In Morris from America, Craig Robinson dispels any notions that he can only thrive in the world of comedy or music. Playing the part of Curtis, Robinson humanely inhabits a father who—with the death of his wife—must serve as both father and mother to his son, Morris (Markees Christmas), upon relocating to Germany. The film revolves around the eponymous teenager, but it’s Robinson who steals the show. While not entirely devoid of laughter, Robinson proves to be a skilled dramatic actor when he has to be. As Bilge Ebiri wrote in his love letter to the film, there’s a scene, “with a capital S,” that suggests the Chicago-born artist has untapped potential — another career path, if he so chooses to take it. In conversation, Robinson was candid about the loneliness he felt when arriving in Los Angeles, his relationship with his father, and the good old days when he used to have sex with the floor.
THE RED BULLETIN: Where were you born in Chicago?
CRAIG ROBINSON: 86th and Wolcott. Over west, where’d you say?
And when did you leave?
I left in ’99, and moved to LA, and I’ve been there ever since. There’s no place like home, though.
Did you feel out of place when you moved cross-country?
There was some shock. The only place I knew to go was the comedy club, to hang out with comics and do improv. It was real lonely for a moment there, because I would leave town because I do comedy on the road, so, when I first moved to LA, the first three or four months, I was on the road every weekend. So when I finally sat down, it was the loneliest feeling. I didn’t know anyone.
And you befriended comics right away?
Oh, yeah. I’m about friending people right away. But with comics, there’s a brotherhood there.
Tell me about that.
It’s connections, it’s knowing each other and going through the same struggle, and at the same time stabbing each other in the back. It’s a beautiful relationship.
It seems like you quickly transitioned onwards though.
Well, that was on purpose. I wanted to come out as an actor first. And then people come to a show, and they’re like, Oh, he does this. They didn’t realize I play the keyboard either.
After Hot Tub Time Machine, I think everyone does now.
There’s still some people who go, Oh, I didn’t know you were actually playing. They come to a show, and are surprised. It’s a fun live show. There are not really a lot of rules, and when it’s with my band it’s the best.
Better than acting?
Yeah, it’s the best. It’s the thing that I do .
What is it about live performance that makes it so special?
It’s about being in the moment. My show, with my band, allows me to be in the moment the whole time and fight off the idea that you need to have some structure, people are watching. We had a show on Monday in LA at the Hotel Café. It was one of those straight up, not giving a damn shows. And we were coming up with different music in the moment. My band is super crazy.
Yeah, so the best thing I do is let them go off.
Do you find that you’re happiest in that—
in that moment, yeah.
Two hours of performing.
Yeah, more than anything.
More than anything? Even family?
Well, I mean, that’s apples and oranges. I was with the family in Hawaii over New Year’s, my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary, so we went out there to celebrate, and it doesn’t get much better than that, but that’s another kind of warmth. The band thing is me being me.
Yeah, you don’t really think about it, but that’s fifty years together.
How is that possible?
It’s insane. I almost feel like I could do that with somebody. But then, my parents are special people too. They came up in a different time. If guys are looking for their mother, it’s going to be impossible.
That always worries me. Do you think that’s true?
I think there’s some truth to it.
That can’t be healthy. So, the father you play in the movie, would you say he more or less is a friend to his son?
I think that part of it is… no, I don’t think he sees himself as his friend, I think he’s trying to treat him like –
Yeah, and show him manhood. Treat him like a man, and guide him and hope that he gets it. There’s that friendship quality, but it’s very important that he knows that’s he’s his father. I remember my father once said to me one time, I’m not your friend, I’m your father. And there’s a definite difference.
What kind of relationship did you have with your dad?
It’s a good, solid relationship, but he’s definitely the one that disciplined.
Did you get grounded?
There was punishment. I don’t even know if we used the word grounded.
What was the punishment?
There were beat downs, there was “you’re not doing this”, there were consequences. We couldn’t watch TV when we got home from school, so that wasn’t happening. We did wonderful things, I’ve been many places, I was able to travel. We’d go to Jamaica, we’d go to California, Bahamas as kids.
Did he introduce you to good music?
We saw many concerts. We saw the Jackson 5, yeah man.
Do you remember that?
Oh yeah. Except that they were older, and it was, like, the whole family. That was when Janet came out.
How old were you?
I was a kid, I was a little kid. I don’t remember how old exactly. I just remember Michael Jackson saying, “Sorry fellas, this one’s for the ladies.” And I was like, Aw. So many great experiences. And it was well rounded.
