Actor-comedian Kevin Hart proves his dramatic acting chops in his new movie, The Upside

Stills from The Upside, a remake of a 2012 French comedy-drama, starring Kevin Hart (left) and Bryan Cranston.
Stills from The Upside, a remake of a 2012 French comedy-drama, starring Kevin Hart (left) and Bryan Cranston.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

LOS ANGELES - Kevin Hart is still courting controversy over whether or not he will host next month's Oscars, but there is good news for the star this week: his new movie, The Upside, topped the American box office last weekend.

The actor and comedian spoke to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles about the film in October.

This was two months before the furore sparked by some of his old homophobic jokes and tweets resurfaced, prompting calls for an apology that he refused before resigning as Oscars host. But he recently reignited the storm by suggesting he might reconsider and emcee after all.

But even months ago, while talking about his new film, the 39-year-old - who frequently refers to himself in the third person - seemed acutely sensitive to how he is perceived by fans and critics.

He wants those seeing him in a more serious dramatic role such as this to "really have the shock factor", he declares. "I want people to walk away saying, 'I didn't know Kevin had that in him, and he did'."

Opening in Singapore on Thursday (Jan 17), The Upside is a remake of the 2012 French comedy-drama Les Intouchables, which was a hit in France and internationally. Based on a true story, it is about the blossoming friendship between Phillip, a wealthy man with quadriplegia played by Bryan Cranston, and Dell (Hart), the ex-convict he decides to hire as his live-in caregiver.

Hart was one of the top-earning stand-up comics in the United States before launching an equally lucrative career as a comedic actor, starring in films such as the Ride Along movies (2014 and 2016) and Central Intelligence (2016).

But he had done little dramatic work and felt the need to prove he could.

"That was the reason for taking this film on - I wanted to switch it up, and I wanted to give my fanbase just a different look at the world of Kevin Hart and to see where I consider my talents to be," says the star, who is married to 34-year-old model Eniko Parrish and has three children aged one to 13 from this and a previous marriage.

"And to do that, I said if I have the opportunity to partner up with some amazing actors and actresses, they're going to help bring that out of me."

He is referring to Cranston, a four-time Emmy winner for his role in the crime drama Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013), and Oscar winner Nicole Kidman (The Hours, 2002), who plays Phillip's loyal assistant Yvonne.

"I know what I'm capable of, but when you stand with the A plus of the A plus, Bryan and Nicole, you have no choice but to come prepared and come with the expectation of following their lead."

But he had to convince director Neil Burger that he was up to the task.

Burger, 56, admits he was a little sceptical at first. "Then I went back and studied his work closer and what I discovered was he's a storyteller", says the Divergent (2014) and The Illusionist (2006) film-maker.

"And the great thing about comedians playing dramatic roles is they have great timing, which is a big thing.

"Then I met with Kevin and he told me about his background and underprivileged upbringing, and that he knew this character. Then he did the character for me and I was sold."

Hart and Cranston, 62, also threw themselves into research, meeting with quadriplegic patients and their carers to better prepare for their parts.

They came away from the experience with new respect for both.

Cranston, who met three quadriplegics, says that even with varying levels of happiness versus depression, "it's a very arduous and daunting task for them on a day-to-day basis".

"A good support group, that's primarily what makes them pull through. And that there are people who help them day to day is absolutely necessary. The caretaker is the most under-appreciated person involved in this scenario."

While there is some boundary-pushing levity in the film - for instance, in a scene where Dell has to change Phillip's catheter - "I don't think we're making fun of the disability", Burger adds.

"Because Phillip's character at the beginning is actually really depressed, and we don't pull any punches on that. You actually get the studio saying, 'Could you be a little less grim in the beginning?' But no, that's the way it was.

"I think the humour comes because the two men find life again," Burger explains. "Kevin's character brings this mischievousness and wildness into Phillip's life, and Phillip, to his credit, recognises it."

The Upside opens on Thursday (Jan 17).