Chris Tucker is an actor who will for ever be associated with one, salient fact.
Specifically: that he was, for a brief moment, the highest paid actor in the world. This was for Rush Hour 3, the third, but possibly not final instalment in the big-grossing action franchise of the 90s for which he was paid $25m (£15.75m). The film proved him to be, arguably, the greatest physical comedian of his generation and, inarguably, its best remunerated.
After watching his hyper-animated, bug-eyed, wisecracking, body-popping turns as LAPD Detective James Carter – foil to Jackie Chan's self-contained police inspector Lee – it is hard to believe this subdued, polite guy in black shirt and suit, speaking softly at a hotel suite conference table, is the same person. Hands clasped, he emanates practised equanimity. Which he will need as journalist after journalist no doubt asks the same question: why so long away? Silver Linings Playbook, an odd, if touching, romantic comedy in which he plays a mentally ill patient and buddy to our bipolar hero (Bradley Cooper), marks Tucker's return to the movies after a five-year absence. There's no mystery to it. With money in the bank, and a son to raise, he, as he puts it, "just sorta took a step back", choosing to keep doing standup rather than accept roles he found unsatisfactory.
"I'm a perfectionist and it's real hard for me to do something when I don't feel it's fresh and new. I did this one because I thought it was a great movie dealing with mental illness. It intrigued me because I was learning at the same time, you know, playing this character."
There's a tantalisingly brief dance scene in which he grooves with Jennifer Lawrence, counselling a miffed Cooper, her ostensible dance partner, to "black it up". It recalls a lot of the crude racial humour in the Rush Hour films (Carter drops lines such as "I've been lookin' for your sweet-and-sour chicken ass!" and, after accidentally punching a long-suffering Chan during a fight with several Chinese men, "Y'all look alike!"), and, less problematically, just what a great dancer he is. No training, he says, proudly. Did he teach Cooper any moves off screen, as well as on?
"You know what? No. He's a pretty good dancer. I didn't have to," he says, characteristically full of grace. "But if we ever go dancing, I think he'll give me a run for his money."
Tucker's role in Silver Linings Playbook isn't outright comic, but I suspect he might be an actor who just can't help but be funny. "I wasn't playing it for laughs," he says. "Which I love … I think I'm better when it's real, anyway, so if any laugh was gonna come, it was gonna come out of a real situation."
And, as with his previous films, a lot of material was improvised, "because David [O Russell, who also directed The Fighter] is all about that and he's right there, throwing stuff out at you, so I'd say something and he'd say: 'Keep that, keep that, don't say that.' He knows how to catch stuff in the moment."
Tucker was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the sixth and youngest child of Mary Louise Bryant and Norris Tucker, parents who, as he phrases it, "put the fear in us". His father ran a janitorial service and his mother stayed at home to look after him and his siblings. Was he the over-indulged baby of the family?
"I was spoiled a little bit, but not all the time, it was rough sometimes being the youngest, because they'd bully you a little bit – I had older brothers. They treat you bad. Don't go to sleep when Momma cooks – you wake up, food be gone – 'You shoulda been up!' As a teenager I was always cautious of don't go too far. I had fun and I had my wild times like anybody else, but I never went too far. Because I knew the consequences were too great."
His career-path epiphany came at 18, while he was hosting the high school talent competition. "I got my first big laugh and I kept going and they were laughing and I said, This is what I wanna do, I found something I can do, I found something I'm passionate about."
That seems to have come with a sense of relief. "Because I wasn't, you know, great in school."
A year later he moved to LA and began doing standup. Soon he was a regular on Def Comedy Jam, the Russell Simmons HBO series that showcased African-American comedians and helped launch the careers of Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence – both of whom were considered for the Carter role in Rush Hour before Tucker took the part.
In 1994, Tucker made his debut with House Party 3, a comedy starring TLC and Bernie Mac, in which he played Johnny Booze, but it was his role in Friday a year later that constituted his big break. He played Smokey, stoner buddy to rapper Ice Cube, and Tucker remains so loved for that role that people still approach him offering weed. He laughs and pulls his mouth to the side to mimics their muttered offers: "'We can go in the back and smoke one' – because they want to say they smoked with Smokey! I'm so glad I don't smoke – I'd be high all the time."
Tucker has a habit of responding to questions he'd rather not answer with an almost grandmotherly "ohhhh!" – a benignly dismissive noise and an understandable response when the question is as blunt as just how he managed to wangle such a record-breaking sum for Rush Hour 3.
"Ohhh!" he coos. And then chuckles. "You know what: just ask. They say: 'Ask and you will receive.' I was blessed to do that. You always think, if you keep working hard you will get rewarded, that's always in the back of your mind. But the thing that really pushed me at the beginning was just people laughing. I think that's where my joy really came from."
Reading this on a mobile? Click here to watch
You can find footage of Tucker's early Def Comedy Jam performances on YouTube. In one, he riffs on the idea of Michael and Tito Jackson as pimps, not knowing that he'd eventually meet Jackson, even playing wingman to him in the video for Rock My World.
"I never dreamed of becoming friends with him but then when I met him he was just the nicest guy, the kindest man I ever met. He just befriended me like an older brother."
But he was too scared to do his Jackson impression in front of his friend. "Scared that he'd be like" – and he adopts that unmistakeable, querulous voice: "'Who you doing?'"
He describes Jackson as a kindred spirit, as well as a personal idol, and admits to dropping an MJ reference, or explicit homage, into each one of the Rush Hour movies (perhaps most memorably, to Chan: "I'm Michael Jackson, you Tito. Your ass belongs to me").
He and Jackson might seem implausible buddies – the motor-mouthed extrovert and the soft-spoken recluse – but encountering the off-screen Tucker – earnest to the point of childlike – it makes sense. Tucker is a regular churchgoer and claims not to drink or smoke. (I believe him.) He also watches his language.
"Well I swear a little bit in my standup show, but in normal life I try not to. If I hit my toe I will – "aw shit!" But I decided that years ago because I wanted to be better as a comedian and it made me better as a comedian. And it made me a better person."
Tucker is vague about what he might do next. Rush Hour 4? Possibly, he says. But "I would love to do more serious movies. Because people haven't seen me do a lot of that." As he says of being for ever perceived as either Smokey or Detective Carter: "It's a good thing for them to remember you, but you gotta keep moving."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010