I imagine it’s a tough balance to treat your kid like an adult, while still make sure he knows who is in charge.
And with Curtis and Morris, Morris’s mother is dead. They both miss her terribly and Curtis has to fill that gap, and he’s got to fill both roles for both of them. And they’re in Germany. And he knows Curtis is dealing with his tutor, with the school that he’s going to, learning German, being in this place. It’s a lot to deal with, so I think that balance of, Hey, watch your language, watch this, he has to let some of it go.
You know, the first thing on your IMDb page right now is a thing called AppleJAX and Yoyo, what is that?
That’s a short I did with a buddy of mind, Scott Vinci, he wrote it. It’s a comedy short, and he and we were detectives. He always had Applejack’s and I always had a yoyo. My thing was, They go up and they go down. So at one point in doing this short, the lieutenant was like, You guys been messing up. You’re off the case. We need slinky, get him in here! [laughs] That happened.
You remember that pretty vividly.
That was a lot of fun, and you didn’t know where this thing was going. You’re in LA, and your buddy calls you and says, Come on, let’s do it. And it sounded awesome.
How do you feel about the last 17 years?
I think we should do AppleJAX and Yoyo as a series.
You could make it happen.
But yeah, I’m in a good place.
And things are getting better?
C: No, balancing, there’s always something to be done. I got to get a house, I got to get to the gym. But as far as the career is going, it’s in a good place. It’s the first year in a long time – between The Office and a show I had called Mr. Robinson… [Sing song voice] cancelled! But between all of that, this is the first year that I’ve been available for pilot season, and this is coming out. My first Sundance. My first drama.
Any nerves or anxiety about entering a new phase of your life and career?
There’s other things that I would like to get done. See that action movie come to pass. Do a little comedy action? Yeah. But it’s just one day at a time.
Right before watching your movie, I was reading that thing with Charlotte Rampling and all this Oscar nonsense. Have you been keeping up with that?
A little bit.
How do you feel about it?
I think what you’re talking about is me not getting nominated for Hot Tub Time Machine 2?
Exactly man! Big snub.
Here’s the thing: you just wanna put good work out there, you wanna get good roles, and serve them correctly.
Do you think it’s easier for someone of color to get a role now?
With so many channels and people needing content, yes. I don’t know how easy, but I think it’s more wide open. I really haven’t dealt with this issue a lot. When I look at that Tamir Rice shooting, that’s when I think, how is that that still not solved?
I think they’re all oddly connected.
That’s what I was getting to. So, the other side is, do you put people of color in just because we just needed some black actors? I know there’s a bigger point I’m speaking to, when I look at the Tamir Rice thing though, it’s like, that’s unsettling. Coming from Chicago, I think there’s been more murders in Chicago this month than many cities in the last few years. There’re many things that we have to solve. So I don’t know where to go with that. And then the Oscars was like business as usual to me. I know Benicio Del Toro should have gotten something.
Did you see that movie?
Sicario? Are you kidding me? I felt things in that. I’m glad the soundtrack got nominated too. Yeah, Benicio, just with his eyes was like…
Considering your roots, have you checked out Chi-Raq?
I just haven’t gotten round to it. You know, it’s crazy, I don’t get to see a lot of stuff, because you gotta be in the mood, or a girl doesn’t wanna see it. I’m always like, gotta check something on Facebook or YouTube or something like that.
You’re on Facebook?
I’m on all that stuff. Not Instagram so much. So much time wasted. Sometimes I’ll look up and a couple hours have passed.
How often are you googling yourself?
How many times over years? Thousands. Nah, not that regularly.
You’re never going to be pleased when you do that.
At some point someone will say, Aw man, Craig Robinson’s good.
Yeah, there will be 15 compliments…
And then there’ll be that one.
Like, Fuck Craig Robinson.
(Laughs) So, yeah, I’ve curbed my enthusiasm for that.
Who made the song choices in this movie?
Chad picked all of that, it was all Chad, and the guy who did the soundtrack. But I mean, I was glad to be introduced to that stuff, especially that one Miguel song, when he’s having sex with the pillow. The “pillow scene”, I should say.
Damn. I don’t think I’ve had sex with a pillow.
I’ve had sex with the floor, so the pillow…
Man, back in the day!
When you were a kid?
Yeah, that’s how I would grind up!