Rock my world 

Chris Rock is as Down to Earth as his movie

It's common, when a movie is named for its main character, to advertise it with a line like, "Eddie Murphy is The Nutty Professor," "Julia Roberts is Erin Brockovich" and "Paul Newman is Hud."

Let me add one more. It doesn't exactly follow the formula but it's true for longer than two hours: "Chris Rock is Down to Earth."

"I've been doin' it since 1984," the actor says of his career as a comic. "I'm old." He probably feels old today, as it's his 35th birthday and he's at the end of a long day of interviews in Atlanta. It's the fourth stop on a six-city tour to promote Down to Earth, the movie in which he plays his first leading role. He also co-wrote and co-executive produced this remake of the 1979 Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait.

The project evolved, according to Paramount, after Rock had "a casual lunch meeting with Warren Beatty." It was, Rock confirms, after his 1996 Emmy-winning HBO special Bring the Pain, and all the stars were calling and wanting to meet him.

When he was "summoned" to lunch, he says, "I was aware of Warren Beatty but not the legend of Warren Beatty. He wasn't a comedian or I would have seen all his movies, but I had seen maybe Bugsy, Ishtar and Dick Tracy." After that lunch Rock made a point of catching up on Beatty's other films.

"When I saw Heaven Can Wait I said, 'That should have been Richard Pryor!' I mean it was good, but I could picture it as this big, funny movie." So he called his producer friends, who found the remake rights could be had inexpensively; then he got together with his writing buddies to revise the screenplay so an African-American who dies prematurely due to a clerical error returns to Earth in the body of a rich white man. Because Rock is the star, we see his face most of the time, even though everyone around him sees the face of his "host."

Rock's character, Lance Barton, is a stand-up comic but not a good one. Between pursuing a career in comedy and pursuing an attractive woman (Regina King), the role is not as far removed from the real Chris Rock as, say, his crackhead in New Jack City or his apprentice hitman in Nurse Betty. Playing those parts is, "maybe not easier, but more fun, actually," he says, "because there's no vanity. When I'm trying to be romantic, I'm worried about how I look and all kinds of shit that isn't related to the part."

When asked about his status as a sex symbol, Rock is surprisingly clear-headed. After joking, "Maybe I got married too soon," he gives the real answer: "Every celebrity is a sex symbol. It's got nothing to do with me."

Asked if he feels a sense of responsibility to be a role model, Rock gives another unexpected answer: "Only bad people have to try to be good. I don't have a hard time not being arrested ... I'm Rose Rock's son!"

He visits his mother often at her home in Myrtle Beach, not far from Andrews, S.C., where he was born, "but we moved to Brooklyn, like, the next day." As the oldest of seven children he didn't have to become famous to be a role model. "When I was 16 I got an earring, and two weeks later all my brothers had them."

Referring to another role model, Jesse Jackson, who fell from grace in a recent scandal, Rock says, "Nothing's gonna hurt him more than what he's going through with his wife."

Rock's material may be more sensitive than that of many of his contemporaries, but he's far from politically correct. Asked how he sets his limits, he says, "There's things I won't talk about, not because they're controversial but because they're lame."

Lest the down-to-earth star of Down to Earth sound too saintly, we ask what dark secrets we'll learn if VH-1 ever does a "Behind the Comedy" about him. He has to think for a moment before saying, "I guess the wild times at 'SNL'; how much we were all like Chris Farley, only he was the one who died."

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