The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival kicked off this week and, for the first in this year’s Tribeca Talks Directors Series, filmmaker J.J. Abrams was on hand to discuss his wildly successful and varied career with actor/director/comedian Chris Rock.
Together onstage at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, the funnyman shared anecdotes, observations, and one-liners with the guy who resurrected Star Trek and reinvigorated Star Wars. Rock was his usual gregarious self, asking the most probing questions in the most unpretentious ways (picture a much franker and funnier James Lipton).
“You’re now the most famous ‘J.J.’ in the world—taking it from a black man, Jimmy ‘J.J.’ Walker,” Rock observed. “It was all he had and you took that shit. How does that feel?”
J.J. Abrams is, of course, coming off of the monumental box office success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens this past winter, while the controversy surrounding Rock’s hosting of this February’s Academy Awards still lingers. Regardless of the criticism, Rock referenced Oscar night only to thank Abrams for his work directing the movie spoofs Rock wrote for the show.
“He did some of the movie parodies, the movie clips were done by the great J.J. Abrams,” said Rock. “I asked him to do it and I figured he’d get some minion from his office to do it. Because he’s got little J.J.’s running around making stuff explode. And I get there, and he’s directing the shit himself!”
Most of the back-and-forth was standard talk-show fare, with J.J. Abrams revealing that a trip to Universal Studios at 8 years old inspired him to film his own shorts at home and sparked his interest in movie-making—along with his father’s career as a television and movie producer. “My dad did TV movies like Steal It Death and Murder At Mardi Gras,” the director shared, acknowledging that the audience might not have seen the elder Abrams’s work.
“So you had a big advantage,” Rock said directly. “So your dad is in film—what job did you get that you didn’t deserve? There’s got to be one!”
“I wanna say Star Wars,” Abrams deadpanned.
Abrams also revealed the actor with whom he’d had the most pleasant on-set experience. While making Mission: Impossible III, he was pleasantly surprised by Tom Cruise’s hands-on approach as a producer and willingness to be directed as an actor. He was so enamored with Cruise’s work ethic and devotion to the project that he actually pined for the actor’s energy on his later films.
“When I went to do Star Trek, which was the next movie I did, it was weird not having Tom there,” Abrams shared, adding, “When I talked to Cameron Crowe, who worked with [Cruise] a couple of times, he said, ‘He’s going to spoil you.’”
Rock asked his “black guy question” (“You ever come close to working with Denzel?”), commiserated with Abrams’ grievances regarding Hollywood executives (“They only know two modes of communication: ass-kissing and panic”), and asked questions he’d gotten from his brother, Brian (“What’s up with the lens flares?”). But one of the more interesting exchanges between the two came when Abrams reflected on his early 2000s success on television with shows like Felicity and Alias.
Discussing how an actor can be totally right for a role in a totally unexpected way, Abrams recalled his initial impressions of Felicity star Keri Russell, who he believed was too beautiful to play a character originally envisioned as somewhat mousey.
“The part of Felicity was this sort of wallflower who doesn’t have a boyfriend or any friends—and then Keri Russell walks in, who is phenomenally beautiful and just incredibly vibrant and sweet,” said Abrams. “And at first, I thought it was ridiculous. But she was so funny and so vulnerable. And it is TV—so the TV version of a wallflower was Keri Russell.”
The conversation then shifted to Abrams’s other female-led hit series, Alias. That show’s star, Jennifer Garner, had come into Abrams’s orbit via a guest appearance on Felicity, and made such an impression that he wanted to write a show for her.
“My wife said, ‘You’ve got to write something for her, she’s got such a spark,” he shared. “So I wrote Alias for her. She came in and nailed it and was amazing. And someone at the network was like, ‘I don’t know—is she hot enough?’”
The statement drew a groan from the audience. And Rock chimed in with his own story regarding the sexism of Hollywood decision-makers.
“An executive at a film company—who probably weighs 165, 180—was like, ‘Hmmm, Kerry Washington is getting a little big,’” Rock scoffed incredulously, before adding, “A woman!”
It was a moment that served as a reminder of how the patriarchal entertainment industry can reduce the most talented of actresses to a number on a scale, or their perceived desirability. Abrams and Rock seemed to empathize with what these actresses had to face, but didn’t really suggest any commitment to changing those standards or undermining the studios that set them. But Abrams has shown a commitment to presenting compelling female leads on his shows and his films; perhaps there are a growing number of filmmakers less beholden to the tunnel vision of major studios.
It turned out to be an engaging, if not exactly eye-opening, conversation with Abrams, and Rock posed a question (via brother Brian) that many nerds have undoubtedly pondered themselves.
“Can you direct the Fantastic Four?” Rock asked. “They keep fucking it up!”
Sadly, Abrams never answered.