Lil Rel Howery and I are nervously laughing over the fact that no one in Atlanta seems to be taking COVID-19 seriously. "It’s almost shocking when you first get here," he says during a recent phone call. "You’re like, ‘did I miss something?’ People look at you crazy when you got a mask on, like you’re doing too much."
The actor and comedian is in the city to film "Vacation Friends," a comedy he stars in with John Cena. On set, the cast is taking the pandemic extremely seriously—Howery says they’re tested three times per week. "So far so good," he says. "I look at my results every day. People are like ‘well, if they ain’t called me, I’m guess I’m good.’ I be wanting to see mine. Make sure."
Known for his supporting roles in films like Get Out and The Photograph, television shows such as The Carmichael Show, and a widely-acclaimed HBO comedy special last year, Howery has a string of movies waiting in the wings, including the highly anticipated film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton, Judas and the Black Messiah, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Howery has also branched out to audiobooks, hosting Laugh Out Loud Presents Comedy in Color, Volume 1, released this week.
Still, like most people, especially Black Americans, even a comedian like Howery has had a hard time finding anything funny about this year. GQ spoke with him about his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, his call to defund the police, the loss of his friend Naya Rivera and more.
GQ: You’re currently in Atlanta filming Vacation Friends. What has it been like working with John Cena on this project?
Lil Rel: I think people are going to be really surprised by our comedy chemistry. Yvonne Orji is playing my fiancée. Some comedies are overthought [but] so far this is hilarious.
It’s been really good coming back [to work] after COVID. Everything’s different. Things are actually cleaner than you would think. You can’t just put your hands in the potato chips when you feel like it. I think things are a lot smoother.
When the Breonna Taylor verdict came out, I didn’t feel like working. I explained it to my director and our producers [and] now we have a grief counselor on set. I think being in this pandemic, a lot of us have been home the whole time. We’re all just getting back to work [and] our mental health is very important. I appreciate them for really understanding there’s a lot going on, especially for Black people.
You recently hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live and Kimmel said you were one of his favorite hosts. You had an eight minute monologue in which you said "Everything is just not funny right now" and talked a lot about Black Lives Matter and police brutality. What was it like using that platform to talk about something serious and shift the tone?
I try to use the platform I’m on to just be honest. That’s one of the greatest things about comedy, too. But, also, I’m a person with a heart and I’m Black in America. I saw what everybody else was doing with their monologues and, to be honest with you, I thought it was kinda weird to be like ‘let’s do jokes.’ I’m like, I don’t want to do that.
It was also tough because I come from standup. I write my own material so when I told [the writers] I didn’t want no help, I think it made everybody nervous. But this is how I got here. I can come up with eight minutes. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to say until like the night before. I was still working on it.
It was off the cuff?
It was. I mean, I didn’t want to tell nobody that, but I didn’t write any of that down. I just did it. That’s the type of comic I am. I don’t write everything down. I can go through a whole hour set [with] whatever my thoughts are. It was beautiful because I know they were nervous.
When I did rehearsal, everybody in production started clapping. They’re like ‘that’s where you’re going with it.’ Yeah, that’s where I’m going with it.
You talked a little bit about defunding the police and reallocating those resources. For some people, that’s still considered radical. Were you nervous to say that?
No, I wasn’t nervous to say it because I really mean it.
You also talked about loss. You’ve lost people who were close to you, including your aunt, a school teacher who passed away from COVID-19 this year. Did that impact how seriously you took COVID or your views on the way America has handled it?
With our family, that was a big loss. She was a matriarch in our family. Oprah talked to [my uncle] about everything. It was kind of crazy.
[COVID] re-exposed what’s been the problem when it comes to our community and our medical system. Our healthcare is terrible. It just really exposes how in our community they do not take care of us. That’s why people are like ‘I don’t believe that you really care about us now. You ain’t care about me any other time.’ Some people are like ‘Forget this country.’ I can understand why they feel like that.
But, at the same time, especially politically, we really gotta vote for our lives right now. For real. I think this might be the most important election of all time. And more stuff about Trump came out today. I feel like he became president to clean up his own personal stuff.
The reporting on the taxes?
