Duck for cover: Ice Cube (left) plays alongside Kevin Hart in the new film Ride Along.Movie session timesFull movies coverage
The name ”Kevin Hart” may not mean anything to you right now – unless, that is, you’re among his 10 million Twitter followers or gave him one of his 12 million Facebook likes or, like 5.7 million or so others, you follow him on Instagram – but if all goes according to plan it soon will.
”This is the road to becoming an international superstar,” Hart says with not a trace of embarrassment of a hectic schedule of filming and promotions that stretches at least until the end of 2015. ”I’ve got a drive like nobody else’s.”
Assuming you are not among his legion of fans, here are the basics: Kevin Hart is 34, stands 163cm tall (that’s 5’4” in the old money), is African-American, divorced, a father of two, has a mother who died eight years ago from cancer and a father who was throughout Kevin’s childhood a cocaine addict.
It’s OK for me to mention all this because he does, frequently. Hart mines his own tragedies for comic effect like nobody’s business in his stand-up routines, and plays a variation on the theme in his film work.
”You can be a victim of your environment, feel sorry for yourself, constantly get rubbed on the head and be told it’s going to be OK, or you can man up and say I’m going to change this,” he says. ”I said I’m going to change it, and my outlet to change it is stand-up comedy. I had a story to tell and I’m still telling it.”
He’s come to Australia to promote Ride Along, in which he has second billing (for the last time, if he can help it) as a high school security guard with dreams of making it into the police academy; Ice Cube (who has top billing) plays a real cop who takes him on a ride along in a squad car to prove he just doesn’t have what it takes. Naturally, that’s not quite how it turns out.
This amiable crime-comedy spent three weeks at the top of the US box office last month, to the complete surprise of pretty much everyone but Kevin Hart, it seems. While studio bosses and trade analysts were puzzling how an ”urban” film with a $25 million budget could take $130 million in the US alone and catapult Hart onto everyone’s radar, he was simply notching it up as one more step on the way to world domination.
”I really believe you get out of life what you put into it,” he says. ”You could get to this level [that I’m at] right now and you could get comfortable – you could get really, really comfortable. Or you can get to this level and say, ‘I want so much more’.
”It isn’t just about the success side, it’s about the international appeal. When you have universal appeal across the world, that’s something special, man.”
Hart is a tiny bundle of tightly coiled energy sitting across from me in a Melbourne hotel room, his very own ride-along videographer (another Kevin, Kwan) recording his every utterance for snippets to be shared with his adoring fans on social media. ”We’re living in the generation where people want to know ‘what did you have for breakfast, what kind of sneakers do you wear?’ It sounds like simple questions but it’s a big deal. It’s all about connections.”
The calculation is barefaced, the self-belief overwhelming but, oddly, neither is as off-putting as you might expect.
Hart is determined to transcend matters of colour or race is his pursuit of a mass audience, and why not? ”I don’t like to play the black/white card. I’m trying to erase it,” he says. ”If it’s an all-white cast they don’t call it a ‘white movie’.”
But the challenge is all ahead of him. His films have grossed a total of $825 million, but the vast majority of it is in the US, where the African-American audience is huge. To become the star he feels he can be – he imagines himself in the company of Will Smith, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Cruise – he needs to emulate the breakout success of an urban music star such as Jay-Z.
And that is precisely his plan.
”I’m a brand,” Hart says. ”I understand the business behind what I’m doing. I took the power out of the studio’s hand when I did my first comedy special, Laugh at My Pain. I released it in 200 theatres, I spent $750,000 … we did $8 million. I thought, ‘Hmm, now wait a minute; I’m going to front my own movie again’. This time I spent $2.5 million on Let Me Explain … we went and did $33 million on 900 screens.
”You become a businessman by owning a piece of the product,” he continues. ”I don’t like being work-for-hire. I want to be a boss, I want to be a mogul, a CEO. If you just stay as a talent, talents come and go. You could be gone tomorrow. If you become a business and a talent, there’s no erasing you.”
Ride Along is out on March 20