Celeb Row: Lil Rel Howery

Lil Rel Howery, one of the stars in the upcoming Uncle Drew movie—starring Kyrie Irving, Shaq, Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson and Lisa Leslie—out this Friday, says in a game of one-on-one, he could beat his co-star. He’s talking fellow comedic actor Nick Kroll.

“I think I win that game,” says Howery, after 10 seconds of reflection. “I think I am the better shooter. But if you want to get right down to it, Nick and I are just two OK dudes surrounded by a bunch of Hall of Famers when we were on the set of Uncle Drew.

Kyrie Irving’s star-making vehicle not only brought out the aforementioned basketball legends, it also attracted comedic veteran J.B. Smoove along with Hollywood rising stars Howery, Kroll, Tiffany Haddish and Erica Ash.

“You could just lose yourself watching these dudes,” says Howery. “Watching everything from Shaq’s size to Kyrie’s dribbling. I could watch Kyrie dribble all day. And I forgot how good Nate Robinson was. He was extremely good. He dunked on Shaq. We all got dunked on by Nate. I don’t know why he is not still in the League.”

Indeed, Howery is deep in the next chapter of his life after his 2017 breakthrough performance as the lovable TSA agent in the Oscar-nominated film Get Out.

Now in 2018, Lil Rel is enjoying the fruits of his harvest, landing starring roles in four movies (Uncle Drew, Tag, Bird Box and Brittany Runs A Marathon) this year along with his eponymous TV show Rel, set to premiere this fall on Fox.

We caught up with the Chicago comedian days before his latest film dropped to find out what is new in the Rel world.

What do your friends call you? Lil Rel or Rel or something else?

Both. You can say Lil Rel or Rel. You’re good. Whatever you want to do, bro.

You were born and raised in Chicago as Milton Howery, but when exactly did you become Lil Rel?

Lil Rel started my freshman year of high school. That is where the name came from. I was going to basketball tryouts, and I had a good tryout. One of the seniors that played on the varsity team was like, “Who’s that?” And they said, “That’s Darrel’s cousin.” So then he hollered, “What’s up, Lil Rel?” I said, “No, my name is Milton.” And he said, “Naw, it’s Lil Rel.” He basically gave me the name because he was a senior and he was popular. Everybody started calling me Lil Rel and I just left it alone.

Always repping!!!! #WestSideOfChicago #RELevent2

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I know you are keeping the Lil Rel name forever, even though people try to talk you into using your real name now that you have become a star.

There’s a reason for that. At one time people said, you have to change your name because they will never put that name in lights. And they were wrong. I don’t like nobody telling me what’s not going to happen, you know what I mean? It’s almost an accomplishment for me to see my credits on a movie poster or my comedy show name in lights because I don’t like when somebody tells me I can’t do something.

I have read so much about you and know that when you first came to Los Angeles, you were so full of confidence—and for good reason, because you were so successful in Chicago. When did you first get that confidence where you knew you were good at comedy, good at your craft? Was it when comedian DeRay Davis coached you up? Was it hosting the comedy clubs in Chicago? Was there a moment from your time in Los Angeles? When did it hit for you that you were on a path toward stardom?

That’s a great question. It started in Chicago. The first moment of me knowing, “OK, I can really be great at this” was at this hole-in-the-wall Masonic lodge that we used to do this open mic for the rappers and comedians that I was hosting. The more I did it every week, people started treating me like a celebrity. I got really good, and people started packing this place in. Then Jokes & Notes opened. The owner Mary Lindsey gave me a Wednesday night, which was just an open-mic comedy night, but it was the hottest night in Chicago. That was when I knew. Chicago gave me my confidence that I could leave Chicago and be good anywhere. Chicago built me up. All those supporters I had in Chicago, the fans back there, they are the reason why I am where I am at today. It was so funny because festivals would come to Chicago, and the people running different television showcases would say out loud, “Who is this dude? Why are these people going crazy over him?” They would intro my name and the crowd would stand up. And it would make all these producers ask, “Who the heck is this dude? Why are people going crazy like that?” My biggest moment came with Who’s Got Jokes?, the TV One [comedic competition] show that Bill Bellamy hosted [from 2007 to 2009]. When I beat Leon Rogers—one of the popular Chicago comics who is on the radio still in Chicago—when I beat him in an episode, I think that’s when everybody knew Rel might be the next thing out of here.

