Probably the funniest thing about David E. Talbert’s ensemble comedy Almost Christmas are the two amazing comedians he and producer Will Packer got to play two key characters in the movie: Mo’Nique and JB Smoove.
Smoove has been on the stand-up comedy circuit since the ‘90s, but in 2007, he was cast as Larry David’s friend Leon in his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, and his acting career exploded with roles in Chris Rock’s Top Five, Barbershop: The Next Cut and other comedies.
In Almost Christmas, Smoove plays Lonnie, husband to Kimberly Elise’s Cheryl, who is still trying to get attention for his past as a basketball player, and after he hooks up with a young woman at the grocery store that leads to a hilarious confrontation over Christmas dinner.
The movie is extremely funny but also quite moving as the ensemble cast, which includes Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Omar Epps and Jessie T. Usher really pull out the stops on both ends of the spectrum.
LRM got on the phone with Smoove last week for the following interview where he talked about returning as Leon to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
LRM: I saw the movie last night in New York and it just completely destroyed the audience. I have not seen an audience that lively and into a movie maybe since I saw “Superbad” at Comic-Con. It was crazy.
J.B. Smoove: Man, it’s absolutely an amazing movie. What an amazing time. I love my character. I love what David Talbert had put together. This is what a holiday film should be.
LRM: Last time we spoke was for “Top Five” and you were playing a really funny character in that one as well. Did Will approach you to play Lonnie or was it David or both?
Smoove: Oh David did, man. You know what? What happened was, we actually had the same agent, and it’s kind of one of those things where they ask about you and your availability and once they tell you who’s in the film, once they said Danny Glover, I said, “Danny Glover? Oh, I gotta get in this movie.” (Laughs) But everyone who’s on the movie, the majority of the people on the film, I have a relationship with already, which is fabulous. You know, me and Mo’Nique go back 20 something years, almost 30 years. Me and Romany (Malco) have a friendship we’ve had for a while. So that’s what makes things amazing, to be able to do this, our relationships off the camera, also. So that makes your turn as an actor even better because you have a genuine reaction to drama and a genuine reaction to funny and the humor and also sadness. You can pull from a different place as opposed to pulling from just being someone who’s cast or auditioned for a role and comes in. I think that’s a plus, you know, that’s a plus. But that comes with getting characters on board who are familiar with each other, also.
LRM: Yeah, I forgot that Gabrielle and Romany were both in “Top Five” too. Did you have scenes with them? I think you had scenes with Gabrielle or no?
Smoove: Oh actually, yeah. I’m with Gabrielle in this movie. We have a scene together, even outside of the major dinner scene, we also have a scene together, like two other scenes together. So it’s one of those things where these are all fabulous people to work with. Kimberly Elise, who plays Cheryl White in this movie, she’s absolutely a fabulous actress. She’s amazing. And we had a chance to really have some great fun. We do act a lot and she’s not even a comedic actress. She does drama, and she is fabulous at what she does, man. She’ll pull the tears out of you. I think that balance there with the two characters really works really well. You get a sense of who my character Lonnie was, who Cheryl was, the reaction to the family to Lonnie, the things he’d been through comes through in every scene that he did, the things they’d been through in their marriage, and it all comes out and it’s a big hit in this movie, you know? You have a great ride with this movie. All the emotions are tacked in there.
LRM: Do you yourself come from a big family? Is there anything you can see parallels with your own family?
Smoove: Oh yeah. You know, my family in North Carolina is huge. And it’s just like any family. You all get together on our family reunion more so than our Christmas and our Thanksgiving, but our family reunion is, I mean, a lot of folks show up. We have a great time. I’m from a small town in North Carolina, so I’m a country boy. We get together. We talk over each other. You know, we talk about good things, talk about bad things, talk about sadness, talk about happiness. We’ll go to a bowling alley, we’ll go to a movie theater, and we’ll pack it in in a restaurant and we’ll just take over. We talk over each other. We’re loud and funny. Everybody in my family could’ve been comedians. That’s how fun my family is. And I get my humor from them, definitely. My mom is funny. My mom is hilarious. So it’s one of those things where these are all the traditions, getting together with family is a major tradition and a big part of my life off the camera.
LRM: Are any of them comedians or entertainers or anything like that? Or are you the only one?
Smoove: My brother is a comedian also. He’s been doing it for three years now, so he’s also a comedian. And as far as comedians in my family, that’s about it, who took that step and got on stage with it. You know?
LRM: I thought Gabrielle was hilarious, and she really was doing a lot of physical comedy in this movie, which I haven’t really seen from her. She’s done comedies before, but she really got out there.
Smoove: Yeah, man. You know, and I think David did a great job of pulling these moments, these amazing moments for everyone to do. And even when we would do certain scenes, he would sit us all down and you’d enter some pivotal part of the movie or do something in general, he wanted to know not you personally, but your character. What would Lonnie do in this situation? How would Lonnie react to this turn of events? How would Lonnie act towards Walter? How would Lonnie react? I loved that he wanted to know how we felt emotionally as an actor and as the character. I think that is what helps us make those scenes come to life, whether it’s a funny scene, and that’s a fun time for her. Like you said, she doesn’t do many comedies, but this movie has so many--her character’s background lends itself perfectly to those scenes, which are really funny, you know?
LRM: Your character has some of the funniest lines, but Lonnie is also the guy in the movie who causes the most trouble with some of his actions, I guess is the best way to put it. We’ll be vague.
Smoove: Yeah, man. Yeah, he’s been through a lot. I think the family’s reaction to him is what plays very well. He did it to himself, basically, but I love Lonnie and I love taking on a character like this. I think him having this background really, really played well. His history with the family and history with his wife played really well.
