Chris Tucker earns, dreams big
By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Chris Tucker remembers where he was when he heard he'd be banking a Hollywood-elite $20 million for his role in "Rush Hour 2." The irony is, it went right over his head.
He was attending a cable convention in New York, and the moment came when he was shaking the hand of Ted Turner, who was the leading shareholder in media monolith Time Warner (which owns CNN.com, and has since merged with AOL).
"He said, 'Chris, you got 20 million yet? You got 20 million?'" Tucker, 28, recalls.
He didn't understand what Turner meant, Tucker says. Yes, it was the salary he was seeking for the New Line Cinema sequel, but it was lost on him that Turner -- with his powerful position in the company that owns New Line -- was the guy who would give Tucker's salary the green light.
"I didn't know what he was talking about. I hadn't put two and two together," says Tucker. "That night, I found out he OK'd it."
That night, Tucker took the next step in a career that's headed to new monetary highs.
The latest big number is a record-breaking opening at the box office. "Rush Hour 2," which also stars Jackie Chan, raked in nearly $67 million in its first weekend, the best comedy opening of all time.
The profitable weekend followed Tucker's recent visit to Atlanta, which is a hometown of sorts since he was was born and raised in Decatur, just east of the Georgia capital. Tucker premiered the movie here Thursday night, August 2, for an estimated 200 family members and friends.
"It was like a family reunion, watching the movie," Tucker says the next day, sitting in a hotel bar in Atlanta's tony Buckhead neighborhood. "It's always a good feeling when I can get a screening for my family."
Quietly becoming comedian
Though Tucker received a load of support at the premiere, such wasn't always the case. He remembers a time when he was afraid to tell his high school friends that he wanted to be a comedian, even though they constantly told him he looked and acted like Eddie Murphy.
When he graduated high school, he quietly embarked on his dreams, playing a local comedy club, without telling any of his friends.
"I couldn't tell people what I wanted to do because I was from Atlanta. You don't tell people you're gonna be a comedian in Atlanta. That means you ain't gonna do nothing," Tucker says. "You're going to be homeless.
"So I kept it to myself. Then some of my classmates started to come down to the comedy club, taking a girl out, and they started finding out I was a stand-up comedian."
Ten years ago, Tucker moved to Los Angeles, California. The breaks came slowly at first.
In 1995, he starred in "Friday," a low-budget comedy that grossed nearly nine times its cost. In 1997, he played a supporting role in "The Fifth Element" with Bruce Willis, stealing every scene in which he appeared. That same year, he played an unlucky small-time criminal in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown."
"Rush Hour" came out in 1998, with Tucker and Jackie Chan throwing punches and punch lines. Though it followed the basic buddy-cop film formula, it grossed more than $250 million.
Now, Tucker is one of the most recognizable faces of Hollywood comedy. As L.A. detective James Carter in "Rush Hour" and its sequel, he's got a street-smart sensibility, a high-pitched voice and a face that lights up with every line.
In person, Tucker is much more subdued and his voice sounds, well, normal. He makes no secret that he doesn't want to be stereotyped as a "black comedian." He wants to do drama, working with talents like Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee.
"I want to do movies that mean something, that make people laugh and cry -- great movies, period-piece movies -- and work with the best people out there, who bring the best out of me," Tucker says.
Which is harder, making people laugh or making people cry? Drama, says Tucker, who promptly changes his mind.
"I think it's harder to do comedy, because in drama, you're getting in touch and feeling what you're saying and you're acting to it," he says. "But comedy -- it's timing, it's a look, it's a face. And that's why comedians get paid all that money. It's harder to make people laugh."
Drama dreams notwithstanding, Tucker says he's open to doing "Rush Hour 3," if the opportunity and the money present themselves.
Meantime, he's working on two other films, both being written by him: "Double-O Soul," which Tucker describes as a "black James Bond," and "Mr. President," with Tucker in the title role.
And Tucker has bigger dreams, too -- a Ted Turner-like role that empowers him to sign the checks.
"I see myself owning my own movie company one day, and doing whatever movies I want to," he said. "Green-light whatever. Control my own destiny. Green-light other great young actors who I think are funny. Find great movies and just green-light."
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