A born hustler from Chicago’s South Side, DeRay Davis began his career on the comedy club circuit and was first noticed by Hollywood while onstage at Atlanta’s Laffapalooza Festival. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, he won the Comedy Central Laugh Riots Competition and was subsequently a standout on the Cedric the Entertainer Tour and at the Montréal Just for Laughs Festival.
DeRay’s film credits include “Jumping the Broom,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “Barbershop,” “Life as We Know It,” “License to Wed,” and “Scary Movie 4.”
And on the small screen, he has appeared in “Entourage,” “Reno 911” and “ComicView,” along with doing various voices on “The Boondocks.”
In terms of record albums, he wrote and performed the comedy skits on Kanye West’s “Late Registration” and “The College Dropout” LPs, and he also performed at the 2006 Grammy Awards with Kanye and Jamie Foxx.
Here, he talks about his latest screen role in “21 Jump Street,” where he plays a Dominican drug dealer named Domingo, opposite Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.
What interested you in “21 Jump Street”?
My initial interest had to be the hype of the show. I’m from the generation that watched it growing up. So, I was pretty happy and excited that they were even making the TV show into a movie.
Plus, I wanted to see what kind of spin they were going to put on it. And to hear that they were going to turn it into a comedy was pretty intriguing to me.
How did you feel about your character Domingo’s wearing shades the entire film, given that your green eyes are almost your trademark?
They were really only covered toward the end of the film.
Did you watch episodes of the TV series to prepare for your role in “21 Jump Street”?
No, because my character was created for the film. When they told me that he was a biker and a bad guy, I looked at some ’80s biker videos on YouTube.
And because he’s Dominican, I also listened to some accents. And even though it’s a comedic film, I had to tone down the “funny” in order to play this bad guy. I started thinking about all my bills to get in touch with my angry side.
In your life, you probably met naysayers who tried to deter you from pursuing your dreams. What message do you have for young people who are surrounded by individuals who do not believe in them, and who would like to follow in your footsteps by becoming a comedian?
I think the role of comedy in your life should supercede anything and everything negative. Just by virtue of the fact that you have to be funny, you can’t afford to focus on the negative. As a comedian, your challenge is to turn negative stuff into positive energy.
You should be able to hear anything that sounds bad, that people normally wouldn’t laugh at, and make it feel funny to you. No one should be able to deter you, once you have your mind set on comedy. Your survival as a comedian should be as natural as breathing. I need to breathe and I consider my career my air.
How much fun was it making this movie?
It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. We had to hit the notes and hit the points, but we did plenty of ad-libbing in the midst of it, once we had the script down. There was also a lot of crazy, high-speed stuff that I wasn’t used to, but that was fun, too. It was like riding a roller coaster.
What’s the difference between doing standup comedy and acting in movies? How does each challenge you as an entertainer and how does each play to your strengths?
I believe they parallel each other as far as the strengths. The difference is that when I’m onstage doing standup, no one yells, “Cut!” or tells me what to do. I’m DeRay, and I use my own words.
With acting, you’re portraying a character with someone else’s words. Still, you definitely want to inject a little of yourself into every role, the way that Samuel L. Jackson does. Following the script is one thing, but the unique way in which you deliver your lines is what makes them your own.
Are you currently writing any projects that you hope to bring to the screen?
Yeah, we’ve actually been working on three or four for a few years. It takes a while for a movie to get on its feet. That’s when believing in yourself really matters, when people start giving you money to fund a project. But I definitely have a lot of ideas and original thoughts I’d like to see up on the big screen.
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
Yeah, “How are you doing?” [Chuckles]
Is there something about you that no interview ever addresses.
I’d like the world to know that I would do what I do for no money. If I could trade my comedy for food, I’d walk into a grocery store and give them 15 minutes for $100 worth of groceries.
My passion is beyond the financial. I don’t think people are aware of that about me. I’m not a flashy guy, and I want people to know that whatever they do is just as important as my craft.
Are you ever afraid?
Yep, I’m terrified of failure.
Are you happy?
Half the time. When I’m with my daughter, I’m elated. That’s what makes my work pay off, knowing that she’s here, and she’s healthy, and that regardless of how I’m received by anybody else, I’m funny to her.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Hmm… I love soup, and my homemade chicken noodle soup is my favorite.
What excites you?
This is going to sound weird, but I’m excited by quiet. When it’s quiet, I get a rush because I start wondering what’s about to happen, like in a horror film.
Have you ever made a horror film?
Yes, “The Fog,” and I apologize for it. [Laughs]
Were you the first to die? In most horror flicks, the black guy dies first.
No I wasn’t. I’m mixed, so they let me live a little longer.
Who is your favorite clothes designer?
What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
The best, basically, was investing in myself. The worst was putting my acting money into my comedy shows. It was like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
I see hope… I see my family… I see growth… I see past the things I’ve been through.
If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
Hmm… to star in an action movie with Denzel as my sidekick and with Will Smith as the villain. And during a fight scene, I get to knock Will to the ground as he begs, “Please, don’t beat me up anymore.”
And Samuel L. Jackson would be standing next to me going, “That’s right, dammit!”
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
A shark, because when I smell blood, meaning success, I head straight for it, and tear right into it.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
Hearing the door slam one day after my parents were arguing when I was about 3. I remember my father yelling, “You can do it on your own!” I just remember that moment.
How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
I think it shaped about a third of who I am because up till then, the only people who had ever hurt me were family, and there was always an apology, and you knew you would see them again.
But my first heartbreak was different. She had a piece of me that I had given her, and she took that gift, which was really still inside me, and tore it apart.
That first heartbreak created armor around me, so it had a big effect. You don’t think that could happen to you until it happens. It’s like a car crash. But there’s no insurance for love.
What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
The ability to ignore rejection. They don’t take a “no” the same way other people do. They react to it like it’s fuel instead of burning down their dream.
What is your favorite charity?
What’s the best thing about being a parent?
Being able to see a mirror of yourself with a better reflection looking back at you.
How do you want to be remembered?
As the meanest nice guy in the world.