Kevin Hart wants to avoid spoilers for his twist-laden new Netflix thriller True Story, so he simplifies the knotty narrative by saying it all comes down to one essential question.
“How far would you go to protect what you have?” he asked. “Things you have worked your (expletive) off for your whole life. How far would you go?”
Hart has come far and worked hard and is now king of a $200 million entertainment empire, and plays a heightened version of himself in True Story. His character is known only by the nickname Kid, and in True Story he has come home to Philadelphia to host promotional screenings for a new superhero movie.
He is waylaid by disreputable older brother Carlton (Wesley Snipes), leading to a night of debauchery that exposes Kid to very bad things and very bad people (there’s a role for Titanic villain Billy Zane). The seven-episode Netflix series (it goes live Nov. 24) follows Kid and Carlton and their frantic efforts to set things right under the relentless, peering eye of fans and media who hound Kid’s every step.
“The excitement of the project is in [watching of the movie]. This is my opportunity to have people coming in expecting one thing, and leave witnessing another,” said Hart who recently sat down for an interview at the Logan, his local HQ for a busy weekend of promotional work, including appearances at the Eagles game Sunday and the Punch Line Philly comedy club. It’s the kind of whirlwind we see in True Story, in which the story line spans a couple days in Philadelphia.
“The world of Kid is obviously similar to my world. We’re calling it True Story, which comes with expectations. But then things happen, and it becomes a mind (freak). Is this Kevin, or is this Kid? I think people will think, wait, what am I looking at? And at some point, when things get real, I think they’ll say, ‘Whoa, this dude is really acting,’ ” Hart said.
The movie was written by Narcos producer Eric Newman (son of Randy), but was developed in collaboration with Hart, who encouraged a blurring of the line between Kid and Kevin.
The freedom that came with fiction served as a weird kind of “therapy” for Hart, an unusually accommodating superstar (he’ll give you 40 minutes for an interview in an age when celebrities in his rarefied stratosphere will give you 4). If he grows frustrated at the process (“I’s the most draining (expletive) in the world,” he confides), he’s adept at keeping it bottled up.
True Story and Kid allowed him the vicarious thrill of losing it, of blowing up in a way he does not in real life.
“Kid is not a bad guy, but he has the burden of high expectations, always on his back and in his lap. Things get intense, there is stress attached, but he’s OK operating in that environment,” said Hart, who understands that side of the character very well.
He describes himself as a “hard drive,” with limited space that can be allocated to fans, press, family, and business. There is sometimes the danger of a system crash.
“You have to take a moment and step back when you realize you’re about to pop. With Kid, I didn’t have to do that. With Kid, I get to pop.” he said.
True Story presents Philadelphia as a kind of purgatory for Kid — the longer he stays, the more trouble he finds (his wary and suspicious manager keeps saying, “We have to get out of Philly.”)
For Hart, that Philadelphia ambivalence may be the most fictionalized element of all. He still regards the city as a touchstone, and vows he will keep coming back. Original plans for True Story called for Hart to perform a live show here as Kid, to be included in True Story, but that was scrapped by COVID-19. The movie (mostly interiors) was shot on sound stages in L.A., and the many exterior shots of the city on view in True Story were added to establish a sense of place.
Hart’s own sense of place is permanent, he said. Among the most important reasons he’ll always return is to show kids from North Philadelphia what is possible.
“I feel like I have a different responsibility. I come from nothing and I’m not supposed to have something” he said.
“I can go back to North Philadelphia, to quote unquote ‘the hood’ and look these kids in the eye and give them another narrative: that dreams are real and worth having. While understanding that it’s hard out there and it may not get easier, but I’m proof that if you stay true to the grind, things can happen. Philly? I gotta go back.”
Hart’s own dreams of life beyond Hollywood are close to coming true.
“I’m getting close to my dream, my dream of evergreen,” said Hart. He’s talking about establishing an entertainment business so durable and so well-managed he needn’t be around to run it.
“It’s not about the star attached to the name, but the legacy. Something that can function at a high level with me or without me, but without me, it will still be real,” he said.
There was a time when Hart said he’d always come back to comedy, to stand-up (he used his time in Philly to workshop material for a new tour). But he’s now in his early 40s, and his priorities have changed. He’s a producer, chairman, and CEO of multiple production companies, and says he now loves the boardroom as much as, or maybe more than, the stage, or a spot in front of the camera.
“I find that I love the business more than anything,” said Hart, who has a built a conglomerate that includes movies, television, streaming, books, podcasts, radio, fashion, endorsements (a new Chase credit card holiday commercial has Home Alone story Catherine O’Hara in the airport looking for “Kevin,” only this time it’s Hart), documentaries, and, of course, movies.
Being No. 1 at the box office no longer gives him as big a charge.
“I’m not going to get any bigger. I’m not addicted to the result, or the idea that you have to stay on top. I’m having a great time figuring it (the business world) out, and helping other people evolve. One of my great ambitions is to create platforms for the stars of tomorrow,” Hart said.
The narrative of a guy from North Philadelphia succeeding at his level, Hart said, provides a new kind of object lesson.
“When you look at how we are set up to lose, it’s no coincidence that when you go into the inner city, you see the check cashing place, the pager and beeper store that doesn’t take credit, just cash, your liquor stores, your sneaker store, not owned by the culture, but by other people, and you’re expected to take your paycheck, cash it for some enormous fee, and spend it right there, that’s how it’s set up,” he said.
“What’s needed is a new way. Here’s banking, here’s credit, here’s how to save, and why it’s important. I’m 42 and I didn’t learn about stocks and bonds and portfolios until I was 32! I got a platform, and a soapbox to stand on, and my example will be proof of a solution, and maybe I’ll execute and maybe I won’t, but my attempt will be seen.”
So will several more movies — he hasn’t given that up.
He already has Borderlands (for director Eli Roth) on the horizon, and also The Man From Toronto with Woody Harrelson, he’s set to shoot a comedy called Me Time, with Mark Wahlberg, and, yes, he’s trying to make a remake of Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Will Smith.
“Will’s a good friend, and we’ve talked about it, we’re just figuring out what makes sense, what the right timing is. If things line up, I think we’ll do it.”
Hart stays overtime to finish his thoughts, then is hustled out of the room for more interviews. A reporter thanks him for his generous time.
“No problem, man. It’s Philadelphia. "