At Le Parker Méridien hotel in New York City on Wednesday, comedian Kevin Hart was all smiles. Although he's small in stature, his presence — and excitement about his projects — is not, perhaps confirming the truth in the tongue-in-cheek title of his 2009 stand-up special, I'm a Grown Little Man.
The reason for his cheer? The Five-Year Engagement, a film in which he co-stars with Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival's opening night later that evening. He's also celebrating the release and good reviews of his other new film, Think Like a Man, which is based on Steve Harvey's best-seller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.
"This is my first solid, good movie," Hart says of the latter in a comment that is part jest, part seriousness. "I've been part of a lot of movies, and I can't say that I have tons of good movies under my belt. I'm about 20 movies in the can, but this is just a good film."
Now, on the cusp of what could be his breakthrough into the mainstream rom-com milieu, Hart spoke to The Root about his foray into romantic comedies, why Think Like a Man is not a black film and why you'll never hear him joke about Trayvon Martin.
The Root: In Five-Year Engagement, you play Doug, a Ph.D. student who studies the psychology of masturbation. Was playing a student a stretch for you?
Kevin Hart: Yes. Here's why. I am a product of a two-week community college education. So my college experience is very minimal. [To play] Doug, I had to do some research. I had to study to get my terms and verbiage down. I wanted to come off educated.
Not only was Doug smart and intelligent, but he believes in his theories and his studies. I didn't want to come off as Kevin Hart, the silly guy with so much energy. I wanted to play the nerd side, you know, because Doug is really into books.
TR: If you were to pursue a Ph.D., do you think you would take up some of the same subject matter as Doug?
KH: I don't need to take it up as a theory. I've proved everything I need to prove to myself. Doug is different. He wanted facts and proof. I already know what it's about, what it can do and different ways to get it done, so I'm well versed in that area.
TR: You've heard the criticism of Steve Harvey's book. What do you say to those who say that the entire notion of acting like a lady but thinking like a man is sexist?
KH: I don't think [the film is] literally saying, "Think like me!" Most men think about ass all the time. I think about sports and ass. Don't think like me. That's not what I'm saying at all. It's just showing you what men think.
It's really opening up the dialogue. It's giving men and women a chance to actually have something to talk about. Because you see why men manipulate, why men lie and why they deceive. And then you get to see women react to it. So those women who think that are overthinking it because it's told from a male point of view.
TR: Tell us about Cedric, your character in Think Like a Man.
KH: Cedric is me. He's a divorced guy, and at the time my divorce was just getting finalized. So for me it was a great movie, a great role. I was able to incorporate things from my personal life to make Cedric a little more believable. And every character in this film is real.
You know somebody who is very close to being what these guys are. I think that ultimately you take something away from each of these relationships. You understand their plight.
TR: Think Like a Man has received a lot of mainstream promotion from networks that don't always promote movies with all-black casts. Why do you think that is?
KH: Think Like a Man is not a black movie. It has a black cast, but it's not a black movie. Black people aren't the only people that are going to go see this film and relate to it and enjoy it. It's not full of black stereotypes, themes and only things that black people know about. It's a universal film.
I really think that when it comes to the realm of black film, we're trying to take that stereotype and throw it in the can. If black people go support this film, then we won't have to only have stereotypical black films anymore because we can show Hollywood that our films can actually make money. We can actually generate great box office revenue.
TR: Five-Year Engagement and Think Like a Man are both romantic comedies. Is that Kevin Hart's new thing? Can we expect more of that from you?
KH: Yes, we have some ideas on the table that are in the romantic-comedy realm. When I look at the success of comedians that I looked up to in the past, the romantic comedies that they've done are huge. Look at Eddie Murphy and Boomerang. Look at Martin Lawrence and A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. That road is a good road to go down, because you can appeal to everyone, and by that I mean, women will go see it but men will still root for you.
TR: Recently, Saturday Night Live did a skit on the Trayvon Martin media coverage. We saw how that story gripped the country and divided it in some ways. We also see the success of race-based comedy in Awkward Black Girl and Key and Peele. What are your thoughts on comedy and racism?
KH: I just don't have a humor for racism. I don't find it funny. I've never been a comedian to touch on race. I can't stop racism from happening, so I don't talk about it. It's real, it exists and it's a sensitive subject. Things like the Trayvon Martin case, I don't touch on it.
TR: You're currently on an arena tour called "Let Me Explain." What can your fans expect from this one?
KH: I think I found success in being honest and talking about problems that I have before others have a chance to. It's good to be self-deprecating. That's one thing that I'm good at and one thing I've learned. People feel like they can relate to me. They understand me. When you have people who feel that way, your supporters are so much more than just fans.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.