Funny guy Craig Robinson strikes you as the kind of dude with a beefy laugh and a heart of gold. His appearances in film and television throughout the years were jump-started by his turn as ambitious warehouse manager Daryl Philbin in cult TV classic The Office which in turn resulted in a string of parts in Evan Goldberg comedies including Pineapple Express, This is the End and, most recently, Sausage Party as well as features on other notable comedies as Knocked Up, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and a starring role in the two Hot Tub Time Machine movies (though we wish we could forget that second one.)
An imposing figure in a loose-fitting t-shirt, Craig greeted me with a smile before cracking jokes as we spun through some “getting to know you” intros. Recently, Robinson starred in Morris from America which saw him transform into a whole new character, one with dramatic depth who wasn’t necessarily flipping jokes (though he remains a welcome comedic presence in the film.) I sat down with Craig to discuss his family background in music, taking on more dramatic roles, his character in Mr. Robot, his relationship with the James Franco gang and the lasting legacy of The Office.
I was digging into your history and I saw you had this rich background in music. You come from this musical family, and we see you inject that into a lot of the characters you play. You’re always like diddling away on the keyboard in this or that. You also have your Master’s in Teaching and you were a music teacher back in the day. I feel like that’s something probably a lot of people don’t know about you. Can you talk about where the point was when you shifted from teaching music to pursuing acting and Hollywood?
Craig Robinson: I was in college, and I started figuring out I wanted to do comedy. I like to say comedy chose me. But I would teach to make money. I went back to Chicago, because I’m from Chicago and I was teaching, and I was hitting the open mics, you know? And just developing my acting, and I won some contests. I went to Montreal in 1998 and that afforded me, because I got a development deal, that afforded me the chance to leave teaching. So in ‘99, I left in February and moved to Los Angeles. I was going to check out pilot season and ended up staying out there. In July, I got the deal. So, ‘99 I moved, because I had enough cash to say I can let my job go. It was a blessing.
So was music more a job and acting and comedy was your real passion?
CR: Well, no. Music was always my passion. Music was probably the first love, and comedy was natural and always being silly, and then acting came along. Once I started doing comedy – I mean I was acting in church and stuff as a young man – but once I started doing comedy, somebody was like, “You would do good on a sitcom.” And so I said, “Okay, well let me start some acting classes. See what’s up.” And that became this crazy passion.
Does your background in teaching translate to you being a role model on set? With ‘Morris From America’ you worked mainly with young actors like Markees [Christmas]. Did you take him under your wing and show him the ropes?
CR: No, I left that up to Chad [the director]. I don’t want to step on any toes, you know how acting is. If I was needed, sure. For the most part, it’s like… Chad knew Markees was very natural and good with it. So, it’s nothing like… I didn’t feel like… I don’t want to be the guy where people are like, “Alright… we heard you.”
How much time did you spend teaching?
CR: I taught about three and a half years.
Do you ever miss it?
No, not at all?
CR: Teaching was so… it was a rollercoaster, man. Some of it was good, fun, and rewarding, and some of it was like, “Aw man, I gotta do this?” It was a trip, man. But the kids still hitting me up to this day, so that’s cool. They’re on my Facebook and Twitter and they’re always telling me, “Oh, you’re such an inspiration. We’re so proud of you.” And I’m always like, “Hey, I’m not your teacher anymore. Please don’t contact me.” [Laughs] So, yeah, no. It’s cool to hear from some of them. Some send me projects like they’ve been working on, and some of them are musicians. It’s great.
That’s cool. So, in ‘Morris’, one of the ways that Curtis, your character, relates to his son is through showing him old hip hop songs that like meant a lot to him back in his day. It’s like sit down, this is your musical education. This is me. You’re getting a piece of me when I’m showing you this. So, for you, what tunes would you pick that would define you and show a piece of you?
CR: Earth, Wind and Fire. “Reasons.” Some Michael Jackson. Some Prince. Some George Michael. I would go all around together, man, I was just like… you want to talk to a girl, this is what you want to have on. If you want to get hyped up to go for a jog or whatever, this is what you have on. Some classical. Some Bill Conti from the Rocky movies, you know. I’m all over the spectrum.
When music was your thing, were you playing in groups? Were you singing? Playing keyboard ?
CR: It was always in choir and stuff. My mom was a musician, she was a choir leader and stuff. And when I was teaching, I had a musical choir group that I would take around the city. I was taking after my mom. She would take a choir group around the city to the senior citizen’s homes or to the museum or whatever, so I would do that. And then, I eventually had to get a band, because I would be at a concert and I would be like conducting, you know. And thinking I was on stage. And finally, I was in a band in LA, it was two bands, and there was no true leader, you know what I’m saying? It was a too many cooks kind of thing, and finally I said, “Let me go ahead and employ people.” And, you know, the Nasty Delicious was born.
Your role in ‘Morris from America’ really marks a bit of a departure and turning point in your career in that there are comedic elements to it, but it’s decidedly more of a dramatic role. Is that something that you’ve become more interested in exploring as like you’re developing your career?
CR: Absolutely. It’s kind of happening. I got Mr. Robot for next season as a result of Morris. And then, it’s a whole ‘nother way for directors and people to see what I’m doing. So, it’s definitely a turning point in that sense I think. I’m enjoying the ride that I’m on, so I’m not like gonna force anything, but it’s definitely nice to see another pool of opportunities.
Can you say anything about what’s going on with your part in Mr. Robot?
CR: [Laughs] Yeah right.
That show’s so dope though.
CR: It is dope, yeah.
Were you a fan before?
