I’ve heard a lot of different things from people who have spoken to Chris Tucker over the years: he’s manic, he’s aggressive, he’s evasive. When I sat down at a small roundtable with him today, evasive was the only one that possibly applied. This version of Tucker, six years out of the spotlight, was affable and talkative, though only on certain topics. When it came to the subject of sequels and film, he’d let a bit slip and then dodge away.

No surprise, I suppose, given the circumstances. He’s got a comeback film that pretty much any third tier actor would have taken for the payday, the extra twenty pounds he’s carrying have softened that long, distinctive square chin, and he’s pretty evidently committed to this project only because, for a variety of reasons, he has to be.

And really, when Chris Tucker speaks about projects in his future, I get the sense that he’s convincing himself about them, too, that he’s no more sure of where he’s going in the film business than I am. The question, then: with his sabbatical over, can he leave behind the childish, easy work of Rush Hour and become the actor we saw glimmers of in Jackie Brown? Does he want to?

We heard you
singing from a couple rooms away.

Oh, yeah? Well, I’m getting ready to do an album. I
wanted to do a fun album. Something that’s a different side of me that people
haven’t seen. Just stuff that inspires me. I’m like Stevie Wonder. I’ll tap
into the same inspiration. [sings] “I’m sittin’ in a chair/I got nappy hair!”.
Something like that. [laughs big]

You seem happy.

Oh, thank you. I got some rest! For six years! You know
people rush in to do movies and stuff, they want to make all this money real
fast because they feel like this is their time, and they’re not happy. They got
all the money in the world, but they haven’t lived. They haven’t gone and
searched out things to do that would make them happy. I think people are the
most valuable thing on earth, and I’ve traveled the world now, met and seen
different cultures. I’ve been to fourteen different countries in Africa doing a
lot of work over there, really just going over and showing up. I get the
greatest feeling going to other countries, especially in Africa where a little
kid will recognize me and run up yelling. Because movies travel all over the
world. I took advantage of being a celebrity. I got on a lot of great trips
with a lot of smart people; President Clinton, Colin Powell, Bono. I learned a lot about what’s going on around
the world and I got interested in these things. I thought they were more
important than making a movie, because movies are fiction. I’ve been to villages
that didn’t have clean drinking water because an animal died in the supply and
they need fifteen hundred dollars to get a new pump. There are people in the
world who don’t even have clean water and I never even imagined that. Kids
don’t have time to go to school because they have to take care of the family,
and all they want is a book to read, to escape.
A lot of the kids have lost their parents, from different diseases.
There are more people that die from diseases in dirty water and from malaria
than from HIV in Africa, people don’t know that. Those things helped me
appreciate what we have and what I do.

Unless I
misremember things, you used to say you lived for stand-up. But it sounds like
your perspective might be changing.

Oh, yeah, it is. But you know, stand-up, that’s one of the
reasons I started traveling. I wanted to have more things to talk about and I
wanted to experience the world. So that was based off my stand-up, which is
personal, real-life stuff. Movies, you can do some life stories, but stand-up,
that’s me. It’s the real me on stage talking about my life. So it’s still a big
thing for me. I went on tour right before I did this movie to warm up, to
sharpen my stuff and get my timing right, and I’m going on another tour after
this and I’m going to film it.

Now that you’re
back in movies, what’s your ideal role?

Well, I’m doing a president movie. I’m doing a movie
called Mr. President and I’m the first black president. It’s a comedy,
coming out next year around the election. I think I’ll be fun, it’s a leading
man role, I’ll get to be like Cary Grant. The president will be sharp, but have
to deal with the issues, he’ll have his troubles. It’s going to be a fun role.
I actually met Clinton years ago when I was researching this movie. He said he
wanted to do a cameo.

I like that you
say it like that. ‘A President movie’. It’s like it’s a whole comedy subgenre.

Politics is everything now. There’s so much to talk about
and the world is so close now that there’s a lot to talk about. So it should

Brett Ratner has blown up since you last worked
together. Is there a new balance of power between you?

