By Derek Lawrence
January 16, 2020 at 10:30 AM EST
ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN MELGAR FOR EW
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Martin Lawrence is taking the idea of a one-on-one interview very literally. It’s a month before the release of his third Bad Boys film, Bad Boys for Life (out Friday) — arriving 17 years after Bad Boys II — and the actor is outfitted in a black Nike sweat suit, hood on, sitting on a basketball court that’s nested at the house that he bought his mother in 1991 when he first hit it big. Famous for being the brash, motormouthed comic who dominated the small and big screen in the ’90s, Lawrence now exudes a much more quiet, reserved presence, with the hood appearing to serve as his protection. “I come here for peace of mind, just to cool out,” he says of the property, which is tucked away in a very un-Hollywood-like neighborhood in San Fernando Valley.

So much good and bad have happened in the 25-plus years since Lawrence made that life-changing purchase: He sold out arenas, was banned from Saturday Night Live, became the face of his own eponymous sitcom, was arrested multiple times, launched two $400 million-grossing film franchises. And then there was the time he almost died. More on that later.

“I don’t have any regrets,” declares Lawrence, 54. “Because I’ve learned so much, and I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at if I hadn’t went through what I went through.”

Lawrence’s career began in Washington, D.C., comedy clubs in the late ’80s. He soon landed small roles in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the comedy House Party; in 1992, he became both the host of Def Comedy Jam and the star-creator of Martin at the age of 27. “I was a young kid and I was fearless,” recalls Lawrence. “I wanted all eyes on me.” And he always stuck to that philosophy, even when hosting SNL in 1994, when he went off script for his monologue and garnered controversy for his freewheeling discussion of feminine hygiene. “I went out on SNL and I saw the audience,” shares Lawrence, demonstrating a brief glimpse of his old self, “and I was like, ‘F— it, I’m just going to do me.’ ”

That persona might not have clicked for Lorne Michaels and NBC, but it did with audiences. With Martin thriving on Fox, Lawrence scored his first lead film role with 1995’s Bad Boys. The buddy-cop action-comedy from Michael Bay — then best known for directing music videos — needed a Mike Lowery to pair with Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett. The rising comedian had earned enough juice to pick his own costar, and it was his sister Rae who brought rapper and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Will Smith to his attention. “I had dinner with Will and after five minutes of talking, he got the job,” says Lawrence, who perks up and smiles with “pride” in helping launch Smith’s movie career. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

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Bad Boys would exceed expectations and make more than $140 million at the box office, putting Smith on the trajectory to become a megastar. Lawrence was also riding high, indulging in the perks that come with success in the industry. “It was hot,” he says of his celebrity status.

The lifestyle and grind would soon catch up with him. In 1996, he was arrested following an incident where he ran into a Los Angeles traffic intersection with a gun, which he says was the result of drug use. The following year, he was cuffed again for punching a man at a nightclub. And this was all happening as the fifth and final season of Martin was plagued by a sexual-harassment lawsuit from leading lady Tisha Campbell-Martin. (The suit was settled out of court and the actress returned for the final two episodes, though the duo didn’t share any scenes.) The onscreen couple have since publicly reconciled, with Campbell-Martin recently calling it a “healing process.” Adds Lawrence of their current relationship: “It’s all love.” He also says that Campbell-Martin had previously been on board for a possible Martin revival that never came to fruition.

Lawrence doesn’t get defensive when discussing his past, specifically bringing some of the aforementioned incidents up on his own, citing marijuana use and exhaustion as part of his problem with fame at the time. “There’s no handbook for it. I had to learn by trial and error,” he says. “I was in it — the glitz, the glamour — I was making the money, had the cars, the ladies. It just caught up.” With things spinning out of control, it took Lawrence’s very public trip through the legal system and the support of his family to make him realize that change was necessary.

But just as Lawrence seemed to be getting back on track, he put on several layers of clothing and went for a jog on one of the hottest days of 1999, hoping to lose weight ahead of filming Big Momma’s House. But the run would end with him collapsing on his front yard from heatstroke and falling into a three-day coma. When he woke, Lawrence had a new appreciation for life. “I know there’s a God,” he says, getting choked up. “I had to learn to walk again, to talk again. I had a second chance to take care of my family, a second chance to build my life with my kids.”

The actor quickly bounced back professionally after the health scare, scoring hits with 2000’s Big Momma’s House, his 2002 stand-up special Runteldat, and 2003’s Bad Boys II. There were also several misses (2001 was especially bad, with flops Black Knight and What’s the Worst That Could Happen?), but Lawrence says his hiatus truly began when “life happened.” After regularly headlining one to two big studio films per year for more than a decade, Lawrence took a major step back from the spotlight, appearing in just three films since 2008, which is when his mother passed away; the deaths of his father and brother would then follow in the next few years. “I was dealing with loss in my life,” he says. “So, emotionally, I was a little fragile, but I kept pushing on.”

While Lawrence recently returned “home” to stand-up with his current “Lit AF Tour,” he went eight years between Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son and his big-screen return in 2019’s bizarre The Beach Bum. Lawrence says he hadn’t liked anything that came his way until Beach Bum director Harmony Korine called and “gave me no other choice.” Now he’s center stage with Smith for Bad Boys for Life, a moment that Lawrence never thought would happen after numerous starts and stops. “I had already messed up a couple sequels in my career, so I needed this one to elevate beyond the first two movies,” says Smith of the reason for the long wait. “So I was pushing really hard to make sure that there was a point, that we had something to say, and that the movie was about something.”

Ben Rothstein/Columbia Pictures

While both Lawrence and Smith admit that they were worried about recapturing their memorable dynamic after almost two decades apart, their concern was instantly put to rest when it came “right back.” Still, some things have changed for the Bad Boys, as Marcus is pulled out of retirement by a revenge-fueled Mike to settle a score to a potentially deadly end, a plot where the actors, too, were forced to face their own mortality. “When we did the first two Bad Boys, we were young, we could run fast, we could jump higher,” says Lawrence with a laugh, referencing a foot-race scene in the upcoming installment where that new reality is on full display. “On Bad Boys for Life, we just rely on the stuntmen a lot more.”

Despite increasing physical limitations, Lawrence says a fourth Bad Boys has been discussed. “I think we have something special, and I want that to keep going,” he shares. Considering his past controversies and time away, Lawrence doesn’t know where he stands with Hollywood, but he cryptically suggests that other projects are in the works. However, walking off the court, it’s evident that he’s hoping that this is his latest — and final — career rebound. “I’ma bet on myself,” Lawrence says, “all the time.”

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