St. Petersburg's Justin Hires hits big on CBS's 'Rush Hour'

Jon Foo, left, stars with Justin Hires in the martial arts comedy series Rush Hour, which debuts tonight on CBS.
Jon Foo, left, stars with Justin Hires in the martial arts comedy series Rush Hour, which debuts tonight on CBS.
Published March 31, 2016

Justin Hires sat in a dressing room Wednesday morning preparing to head out in front of the live audience of CBS's The Talk and — like always — be funny.

Now, at center stage on a network talk show, Hires had the chance to show off 10 years of hard work. He's starring in the TV reboot of the successful martial arts comedy franchise, Rush Hour, playing the role made popular by Chris Tucker. The show debuts tonight on CBS.

"You know I've been doing stand up comedy for nine years," said Hires, 30, a graduate of St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School. "And when you've been doing comedy for that long, you develop your own comedic style, your own comedic voice, your own comedic delivery. So, I feel like I've been preparing for a role of this magnitude for a long time. . . .

"Will Ferrell said it takes 10 years to be an overnight success, and my first part in a movie was 10 years ago," Hires told the Times in a phone interview.

He always knew he'd get here, if you let his mother tell it.

"Justin came to me and his father and told us that if we moved to L.A., he would be able to land a job — and this was in fourth grade," said Barbara Hires, area 2 superintendent for Pinellas County schools. "His father and I laughed because we were not going to leave our jobs. But he was that confident even then."

Laser focus took him to Gibbs High's Pinellas County Center for the Arts. He performed in local theater, including American Stage's Shakespeare in the Park. He went on to Clark Atlanta University as a communications, radio, TV and film major.

He told his parents that if a movie role came around, he may have to drop out. They acquiesced because they thought he was getting way ahead of himself.

"We thought he was going to be so disappointed," his mother said. "Then he called me and said, 'Mom, I got the part.' And I said, 'No. You can't drop out of college.' "

He found a workaround with all of his professors except for one and was able to film supporting parts in St. Petersburg native Will Packer's Stomp the Yard and The Gospel before he graduated.

Upon graduation, he turned down a job at MTVU in New York because he was sure Los Angeles was where he needed to be.

"I'm a big fan of Judd Apatow," he said. "So, my ultimate dream is to start a production company and sort of have this collective of up-and-coming comedians and actors, like an urban Judd Apatow."

Landing Rush Hour was the first step, he said. A step that almost didn't happen.

Hires was touring the country doing stand-up and opening for Affion Crockett of MTV's Wild 'n Out. He was attached to a TV pilot in limbo. Originally, he wasn't even allowed to audition for the role of Detective James Carter on Rush Hour, but the uncertain status of the other project opened a door.

"(Co-star) Jon (Foo) had already been cast in the part and he was actually at my final audition," Hires said. "I always tell him I owe him a big 'thank you' because he allowed me to improv lines in the scene and really show the writers and directors what I can deliver. As an actor and a comedian, we've got that natural yin and yang chemistry."

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His good feelings about the audition proved correct. Later, a call came that the pilot had been picked up, and he called his mother and cried.

"People don't realize how hard it is to get a show on TV," he said. "I tell people, to have two unknown minorities to be the leads on a network TV show is very rare. But hopefully this opens doors for more up and coming actors."

The 13-episode series order led to six months of 13-hour days filming scenes, Hires doing about 80 percent of his stunts.

"I actually have the same stunt double as Kevin Hart because we're both tiny human beings," Hires said.

Hires is a first-degree black belt, one of the many skills he picked up in St. Petersburg as youth.

"He was always the class clown," said Barbara Hires. "And I would get calls from his teachers talking about his behavior."

Probably not the best look for a school principal's kid. One day, his mother came to Gibbs to witness the foolery she'd been hearing about.

"He was doing some sort of Michael Jackson impersonation and the kids were laughing," she recalled. "Then he saw me, and promised to never do it again if I would just leave."

That playfulness mixed with a interest in martial arts is what drew Hires to the original Rush Hour films, along with an admiration of Tucker.

"When I first saw Friday on VHS — that's how long ago it was, there were still VCRs — I thought Chris Tucker was the funniest person I had ever seen," Hires said.

Hires said his Carter isn't an impersonation or homage. It's just a Justin Hires version of the character.

"I'm a fan, and I know nothing can ever replace the films," he said. "The people who get this know that this is a TV show, and to compare a feature film to a TV show is a little absurd because of the things films can do with language and budget that we just can't. I just hope that people have fun, enjoy the drama and see the heart."