It’s still a lot of fun. He allows actors to do what they
have to do. And I mean, we met each other on a music video years ago, did Money
and now all the Rush Hours together, so we grew
together. There’s a special relationship between us, because we’re friends off
camera and we really know and understand each other. He allows me to do my

Is this your
favorite film of the three?

I like the first one. This was definitely more action,
more comedy coming at you. The first one is my favorite because it was more
real. The tone was more real, and we had to find the comedy in the situation.
This one was more scripted; third films are kinda hard to do. I never plan to
do a part two or three – I just want to do the one. You find the realness you
find the comedy in the real situation, get all you can out of it and then move
on. When you get to part two and three it’s a different tone. It’s still a fun

Were you
challenged making this one, then?

Yeah, because I’ve grown as a person and that character
is one I created in ’98. That was a certain stage in my life, and you always
want to do different things. I came from Friday, to Money Talks, Rush
, so I had to get back to that mindset to play that character the
way he was played. I couldn’t play it the way I’d play something now, a
different role. So I’m excited to show people now the different side of me.

Is there
discomfort in having to confront so closely the way you worked a decade ago,
when you just want to move on?

It’s fun, it’s…it’s not uncomfortable. Whatever role you
do, you put yourself aside, so I just had to get used to that. It is my fun
side, still.

You recently found out a lot about your family and genealogy. Did that change your outlook?

It was great finding out those things. It’s powerful,
that knowledge. When I found out about my great-great grandfather: that he was a
businessman and a landowner, that he sold off his land so that people would
stay in his hometown, he was pastor. All these things. Then we took the DNA,
went to Africa, and found the lineage my mother comes from in Cameroon, my
father came from Angola. I went to Angola, but haven’t yet been to Cameroon.
Even here in America, I think they did the check back four generations, and my
great-great grandparents were given to the son of a slave-owner in Virginia,
she moved to Georgia…knowing how we got here, I’m watching Glory, marveling at
it. It’s so powerful when you know how this country was built, what it went
through. The faults, the greatness.

Will any stories
come out of you based on that?

I hope so. Because once you know about things, there’s
nothing you can’t do. And that’s why I did as much traveling as I did, to learn
more. I wanted to educate myself. Hopefully in the future I can play a serious
role, a great African-American and portray that struggle. It’s still important.
I think that’s part of problems with youth; we’re cut off from our history, and
we don’t have any faith and hope that something is possible. When I heard about
my great-great grandfather owning land and being a businessman, I thought maybe
I could be, too. Hey, I am a great businessman! The connection and the history
is so important.

Has your newfound history changed your comedy?

Yeah, it did. It really gave me a lot to talk about. As
far as knowing the history, like when Richard Pryor used to say the N-word all
the time, and he said he wasn’t going to say it any more after going to Africa.
For me, I feel the same way when I learned all this history about slavery. I
thought I couldn’t be saying that anymore. I can’t be saying the N-word when I
knew it was used to degrade my ancestors, and used in a nasty way by some
people. So I have to look at it out of
respect for what people went through when slavery was going on. I should respect
them and learn from that. When you learn your history, certain things you don’t
want to do anymore.

How do you pass
that on?

Through movies.
They’re so powerful, and also just talking to people, educating them.
When I was going to Africa a lot of people weren’t going. Now everyone is going
to Africa! They hear about it, see people going, and they go. We did it years
ago and nobody knew about it because it wasn’t about telling people what I was
doing. But I think it’s good to let people now. I remember this orphanage in
Ethiopia, full of babies. It was too much. I was talking to one of the nuns
there, who were doing the best they could. She said Mother Theresa told her
once that one raindrop creates an ocean. I didn’t know what she was talking
about then, but I know now. You see it in all these people going to Africa,
being concerned about it and pushing to help. Don Cheadle, George Clooney,
they’re doing stuff.

When I first started, all I wanted to do was be the best
comedian in the world and make the best movies. And I was on the way to doing
that when I stepped away for a second and started traveling because I wasn’t
getting fulfilled doing that. And I did find fulfillment going around the
world, meeting kids, and a whole other world opened up to me.