in the house?” It’s boring, it’s drab—that a word?—but there’s nothing going on, and he wanted to show that. So the fact you’re saying, yeah, adulthood’s boring, that is exactly what was supposed to be seen.

Paste: And I guess it’s a good thing that adults can have kids in their lives to keep them on their toes. I kind of feel like that relationship is essential to the whole movie, in that it has such a grounded point of view on family. That gives it a lot of value. You have strife, you have consequences, but beyond that you have this real sense of love, too. Was that something that drew you to the movie, that sense of compassion and humanity?
Robinson: Absolutely. Matter of fact, as I look at it, just the fact that Morris would curse at Curtis, and Curtis didn’t let that phase him—he checked it. “Hey, I’ma chill, you chill too.” But he’s always aware of the bigger scenario, you know? “I need you to text me when you come home late. I need you to understand that this is a worry for me.” He’s not going to let anything get in the way of the bigger moment. And really, every time I see the final scene with Morris and Curtis, I get choked up, because it is about us all being on the same team. We look out for each other. So that was one of those things that I thought would be especially beautiful to play.

Paste: I like that that scene gives you that big, cathartic moment between Morris and Curtis, and then you get to drop a great punchline on it. The humor here works well with that. Do you like that blend of drama and comedy?
Robinson: I feel like you can’t have one without the other. But definitely. I mean, that’s just real life, you know? Especially in a scene like that where it’s a beautiful moment, and then you don’t see that punchline coming. That’s what makes it so powerful. You do not see it coming.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.

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