Interview: comedian/actor Aries Spears on Schwarzenegger, race and Project Spears
'I talk about relationships, sex, politics: those are the rebounds, assists, the defence of my game'
Performing in Glasgow for the first time, Aries Spears admits that everything he knows about Scotland comes from Braveheart. But the American stand-up and sketch actor isn't too concerned. An accomplished impressionist, Hollywood's cultural imperialism gives him an immediate connection with European audiences.
Among his most crowd-pleasing material is his signature routine reimagining the De Niro-Pacino stand-off in Heat with Stallone-Schwarzenegger: 'well, some things are just flat-out fucking funny. Schwarzenegger, that voice, you can put him in a hundred different scenarios. As long as you make that noise, people are just going to die.' He currently has six variations of it as a ringtone for sale on his website.
Still, Spears is quick to point out that he doesn't just rely on pop culture, impressions and race, a cornerstone of his last special, 2011's assured Hollywood, Look I'm Smiling. ‘The first black president comes along and I can't actually do him, which seems like a travesty,' he sighs. Channelling his frustration at booking a European tour when his beloved Miami Heat are contesting the NBA play-offs, he explains: 'I can talk about relationships, sex, politics: those are the rebounds, assists, the defence of my game. The impressions are just dunking the basketball, the flashy, easy part.’
For Spears, being a comic means absolutely committing, even when there's a threat of reprisals. He's mimicked Arnie and Mike Tyson to their faces without significant blood loss, and even his notoriously thin-skinned hero Eddie Murphy. He also has a habit of calling out mediocre rappers. 'It all depends on your definition of rebound terribly,' he reasons. 'If it means getting arrested and having somebody want to fight me, both of which I've had happen, you do sometimes have to scale it back a bit. But the longer you do this and the more you experience, you kind of know what you can and can't get away with. The worst thing in the world is to not have a sense of humour. Who doesn't like to laugh?'
A New York native, Spears began early in comedy by performing at 14, and three years later became the youngest ever act on Def Comedy Jam, the launchpad for so many successful black American acts. He ‘never had a plan B', because as his erstwhile collaborator Keenen Ivory Wayans puts it, 'that's preparing for failure. With nothing to fall back on, you know you've got to succeed.’
After starring in the sketch show MADtv for eight seasons, he's currently residing in Los Angeles. Frustrated by a Hollywood he likens to The Wizard of Oz for its fantasy and insincerity, he’s still touting around his own sketch pilot, Project Spears. ‘It kind of has the tone of Chappelle's Show,’ he says. ‘Sketch is much more challenging than sitcom and it lends itself to my particular brand of comedy. I want to pick up where Chappelle left off.’
Meanwhile, he's ambivalent about a movie career that's seen him play US comedy legend Redd Foxx and act alongside Tom Cruise, but also appear in such bilge as Josie and the Pussycats and Hood of Horror with Snoop Dogg. 'I've been in one movie that's worth mentioning: Jerry Maguire. All the others are just cup holders and discs to break your weed up on!'
Aries Spears is at Òran Mór, Glasgow, Mon 16 Jun.