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J.J. Abrams and Chris Rock Talked About Diversity, Star Wars, and God at Tribeca

The legendary comedian and the renown sci-fi filmmaker also teased a possible collaboration and revealed they had worked together at the Oscars.
April 19, 2016, 11:45am

The buildup to this year's Tribeca Film Festival was dominated by controversy over the inclusion—then unceremonious yanking—of ultra-dubious anti-vaccination doc Vaxxed from its slate, to co-founder Robert De Niro's apparent chagrin.

However, a semblance of smoothness was returned to the annual New York shindig in the shape of its first Directors Series event: a pleasant Friday evening chat during which superstar producer-director J. J. Abrams was shepherded through a tour of his prolific career by comedian Chris Rock, an accomplished filmmaker in his own right.

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After being cheered onstage by an expectant crowd inside the cavernous, lecture hall–like surroundings of the BMCC's John Zuccotti Theater, this dapper pair of highly trained media professionals swiftly settled into a groove. Rock peppered his questions with some trademark motormouth ribbing—he chided Abrams for stripping a black man, Jimmie "J. J." Walker of Good Times, of the title of "the world's most famous J. J."

Neither of these vastly successful men could resist the opportunity to repeatedly self-deprecate in the face of each other's talents. "What job did you get that you didn't deserve?" asked Rock. "Star Wars" sighed Abrams. Occasionally, Abrams's self-deprecation was genuinely amusing, such as when he addressed, in length and detail, his much-discussed fetish for lens flares.

In one of the evening's few revelations, Rock revealed that Abrams had directed the skits at the Academy Awards that addressed the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. The subject of industry racism was left mostly untouched during the interview, although an Egyptian American woman in the audience did praise Rock for using his clout to address diversity in his role as host at the ceremony.

Rock and Abrams discussed the possibility of pairing again on a potential single-camera, half-hour show with Rock as the star. Abrams appeared keen when Rock said, "If I were to do a show… I'm running out of money. I need to cash out this credibility… if I nail it, will you do it with me?" Both men also noted whom they'd most like to direct in future projects: for Abrams, Meryl Streep; for Rock, Denzel Washington. But in a comedy: "He can do everything. You [J. J.] could be in it too. I'd better be in it. Kevin Hart ain't in it though!" he said, playing up his ongoing rivalry with the younger comic, who was recently mistaken for Rock).

There were a few surprises for Star Wars fans, most notably Abrams's revealing that Mark Hamill was unsure about taking on such a minor role in The Force Awakens—he thought it might be "silly." He also confirmed, in a sly response to an optimistic audience member's question, that the mysterious parents of Rey (Daisy Ridley) will not feature in the forthcoming Episode VIII , and that "it's something that Rey thinks about, too."

Speaking of Star Wars fans, one audience member—a spindly, middle-aged man wrapped in a black cape—rose from his seat to announce that The Force Awakens had inspired him to jettison his Wall Street career to blog full time about Star Wars films, and jolted him out of his atheism. He then asked Abrams whether he believed in God. Abrams took the temperature of the room before launching into an answer as frictionless and broadly humanist as the majority of his filmic output: " Star Wars is a film about spiritual connection… There is something that connects us. There has to be."

Rock, however, took the opportunity to call back to an earlier joke he'd cracked about who was scarier or more sycophantic: Trekkies or Star Wars fans? The man's question, he said, answered his own. One felt a little sorry for the chap who'd poured his heart out to a hero, but it was a relief, on such a relentlessly agreeable evening, when Rock extended his comedy claws.

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