For many years, Romany Malco has been the go-to “funny black guy” for many movies and television shows, though he’ll probably always be remembered for his role as Jay in Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin, where he got his big break. Since then, he also played Conrad on the show Weeds and appeared in quite a few movies produced by Will Packer.
In the David E. Talbert ensemble comedy Almost Christmas, Malco takes on a more serious role as Christian Meyers, the eldest son of Danny Glover’s Walter Meyers, who has returned home to spend Christmas with the family. At the same time, Christian is campaigning for the Senate, something that tends to distract him from the family drama while putting Malco in a more serious role.
LRM got on the phone with Malco last week for the following interview where he talked about his role in the ensemble comedy, as well as his character Tijuana Jackson and his pet project, trying to make the comedy Prison Logic.
LRM: You’ve been working with Will Packer and doing movies with him for a while now, so what did he tell you about Christian Meyers and how did he pull you into this one?
Romany Malco: I never knew this about myself, but Will Packer told me, on the phone when he called me… I was exhausted from Mad Dogs, and I didn't think that I had it in me to do another job. I don't want to do a job unless I genuinely believe that I am capable of delivering a good interpretation of a character. He goes, "Listen, man, nobody does a funny straight guy like you, so I need you to get your ass on a plane and come out here and do this movie." One, I was extremely flattered, and two, it always feels good to be wanted, and three, I was afraid that if I didn't take the job, I'd never work in Hollywood again, so...
LRM: Ha! I doubt that's true.
Malco: But no, Will is one of the few producers who has consistently looked out for me. He's one of the few producers who has put me in projects where I didn't even think that I fit, you know? He's consistently done that, and he's a guy who's also given me a lot of information and educated me on the project. You don't get that--it's rare--so my appreciation and respect to that brother with that alone.
When I read the project, what really mattered to me was that I had genuine opinions about each character. I didn't know who I was supposed to play, so when I found out that I had to play Christian, I was like, "Oh, that dude," and it was so funny because I looked at that character and thought, "Wow, this character is me. I think I'm being exploited." I even said it to him! "Hmm, trying to exploit me, bro!"
The reason the character is me is because there's a struggle. I have this innate need to be respected. Street credibility matters to me. Not the kind of street credibility like "I'm a thug," but the street credibility of "I didn't sell out." Judd Apatow told me a long time ago, he was like, "You have a lot of street credibility in this business, Romany. Do not sell out or you will end up back in the rat race." The rat race means, basically, you're having to run from audition to audition to audition. His movie put me in the situation of not having to audition.
Throughout my entire career, I've been struggling with the balance of power versus purpose. Power versus purpose. So, how do I not sell out, but at the same time, do projects that I think are poignant and have great messaging? It’s such a hard thing to do, but it's the same thing that this character Christian …
Christian is like, "Good Lord, the more political power I pursue, it seems like the more I compromise my purpose with my family and my family tradition," you know what I mean?
I was like, "Damn! I'm basically playing myself to a degree. A more tame version of me."
LRM: Do you come from a big family and have something that parallels this family coming together for the holidays?
Malco: Yeah, the family is big, but it's somewhat divided. We live all over the world, predominantly Trinidad, Tobago, and all over the USA, people in Europe, but the long and short of it is that we are a tight unit, so I don't want to put anybody on blast, but ... We've gone out of our way to extend our generosity and open our doors to other family members, made the best Christmas we could possibly make for them, and before they left, they robbed us, man! So, we keep a pretty tight unit: me, my mom, my brother, my dad's passed away, my aunt, my cousins ... We keep it amongst us, man. That's still pretty big. That's what way too many people do- they spread that seed.
LRM: You're from Brooklyn, originally, right? Born in Brooklyn?
Malco: I was born in Brooklyn! Yeah.
LRM: There’s a big West Indian population there, of course, yeah.
LRM: You mentioned some of the comedic things you've done before, but this movie, you're kind of the straightest person there, except for maybe your younger brother. You're surrounded by Mo'Nique, J.B. Smoove, even Gabrielle (Union) is getting into some comedy there, too. How'd it feel being that kind of space, where you were just kind of bombarded with these hilarious lines told by other people?
Malco: After Gabrielle got dry humped in the window pane, I was like, "I can't top that, so I might as well go for the drama of it." I loved it. The need to get laughs, the need to be funny, or the requirement of being funny is a lot of pressure. I tried, no matter what, to never put that on myself. I tried to just stay true to the story and if it ends up being funny. It's really because it's circumstantially funny. It's not me trying to drop a funny one-liner. I'm not about one-liners, and so, I felt as though the comedy and drama was so well distributed throughout the film, that I can relax and stay true to the story and it would all read.
LRM: Especially the dinner scene where everyone at my screening was laughing so loud, you couldn’t hear what was being said. What was it like doing that scene where everyone was being so funny and you had to keep things straight?
Malco: Exactly. As you can see, I don't know if you saw the trailer, but I broke character and laughed, and it's in the trailer.
LRM: Oh wow, I didn't notice that. I'll look for that.
