The comedic superstar takes a darker turn in “The Card Counter,” and as she tells IndieWire, she loved the chance to get a “full take-down” from Schrader, mirror co-star Oscar Isaac, and further hone her skills.
Few people in Hollywood work as hard as Tiffany Haddish, who took her 2017 breakout in the raucous “Girls Trip” and ran with it something fierce, starring in everything from “Night School” and “The Kitchen” to “Tuca & Bertie” and “The Last O.G.,” while also performing standup, penning a best-selling memoir, and winning both an Emmy (for hosting “Saturday Night Live”) and a Grammy (for Best Comedy Album). Her jam-packed schedule has slowly given way to more unexpected outings, including her most recent gamble: starring in Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month and will be released in theaters this week.
Putting together the prickly mind behind “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed” and the scratchy-voiced comedic darling might sound like a surprise, but Haddish insists it’s not such a strange pairing. Firstly, though, she notes something key: she’s a Schrader fan from way back.
“I’m a big Paul Schrader fan, I have loved me some Paul Schrader since ‘Cat People,’” Haddish said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I’ve been following his career and always wanted to work with him. When the opportunity came about, he called me, and we talked, and it was a great conversation, a great initial meeting…and then I read the script.”
Haddish admits that the script, which follows a card counter (played by Oscar Isaac) as he finds his carefully constructed life upended by the arrival of a young protege (Tye Sheridan) and a new associate (Haddish), did not immediately click for her. “The first time, I was like, ‘What? I don’t get it.’ The second time I read it, I was like, ‘Ah, I totally understand this now. I completely relate to it. I get it,’” she recalled. Haddish, not a gambler herself, drew comparisons between the card sharps in the film and the comedians she’s spent her entire career around, people she says are “always hiding something.”
As La Linda, Haddish is granted the lightest role in the drama, an ace poker player in her own right who makes her bones staking and supporting other players. Eventually, that includes William (Isaac), a former soldier and ex-con with plenty of secrets, and someone who can’t help but respond to the unexpected feelings La Linda stirs in him.
Even after clicking with both the script and Schrader, filming wasn’t always easy. As Schrader told IndieWire, he was not initially impressed with Haddish’s take. “On the first reading of the script we had, frankly, she wasn’t very good,” the filmmaker told IndieWire last month. “I told her to go back and read every single line without emotion. Then I said, ‘You’re not going to do that in front of the camera, but you can’t hit every line either. So let’s pick five or six lines you can hit where you get a smile or reaction.’ Quickly she got that it was a different rhythm.”
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
Haddish, to her credit, readily admits that Schrader stripped her of the comedic tics that often mark her work. “It was a full strip-down. It was a full take-down,” she said. “I prepared the character a certain kind of way, because that’s me. My comedy brain is working in comedy things, and he stripped all of that away. He was like, ‘Okay, when you talk, you sound like you’re singing.’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t.’ He says, ‘Yes, you do.’ No, I don’t. Yes, you do. I’m not singing. Yes, you are. I am not singing…maybe I am. Okay, what do I need to do?”
That might sound uncomfortable, but Haddish said she loved it. Despite all her bluster and charm, she’s the first one to tell you: she doesn’t just like taking direction, she “needs” it. And Schrader, never one to mince words, was happy to give it to her.
“I’m a team player,” she said. “I’m not the writer, I’m not the director. Paul has his mind set on whatever, and I am here to provide a service, so if you give me adjustments, if you’re telling me this is what you need to do, okay, cool. He was so blatant. I love that shit. I love when somebody can just tell me straight up, ‘Tiffany, that fucking sucked. That is not what I wanted. This is what I need.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, give me more. Okay, tell me what you need. I can be better if you show me, tell me.’ He showed me, and then it got to the point where he didn’t have to show me no more because I understood what he wanted.”
So, she got into his brain, then? “I didn’t get into his brain,” Haddish said with a laugh. “I’m not going in there. I’m not going in there! That seem like a dark place to be.”
Co-star Isaac was also essential to Haddish when it came to settling into the film and its requirements. “I learned so much from watching Oscar and being in Oscar’s presence,” she said. “He’s such a phenomenal actor. I learned that you can be completely still, you don’t have to use your hands, you don’t have to move your head that much. Just say the words and have the feeling in your heart, and people will feel it. They will know.”
Even as she set about picking away at some of her comedic tendencies, Haddish still saw plenty of parallels between comedy and drama. “You’ve got the high stakes, you’ve got the oh, shit moments, you’ve got the something that evokes emotion, but with comedy, you emote more,” she said. “There’s more emoting, there’s more grab to them. … So, in this drama, I have to take that out, right? Paul really got on me about that.”
