Q&A: Craig Robinson
Anyone familiar with Craig Robinson knows the actor-comedian is a musician as well as star of TV’s The Office and Mr. Robinson and films such as Pineapple Express and James Brown biopic Get on Up. They might not be as familiar with his funk ensemble as they are with his signature song “Take Your Panties Off,” but Robinson will bring both to Vegas when Nasty Delicious plays Brooklyn Bowl on July 15. It’s a rare chance for Robinson, who won a special jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for his role in Morris from America, to fully indulge his first love and he’s not taking it for granted. He spoke recently with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
It looks like you’ve been super busy with acting gigs since production ended on Mr. Robinson. Did you have a break in your schedule that allowed you to tour with Nasty Delicious or did you deliberately set aside time?
My team—my manager, my agent—they’re very aware of my dates, when I’m appearing in film and TV. They all work together and they’ll send my questions, I’ll say “yea” or “nay,” and it usually works like that.
And then you’ve got to get with the musicians and see if they’re all available.
Exactly, exactly. It’s not always super easy but it tends to work itself out.
Yeah, I’m sure they would sacrifice as much as they can to play.
They’re all amazing artists, but they always have something going on.
It almost seems like it would be easier to set up the Nasty Delicious dates first, then work the film and TV stuff around it. Are they all Chicago musicians? Are they all old friends of yours?
They’ve become old friends, but some are older than others as far as friendships go and knowing them and all that. Several are from Chicago, but I think I met everyone else in Los Angeles. Except for my brother Chris. I’ve pretty much known him my whole life.
How long have you been playing together as Nasty Delicious?
Oh man, probably 10 years now. In 2008 we went to Montreal, and I believe I had them a year or two before that.
“Nasty Delicious” reminds me of Sexual Chocolate (the band that backs Eddie Murphy’s soul singer in Coming to America).
Sexual Chocolate! Maybe I was channeling that. It’s about the funk, like when you’re saying something’s nasty but it’s really good.
You play legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker’s “Pass the Peas” live and you portrayed him in Get on Up. Did one lead to another?
No, the director of Get on Up (Tate Taylor) … his agent told him I wanted to talk to him, and my agent told me he wanted to talk with me. When I called him, we went through all this small talk, forever, and he finally said, “Alright, whatchoo want to talk about?” And I was like, “What do you want to talk about?” Then he told me about the Maceo part.
I didn’t know you were in that movie when I saw it. It was really cool casting.
Interesting thing about that is right after we wrapped, like a week later, I was in New York and Maceo was playing the Blue Note, and he pulled me up on stage.
Did you play keyboards with him?
No, no. I was just doing this dance thing to it. He was cracking some jokes. He’s still got it, man. That dude’s awesome.
That was one of those this-is-why-I-got-in-the-business moments.
Right on. Exactly.
People know “Take Your Panties Off” and they might suspect what a Nasty Delicious show is like with you leading the band in a humorous way, but elaborate a little more on what they’re going to see and hear.
We come to party. Vegas in the summer, that’s pretty much all I can say. It’s like my act with the band backing me up, some crazy top-notch musicians. Imagine Richard Pryor sitting onstage with Earth, Wind and Fire—and scale it waayyy down.
We’re talking skilled musicians too, so you don’t need to rehearse with them a lot to prepare for a show, right?
Right. We come together like Navy Seals. We come in and handle whatever the moment calls for. I don’t know, I’m a horrible seller of self. We come in and we have a blast, and out No. 1 goal is to make you have fun.
Are you glad that you went in an acting direction for your main profession and do music on the side instead of having to depend on it? It sounds like you can approach music as a labor of love and do it how you want to this way.
You hit the nail on the head, Holmes. I’ve turned down a lot of stuff because of that, because I like to keep it in my control, when I want to do it. The fact that there’s even a demand for it … it’s nice. I definitely am glad with the way things worked out, even though my godfather taught me I’d be successful at whatever I do because I’m a good person. That’s what he told me, but I’m glad with the way that I approached it. Even though I’m doing comedy gigs, I didn’t want to come out with people thinking of me as a comic first more than acting.
Even when you’re playing a film role, how much you love music still comes across onscreen. I think filmmakers are either looking for that, or they’re really glad you can do that.
Well, thank you. It’s nice that’s getting communicated, especially when we were doing Mr. Robinson. That was so much fun. The writers were doing lyrics according to whatever the episode was, and then I would catch a lyric of catch a melody in my head, and then once I would pass it over to the band it’s automatically funked up. It was nice. I though there would be a lot more pressure, but the only pressure was “make sure you read the lyrics and catch the melody, and game on.”
