February 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Kevin Hart continues up career ladder with latest film, 'About Last Night'

Kevin Hart is an online powerhouse with 11.2 million Facebook fans, 9.2 million Twitter followers and 5.3 million Instagram followers. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Kevin Hart is seated inside a suite at the MGM Grand Hotel in Detroit, his legs draped over the side of a chair. The comedian is on his phone, catching up on the business of Kevin Hart, whose digital presence is massive: 11.2 million Facebook fans, 9.2 million Twitter followers, 5.3 million Instagram followers.

It has been a whirlwind day for Hart, who got into town the night before and participated in a question and answer session following a screening of his new movie “About Last Night,” which opens Friday. He was up early in the morning promoting the film at nearly every TV and radio station in town, and he’s spending the afternoon doing print interviews in his hotel. During a brief period of downtime, he visited a downtown sweet shop and handed out cupcakes to fans.

Yet for all his hustling, Hart shows no signs of wear. When we enter the room, he springs to his feet, offers a handshake and tells us to make ourselves comfortable. In conversation, he’s engaging, friendly and present. We ask if he’s miffed he got scheduled to hand out cupcakes during a small window of time where he could have caught a nap. “That was my idea to go,” he says.

It’s that kind of work ethic that’s gotten Hart, 34, to where he is today. The Philadelphia native has been steadily climbing the rungs of the entertainment ladder for the last decade, and now he’s having a bit of a moment. “Ride Along,” the action buddy comedy in which he stars with Ice Cube, was No. 1 at the box office for three weeks in January.

When we talked, the film’s gross was a few ticks shy of the $100 million marker for the North American box office, but Hart is hands-on enough with his career that he knew he’d get the call that it hit $100 million either later that day or early the next morning.

The actor is immediately following up “Ride Along” with “About Last Night,” a remake of the 1986 film of the same name. In it, he plays Bernie, an obnoxious, womanizing loudmouth who is the opposite of the nebbish, wannabe cop he played in “Ride Along.” The two roles are his way of proving himself to audiences, he says.

“When you show your fans that you are diverse and you have different approaches to the material you’re taking, they’ll start to respect you as an artist,” says Hart. “That’s what I’m trying to get to.”

But the divorced father of two was no prodigy or overnight success. A career C+ student, he dropped out of community college after only a few weeks. But he was always interested in business, particularly the business of entertainment.

He also had a passion for stand-up comedy, and the 5-foot-4 comic honed his act for 17 years to get it where it is today. He waited until his routine was polished enough that he could release his shows theatrically, through his own HartBeat Productions, and retain ownership of the final product.

“Rather than giving people the opportunity to make them and then make money off me,” Hart says, “I said I can be my own brand, and I can make money off my own brand.”

Hart’s first stand-up movie, 2011’s “Laugh at My Pain,” grossed $7.7 million. Last year’s “Let Me Explain” quadrupled that, pulling in $32 million, benefiting from Hart’s increased exposure in movies. He starred in 2012’s “Think Like a Man,” as well as its upcoming sequel; on TV, he writes, produces and stars in BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” which is going into its fourth season; and on stage, his 2012 concert tour played basketball arenas, including a September 2012 date at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Hart’s “About Last Night” costar, Regina Hall, has starred in several movies with him over the last decade and says he’s still the same guy she met at a table read for “Scary Movie 3.”

“He’s totally the same Kevin. He’s just in better clothes,” Hall says. “Who he is as a person, how much he loves his fans, his devotion to kids and family, he’s still that same guy. I think that’s why he’s been able to be so successful.

“A lot of people told him he wasn’t necessarily a leading man, but I think he always knew that he was,” Hall says. “He built himself with his own comedy shows and touring, and really took social media to the next level and showed the power of it.”

As things Blossom for Hart, he aims to remain approachable, especially in the digital sphere. When asked, he whips out his phone and shows us his Twitter mentions, and in the minute or so since he last checked, he had 48 new mentions. His phone updates, and he has 88 more.

“Those just came in within the last second,” he says. He responds to one tweet, saying how much he appreciates his Detroit fans. He then loads his Facebook and shows a picture he posted a few hours before. It was seen more than 3 million times and racked up more than 3,000 comments.

Now that he’s reached one level of success, Hart’s goal is to take things even further. He doesn’t want to be the cult comedian who only certain people relate to, he wants to be the guy who makes everybody laugh.

“I want to be universal. I want to appeal to everyone,” he says, a bright gold watch peaking out from underneath the sleeve of his black sweater.

Earlier that day, Hart posted a picture to Instagram saying, “Up after you, up before you.” It’s a phrase that sums up his approach to his work, and it’s part of the reason Hart is seemingly everywhere now.

“When you see results from your hard work, it does nothing but make you want to work harder,” he says. “I’m a person that’s beyond motivated to win.”

Hart's hits (and misses)

Kevin Hart reflects on his career:

“Soul Plane”: The 2004 comedy about a purple plane flopped, earning just $16 million, and was the butt of many jokes at the time. “I definitely thought this would be my launching pad,” Hart says. “But you know what? ‘Soul Plane’ didn’t do well because it wasn’t supposed to. I wasn’t ready for success back then. I wasn’t mature enough, I wasn’t a polished actor back then, and I wasn’t as good on camera.”

“The Big House”: Hart starred in, wrote and executive produced this ABC sitcom that was canceled after six episodes. “I thought it would be huge, then it got canceled,” Hart says. But he says the experience helped lay the building blocks for him to create “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” in which he also stars, writes and executive produces. “Another negative turned into a positive,” he says.

“Scary Movie 3” and “4”: The scattershot film spoofs took aim at whatever pop culture topics were popular in the months surrounding their release. “Parodies: These are movies that aren’t necessarily going to make you a movie star, but they’re going to give you screen time, and at the time that’s what I needed,” Hart says. “I needed to develop a fanbase, I needed to show that I was funny, and these were outlets for that.”

“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”: Hart had what amounted to a cameo in one scene in the movie, where he plays an electronics store customer who tries to get a free extended warranty from Romany Malco’s character. Writer-director Judd Apatow offered the role to Hart, whom he cast in an earlier pilot that never got picked up. “(Apatow) said, ‘Kevin, I’ve got a cameo for you, I think you can come in and knock it out,’ and me and Romany Malco, we knocked that scene out of the park, and it was one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.”

MTV Video Music Awards: Hart was offered to host the 2011 VMAs after a successful stint as host of the 2011 BET Awards. “It was a huge hosting gig,” he says. “It showed that I was stepping up, broader fanbase, more mainstream, which shows I’m appealing to everyone. So the next stop, naturally, should be the Oscars.”

2013 BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher: A shirtless Hart appeared in a taped bit where he rapped alongside his “Real Husbands” co-stars Nick Cannon, Nelly and J.B. Smoove — and stole the show from underneath them. “Funny as hell,” Hart says. Hearing the audience laugh — even before he started rapping — “means you’re putting out product and content that people want to see, and they’re enjoying it, so you can’t beat that.”

NBA All-Star Weekend: Hart has become a staple of the NBA All-Star activities, and has won MVP at the All-Star Celebrity Game two years running. He’ll be in this weekend’s game, too. “NBA All-Star Weekend is slowly becoming Kevin Hart Weekend,” he says. “I love basketball, man. I’m going for my third MVP this year. If I win this MVP it would be huge, it would be colossal. Technically, I’ve shown that I could have played in the NBA if I didn’t choose comedy.”

'About Last Night'

Rated R: For sexual content, language and brief drug use

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters Friday

agraham@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/grahamorama

Kevin Hart and frequent co-star Regina Hall appear together in this ... (Matt Kennedy)