Malco: Yeah, and so that's why when people come in and they're like, "How do you keep a straight face?" and I'm like, "Did you not see the trailer? What movie are you talking about? Nobody kept a straight face." If somebody's making you laugh, it's because the camera's on them, not on you, so laughing kind of encouraged people, and it was great. I really took pride in the fact that everyone was so spot-on and everyone was so collaborative, and they shared jokes and gave each other ideas. We all just chipped into the big potluck. We treated it as the story was our baby, and we were going to be the village that raised it.
LRM: I know David really wanted to have the movie centered around Thanksgiving and then Will convinced him to do it at Christmas time. Did they explain to you why Christian was campaigning at Christmastime? Aren’t elections in November normally?
Malco: What really ended up happening was due to natural disasters in our town, we had no choice but to delay our election. So this was the resurgence of that election. I believe that’s happened other times in history. This was the continuation of an election that was supposed to take place a month ago.
LRM: We never find out if he gets elected, either. Is that being saved for a sequel?
Malco: Here’s what I think really happened, because for the first time, Christian elected his family. That was the bigger election. The bigger election is electing himself and his family to carry on the tradition that they worked so hard to build. Ultimately, what that meant was, whatever the outcome of the story, he was going to honor the people and the peers that he grew up respecting, over the money and the political power.
LRM: That was very well said.
Malco: Thank you.
LRM: You've had all day to practice it.
Malco: It's so funny though, because it really is not true. It's like, you're discovering this stuff as you're being asked questions, so that answer that I just gave you is the first time I've ever said that. I swear that on everything, but, that is an addendum to what I was saying about the struggle between purpose and power, which is something I was saying earlier.
LRM: Absolutely, yeah. Have you had a chance to see the movie with an audience yet?
Malco: Not with an audience. Here’s what’s funny though… (Will) recently sent me an audio of an audience watching the movie. People were in there dying, and at something that I didn't think was funny, but he thought was very funny, which is when Kimberly Elise is scrolling through Kerry Hilson’s phone, looking at pictures of her and Lonnie, and they pass the phone to me, I give this look, which I thought was a very serious look. He was like, "Romany, that is the funniest. You looked like you were going to kill him for real!" and the audience was just… He’s playing for me, just the audio of it and the audience is busting up at that. I was like, "Wow, you just never know." Here I was thinking I was doing a great dramatic drop, everybody's crying.
LRM: Hey listen, the movie worked. I don’t think I’m the target audience and I was almost in tears at the end. Props to David for doing that, because it's very hard to mix that comedy and still get tears at the end.
Malco: It really is, it really is, and that's where David Talbert is a genius because on the set, he pushed the envelope, he made space for his actors, and he questioned them as their characters. When he saw an opportunity to go for the heart, he knew how to get it. That's his background in theatre. He did a great job with that.
LRM: Oh yeah, and also, casting Danny Glover as the patriarch was kind of brilliant, actually.
Malco: I agree. I'm so happy to be a part of a movie that doesn't feel dumbed-down.
LRM: What are you doing after this? Is “Mad Dogs” still going?
Malco: Mad Dogs is done now. Here's the deal. I'm extremely selective about the process that I'm involved in, but more than anything, we're in an era where you have to self-generate to sustain. I have a very entrepreneurial spirit, and so I want to make my own movies. I went and I've been doing a crowd-funder, and I raised money to make a movie titled Prison Logic, about an ex-con. It's a comedy, it's a dark comedy, about an ex-convict who gets out of jail and is set on becoming a motivational speaker.
I've been doing this character for almost twenty years. I've been doing it for at least ten years online. Basically, being a life coach who's institutionalized by the prison industrial complex. It's crazy, off-color, and so politically incorrect ... Even though people I grew up with, same as with Kevin Hart, have been so extremely supportive of the project, getting behind the project financially was difficult for people because it's extremely offensive. Even though it has a great message. I had no choice but to either succumb to studio notes, or make it on my own. I decided I'd make it on my own because the character is too raw, his profile ... I've done stuff for HBO, Funnier Guy, this is cult following, this raw guy. I can't come out with a movie and he's watered down. I've been raising money myself. I set out to raise $170,000. I got over funded, but now I'm trying to raise even more money.
LRM: Cool. What’s the name of the character again?
LRM: Judd tells all his actors to write their own material, and he’s been right about everyone who has done that, including Seth Rogen.
Malco: Exactly. Judd Apatow is 100% right about that. He's always preached that. He's always said, "You gotta write, you guys, you gotta write." I've been writing ever since I met Judd. I've got several screenplays that I'm hoping to see made. I just want to make them independently. That's the goal. I feel like we're in an era where things are leaning in that direction now, where you ... where rather than the distributor taking the lion's share, you, the creator, get to keep the lion's share. That window is going to be beautiful to people who are creative in content.
LRM: Good luck with that and congratulations on the movie. Great talking to you as it’s been a while, but I’ll always be a huge “40 Year Old Virgin” fan. I’ve probably seen that movie 20 or 30 times at this point. Every time it’s on TV, I watch it.
Malco: So you watch it every month. I really appreciate that, bro. 40 Year Old Virgin is for you what One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is for me. It's tradition to watch it every year.
Almost Christmas opens nationwide on Friday, November 11. You can read our earlier interview with producer Will Packer below and look for our interview with Malco’s co-star JB Smoove very soon.