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Lil Rel Howery Talks Teaming Up With Kevin Hart For Netflix's Fatherhood - Exclusive Interview

Since making his breakthrough in 2007 as a stand-up comedian on the reality series "Last Comic Standing," Lil Rel Howery has been building a successful career in front of the mic as well as film and television cameras. With the benefit of having comedy great Kevin Hart produce his first hourlong comedy special — "Kevin Hart Presents Lil Rel: RELevant" in 2015 — a friendship was forged between the duo that continues with Howery's role opposite Hart in the new Netflix original film "Fatherhood."

Film audiences, of course, were introduced to Howery as TSA officer Rod Williams in writer-director Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror mystery "Get Out" in 2017. Thanks to his standout performance as the best friend of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), Howery has been working nonstop ever since, appearing in such hits as "Tag," "Bird Box," "Good Boys," and "Judas and the Black Messiah," which reunited him with Kaluuya.

Fresh off the wild comedy "Bad Trip" opposite Eric Andre, Howery is tackling a mix of comedy and drama with "Fatherhood," which debuts on Netflix June 18. In the film, Hart stars as Matt, a man devastated by the death of his wife Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) a day after she gave birth to their daughter, Maddy. With his mother-in-law Marian (Alfre Woodard) and mother Anna (Thedra Porter) worried that he's not up to task of raising the child on his own, Matt finds support in his two best friends, Jordan (Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan), who become big shoulders of support for the caring parent as he raises Maddy (Melody Hurd) from infancy to her days in elementary school.

Based on Matthew Logelin's bestselling book "Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love," which tells the true-life story of Matt and Maddy, "Fatherhood" also stars Paul Reiser, DeWanda Wise, and Frankie Faison.

Finding comedy after the trauma

I loved "Fatherhood." I think it's really a different film for you, a different film for Kevin Hart, coming from that comedy space. I laughed out loud several times watching this, but I'm curious to know whether you actually shot in sequence. The reason I ask is the funeral scene at the beginning. It's really tough stuff and by shooting it first, it would be a constant reminder that the film is rooted in tragedy.

Yeah, I believe it was filmed first. I know for me, I was working on another project at the same time. So, a lot of stuff [was going on]. They had me at the funeral, we had to shoot that separately, too. But yeah. I think that helped us all remember the traumatic thing that happened. Throughout the movie, we get constantly reminded, especially Kevin's character, Matt, on what happened, which is why like me playing his friend, the goal for Jordan was to just make sure he'll bring light in that ... That's why I think Kevin is brilliant in this. I think this is his best work, because he's showing emotion, where I ain't even talking. And there are some really sweet, heartwarming scenes in this movie. But he had to do a lot of that stuff in the beginning. I think Paul Weitz wanted to do that because it established the trauma that happened in the film.

Howery likes tackling dramatic themes

Well, it's funny, as in strange funny, that audiences tend to look at guys like Kevin, look at you, and they'll say, "You know what? They might have a tougher time convincing audiences of their talents in dramatic scenes," but I've always been of the mind that many comedians — most comedians, probably — are good at what they do because what they do is rooted in some sort of pain — whether they be masking that pain or maybe whether they be confronting that pain through the comedy. Would you consider yourself one of those kinds of comedians who might tend to root what you do in some sort of pain?

Yeah and no. And it's funny, because that's what the most dark comics do, right? Where it comes from the pain. Mine comes from love in a way, but the acting part of it is different, right? I look at Robin Williams. He was able to be the silliest person in the world, but then dramatically, I don't know who could hold a candle to that dude. He's one of the greatest actors of all time. The brother did "Mork & Mindy," where he played that alien ... That was one of the silliest things you can do. And then when you watch one of his serious movies, you're crying, because that's how great he was. Honestly, that's why he's one of my heroes. 

Eddie Murphy's another guy, right? "Nutty Professor" was funny, but then there were so many sad moments from Sherman Klump, where you felt bad for him, and Eddie was able to do that. Then you have Bernie [Mac] ... and I could go down a list of comedy heroes I have who've been able to do that, and to be honest with you, we always joke about this all the time, which most comedians do. We tell [people who put on] awards shows, "Look, man, y'all keep thinking comedy is easy. It's hard to make people laugh." Honestly, it's easier to be serious ... I think about acting in "Judas and the Black Messiah," right? 

Look, if the audiences are used to laughing when they see me, I like the fact that with "Fatherhood" and maybe the next few films I'm doing, they're more dramatic. And I know people are not going to expect it, and it makes me want to deliver it even more. Because that's what I've been leaning into, because I love acting. I still do stand-up, but I'm also like, "No, let's play the acting a bit." I don't like to be funny in every movie because I want to really blow people's minds. I mean, look at Tom Hanks. He did "Bosom Buddies" first, and now look at him. So I think if you don't let [audiences] put you in a box as just comedians, you'll be able to navigate both things. I do consider myself somebody who does both.

Gleaning positivity from Hart

I love your roles on film and TV, and the way you comport yourself on-camera during interviews, because you can feel that positive energy. I've never interviewed Kevin Hart, but the interviews I've seen of him are incredible, because I think bar none, he's one of the most positive life forces that I've ever seen. How infectious was that positivity working on "Fatherhood"? And how has it affected your life since?

