Marlon Wayans comes across as a happy-go-lucky guy, but comedy is very much a serious business to him.
That's why he crisscrossed the United States on a preview tour of his latest horror movie spoof, "A Haunted House 2" last month. The movie, which he co-wrote and stars in, opened nationwide Friday.
"I like hard work. Some people run away from hard work, I run to it. There isn't a shortcut," he said during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis.
Charming and glib, he had answered questions and entertained a smitten audience the night before, following a screening of his film. The relentless pace of taking the movie on the road, meeting the press and the public, only energized him.
He was up at 4:30 a.m., and hit the hotel gym. That was after going to bed around 1 a.m., because he was talking with his 12-year-old son on Facetime, helping him with a basketball injury.
Working the crowd the night before was a pleasure because he believes in his film.
"The best part is being able to do what you want to do. I have a lifelong smile. It's all I've known (show business and hard work)," he said.
"We're not changing lives. We're changing a mood," he told moviegoers at the AMC Creve Coeur 12 Cinema. "We want you to forget about bills, your headaches. This is a fun franchise. The cast just keeps getting better."
With a fearless go-for-broke style, Wayans, 41, is also known for "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood," as well as playing Shorty in the first two "Scary Movie" parodies, and "White Chicks."
He has branched out into dramatic roles, playing Tyrone C. Love in "Requiem for a Dream" and was in "G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra." He's worked with the Coen Brothers in "The Ladykillers" and was Sandra Bullock's FBI co-worker Levy in "The Heat" last summer.
"Ninety percent of the movies I do that I didn't create, I auditioned for," he said. "I auditioned for Darren Aronofsky six times (for "Requiem"). I slept in the same clothes, lost weight. I don't think he wanted a WB star in his movie, but I got it."
The Wayans Brothers Entertainment company's roots began in cramped living quarters in New York City -- his siblings are in order: Dwayne, Keenen Ivory, Damon, Kim, Nadia, Shawn, Elvira, Diedre and Vonnie. The youngest of 10 children born to Howell and Elvira Wayans, he became part of the siblings' acting dynasty as a teenager, but actually knew at an early age he wanted to be an entertainer.
"I've always known I was going to do this. This was my dream from the time I was in school plays at age 7," he said.
He graduated from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Modern Art and Performing Arts, also known as the "Fame" school, where he met his best friend, Omar Epps. He attended Howard University.
When asked if his parents were funny, he replied: "Mom is really hilarious when she's trying not to be, when she's angry. And she's mostly annoyed at my dad."
He learned determination and hard work from his blue-collar dad. "We're blessed. After a lifetime of hard work, he can rely on the bank of children," he said.
"A big motivator is a dream. We were never allowed to settle for less," he said. "My mother, after having 10 kids, went back to school to get a degree in social work. I still remember being 5 and clapping when my mom got her diploma. That's a hell of an accomplishment."
Another huge family moment was watching his brother, Keenen Ivory, appear on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" on a tiny black-and-white television in the kitchen. "Everyone was gathered around. The household exploded," he said.
Keenen Ivory, whom Marlon describes as "a good family co-pilot," achieved success with the film, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" in 1988.
Then his groundbreaking sketch comedy show "In Living Color" premiered on the Fox network in 1990. Marlon appeared on it two years later.
"'In Living Color' was like going to college, it was Damon and Keenen in their prime. I'd sit there, and be a student. I'd watch Jim Carrey change faces like he was Play-Doh. They taught us to study, write sketches."
Inspiration came from other artists, too. "Hollywood Shuffle" made him want to do films. He has always paid attention to the greats -- from Buster Keaton to Jim Carrey, he said. "I'm a student of the game -- all flavors, all colors."
Marlon has most often worked with his brother Shawn, and they were on the TV series, "The Wayan Brothers" from 1995 to 1999. He also developed "Thugaboo," a cartoon show on Nickelodeon that he described as a cross between Charlie Brown and Fat Albert.
""I try to keep the Wayans' employed so they don't come around, asking for money," he said, laughing. "There is nothing more fun than making a family movie. But it's hard to get five of us together. I love working with my friends. It's not going to work. It's 'I'm going to have fun.'"
Keep them laughing
He has two projects in the works, but couldn't talk about them just yet. However, he is eager to promote his urban comedy website, www.whatthefunny.com, that he developed with Funny or Die's Randy Adams.
"We just want to make people laugh. That's what we've been doing for 25 years," he said. "How many people am I going to make laugh today? I get to make people smile for a living, and that makes me smile."
He overflows with ideas at brainstorming sessions, but first and foremost it's about finding a good concept, then developing the story and good characters.
He said his "Haunted House 2" script was 130 pages, and then he thought of '25 more things,' but it makes for a hard edit. He is grateful to work with Rick Alvarez on the material. "It's a fun little ride. Some jokes land, some don't. We try to make people laugh."
Making things happen
Even with a good track record, Wayans said it's tough for a black actor to get good roles.
"I believe you have to create your own opportunities. If I waited for people to come to me, I would have been slave No. 7 in '12 Years a Slave.' Keep digging. You don't need a lot of money to make movies these days, with digital. The key is to create, create, create. By sharpening your tool, you are preparing for opportunities."
He's philosophical and helpful in dispensing career advice. "I learn something in the journey, take that whole experience. You only fail when you quit trying," he said.
Wayans beamed with pride about his two children, a son, Shawn Howell,12, and a daughter, Amai, 13, who are A students and athletes.
"They teach me more than I teach them," he said. "They have a great childhood. We've taught them to accept people for who they are, and I'm happy they've got it."
He is divorced from their mother, Angelica Zackary, but said he has a great relationship with her.
"I look at what I can do right. We don't have to be perfect. I'm not. Who is? I'm not good in relationships. I should come with a disclosure about side effects, like they do in those prescription commercials," he said.
"I'm just a big kid. I haven't grown up yet."