Seven years ago, Chris Tucker became the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. New Line Cinema ponied up $25 million to get him to star in the third Rush Hour comedy, opposite Jackie Chan.
The film was a critical and box office disappointment. Tucker didn't appear in another movie until 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, in a small but pivotal role. That one was a surprise smash, and it raised the 42-year-old's profile considerably.
The motor-mouthed Georgia native explains that he has spent the last half decade refining the role that made him famous in the first place: Standup comedian.
"That's always connected with my acting, too," Tucker says. "It helps me be sharper, and stay sharp until the right role comes around. I was actually waiting for the right roles — I just don't make a lot of movies. I like to do the right ones.
"Silver Linings was a fun one, even though I wasn't a star in the movie like in the Rush Hours and Fridays and all those, but I knew it was a cool part, it was a great director, good cast — and those are the type of movies that I like to do. And now more of those movies are picking their heads up."
Tucker's been on the road, more or less constantly, since Rush Hour 3 wrapped. He'll perform at the Johnny Mercer Theatre Aug. 20.
"Standup is me," he enthuses. "That's pretty much me. In films, I'm acting. I'm playing roles. You see me in Silver Linings, I was different. I played somebody who just got out of a mental institution. You see me in Fifth Element, this crazy, spaced-out guy. You see me in Friday, a kid on the porch. In Rush Hour, a cop who's a little whatever. So it's all different. Dead Presidents was different from Jackie Brown."
Making movies, as lots of comics-turned-actors will attest (see Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.) puts a wall between performer and audience. And those who cut their teeth on standup often come to resent that wall, despite the fact that it's usually papered with money.
"There's nothing like being connected with your audience," Tucker says. "That's a great feeling in live shows, to be right there with your audience. There's nothing like it. Movies are great, too, but you gotta wait until months later to get the benefit of the movie.
"But a live show is always spontaneous. My show is always different, it's always evolving. It's just great."
A few years ago, Tucker was slapped with a bill for $12 million in unpaid taxes. Couldn't he just agree to Rush Hour 4 and Rush Hour 5 to pay it off?
"This actually is the IRS Tour," he laughs. "Everybody's helping to pay the taxes."
But seriously, folks.
"It's not about the money with me. I've turned down more movies, more money, than I made, so it's not about the money and that's why you haven't seen a lot of me. Because I don't do stuff for money.
"I did Rush Hour 3 because it was fun. I knew what was gonna happen with that one, with me and Jackie, and hopefully we can get another movie together. Not next, but down the line, because he's a great guy."
The backlash against the franchise didn't particularly bother him. "Not every movie is going to be the best," he admits. "The third one wasn't as good as the first one, but you keep moving. It's no big deal, because I know it wasn't the best one ... so hey, you just keep moving on."
This summer, Tucker will be on movie screens again, in a one-man standup show filmed in Atlanta. Before that comes out, he'll have toured Australia, Africa and China, and most of the United States (again).
It's all part of a journey of self-discovery, of getting comfortable in the wide-eyed, fast-talking persona he started developing as a young kid in Decatur.
"I didn't even know I was funny," Tucker recalls. "I observed a lot of stuff. I was kind of quiet. I remember in my younger days I was quiet and just watched a lot of stuff. I was the youngest of six kids, so I watched a lot and I learned a lot early, because I had older brothers and sisters.
"So when I went to school I was kinda more advanced than my classmates and kids my age, 'cause I watched my brothers make mistakes: 'I'm gonna make sure I ain't gonna do that!'
"They'd get a whooping and I'd be like 'Why'd Daddy whoop you?' They'd tell me 'I got to make sure I take out the garbage.' So I knew, 'Daddy is serious about the garbage.'"