It’s hard to remember a time when wearing masks in close quarters wasn’t ubiquitous. It’s a cool but not cold July morning in Pointe-Claire, Quebec and a global pandemic is still months away. A little more than halfway through 2019, it’s around the third week of shooting for Kevin Hart’s film, Fatherhood, a dramatic story of a single dad trying to navigate the challenges of parenthood.
The air is decorated with a mix of English and French utterances from an active crew. It’s not even 7 a.m. yet and cast members, like the incomparable Alfre Woodard, are being served breakfast in their trailers. Amongst the din of preparation, a car alarm goes off and Hart inquires with only a hint of genuine concern, “Was that my kids?”
Hart’s two eldest children, Hendrix and Heaven, are on set today working. They have been tasked with identifying every single person who works on the film and being able to describe what they do to their father, or they won’t receive the salary they’ve been promised. (His youngest at the time, Kenzo, is at home with his wife and his daughter Kaori is still a twinkle in his eye at the time of filming.) So, an alarm going off would be a sign that his kids are 1) still within earshot 2) not sitting on their butts.
Incorporating parenting into his work is a calling card for Hart. His children have been the inspiration for some of his most notable stand-up moments. Who can forget Seriously Funny’s ruminations about his son climbing in the oven (“Hot! Hot Daddy!”) and others about his son being gay that didn’t go over as well. The latter lead to a cycle of controversy that will still be playing out months from now, culminating in Don’t F**k This Up, a Netflix special where Hart reckons with his missteps. While it stands to reason that Hart has had his ups and downs as a parent, nothing comes close to what his character, Matt, has to endure.
Fatherhood is based on the book by Matt Logelin, Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love. In its pages he details his story of raising his daughter Maddy solo after his wife, Liz, dies in childbirth. It was adapted for the screen by Dana Stevens and director Paul Weitz, and though the real life Logelin is a white man, when Hart was cast and came on as a producer, the casting was adjusted to reflect what his family would look like. So, Melody Hurd (who can now be seen in Amazon’s Them), Frankie Faison, Woodard, DeWanda Wise, Deborah Ayorinde, Lil Rel Howery and Anthony Carrigan were added to the ensemble.
“I wanted the film to really convey the pain I went through and the difficult moments I experienced just after my wife died,” says Logelin. “It’s really hard to convey something like that and I haven’t seen it too many times in film. Kevin did an incredible job with it. He’s known as a comedian, but his serious side really comes out here.”
The film captures Matt’s arduous journey trying to adjust to life as a single parent with little to no experience. But it’s his struggle that Hart thinks makes the film so necessary.
“To be able to show a Black man struggling with fatherhood and starting from ground zero and working his way up to the top is something that is needed in today’s time,” says Hart. “It’s something I think other men will watch and not only relate to but possibly be inspired and motivated to do more and be more.”
The scene being shot today captures the evolving dynamic between Matt, an older Maddy, and his in-laws, Marion (Woodard) and Mike (Faison) who are still coping with the death of their daughter and are uneasy with Matt’s parenting of Maddy.
“It’s a big deal to leave your grandbaby from your prized offspring with a person that you just wouldn’t send to the store with a grocery list,” Woodard says of Marion’s strained relationship with Matt. “But she respects him as an adult man. It is his child.”
As co-stars go, Hart couldn’t ask for a better on-screen partner than Melody. Woodard praises her as a “precocious, alert and very chill seven-year-old” who was only four when she appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show with her sister Lyric for making viral dance videos. There is no wasted energy when Melody speaks and she touches her fingers to her face as she contemplates answers to my questions. Her favorite actor is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. She politely corrects an assumption that this is her first film. (“It’s my fourth movie. I have one that no one can know about. It’s top, top secret.”) Today, she hovers over an iPad between takes but is laser focused once the camera rolls.
“This is my first time in Montreal. I know a lot of French. A lot of people taught me some French words and they’re really helping me out,” she says brimming with pride. In the film, Maddy has an accident in school so Melody is sporting a bandage on her head in the aftermath for today’s scene. “That scene was pretty painful, but it was fake,” she assures innocently. “It was a big, nasty bump and you don’t want to have that on your face. But the good thing is I’m going to be ok.”
“Young Melody has got to be forty-five years old,” Hart jokes as he heaps praise on her. “This little girl…it’s scary when you see talent like that. Because you just think how much are you going to grow? That’s God-given talent. I’m very lucky to have worked with her and be a part of her story. In years when my knees are hurting and I can’t walk on camera and I’m watching this girl be one of the biggest successes out there, I can say, ‘Wow, I remember when I did Fatherhood with her.’”
To be able to show a Black man struggling with fatherhood and starting from ground zero and working his way up to the top is something that is needed in today’s time.” – Kevin Hart
Hart is considerably more comfortable with parenting than the character he plays, and it shows. When filming stops, he juggles multiple phones while checking in on his kid’s progress. Unlike his larger-than-life onstage persona, he is stern yet approachable while coaching them. They stand impatiently as he whispers, itching to resume their scavenger hunt of sorts. When their debriefing is finished, he releases them back into the labyrinth of the movie set with a nod and a smile.
“In my mind, they need to understand any and everything about life. So, they’re not working to understand what Dad does. They know that Dad is an actor, movie star, and comedian. They get that side of it. But they’re here to understand the jobs that people don’t talk about or celebrate,” Hart explains. “They assist from catering to props to sound, they’re doing it all. But their knowledge of how movies are made is through the roof. So, they can’t tell me I want to do something and not know the details of what it is they want to do. In the future, my daughter wants to act. Well, then you need to come and break down the business to me. At age 14, my daughter can do that on a very high level. Which is unbelievable.”
As the summer sun traces a path across the sky, the crew waits for a plane flying overhead to pass before shooting can resume in front of the brown shingled house. Another team is feverishly diverting traffic coming down the street. Kevin Hart waits on one knee locking eyes with Melody as they prepare to exchange their lines. A car with “Monarch Taxi of Minnesota” printed on its door is waiting to whisk Matt away as Maddy stays behind with his in-laws, who are standing on the porch. Parenting is about making tough choices, and this scene captures one of the hardest decisions Matt has to make.
“There’s a lot of tearjerking moments,” Hart says of Fatherhood. “But they’re moments that I feel an audience watching is gonna relate to because it’s a real struggle of love for a man’s wife who is no longer here. He’s living life for the approval of a woman who is not here. ‘What would Liz want me to do? What would Liz think of what I’ve done?’ He’s yet to dissect that she’s not here and everything he does is as if she’s right there watching. There’s so many great moments in this story and I can’t wait for people to see it.”
Fatherhood premieres on Netflix June 18