After that, you moved to Los Angeles and …

Actually, I lived in Chicago all the way until 2012. I didn’t move to L.A. until The Carmichael Show got picked up. I did spend two years before that in New York on a sketch series I did called Friends of the People that I did with the Lucas brothers [Keith and Kenneth], Jermaine Fowler, Jennifer Bartels, Kevin Barnett. Then I came to L.A. once The Carmichael Show was picked up. I never tried to move here. I only came here to work. So if I was booked on something, that’s when you’d see me. But I would go right back to Chicago.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

By then, you’ve already done In Living Color, the 2012 reboot on Fox and the Lil Rel: RELevent 2015 comedy special. And then of course you get Get Out, which opened in January 2017. And before that movie premiered, director Jordan Peele reportedly was going over the editing of his film when he gave you a phone call saying you were going to be the next big black movie star. Was that when you realized your career was going to take yet another ascension?

I don’t know how exactly he said it. But, yeah, I think it was something like, “You’ll be the next big black comedian movie star.” To be honest with you, it’s funny that is still a thing, which is insane, but it is. He just knew. He was editing his film and he called me, saying, “Just know your price. Get your money, bruh, because you’re about to be on fire.” When Jordan said it at the time, I was like, “Alright, bruh.” But it wasn’t until we did the Get Out premiere and the movie was over, and we walked in the lobby, and people were overly excited to see me. I was like, “Oh, this is going to be getting weird.”

So, your life basically changed in January 2017?

Yeah, I was already doing well before and being consistent, but Get Out made people look at me different.

So when did you get the parts in Uncle Drew, Tag, Bird Box and Brittany Runs A Marathon—all the movies you are now doing in 2018?

Literally the day after Get Out came out. Uncle Drew was my first offer and that came right away from [producer] Marty Bowen. I was thinking about doing the movie and Kyrie came to my show at Boston. That’s when I found out he was a really cool dude. And I was so happy he was cool because you never know. But by him being such a good dude we were able to cut up the chemistry together. He is just one of the most talented people I know.

How does Kyrie hold it together as the lead actor on the big screen?

Once Kyrie figured out how to take his Uncle Drew character from commercial to film, he was just amazing. Take after take, I was really impressed with his dramatic chops. I was able to go different places with him because he could respond. When we’d have a heart-to-heart scene, Kyrie really brought it. You’ll see. I gave him enough, and insanely enough, he was able to handle it all.

Quantrell Colbert/Lionsgate

How does it feel for you as a comedic actor to now be in a leadership role, as opposed to learning from all the elders around you?

That’s a great question because I am now beginning to see that. On the Rel show [coming out this fall on Fox], I like being in that leadership role for the younger actors on the set, similar to how Cedric The Entertainer and Bill Bellamy were there for me when I was learning this game. I just want everybody to shine because everybody else was that way for me. It is something I pay a lot of attention to lately. Like all the stories I hear about Sandra Bullock on the set of Ocean’s 8, how she was such a leader for everyone there. I love that about her. I learned a lot from Uncle Drew, too, from all the Hall of Famers we had on set there. Think about it: Reggie Miller ran a team for years in Indiana. Kyrie was going to Boston to run the Boston Celtics. There were a lot of stars on set and I learned a lot about how they led teams. Lisa Leslie shared great advice on how she led her teams. All these great players were all great sources of leadership information.

What is an anecdote that you can share of something you learned from a mentor that you now share with others?

Early on, Cedric The Entertainer once shared with me that the timing of knowing when to make a comedic comment is just as important as the line itself. David Alan Grier showed me sometimes you didn’t even need words. You could be just as funny, without talking, by using an expression. You can be funny without saying a thing.

If you compared your career arc to any NBA player, who do you think you are? I say Kyrie Irving because he has been putting in work as a basketball prodigy for 20-plus years, but only recently became thought of as a top 10 player in his industry. Same with you. Some call you an overnight success, but you’ve been putting in work for 20-plus years and succeeding. Only recently, though, have you got the star treatment, after starring in the Oscar-nominated film Get Out, landing four more movies this year and also headlining your own TV show Rel coming out this fall.

That is a great comparison. Yes, I could see where you’re going. Kyrie was an All-Star for years, but it wasn’t until the 2016 NBA Finals that he went to that next level. When the Cavs were down 3-1, he went crazy! He had a great Finals and hit the game-winner in Game 7. I appreciate that comparison. I can also see myself as a Jimmy Butler type. Jimmy kept working his way up, working hard every year. He got better and better and better, and next thing you know, he is an All-Star every year. You could even say the same about Russell Westbrook—there are so many wonderful NBA stories. But the Kyrie comparison works too because his career has really taken off these past couple years. LeBron [James] taught him how to win and I had a lot of people teaching me throughout the years. The Carmichael Show for me would be like the first season with Kyrie learning from LeBron in Cleveland. I would call Get Out as my 2016 NBA Finals when the Cavs were down 3-1. We were a low-budget film that nobody expected to win. Today I just feel blessed to be a part of such a classic film because Get Out is already viewed as a classic in so many peoples’ eyes.

So if I call you the Kyrie Irving/Jimmy Butler of the comedic acting world, you would not mind?

I would be honored.