Courtesy of Focus Features
That doesn’t mean she’s ready to go full drama just yet. Or, as Haddish puts it, “Do I want to play the heart-wrenching like, ‘oh God, I’m crying. I got the Viola Davis snot bubbles and they stole my baby and I’m going to kill everybody’? Do I want to do all that? It depends on the writing. Does it resonate with me?”
While some might expect her upcoming turn as record-smashing track superstar Florence Griffith Joyner to pack on the drama, Haddish promises an appealing mix of genres and tones, billing it as “a love story and a sports story” that also has both dramatic elements and good humor from her iconoclastic character (“She had jokes,” Haddish said of Griffith Joyner, “She had a good time”).
The Flo-Jo biopic is still in the early stages — Haddish is also on deck to produce it — but the multi-hyphenate has plenty to keep her busy in the coming years. One oft-chatted-about possible project, however, has not yet materialized: a film with Paul Thomas Anderson, who publicly voiced his desire to work with Haddish at the 2018 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where Haddish brought down the house during an 18-minute acceptance speech for her Best Supporting Actress win for “Girls Trip.”
After an Anderson associate slipped Haddish his number at the event, the actress didn’t dally: she called him the next day. The conversation was easy and fun, Haddish said, and Anderson was open to her ideas, asking her, “If you could do any kind of movie, what would it be?”
When they met up for lunch a few weeks later, Haddish said she had landed on one: a movie about the jazz scene in Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s. “You know how they got ‘Harlem Nights’? I was like, ‘What if we did “South Central Nights,” like what South Central used to be? How LA was this place where you could come and be free, but it was still very segregated, and how that worked in the relationships, the interracial relationships and all that dynamic?”
While nothing has come from those meetings as of yet, Haddish says the pair are still talking — “We chop it up!” — and while she doesn’t know what’s going to happen in their potential partnership, she promises, “Something will happen, though.”
Leave it to Haddish to keep making her own opportunities. Another one in the mix: a sequel to Malcolm D. Lee’s smash hit “Girls Trip,” which set Haddish alongside Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, and Jada Pinkett Smith and effectively introduced her to a brand-new audience.
Photo credit: Michele K. Short
“Me and the girls, we were talking about, if they don’t give us ‘Girls Trip 2,’ we’ll make our own movie,” Haddish said. “I’ve been reading these books about economics and all this stuff, and I’m like, we should build our own. So we were writing this thing, coming up with all these ideas, and then everybody got busy again! But I have a really great outline, but I don’t know it might happen. I heard from [producer] Will Packer not too long ago, so we’ll see. I don’t know. I wish. And if it’s not ‘Girls Trip,’ we’ll make our own.”
Getting things done is a recurring theme in Haddish’s life. Her packed post-“Girls Trip” schedule is still dizzying to look back on, and while Haddish concedes she probably should have taken a longer break between projects, she can’t fight how she feels. “I got this broke girl mentality, this I don’t never want to be homeless mentality,” she said.
Haddish does not need to worry about that these days. Recently, she said, her business manager crunched the numbers and told her that “the way you spend money, you can live comfortably for the rest of your life and probably support about 5, 10 people.” Does that make her feel comfortable? Hell no.
“No, it didn’t make me comfortable!,” she said. “I started thinking like, ‘Well, okay, I’ve got goals I want to accomplish, and those goals are not always necessarily about money, except for, well, one of them is. I want to be on that Forbes Magazine for that highest-paid actresses list. I want to be on that list.”
She also wants to be on the cover of every issue of Vogue magazine — “Vogue China, Vogue Scandinavia, Vogue Sweden, Vogue Nova Scotia!” — and not just for herself, but for every little girl out there with that Haddish spark.
“After traveling the world, I’ve realized that there are little girls like me on every single continent,” she said. “I [want to be] able to show young girls that you can be funny, you can be yourself, you can still be beautiful and fashionable, and it’s okay. You don’t got to be perfect every day. I’m not perfect every day.”
Until then, however, Haddish remains busy. Asked what’s next for her — literally, what she’s actually doing next — Haddish pulled out her iPhone and held up her calendar, week after week of color-coded bookings, lined up until seemingly the end of time. “Look, that’s my calendar,” Haddish said. “Every day. Every single day. ‘My Magic Johnson’ is a movie that I’m getting ready to shoot in Vegas. I’m working on that for six days. Then I have rehearsals for ‘Haunted Mansion,’ which I’m super-excited about. Then I do that for three months, and then I go into ‘The Invisible Hand,’ which is a sci-fi movie.”
At this point, we’ve bulldozed past our allotted time, but Haddish has barely gotten through fall and winter, and the comedian and actress — in trademark high-energy fashion — was still gesturing at her phone as we said goodbye. “And then we’re not even getting into what happens in April and May!,” she added with a laugh.
Focus Features will release “The Card Counter” in theaters on Friday, September 10.
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