Yes. It all makes sense now. He didn’t want this job. I always look at the video of when he won. He looks like the saddest person in the world. Everybody looks shocked. I ain’t never seen anybody win the election and a room full of people just quiet. Ain’t nobody celebrating. He was like, "Aww damn, I actually did it. Now, I gotta do the job. I was just trying to raise some money."
While you were hosting Kimmel you teamed up with Amber Riley to pay tribute to your friend Naya Rivera.
It’s still surreal to talk about her in the past tense. Me and Naya, we were really tight. When I found out that she was just missing, I was literally about to text her like, "Yo, what you doing? You want to come have some dinner?" It was the scariest thing. Jerrod Carmichael asked me if I talked to her. That’s when I texted her. I didn’t know she was missing. It was a lot. It was one of those...it was just...we were literally just talking.
Shoutout to Jimmy Kimmel and production for trusting me. The musician dropped out and right away I was like, [let’s get] Amber Riley. We need to do a tribute to Naya. There was so much going on in the world that nobody did a proper tribute. That was one of [Amber’s] singles from her new album. It ended up going viral.
I bawled when they showed me the performance. I watched it by myself in the dressing room and I don’t even know if I [had] cried for real before then. It was beautiful.
She was just one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met in my life. She showed up at everything and I did the same whenever. Being back in Atlanta, she was shooting stuff and I was shooting one of those movies I was in. We were just hanging out and then we went to a protest together. She had called me and saw I was going to a bunch of protests. That’s the last time I saw her.
That was earlier this year?
Yeah. She saw I was going and she called me and said "The next thing you go to, I’ll pick you up and we’ll go together."
That’s what I’m saying. I’m glad we got grief counselors on set. You just don’t know what somebody’s going through. Stuff triggers everything. When you’re feeling that pain, you don’t feel like doing anything.
You do have some good things happening this year. Clouds is coming out on Disney Plus and then you have Free Guy with Ryan Reynolds coming out later this year. Can you tell me a little about those roles?
Clouds is based on a true story. It’s about this amazing young man who ends up having cancer and his last days were documented by the director Justin, who [also] directed this movie. I play the teacher in that. It’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve done. The energy. The spirit. His whole family was there during a lot of the taping. The cast got really close together.
Free Guy has the same energy to it, too. Ryan Reynolds and I play best friends in that. It’s going to be another one that’s going to pull at the heart strings and match with what’s going on now. I’m very proud of the projects I pick. I’m very selective about what I do. But I try to pick really good stuff. Judas [and the Messiah], the Fred Hampton movie, I’m in that, too.
Tell me about your role in that.
I can’t tell you. But it’s dope to be a part of it. It’s a great cast. I’ve always known about the Fred Hampton story, [especially] being from Chicago. That was one of those favors I called in. Like, "Yo, if y’all are going to do this I have to be in the movie. You know that, right?"
And, you got to work with Lakeith and Daniel again, too.
Man, they are so incredibly talented. I think about that Get Out cast and how good everybody was from top to bottom [and now] watching all of the things everyone has done. Jordan [Peele] really had an eye. I always think about Get Out as far as the intention. It wasn’t a big budget movie. We all got paid to scale, pretty much. But, it was just so beautiful and it ended up opening so many doors for all of us. I will always be indebted to Jordan Peele.
You have Comedy in Color coming out this week. What was it like hosting an audiobook?
Well, the biggest thing about it is I’m a person who loves hosting comedy shows. That was my cup of tea. That’s how I came up in the game. It is hilariously funny and I think we just need laughter right now. I’m hosting almost as if it was a crowd there. All of the intros are genuine. I know they had stuff written down but I knew most of them so I didn’t even have to look at it. It’s really exciting and I hope I did all the comics justice by showing them love. Shoutout to LOL for putting this together. I’m very excited.
This is the perfect lineup. It’s very diverse. A lot of [the comics] are my friends, people I came up with and people that I looked up to when I was a young comic. It’s a good mixture of rising stars and vets.
Is there anything else you have going on in this crazy year that you want to make sure people know?
I’ll tell you this, during this pandemic, I got my GQ on. I worked out a lot. I think I look my best, I’ve ever looked. And that’s all I got to say.
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