CR: You know when they brought it to me, I hadn’t seen it. I had heard about it. I talked to people and I read up about it. I was working with Christian Slater last year, so I was like, “Dude, I heard about this show.” He was like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s real cool, man. It’s some good stuff.” Then it came out and it got some awards. I finally got to see it, and when they offered it to me, I watched it over two days. I was like, “I’m in.”
It’s definitely a binge watcher. That’s great to hear. In terms of whenever you’re in a television show or a film, there’s always this sense that, “Hey, it’s Craig Robinson.” You play, not necessarily yourself, but you have a presence kind of like Tom Cruise– like oh, it’s “Tom Cruise”. You’re always “Craig Robinson” And you always just look like you’re having such a good time doing it. Is that a fair characterization? Are you having a hell of a time?
CR: I am having a good time. I was pinching myself just to be in Germany, you know? I still get that, “Oh! I got the part!” It’s a trip to be in these pictures, and I’m always working with great people. I don’t have one bad story, you know? Everybody becomes like family. We always end up partying together and what have you. It’s always good.
And speaking of the people you collaborate with, one of the groups you seem to be returning to is like the Evan Goldberg camp, you know, with Danny McBride and James Franco and Seth Rogen. You guys just keep showing up for the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. Is that because you all are so comfortable with your repertoire or are you genuinely good pals and you like getting together and making stuff?
CR: I think it’s more those cats will write something, and go, “Hey, what do you think about this?” And it’s like, “This is fucking dope.” I’ve been in cast weddings, and we party together, but everyone does their own thing. But, you know, you like being with people you can trust. People you can throw the ball with, and you know they’re going to catch it and run with it. And vice versa. I think it’s about that respect, and okay, I know we’re going to do some good stuff together.
And how did you forge that relationship with those guys? Like where was your starting gun to that?
CR: Through work. Mine was through Knocked Up. I came in and on the set of Knocked Up is where I met Danny McBride. He was hanging on some of these shows, so it was like, “Here’s this.” Then Pineapple came together, and that was all she wrote.
Yeah. And it’s just been an ongoing colloboration. Every time they do something, do you get the phone call?
CR: Not every time, no. It hasn’t been that many. I mean, me and Seth have been in a bunch together. We have Pineapple Express, This is the End, and Sausage Party. Absolutely ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. James Franco did a movie and got a bunch of people to do a favor so to speak. So, yeah, it’s working with good people, you know?
Speaking of Sausage Party, I was at SXSW and I caught the raw cut you guys presented. It was absolutely ridiculous.
CR: I mean my goodness. That was my first time doing it too.
What was your involvement on that? Was that like go in for a day, goof off and get the check?
CR: No, there were several days. Matter of fact, my character changed completely. But we go in there and record, and they come back out and are like, “Oh, we’ve got some more stuff.” So, probably five days of recording.
You hear people go and do animated movies, and they’re like, “Oh, that was the easiest money I ever made.” Do you think that’s true?
CR: It’s called mailbox money. It was fun. You go in there and figure out who the character is. As you figure it out better and better, you can go back and be like, “I want to do those lines from the beginning now that I have rhythm going.” It was fun.
Outside of Peeples, which you did in 2013, we don’t see a ton of films where you’re the verifiable star front and center. You see a lot people get caught up in chasing the bigger paychecks, in chasing the bigger roles, you know, the spotlight. But that doesn’t really sum up your career. Is that your choice? Or is that something you’ve been victim to?
CR: You know, you go where you. There’s things that you are offered. There’s things that you fight for. There’s things that you want. I’ve been attracted to… like I was attracted to the Morris script. There’s this new script that is out, I can’t really talk about it, but there’s something attractive about it and ecstatic about it. I’m only attracted to the eclectic parts, and those lead roles, they come and whatever happens with it, you know. If I go after it, there’ll be more. Right now, it’s about… what’s being written. A bunch of people who have sent me stuff and have wanted me to lead stuff. But you can’t do everything and some of the stuff, you’re just like, “Eh.” And some of it is a little boring. It’ll be a big, you know, a big broad movie, and it’s like, “Aw, I don’t see it. I don’t want to spend three months pretending that this character’s funny.” Something like that. Not that it’s all bad, but sometimes, you just want to do something that I’m just finding really interesting.
I know you just said that there’s a lot of things that you’re chasing down, but in an ideal world, what would be your next big part?
CR: Who knows, bro? Something… I don’t know, I got some ideas, but the problem with that question is like I don’t want to give away my cards. You know what I mean?
Yeah. I’ve got to touch on The Office, because I’m a huge fan and that’s basically where your star was born.
CR: Well, a little bit before, yeah. A lot of people became aware of me from the Office.
It’s been like three years since the show has wrapped up. But, as far as I’m concerned, it still feels very much part of pop culture. Like it won’t be scrubbed away with time. What about that show just made it so damn good for so long?
CR: I think the people were real people. Relatable, you know? When you’re Baywatch cast or the O.C. cast, you know, it was actually like people you would see at the office or the deli or wherever, so that was number one. And the actors on there, there was so much talent. I was just being entertained by them on and off-screen on a daily basis. And one thing that really stands out for me is at some point I saw why each person was their character. For instance, Rainn Wilson was nothing like Dwight. One time we did a benefit here in Seattle, and he does a lot of charity work, and we were interviewing him. We asked him about beets or whatever, and he got dead serious and starts talking about how cheap beets are, how easy they are to produce. It’s like he knew all these Dwight beet facts, and I was like, “This man is Dwight. That is Dwight talking right there.”
He’d just pop into it?
CR: Every once in awhile, it would be like, “This is why it is like it is.” And maybe not for every last one, you know, but you can see why. You could see why everyone was who they were.