LRM: I wanted to talk about your scenes with Mo’Nique--you have a lot of them. You’re both forces of nature, as far as comedy. To put you two on a set together, what was that like? Were you just going on and on for hours?
Smoove: At one point, he just let the camera just go, and he would just let us go and have a good time with the characters, which I think is a plus, because then he’ll have more to play with when you edit. You can find out what fits best, what’s not over the top, because it’s not a slapstick comedy. So I think he wanted to ground it in a real place that the humor comes from the real place, you know? Being able to work with Mo on it really, really allowed both of us to tick off on each other. Like I said earlier, having that history really helps a lot. Having that history together really helps a whole lot. It’s just a different way of playing a character.
LRM: Some of the funniest parts were some of the kids’ reactions to you guys. Could you even have kids on set while you guys were doing that stuff? Some of the stuff with Santa, especially.
Smoove: Some of that stuff, we had to actually get those singles. We got the wide shot and then we went in for the singles, we had to actually get rid of the kids or whatever, but we got most of it. A lot of times, Mo’Nique would give the kids funny lines to say in between shots and then we wouldn’t know. Then when the scene started, the kids would say something so crazy and so funny because they were on the same side of the table as her, and she would just whisper little things in their ear and return with really funny lines.
LRM: The kids were great, and they stole some scenes with their reactions.
Smoove: Oh man. Those kids, they were so amazing. They were so amazing. They really impressed us and they were really good. Good kids, good actors, and we loved it.
LRM: So when I saw the movie last night, at that dinner scene, I couldn’t even hear half the jokes because people were laughing so loud. I’m convinced there was a woman in the back who pissed herself. She was laughing so hard. She was going completely nuts. They were clapping along to the songs, the whole thing. They were so into it. I don’t know if they were paying them or something, but they were into it, yeah.
Smoove: Hey, that’s a good time. I love a good time, a holiday film. I love a good time holiday film. I love it.
LRM: So what was it like shooting that dinner scene with all that stuff going on? Was that a couple of days of doing that?
Smoove: Oh yeah. It took us like a week to shoot that dinner scene. I mean, and the least that we could have. You’re talking about a lot of people to cover. You did all the wide shots. You gotta go in and get all the individual shots. Anything that’s funny, they want to turn up, they turn that up, and they captured that. All the camera movements and all that stuff, food on the table and all that stuff, all that intricate stuff that goes to a part of it, the lead-ins coming in through the kitchen. It all took a while to do, but we got it, though. We got it done.
LRM: Yeah, whomever edited it did an amazing job, yeah.
Smoove: Yeah, man, they did a great job. Everything works. We’re happy.
LRM: So do you have a new TV series you’re working on now or something coming out soon?
Smoove: You know what? Curb Your Enthusiasm is coming back. “Curb” is coming back, so we start working on “Curb” next week.
LRM: Wow. That’s cool.
Smoove: I’m back on the set. Yeah, I’m back on set.
LRM: I think he was talking about doing it for a while, but I thought he was so busy on SNL doing Bernie Sanders.
Smoove: Oh Bernie? (Laughs) Yeah, yeah.
LRM: So you haven’t started yet?
Smoove: No, we’ll start shooting that next week, and you’ll probably see it this time next year.
LRM: How long does it usually take to do one show? Do you do one show at a time like most TV shows?
Smoove: Yeah. You know what? Most of the time we do one episode at a time, and it’s improv, that show, so we get an outline of what the idea is for the show and we kind of go from there. We’ve been really, really happy with what Larry presents to us. I never know what we’re doing until we actually get on set. I like to find out what we’re doing when I get there. I don’t like to overthink it and get there early and go through all that stuff.
LRM: How is it doing a show like that? There’s some kind of outline or something, right?
Smoove: There’s an outline. I don’t generally see it most of the time. I like when they tell me what it is and I still the emotion in the moment. I like to see what the scene is, what the shot is and where we’re shooting it. I like all that little stuff, intricate stuff. That’s the fun part for me, because then I get a better feel of what it is by looking in Larry’s face, while looking who I’m playing with in the spaces and being in the moment with them, rather than just reading it. I don’t know. I’ve got a tendency to read it and just overthink it sometimes. I like a natural reaction to how I treat the scene, though.
LRM: It’s been a couple of years since you’ve played Leon. Are you going back and watching some stuff to just remind yourself, because you’ve played other characters since then?
Smoove: You know what? Nah man, Leon is a very particular person. From the time I went in for the Leon audition, I knew exactly who that guy was. Everybody knows a guy like Leon. I know who he is, exactly who he is. And no, I don’t really have to watch anything. I can’t help but see it because I actually use the best of Leon through all my standup shows. Before I come onstage, I’ll just play the best of Leon, the host will go on stage and say, “Hey, get ready for your headliner. Before we bring him out, let’s get a little trip down memory lane.” And they’ll throw on the best of Leon. And so, I get a chance to hear Leon every time I perform on my standup tour. So I know exactly who this dude is, you know? Basically, Leon really is me. So I’m not being too far off some of the things he does. That’s different.
LRM: You’ve had such a long career as a stand-up, but most people first know about you from “Curb”, and maybe from movies like this movie and “Top Five”, too, these two movies were great to do other things, and also I get to talk to you.
Smoove: I’m happy. Yeah. I appreciate that.
LRM: Alright, man. Great talking to you again and best of luck with this film. I assume you’ve seen it with an audience already, but if you haven’t, make sure you do, because it’s a great experience.
Smoove: I will. I will. I appreciate that love, brother.
Almost Christmas opens nationwide on Friday, November 11 with previews Thursday night. You can read other interviews about the movie below:
LRM Interview with Romany Malco