First Reformed marks a dramatic turn in the career of Cedric The Entertainer. Dramatic being the operative word.
The role of Pastor Jeffers is much different to the comedian’s usual big-screen work. It has to be, too, as he is the head of the Evangelist Church taxed with trying to keep control of Ethan Hawke’s Toller, a priest still struggling with the death of his son who grows closer and closer to a husband and wife that are radical environmentalists.
Because the part was so much more serious than his past work Cedric even decided to change his credit. For “First Reformed,” instead of being Cedric The Entertainer he goes by his real name of Cedric Kyles.
Cedric recently explained this decision to me over the phone. “I have built a 30 year brand as a comedian and an entertainer. Cedric The Entertainer leads you directly to comedy and being open and being the comedic relief.”
“I discussed it with my manager and the people around me, and we saw this as an opportunity to show that Cedric The Entertainer and Cedric Kyles are two separate people, stage presences and personas.”
For Cedric, this is just the beginning. “This gives me the chance to do more dramatic roles, like Robin Williams, Richard Pryor. These guys really inspired me to go from stand up to doing great dramatic roles. I definitely want that as an opportunity.”
The past work of “First Reformed’s” writer and director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “American Gigolo”) helped to convince Cedric to take this plunge, although, originally, he didn’t know if he “wanted to play another preacher right away.”
“But then you see that it is Paul Schrader, and the fact that it is a completely dramatic role, as well as the other talent that is attached. You see that this is a great opportunity to be in an important movie.”
It also helped that Schrader was looking to cast the film “differently.”
“He wanted to cast outside of the box. He didn’t know if he wanted to go with a comedian for the role. Because he didn’t want it to be funny.”
“He just wanted someone to show up at a certain place and make people go, ‘Oh, that’s that guy. What’s going on here?’ That was the main thing that we talked about. He wanted to make sure that I didn’t make the guy funny.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Cedric, though, who couldn’t always mute his humor during filming. “Naturally I can see comedy in pretty much anything. Especially observational comedy. There were a few moments that I wanted to say something hilarious, and I probably did.”
“It is just my natural place. But Paul had written and directed this thing and it was about honoring what was there, rather than trying to be funny.”
Cedric’s friendships with the likes of Bishop T.D. Jakes and Freddy Clarke assisted his approach and helped to ground the character. “These are people that I have watched as friends. Or know from other social environments. They operate in this weird space. They are big figures, almost deities in a way.”
“But socially you know that they have a sense of humor, and might smoke a cigar now and then. You understand that this person is a whole person.”
“First Reformed” takes this stance and runs with it, delving into the mindset of Ethan Hawke’s priest, pushing his wants and desires to the extreme, but always in an entertaining, dramatic and thought-provoking fashion, all the way up to its engrossing finale.
You can take it all in for yourself when “First Reformed” is released on May 18.