Actor and comedian Lil Rel Howery is having his moment. He was the scene-stealer in the critically acclaimed box office hit Get Out, which earned $255 million worldwide, and he is now the lead in the upcoming movie Uncle Drew, which stars Boston Celtics player Kyrie Irving, Shaquille O’Neill and Tiffany Haddish.
Lil Rel dropped by the EBONY office to talk about Uncle Drew, why it’s a good time to be Black in Hollywood, his Fox show about his life, and how Tiffany Haddish is the real deal.
The past few years have been great for you, From The Carmichael Show, Get Out, Insecure to Uncle Drew. Is this a great time to be a Black actor in Hollywood?
Yeah, it’s a great time to be one, especially if you’re pro-active, you’re creating, you’re writing and you’re unapologetic about what you create and what characters you write and what scripts you pick to do. I am just glad to see all these great ensemble African-American casts lead in movies and TV shows. This one is very interesting; with Uncle Drew, is that there’s also NBA legends. You have athletes and actors combining as one. It’s really cool to be a part of this time where we’re making fun stuff, but from our perspective, and I think that’s amazing.
Does that go for both on camera and behind the camera, like, writers, producers, directors?
Everything. It’s good to hire more women into the business. Even with my show Rel, my writing staff is mostly women. You want to tell these stories a certain way. It’s just a beautiful time with diversity and really meaning it and not forcing it.
Especially with Black shows, they try to force diversity in them. It has to make sense. I think if you naturally let diversity happen and you really pick the best people for the job, then you’re good. We can’t fall into the “If you’re Black, I’m just going to hire you.”
I remember when interviewing, I was interviewing a line producer for my show and the brother was like, ‘Hey man, we’re all we got.” Come on, bruh, don’t do that. Just be good.
Who are some Black creators that you credit for the progression of Black art?
We saw it earlier with Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans.
When I think about this generation, I think about Jerrod Carmichael, who doesn’t get enough credit. He had his deal before Issa [Rae] and Donald [Glover], and took his time with it and did the show he wanted to do and was aggressive about it. I see other publications give him credit, but not us all the time. I always think about that because Jerrod, I think, is the first one. He’s producing my show and six of our friends’ shows. He’s doing a bunch of stuff. He’s only 30. I don’t know anybody else doing all that.
You also got Issa, who I look up to. When I did Insecure last season, the way she ran her set I thought was brilliant, to be quite honest with you, and I learned a lot. The same thing with Donald Glover. I am proud of all of them. It makes all of us want to start making our own thing. Ava DuVernay is the OG … I call her the OG of advice. Me and her were talking about this the other day, but what she enjoys about our generation is that we are actually taking that advice and running with it.
Netflix debuted a commercial about strong Black leads. Do you think more studios are embracing diversity? Do they realize the power of Black creativity or the Black dollar?
When Get Out did what it did, it was kind of like, “Oh, OK.” Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time and Girls Trip took it over the top. We make money, man. People are always kind of biting off our culture and trying to create things similar to what we do. It’s like, let us do what we do, and people are going to see it also and probably embrace it more.
There’s just great shows out here. You have shows like Queen Sugar; I love Queen Sugar, it’s one of my favorite shows. Dear White People, black-ish, grown-ish. There are so many dope shows and so many people who have amazing talent. You know what’s funny? You see a new group even walking to these movies, which I find fascinating. I hope to see more…fresher faces. People want to see more of us.
We can’t keep rotating the same people with the same exact roles. You see somebody who’s 50 still playing 35. It’s OK being the father, brother [laughs].
What was it like working on the set of Uncle Drew with Kyrie Irving, Shaq and Chris Webber? It looks like you guys had a lot of fun.
It was a whole lot of fun. I am a huge basketball fan, so to be around them at first was just surreal for me. To watch how they took their acting seriously as much as they do their basketball, I thought was one of the most fascinating things.
Even with the screenings we got, everybody is so surprised by how good they are, especially Kyrie. He turns into Uncle Drew. They wear their prosthetics all the time, so I never really saw anybody’s face. Kyrie did a press conference when he went to the Celtics and I was like, “Oh, that’s how you look!” because I’ve just been seeing him as Uncle Drew.
It was so much fun. I look at everything I do in my career as experiences, and this is one of the experiences … this won’t repeat, this is random. Doing a movie with basketball legends doesn’t happen every day.
This is my first, out of all the films I have coming out, that I am starring in, and this is one of the first meetings I had after Get Out. This was perfect. I am a die-hard basketball fan, so to make a basketball movie that I am proud of, that my kids are going to see and a generation of kids are going to see is surreal to me.
I know Tiffany Haddish is in the movie, and you’ve worked with her before. Tell us about your friendship.
What’s fun about this is you’re experiencing this with somebody you know. When she hosted the MTV Movie Awards … really popular people [were] lining up just to talk to her. I was standing there like, “Yo, this is insane!”
