Guest of Honor

Coming-of-Age Tales and Claustrophobia with Craig Robinson

The actor and comedian shares what it was like to toe the line between friend and father in "Morris From America" and reveals his deepest fear.

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(Photo Credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Craig Robinson is probably best known for his long-running role as Darryl on TV’s “The Office.” But there’s pretty much no great comedy show he hasn’t appeared in, from “Key and Peele” to “Eastbound & Down.” He’s also starred in hit movies like “This Is the End.”

But his new role is a departure. It’s in director Chad Hartigan’s coming-of-age dramedy “Morris From America” — a sleeper hit at Sundance.

Robinson plays an American widower raising his teenage boy in Heidelberg, Germany. He struggles to keep his sense of humor while his hip-hop-loving son struggles to fit into a very white, techno-loving world.

When Rico spoke to Craig, he started things off by asking the comedian how he ended up in the role.

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Craig Robinson: Well, Chad Hardigan, he and I share the same agency. So my agent, I guess, talked to his agent. Chad was like, “OK, let’s, let me do some recon.”

He chatted with [Director] David Gordon Green, he tells me. And I got vouched for and then I end up meeting with Chad and got the offer. So I was like, “Yeah, I’m in.”

Chad said, “Can Craig Robinson do this drama, you think?” And David Gordon Green told him, “Craig Robinson can do anything, except for he’s afraid of small spaces.”

Rico Gagliano: Is that right? You have claustrophobia?

Craig Robinson: Little bit. Yeah man. I’ve been in some situations where I’m like, will panic, like on a really small plane. Been [in] some situations where I was like, “I gotta get out of here! I gotta get out of here,” you know?

Rico Gagliano: Wait, what happens when Steven Spielberg calls with a starring role where you have to be trapped in a mine shaft?

Craig Robinson: “Sorry, Mr. Spielberg! Thank you so much. Let me know about “E.T. 2!”

Rico Gagliano: Has there always been a tender coming-of-age dad in you waiting to come out? What attracted you to this role?

Craig Robinson: First things first: I read the script and I loved the way he talked. I was like, “I talk like that.” And that’s why I love it, I was like, “I identify.” He loves hip-hop, and the way he talks to his son I thought was really respectful. He’s a nice guy, but he’s still a dad.

He also has torn that line between father and friendship. In my own life, my father was like, “I’m his father, not his friend.” It took me a while to understand what that meant, but it’s true. I thought that was interestingly played.

Rico Gagliano: The film does portray this African-American family trying to get by very white Heidelberg, Germany. You grew up in Chicago so that was clearly not anything like your experience. But I wonder what fish out of water experience you might have brought to this role.

Craig Robinson: When I was in third grade I was transferred to a new school. The school year had started, so it was just me walking into the class, brand new student, brand new school.

And when we first, you know, trip to the bathroom — teacher took us all to the bathroom — this one kid was like, “Hey, hey, he’s a hundred percent cooler than you.” Like, he’s pointing to this other kid who happened to be named Craig, the other kid. But he’s like, “He’s a hundred-,” and I’m like, “This is my first day what are you talking about?”

What was I going to say? “OK, let’s be cool together” or “Let’s have a cool contest, a cool off”? It was funny because the “cool kid” wouldn’t look up. So he’s pointing, “Yeah, he’s cooler,” and he wouldn’t look up. Actually, I became really good friends with Craig. The kid he was pointing to.

Craig in "Morris From America." (Image Courtesy of A24.)
Craig in “Morris From America.” (Image Courtesy of A24.)

Rico Gagliano: We have a couple of questions we ask everyone on the show. And the first one is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question would you least like to be asked?

Craig Robinson: “Are you Craig Robinson?” And then I go, “Yeah,” and they go, “Nuh uh! Really?!?”

Rico Gagliano: That happens a lot?

Craig Robinson: Happens a lot. And then I usually change it the second time. I’m like, “No.” And they, “Well, you look just like him!” Yeah, I get that. And then they find out that it’s me, but it’s like, “Dude, you asked, I said yes. Why are you asking again?!?”

You must want the answer to change, right? So here it is.

Rico Gagliano: That’s nice, though, that gives you an opportunity to change identities with frequency. Who do you pretend to be?

Craig Robinson: Whoever the moment calls for. “Pedro” has been what I been saying lately.

Rico Gagliano: Our second question is: tell us something we don’t know. And this can be about anything. Yourself or just something, sort of like a piece of trivia about the world.

Craig Robinson: How about… one of my go-to karaoke songs is Muse, “Time Is Running Out.”

Rico Gagliano: Earlier we were talking about you have a comedy music duo called-

Craig Robinson: L. Witherspoon and Chucky.

Rico Gagliano: Yes, where you kind of play more like Quiet Storm. Comedy Quiet Storm and Earth Wind and Fire-influenced music. I would think you’d have that on your karaoke list.

Craig Robinson: Well, you know, I can’t hit all those notes all the time. So sometimes you gotta go with what you can hit.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]