That's Kevin. We have been friends for so long, right? We've known each other for a while, especially in the comedy world, which is why I think if you look at us onscreen together, it works. It looks like, "They've got to really know each other." He's always had a huge influence on me. Kevin is giving. He produced my first hour comedy special, and I'm glad he did. He agreed to do it and he's a giving person. And that does reflect on the set he had on "Fatherhood," with Kevin and Paul Weitz. "Fatherhood" was a great production, top to bottom, from the actors who played the parents to little Melody ... It was one of the most beautifully, fun, heartwarming sets I think I've ever been on, to be quite honest with you. It was so much fun. But that comes from Kevin. You know what I'm saying? It comes from the top to the bottom.

Well, that real-life tenacity that Kevin has, that positivity, I think that attitude in a way is sort of reflected in Matt, in "Fatherhood." I mean, his mother-in-law, played by the glorious Alfre Woodard, she says "Hey, you can't raise Maddy by yourself." And he replies, "I can't do it, but I am going to do it. And I'm going to do it because I'm her father, and I love her." I loved that. It's like he's saying, "Yeah, it's going to be tough. I know that. I'm not going to be perfect, but I am going to do it." And I love that sort of tenacity, and obviously his career has reflected that attitude.

That's why I believe he picked this story. It's from a true story. I think he fell in love with the tenacity Matt had. To be like, "I'm just going to do this. I'm going to be present, and I'm going to love my child. And that should be enough and we'll figure it out from there." And I think most dads, we get slack. Everybody automatically think dads are not parents. [People are] like, "You can't do this by yourself." [But we're] like, "Yes I can! Can I try at least? Y'all just going to tell me what I can't do?" And that's what I love about this movie, just from a father's perspective, because I'm a dad, too, is showing the vulnerability of being a parent. And literally just showing the simplest thing you can do for your kids is to be present and to love them.

Director Paul Weitz encouraged improv between Hart and Howery

I love your exchanges with Kevin. The "Do you remember Camp Winapoo?" exchange, the "flirtin' with both your mamas" exchange with Kevin in front of Alfre Woodard and Thedra Porter, the diaper rash ointment scene at the grocery store to the crib scene with the "goofy mother fudger" line — it feels like they could be improvised, and you guys are great at that. Are they improvised? Did Paul Weitz encourage that?

It was a bit of both, right? Paul is such an open director and he's so much fun. He was just open to the creative part of things. If I had an idea for something, and I approached him about it, he was on board, and vice versa. He's probably one of my favorite directors I've worked with, just because it was ... I don't know if I laughed with a director as much as I had with him. It felt like, "Should we be friends after this movie?" It felt like one of my buddies in the group chat, and I'm not even going to lie. I'm like, "I think you should be in our clique." [Laughs]

So whose line was it? Did you make up "goofy mother fudger," or was that in the script?

I figured it out there. "Goofy mother fudger" ... Yeah [smiles]. It's so funny to try not to curse in front of a kid, and make up words. Wait 'til you see the blooper reel, because it's me really going on this fake curse tangent that didn't make any sense.

I have to put you on the spot. After working with Kevin on "Fatherhood," and Eric Andre on "Bad Trip," who's funnier?

Hmmm. Well, it's two different funnies, right? Because "Bad Trip" is prank funny. So, it should be, "Who's crazier?" Eric is crazier funny, right? He'll do anything for the laugh. He'll do it. Eric is the boldest person I've worked with, and Kevin is hilarious. Kevin's always funny, so I think it's two different funnies.

Howery's upcoming projects include films with Reynolds, Affleck

You have so many great opportunities to work with so many great people. And I know you have "Free Guy" coming up. What can you tell me about the film at this point and your work with Ryan Reynolds?

Oh man. First of all, Ryan Reynolds is amazing to work with, and I'm not just saying that. I'm such a big Ryan Reynolds fan. When "Deadpool" did good, I was telling everybody, "I told y'all he's amazing!" But Ryan was so great to work with, and "Free Guy" is such a dope world where we're actually video game characters who don't know they are video game characters, right? It's a beautiful story of humanity that happens within.

One more future project that I have to ask you about — "Deep Water" with Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. That's another great pair to be involved with. What can you tell me about at this point?

"Deep Water" is a thriller. It's a thriller, man. And I literally just did ADR for it, maybe like a few weeks ago, and it looks good. It's crazy. Ben Affleck was great to work with, which was fun, too. If they had to create an award called "Best Actor as a Friend," that's going to be me.

Howery is 'blown away' by the lasting impact of Get Out

You were a part of "Get Out," a film that had so much impact culturally, on audiences, on the film industry. It must feel good being a part of a project that had such a huge impact.

You know what's crazy? I feel like I keep ... I find a way to pick these things, right? Because I think about "Get Out," and recently "Judas and the Black Messiah," again with Daniel [Kaluuya] and LaKeith [Stanfield]. So it's very interesting just being in things that started conversations. ... "Get Out" is so unique just because they're studying it in film schools now, which I think is crazy. I'm like, "Oh, wow. I'm in a classic movie." I think about that all the time. I have friends who have done a bunch of movies, but not everybody can say they at least got one classic under their belt, and "Get Out" is a movie classic. I was just watching it on a plane again recently, and it's weird when I watch it now, just from a fan perspective  and I'm always blown away, like, "Wow."

Having worked with Jordan Peele on "Get Out," I'm sure you want to do something else with him. Do you guys bounce ideas off each other or anything like that?

We texted recently, and hopefully we will find something, because I'm like, "Bro, it's time."

"Fatherhood" debuts on Netflix June 18.