When I was watching that I imagine a younger version of you being around your friends and singing what you had to say.
Oh yeah (laughs). Man, all the time. With my brother? You kidding? Still do it. I think on Seinfeld they did something like that. It’s just how some people are: (sings) “I like to stop at the duty free shop.” You start playing piano with it, drums, it could be anything as silly as, “Oh, there goes the public store/Oh, there goes the public store.”
There was a lot of innuendo in that show, too. In the first episode some of the jokes were … like “Come On Eileen.” This is NBC.
(Laughs) Yeah, man, them Cullen brothers (the co-creators of Mr. Robinson). They like to go for it. We did this show called Lucky back in the day (2003) on FX. They created and wrote then, so it was cool to come back around seven years later or whatever it was.
You work a lot with regular collaborators, but it looks like right now what you’re getting the most attention for is the independent film that you won an acting award for this year at Sundance. How much time was there between wrapping production on Mr. Robinson and getting involved with Morris in America?
I read the script and met with Chad Hartigan, the director. I loved the script. For some reason, I found out later, he didn’t think I was into it. So he was surprised when I said yes. We wrapped production, I don’t know, maybe a month, and then I was off to Germany for a couple of weeks to work on Morris from America. I shot for a couple of weeks, they shot for two months, so I was really surprised by the amount of time I was in the movie.
What was it like working with Chad Hartigan? He seems like a really empathetic director.
Chad was the director you … it was his own script, so he was leaving us a lot of room. You could ask him questions, and it was kind of like, “Come on, let’s see what you’ve got.” So it was cool, man. He was the greatest, and he’s cool to hang out with. There’s more film festivals and we’re going to catch up.
Did you get to go to Sundance for it?
So now you’re going to make the film festival rounds.
Yeah, been making them, been making them. Sundance, South By Southwest, there’s one in Chicago (Critics Film Festival). There were some others, one coming up in New York. Sundance, we won a couple of awards. It was very nice. Chad won for screenwriting (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic), and I got an acting award. Ha ha-a!
You got the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Individual Performance. That’s sounds pretty heavy.
It does sound heavy, and it’s a heavy award as well. You can imagine my surprise. I’m just happy to have a movie at Sundance. I never thought I was going to have a movie in Sundance. I just always saw it and respected it (and thought) “That would be cool.”
But you didn’t expect to win an award.
Right. I had left and was chilling at my apartment, and Chad called me. “Hey man, what are you doin’?” “Chillin.’” “Well, they want to fly you back down, ‘cause you won an award.” “Whaat?” That was extra special.
Do you know it’s going into limited release in theaters this year?
It’s going to be on DirectTV in July, and August 19 it comes out in New York and LA. After that it’s everywhere else.
Were you able to draw on your teaching experience again in being a parent to the character played by Markees Christmas?
Yes, but it a lot of different experiences, from being a teacher, to my parents, to being a big brother. He was playing both sides of the line with his son. He was a father but also a friend. He’s trying to be there for him, but also be a man himself. And Markees, he played Morris perfectly. Thirteen years old, raging hormones, situations that you’re not ready for but you still try to tackle them, but you’re just not ready. He’s just not ready, but this is how you get ready, by doing something you’re not ready to do.
I’ve only see the trailer, but you can see the nuanced performances the critics have been pointing out. The relationship really comes through. You can tell you and Markees had great chemistry. That one line in the trailer where you’re telling him he’s good enough to win a Source Award one day, he’s like, “Is that as far as I get in your dreams? Can I get a Grammy or something?”
That’s a real cool scene too, by the way. The trailer captures the moment, but it’s even more poignant in (the context of) the film. I’m anxious to see, when that comes out, who will remember the trailer and who will put it together with that scene. “Oh, that was even more powerful.”
You have some other projects coming up. Did you have a good experience with Zeroville? I guess Henchmen was a voiceover role, but …
I don’t know when Zeroville is coming out, but that group with Seth Rogan, we’re doing Sausage Party. That’s going to have some eyeballs on it. It is absolutely, ridiculously amazing. The craziness of Pineapple Express, but a cartoon. You can actually get away with more.
Yeah, you’re Mr. Grits.
Mr. Grits! They call me Mr. Grits!
Brooklyn Bowl at The Linq, 8 p.m. July 15, starting at $35 plus fee, 18+. 702.862.2695