In one of last year’s biggest entertainment stories, Kevin Hart lost his much-coveted gig hosting the Oscars after his homophobic tweets resurfaced.
But not all career wounds are self-inflicted.
Hart had nothing to do with the problem involving his new movie The Upside — in fact, he’s reported to have given one of his best performances in this remake of the 2011 French hit The Intouchables (Variety, in its middling review of the film, says he gives “a rangier performance that adds sincerity and heart to his manically funny persona”), filmed in Philadelphia nearly two years ago, and featuring Hart as a streetwise guy hired as a caregiver to a wealthy man (Bryan Cranston) with a disability.
The script-to-screen journey of The Upside, though, turned out to have a major downside: It was produced by the Weinstein Co., and when Harvey Weinstein was hit with multiple allegations of harassment, and ultimately a charge of sexual assault, the company slipped into the limbo of bankruptcy, tying up a slate of movies.
That limbo included The Upside, now extricated from its prolonged legal entanglement and ready to open on Friday — significantly modified from the version screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 (to mostly decent reviews). The Toronto version was eight minutes longer than the version that played at the Philadelphia Film Festival in October. Eight minutes is an eternity in film terms.
The movie was shot in March 2017 in Philadelphia and Sun Center Studios in Aston, where I had a chance to talk to cast and crew, who were buzzing about the Hart’s ambitious leap into the realm of serious acting, his freakish levels of energy, and his habit of rising before dawn to commence the first of several daily workouts.
“He works out like crazy. I mean like twice a day. Plus push-ups between takes. He’s up at five. Every day,” Cranston said before aiming a deadpan remark at his costar, seated next to him. “I, of course, am up at 4. I let him sleep in.”
Hart laughed, and was prompted to note how lucky he is to take on the rigors of a dramatic role with costars, including Nicole Kidman and Julianna Margulies, who’ve welcomed him and made him feel relaxed.
“This has been surreal for me,” Hart said of working with Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar winners. “To step into this movie, and not to know what to expect, and have these people go out of their way to make me feel at home, it’s the kind of energy that makes you want to do your best, and I hope that’s what I’ve done.”
Hart’s role had been much sought after in 2016 — rumored to have been considered by Idris Elba and Jamie Foxx, among others. Hart got the job, even though he’d built his superstar status on crowd-pleasing comedies like Ride Along and Central Intelligence.
The Upside would demand more of Hart, but director Neil Burger said there was already evidence — especially in the comedian’s stand-up act — that he had the elements of a good dramatic actor.
“You watch his stuff, you see right away that he’s not just a jokester. He’s a skilled storyteller, and that’s really the root of acting,” said Burger, who directed Bradley Cooper in Limitless, another Philly-shot film. “But in my first conversations with Kevin, I wanted to make sure that he knew we weren’t making a buddy comedy romp. That this was something different. And he absolutely knew that, and was ready for it, and was looking forward to the challenge. And I think people are going to be knocked out by what he does.”
Cranston was also a fan of Hart’s work. The Breaking Bad star has also done his share of comedy and has respect for what Hart has done on screen and even more for trying to stretch.
“It’s not always the case that somebody who’s really good at something can just flip and be really good at something else. Even though, more often than not, people in the comedy world can do drama, and it doesn’t always work the other way,” he said.
Still, he wanted to make sure when it came to The Upside that they were on the same page.
“We got together early and had some discussions. I just wanted to get a feel for him, because all I saw were his funny films, which is Kevin being energetic and making people laugh, and I didn’t know for sure if he could calm that all down and just be present. And it was after our first meeting that I called my agent and said, ‘He’s got this down. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he wants to do.’ Everything with Kevin is by design. He creates an environment that makes it possible for him to take another leap forward, and then he just lets it fly,” Cranston said.
That assessment is supported by The Upside producer Jason Blumenthal,
“He’s charted out everything. Not his manager, mind you, but him. Kevin. I’ve never seen an actor that much in charge, and I’ve worked with some sharp guys. I’ve worked with Will Smith,” he said.
In fact, Blumenthal feels his track record with Smith — producing his Oscar-nominated role in The Pursuit of Happyness — is part of what intrigued Hart.
“He talks about wanting to be a global star, and he knows there are many parts to that. He can look at the example of what Will did in Pursuit of Happyness and take something from that. The idea that people will see this is a performance piece, and he can add that to his repertoire. And I think people will see it that way, because Kevin is amazing in this.”
Hart said if people accept him in this role, it will give him “the credibility of taking the craft seriously.”
As careful a planner as he is, though, his strategy was undercut by the dissolution of the Weinstein Co. and the protracted legal battle for the rights of the movie. It’s tough enough to market a movie when you have one company to please, let alone another that comes in near the finish line.
But the question is, will the potential audience for The Upside give him a chance, given his recent controversy? It remains to be seen, and it remains to be seen whether he can successfully make the transition to drama, like Steve Carell. And if that happens, Hart credits what he learned on the Aston sound stage from his costars.
“Look, I see myself as the kind of guy who can bring it, who can turn it on when needed. But watching Bryan, I’m looking at someone on another level. It’s been fascinating to watch him turn it on. You want tears, he’s crying. You need anger? He’s giving you whatever level of emotion you want. On demand. We’re talking [smack] and the next second somebody says, ‘Action,’ and he’s crying. I’m like, where did he just go?
So I know when I’m working with someone like Bryan what I need to do is sit back and learn. I’m like a sponge. I look at how he approaches a scene, how he approaches the day. I listen to his conversations [with the director], and you see it’s not just about what’s happening in the situation, it’s everything that happened before, and everything that happens after, to justify what he’s doing in the scene.