After a tough childhood and 20 years in the business, two saucy minutes with a grapefruit made Tiffany Haddish a superstar. Now the Girls Trip star is teaming with Kevin Hart in
Night School, a rowdy comedy with deeper resonances. Total Film meets a force of nature who has learned the value of hard work.
I was like, ‘You sit down, because I’ve got this.’ The first take, the crew… We had to stop because everybody fell over. Everyone was like, ‘You’re crazy!’ Jada [Pinkett Smith] spat out her cereal, and La [Queen Latifah] fell over. It took us eight takes to get it, because everybody kept laughing.”
Given it was Girls Trip and, in particular, this scene that made Haddish a star, it unsurprisingly follows her around. “When I do my stand-up shows, people will bring me bags of grapefruits and stuff. And I did invest a little money in a grapefruit farm, because I mean, why not? And sometimes I’ll run into certain guys, and they’re like, ‘Thanks for that. My wife, she does it. Thank you!’” So wait, she’s actually improved people’s sex lives – or at least guys’ sex lives? “Yeah! It’s like, ‘Wait until you see what I do with a fruit roll-up!’”
All joking aside, Haddish’s life has turned inside-out in the last two years. Sure, her 20-year career had long been inching along in the right direction, as guest appearances on TV shows like My Name Is Earl, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and New Girl snowballed into proper roles on Oprah Winfrey Network series If Loving You Is Wrong and NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show. But it was co-starring with Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key in 2016 action-comedy Keanu that kick-started Haddish’s movie career, with Girls Trip
– a raucous celebration of friendship that stars, gasp, four black women (“It should have happened 15, 20, 30 years ago,” she sighs) – taking things to a whole new level. Not only did it win her a truckload of awards but it took $140m from a $19m budget.
“Definitely, the pool of work to choose from has expanded tremendously,” says Haddish of the amount of scripts now pinging in her inbox. “And as far as my life changing, I’m not sleeping until 12 o’clock like I used to. Now I wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning. Even on a day off, I wake up at five, like, ‘Where am I supposed to be? Oh. Maybe I’ll use the restroom and go back to sleep.’” She laughs, filling the room. “I work every day. I travel weekly. Before Girls Trip,
I would just go somewhere once a month. And I love it because it keeps me out of trouble. I don’t have to worry about no man, because I’m not dating, because I don’t have time for that.”
Normally, actors don’t volunteer information about their love lives and bristle if you ask. But with Haddish, who twice divorced business executive William Stewart, first in 2011 and then in 2013, what you see is what you get – she’s a whirlwind of energy who talks rapidly and openly.
“No one has earned the privilege of me deciding to make time for that,” she continues. “Because I can make the time for a man. If the right person came along, I’d be like, ‘OK, we’ve got romance in here.’ But no, I haven’t experienced that just yet. You’ve got to be something special. You’ve got to have some kind of confidence.”
On this sunny morning in late August, Haddish is in London to promote her new comedy Night School. You might be tempted to say it’s actually Kevin Hart’s new comedy, for it’s his character, Teddy, who we follow back into education in order to get his GED (equivalent to a highschool diploma or GCSEs) to facilitate a career change. But it is Haddish’s no-nonsense night-school tutor Carrie who is the standout, whipping bullshitter Teddy into shape along with the half-dozen other students who hang out together like some sort of middle-aged Breakfast Club.
Re-teaming Haddish with her Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee, Night School is full of broad humour, as you’d expect. But it’s also slyly political, taking potshots at Donald Trump, who’s compared to a Cheeto, and at white folks’ appropriation of black culture. At one point, Carrie explains she’s teaching night school on top of her ludicrously busy day job so she might “afford luxuries, like rent and antibiotics”.
“I feel like the best way to teach is through comedy,” says Haddish, serious for a moment. “Every great teacher that I’ve ever had has made me laugh. When I laugh, I remember. And so, me saying little things like that is just like, ‘Yeah, this is what’s going on right now in the world.’”
Night School, in fact, is something of a personal film for Haddish. For while she had a ball sassing her pupils down to size and cutting loose on the dancefloor in a memorable prom scene, this is, beneath the many laughs, a movie about people working hard to get ahead in life. Teddy’s dyslexia, meanwhile, makes him feel stupid and ashamed, emotions he hides behind boisterous blabber. It’s a situation that Haddish understands all too well.
“It really connected with me because I had a teacher who helped me, who saw that I was failing and saw that I was having issues,” she explains. “She could have just left me to float on by, but she invested time in making sure I knew how to do the main thing that everybody knows how to do, and that’s read. She noticed something wrong and she took the time out to say, ‘Look, I can help you. Or you can give up.’ I was so grateful. And I’m still so grateful to her.”
Haddish doesn’t know if she had dyslexia (“I’ve never been tested. But I like to say yes. I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ll go with that…’”) but, at high school, she could only read small words and was unable to comprehend sentences. “Everybody was telling me I was stupid. So I believed that.”
It’s a miracle that Haddish found time to concentrate on school at all. Born and raised in LA, she was just nine years old when her stepfather tampered with the brakes of her mother’s car, leading to an accident in which her mother sustained brain damage. Haddish and her four younger half-siblings were split up and put into foster care, and not reunited until she was 15, when they lived with their grandmother. Forever in trouble at school, Haddish was given a choice by a social worker:
I feel like this movie is about second chances. When you do what needs to be done, you can have whatever you want – that’s my whole career
attend psychiatric therapy or go to the Laugh Factory comedy camp. She opted for the latter, and was mentored by the likes of Richard Pryor, Dane Cook and the Wayans brothers. Not that her problems ended there – trying to break into the LA comedy scene in her early twenties, she lived in her car.
It’s little wonder, then, that Night School appealed. “I wanted to be a part of something where it shows that when you put in the work, when you do what needs to be done, you can have whatever it is you want. I feel like this movie is about second chances. That’s my whole career. I don’t mind being an example of, ‘Dang, I really want to be this, and I’m homeless, and I’m living like this. Let me do the work.’ Now I’ve got a house. I’ve got a car. I’ve achieved so much just by doing the work.”
In August 2017, comedy special Tiffany Haddish: She Ready! From
The Hood To Hollywood premiered on Showtime, and in November 2017 she became the first black female comedian to host Saturday Night Live (by the time you read this, we’ll know if she’s turned her Emmy nomination into a win). She also had a memoir appear on the New York Times’ bestseller list at the end of last year, and currently stars in TBS sitcom The Last O.G., created by John Carcieri and Jordan Peele. Upcoming movies include Tyler Perry’s dramedy Nobody’s Fool (“I just saw it. I was like, ‘Woo! This is gonna be a classic.’ I almost peed on myself”), action-comedy The Oath (“It has super-funny moments and some heavy political stuff, which I think is vital for the time that we’re in”), and voicing Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (“It’s so much fun. I get to sing in it”).
Haddish has certainly had more than her fair share of turmoil in life, but you might say that everything is awesome right now. “My intention has always been just to do a good job, and bring joy and happiness, and maybe make some new friends,” she says. “And then all of that happened
– times 10. I’m super-grateful.”
Night School opens on 28 September. Nobody’S Fool, the oath and the lego movie 2: the second part all open next year.
Having a laugh (top to bottom) Haddish in Girls Trip with Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith; inspiring Kevin Hart in Night School; with Method Man in her breakout hit Keanu.Comedy collegeHaddish “really connected” with her role in Night School.