While his tenure as a comedian is well ingrained in the funny bones of many of us, Cedric the Entertainer has adopted a new strategy to reshape his career, and project his talent and unmistakably warm personality into varied and challenging arenas. This month, audiences nationwide will see his name and hear the trademark baritone on the silver screen in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and - for those in New York this winter - on stage, but not one you may expect. Cedric wants to do more than entertain.
What draws the comedian - known for his unhinged take on black life - to an animated feature? Aside from wanting to give a performance his children could enjoy (and see), it comes down to perpetual motion: "as a comic, you always count on your natural abilities to take you into places...the main goal is not to find myself typecast or put in one little box." Retracing his own career roots, he explains that "comedy took me into television, and that took me into film, commercials, a lot of things where just by being a presence and a personality [I've been given these opportunities]." This poses a serious question: where does any stand-up comedian go from there? George Lopez once said that roles in animated features (a la Madagascar or Beverly Hills Chihuahua) allow the comedian valuable exposure in an age of reality. "These kinds of projects keep your name out there," Cedric agrees, "especially for stand-ups." In Cedric's opinion, the comedic career goal more resembles that of Robin Williams or Jamie Foxx - a blend of comedic and dramatic parts showcasing range, wit, and humanity as a performer.
Looking forward, New York audiences will see Cedric for the first time on a stage of a different type. This November, he'll be appearing in David Mamet's "American Buffalo," a play about three would-be burglars who plan to steal a valuable coin collection from a vacationing wealthy man. Does it seem a far cry from Madagascar? It should. He took the role to break out of his shell, Cedric says. He's aiming to "get outside of the space," the niche he describes as roles like "the easy going dad, the blue collar every man. I felt like [I've done this already], and I can't see where it's going to take me. It was hard to sell the people who were writing the checks on anything different." Luckily, "Buffalo" director Robert Falls was looking for a cast that was as diverse as it is talented.
In roles held over the years by actors such as Dennis Franz, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pachino, Falls cast Cedric, The Honeymooners costar John Leguizamo, and The Sixth Sense alum Haley Joel Osment. While he may make light of the screen-to-stage pay cut ("It is Broadway so it's a lot less money, a lot less; did I say it was a lot less?"), he admits that for him, projects don't always have to come down to dollars and cents. In his words, "the experience of being in New York, of being on one of the greatest, most prestigious performance stages in the world, is going to be something that will change my career from here on out." "I look forward to the unknown," he adds, "I look forward to the opportunities that show up beyond finances;" These are, he says, the risks-taken that he can look back on as personal triumphs.
The stark contrast between Hollywood and Broadway took time to adjust to. "It has little to do with being a star, it's all about can you do the work? Its eight shows a week, and you have to deliver to a live audience, right now." While his training as a standup proved invaluable to the learning curve, the difference lies in the material. Unlike performing your own routine, here you work to support your costars as well; "you really develop who your character is and [learn] how he drives the story forward."
In terms of other opportunities, Cedric the Entertainer has his sights set on the life of late 19th Century Jamaican-born journalist and incendiary figure Marcus Garvey. "An epic movie," he says, "something on a powerful character that's never been brought to film." In Cedric's opinion, Garvey is a polarizing, inspirational, and massively visible figure the African American community hadn't seen until Barack Obama. "You saw what [Obama] did in Germany, but its weird to think that in a time like this, no one has had that influence where the world recognizes the individual for their power and their gifts and their desire to make things happen." The goal of the film would be to show how Garvey successfully organized others around his sometimes controversial ideas, in a country where technological and racial barriers were stacked high. Cedric may just be today's proof that while "it's good to be strong, likable, and funny," you should never allow yourself to rest on the laurels of one outlet. "To be able to still do some funny movies, but have the opportunity to push some of my other ideas through - it's good to look forward to that."
Madagascar: Escape to Africa opens November 7th, American Buffalo opens on Broadway November 17th.