I used to bring Tiffany to parties, and dudes used to get mad at me for bringing Tiffany. And the reason is, she would make all the females comfortable. Most of these dudes, if you go to a club … if you’re out in the VIP section, all the girls are just sitting there, nobody is really saying nothing, they’re just drinking their drinks. Tiff would show up and the girls would start to have fun, dudes [would] get mad at me. [Now] those same guys beg me [to bring her].
Is the Tiffany we see on-screen and in interviews the real deal?
She’s 100 percent being herself. I will say the difference is when she started embracing her beauty. I always thought she was a beautiful woman, but I don’t know if she embraced it yet … everything she’s done has been based off her personality.
Any plans to work together again?
Yeah, we have another movie we completed. I guess we can’t really talk about it yet, another comedy. It’s very funny. Hopefully, we keep doing stuff together. If I call her or she calls me, it is what it is.
I want to remake Mr. and Mrs. Smith with me and her. I just think it’ll be funny, I thought about that a few times. I think Jordan Peele is going to get tired of me telling people [laughs].
Tell us about your upcoming show on Fox, Rel. How did you land that?
We knew The Carmichael Show [was coming to an end]. I was at Essence Festival last year and woke up randomly one morning just thinking about what my next move. I’d been meeting with all these producers … I turned down some really great show premises, even from Jordan Peele, who had a great premise for a show. I was like, “I think I want to do my own show.” And these are big execs and can walk anything in, but like, I called Jerrod like, “Yo, would you be down producing my show with me?” and he was like, “Yeah.”
People were meeting with me because they loved Get Out, but they didn’t really know my comedy. I wanted to make sure that if I did a sitcom, [I needed people who knew] me. Me and my friends decided to do my show, and that’s when Jerrod got the overall deal with Fox to produce a bunch of stuff, and we talked about it and that’s how that happened. Really, it’s based off real conversations that I had with the other executive producers and writers, and we’re all friends, It was like me venting to them.
So we go pitch it to Fox. It was weird pitching it because a lot of it is based off truth. So watching people laugh at stuff [I went through] kind of hurt a little bit. They bought it in the room, we didn’t even leave the room. They were like, “Wait, we want to give you a pilot right now.” It was in the making anyway based on my standup, [so] I knew this was eventually coming.
How is it different working on your own show compared to your time on The Carmichael Show?
I brought in most of The Carmichael Show staff, which made it way more comfortable, to be quite honest. It felt like we were just continuing work. [This is when] the day I realized that the guard had changed: one day [Jerrod] was complaining about the snacks … he was like, “Man, what’s up with these snacks?” I was like, “Well, those are the snacks I wanted” [laughing].
Has your stand-up taken a back seat to your movie and television career?
It hasn’t taken a backseat. I don’t go up as much as I used to, and it’s because of where I live. I live in L.A. Personally, I don’t like performing in L.A. clubs, and the next week you’ll see four other people doing your material.
People end up trying to do whatever they think is the hot thing, and that annoys me. I am not a guy that’s cool with it, I don’t want to keep stepping to people because I’ll look like a maniac. Every time I see it, I’m like, “You know something, how about I just don’t go up.” When I perform, it’s only on the road now. I book road gigs, I go on the road and do my thing.
It hasn’t taken a backseat, but I have been acting more lately. This next [comedy] special, I am ready to do it. I always tell people if you did it the right way, probably before you become a star you have four specials in you just waiting. I got two more good ones in me. This next one I’m excited about because now it has all this buzz with it. Along with whatever I’m about to start talking about.
Who haven’t you worked with that you’re really kind of looking forward to?
Easy: Eddie Murphy. You know the Dolomite movie they’re doing? Here’s the crazy part. I meet with the director, great meeting, and he’s like, “We called you in because Eddie requested we sit down with you.” I’m like, “What? Well, tell him I’m in.” So then a couple of weeks passed and they’re like, “Rel, Netflix loves you, the director, everyone is like thumbs up.” So “I’m like, Who’s stopping it?” and they’re like, “Well, Eddie doesn’t feel like you’re old enough to play his friend.”
I get it, but I’m very hurt by that. I was looking forward to working with him, I was like, ‘This is going to be great: Lil Rel, Eddie Murphy; I don’t care who you get, they’re not going to bring what I can bring.” But then, I guess they moved on without me.
Once you meet with the director, it is what it is. I haven’t auditioned for anything since Get Out. I just have meetings, and if it’s something that I want to do, I do it. I say no to a lot of stuff. [It’s] been fun saying no to scripts that you see other people pick up. Your no is somebody else’s yes, and that’s actually a cool thing because somebody else gets a job.
Uncle Drew comes out in theaters Friday, June 29.
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Teddy is a multimedia journalist who serves as the culture and political writer for EBONY. His work has appeared in NBC's Owned and Operated stations, as well as DNAInfo, which covered local neighborhood news in New York City. He received his Masters in Journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY in 2017.