LOS ANGELES — By the time summer rolls around, moviegoers will have seen Kevin Hart in five films within a year. The stand-up comedian-turned-actor’s BET sitcom “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” meanwhile, has scored solid ratings. And then he was invited to spend seven precious minutes with President Barack Obama.
You’d think he’d be content with all that, but Hart wants more, and he believes it’ll start coming to him next weekend. That’s when “Ride Along,” his buddy-cop comedy with Ice Cube, hits theaters — the first film in which he has a starring role.
“This is the movie that can catapult me into a different realm of stardom,” said Hart, 34, exuding the same rapid-fire energy of his comedy specials even though he’d yet to have his morning coffee. “I can be looked at as a leading man.”
Though the Philadelphia native has packed arenas for years on his comedy tours, Hollywood only recently began to look to Hart as a box-office draw. In 2011, a film version of his stand-up show “Laugh at My Pain” surprised studio executives when it grossed $7.7 million while playing in fewer than 300 cinemas. The movie — which Hart funded himself for $750,000 — did so well that last summer, Lionsgate decided to release his second comedy concert, “Let Me Explain,” during the competitive Fourth of July weekend. After $32 million worth of ticket sales rolled in, it was clear that Hart — who has 9.6 million followers on Twitter (@KevinHart4real) — could open a movie.
Sure, one might argue, those were movies built around Hart’s signature brand. But do audiences really want to see the dude act? Apparently so: “Ride Along” is on track to have the biggest opening weekend of the month by far, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys. In the movie, Hart plays a pesky aspiring police officer seeking the approval of his girlfriend’s brother — a no-nonsense veteran cop played by Ice Cube. It’s the first of two new films he has out this winter following his turn in “Grudge Match” with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro. The second, a Valentine’s Day release, is a remake of the 1986 Rob Lowe-Demi Moore romantic comedy “About Last Night,” which co-stars Joy Bryant, Michael Ealy and Regina Hall.
If all goes according to plan at the multiplex this month, Hart is hopeful “Ride Along” will spawn a franchise. In fact, he says, Universal Pictures is already developing a sequel based on how well the first film tested in early screenings.
“When we talk about a movie, we talk about it in the context of the next four to five movies,” said Will Packer, who has produced five of Hart’s films. “It’s good to be able to have an actor that can relate on that level, because most of them are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great — let’s talk about what I’m getting paid on this movie.’ Kevin’s not that guy. He’s definitely open to having a strategic plan.”
Hart prides himself on knowing the ins and outs of the movie business. He’s easily able to spout off the per-theater opening weekend average of his last film. He’s trying to convince the studios behind his upcoming movies to send him overseas for promotion, because he knows that’s where American movies make the majority of their money these days. And unlike many actors, he doesn’t dream of starring in a $100-million movie.
“A studio comes to me and says, ‘We got something great for you Kevin!’” he said, imitating a phony suit. “‘You’re in the Army. $100-million budget. This thing’s gonna be huge! Explosions — everything.’ So you do it, and the thing comes out and does $30 million. Everyone says, ‘We thought you could do it, man.’ Now you’re in jail. Why not keep those numbers lower and still make quality films? I know how to protect myself.”
Which isn’t to say Hart doesn’t want to be famous. He does — desperately.
“When you talk about the level he wants to get to,” said “Ride Along” director Tim Story, “his sights are on the highest there is — I would say the Eddie Murphy status, the Richard Pryor status.”
Hart says he would like to emulate the careers of those black comedians, but his ultimate goal is the kind of global ubiquity few performers have achieved. “You know who I envy?” he asked. “I envy Beyonce. I envy Jay Z. The reason why? That’s because these are two role models. Role models that can appeal to everybody.”
Hart, who lives in Encino, Calif., and has two children from an earlier marriage, insists it’s more than money driving his desire for stardom. He’s doing well financially, though he says he’s unsure whether his savings could last him the next 25 years. What he really craves is the influence someone like Jay Z has — the ability to walk into a room with powerful people and be asked for an opinion that could have an “impact on society.”
He’s not there yet. But in December, Hart was invited to the White House, and his brief interaction with the president reinforced his belief that he’s making headway. “The fact that the president shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, you’re doing good things, we gotta talk’ — I was shellshocked,” Hart said. “It showed me, ‘Yo, I’m doing something good. I’m on the right track.’ Now I can see things getting bigger.”