Kali Hawk: How She Built a Career From a One-Line Audition

"My character started out so small and I had such a small agent at the time that I didn’t really have any negotiating power." - Kali Hawk

From Movieline:

You’ve really built a career out of improv, whether it’s these last two movies you booked or “Lovers & Haters,” the Mariah Carey short film you starred in that Spike Lee directed. Is there a throughline between all those projects?

I guess it really sort of started with the Spike Lee thing. That character had a line or two and once I got cast, I did the table read and Spike started taking lines from other people and giving them to my character. So that part was a small part that got made bigger, and then I got Couples Retreat down the line, and you know how you see on the poster, how I’m on it and my name is big? For most people, that billing was in their contract. My character started out so small and I had such a small agent at the time that I didn’t really have any negotiating power. After I got the movie and they saw what I could do, Vince [Vaughn] would actually write more scenes for me to do while we were shooting it, so getting on the poster and getting that star billing, that came later and that came from Vince, one of the producers on it.

Get Him to the Greek, that was a one-line part where, even though I’d just done Couples Retreat, I wanted to do this movie because it’s Judd Apatow and I want to work with those guys. I’d be a craft services person to get close to them, like, Judd knows talent and if he likes me, then maybe there’s something that he could do. And then I got that part and my one-line character got expanded to where they would just put me into stuff. It’s partly because of that movie that I moved to UTA; my agent started taking notice after I got Couples, but Judd is at UTA, and once a guy like that and everyone else associated with that movie started saying good things about me, that definitely helped the agency really like me.

So it’s weird! You go in for these small things, but they can be made bigger if you’re open to just giving them all you have. I feel like people respect that ultimately, and they do reward you for it.

What kind of new things did you bring to Trudy in Couples Retreat that may not have been on the page?

Well, I know that when I read it, it was kind of written in this standard urban girl way. You’d read it and you’d get a sense of how they would want it done, but I imagine the breakdown for it was that she’s urban, sexy, sassy…I love when they put “urban” in there. They’re getting so specific in a very generic way.

It’s code.

Right, it’s code! Maybe the key comes in cracking the code, because I bet you they saw a thousand people [for the role]. I went in for about six weeks and I went up against some heavy people: They had seen Keyshia Cole, they were interested in some Destiny’s Children at one point, Meagan Good threw herself in…they saw a million people. When I got the movie, one of my friends’ ex-boyfriends was working at William Morris and I guess he was on the phone when somebody told their agent who they gave the part to. Suddenly, it came through this agency, “Who the f— is Kali Hawk?” [Laughs] They had all these clients who they thought would get it over me, and I thought they would get it too, which is why I just went for it [in the audition].

How do you think you played it differently than they did?

I’m guessing that they saw all these people who looked at the description, “urban,” and they got all this neck-snapping and eye-rolling and attitude, but what they didn’t get was a character. And because I’ve gone through the Groundlings and because I’ve studied that, that’s what I was coming in there with. The other times going in, it was mostly improv; when I finally got to read with Faizon, he said, “Yeah, I don’t really stick to the lines,” and I said, “Great!” and we threw down our scripts and played out the scene. If you’re not trained in improv, you wouldn’t be able to get through an experience like that, it’d be too nerve-wracking. But for me, I feel most relaxed like that. It’s like you’re trusting your innate ability to do what you do.

How did you like doing Groundlings?

I did it for about a year. I did it and I thought I would do it and get to be on Saturday Night Live [laughs] and then I’d get to be in movies. And it sort of worked out the opposite for me: I got Couples Retreat and then I got Get Him to the Greek and then Saturday Night Live called and they offered me a test deal. Everyone was really excited, they were like, “Look, they don’t offer people test deals without having seen a tape of their characters or without having you go on at a comedy club. They don’t just do that. You should be excited!”

And you weren’t?

I kind of was because I wanted it, but I felt like it was coming at the wrong time. I wanted to do it so I could get into movies, but I was doing movies already! I had an agent, these managers, all these things I didn’t have the year before. So I got on the phone and I said to them, “Look. Life is not a straight line for me. There’s no rhyme or reason. I’m that person who’s walking down the street and meets Ron Howard in the supermarket and he puts me in a movie.” And everyone on the phone just goes dead silent. They think I’m nuts! Who comes into the game talking all kinds of s— like this? All I know is that I just say whatever the heck I want and hope it sticks, and if it doesn’t, oh well. I’m no worse off than before I said it.

So I said that and everyone was dead silent, and I said, “Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but it will, because s— like that happens to me all the time.” And then two weeks later, Imagine Entertainment called my managers and asked for me to have a meeting with Ron and Brian Grazer. And I said, “That’s great! Can you schedule it at the f—ing Bristol Farms?” And they were like, why? And I said, “Don’t you remember when I was not wanting to do Saturday Night Live because I knew I’d meet Ron Howard in the supermarket, and you guys got all silent?” So now they’re super jazzed. Like, a TV offer came in and they were like, “I don’t know, I think we should pass on it! I think we should hold out!” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re god d— right we should hold out!” [Laughs]

So there’s no part of you that’s going to watch SNL this year and think, “I could have been Michelle Obama?”

You know, it’s funny that you say that because that’s really what made the decision for me. I’m not driven by the money only — I like that you can make a great living doing art, but that’s not my reason for doing it.  I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Here’s the thing: There are three top African Americans in the world. There’s Oprah Winfrey, there’s Barack Obama, and there’s Michelle Obama. The Obamas take up two of the top three — do I want my introduction to the world to be me taking a shot at the better half of this great couple that everyone across the world has put their hope and faith into? I’m already kind of off the chain in Couples Retreat, so what am I going to do: Go sign up to be the token black girl on this show and make fun of one of the most prestigious women that we have? No! And no one really understood it. Maybe I was sensitive for others, like, “Is this what other people want to see? I don’t know.” And if there’s a question about it, I don’t want to be the fall guy for it. Someone else can totally go and do that if they want. I don’t know if I want to be Michelle Obama. I don’t know if I want to take that chance.

In the end, I guess we’ll see. I know they’ve been looking for an African American female for a long time. That’s a specific role that they’re trying to fill. I was like, “I’ve got a lot of characters I can do, and that’s the one you require?” It kind of made me feel limited before I got on the plane, so that helped me realize that maybe I should stick to what I was doing.

So let’s go back to that Spike Lee spoof you did, where you played a girl very vocally hating on Mariah Carey in a club. Tell me about dissing Mariah to her face.

It was really weird because when I was doing my stuff at first, she wasn’t there so I’d just do it with a stand-in. In between takes, I was still in character and just making up random s— to say and having a ball, and it was so scathing that Spike was like, “Say it again! Let’s use it.” So finally, when it came time for Mariah to do her stuff, she didn’t want anybody to be there, but it was just her and she didn’t have anybody to look at. And I was just bringing it, like bringing this weird, crazy character all ghetto b— times nine thousand. [Laughs] Spike’s a New Yorker and he loves that, so he was like, “You know what? Get Kali back in here.” And he put me on the apple box next to the camera so I could inspire Mariah to say things and have me to look at and listen to while she was doing her stuff. He asked me to do things silently, so I said, “OK,” and I was mouthing these words to her. When it was over, I was like, “I’m so sorry! I apologize for all those things I never said.” And she said, “No, no, that’s great. I liked the ‘Hi, b—.’ That was classic.”

Do you have those moments where you improv and do your thing and then you think later, “I can’t believe I just said that?”

That’s my whole entire life. I’m trying to contain it as I do press for the movie. I’m a straight-shooter, you know? I’m a New Yorker and we say what we’re thinking. Like, I like to swear. A lot. And I have to be very, very conscious about it because you don’t want to walk into a meeting and be dropping f-bombs and have them think you’re mad at them. [Laughs] I’m trying to learn how to filter the things I say. It’s really hard, because I think in a way, you’re right: You need to be able to access that and have that freedom to be free in your work. But how do you draw the line where you free-associate in your comedy and you don’t have that freedom in your normal life? I feel like you can’t do it.

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