Tommy Chong has a reputation to uphold.
It's 4:20 on the dot when Chong calls (10 minutes ahead of our scheduled interview time) to discuss his journey thus far on Season 19 of Dancing with the Stars — and, for a man who's parlayed several decades of pot jokes into a career, that can't be a coincidence.
As we chat, it becomes clear that even Chong himself isn't sure where Tommy Chong, Stoner Extraordinaire ends and Tommy Chong, Real-Life Human begins — and, somewhat surprisingly, he says that exposing his most authentic self has been the most nerve-wracking aspect of his journey onDancing.
"I always thought that I could kind of fake my way through that part of it, but you can't. You have to be real. ... Me being real can be very boring sometimes," says Chong — who, at 76, is the oldest competitor this season. "When I'm not dancing, and when I have to be part of the crowd ... or in front of the judges, that's when I get nervous. Because all my career I've always been a character. The dancing strips you of that. It's you. I can't be the stoner. I can't be the '70s Show character. I have to be me ... I get nervous being me. I don't know who the real me is, to tell you the truth. That's why I'm kind of stuck when they ask me questions. I don't have anything planned to say."
Character or not, Chong has cultivated an enthusiastic fan base that he says is his only means of staying in the competition — and maybe sending a message.
"The only way I'm going to win is if [fans] vote for me," Chong says matter-of-factly. "There's no other way. I can't win based on my dancing ability or my comedy ability. I have to win because the people really want to see me win. And to me, winning [would] really make a statement about the culture that I represent and about the age that I'm at. Because there's a lot of people my age that are rooting for me that, now I give them hope. They can say, 'I don't have to, you know, just be old because the numbers are there. I can be like Tommy Chong. I can go to the gym and keep myself in shape and go have another life.'"
For Monday's "Most Memorable Year of Your Life" theme, Chong will revisit the year he spent in federal prison (from October 2003 to June 2004), after he pled guilty to conspiring to distribute drug paraphernalia. (The case was in relation to his son's company Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, which Tommy Chong helped to finance and promote.)
How are you enjoying Dancing with the Stars so far?
Tommy Chong: I'm so busy I can't even sit down. [But] I'm having the time of my life. It's like a bucket-list dream come true. ... I'm in it to win it. So I really want to make every dance as good as possible, as good as I can do it.
Have you noticed yourself getting more comfortable week to week?
Chong: Yeah. I'm way more comfortable now. The first week and the second week you're in shock. You can't believe that you're actually doing it. Now we know what we're doing. We know our way around. We're not stumbling down the stairs. We know the routine. Once you get a routine going, it gets very comfortable.
Last week, it even seemed like you were kind of teaching Peta a little bit, rather than vice versa.
Chong: Isn't that cute? I really enjoyed the tango because it was a dance that I was quite familiar with but it's still the hardest dance, I think, to do. ... You know, all the pro dancers, they're young, and they're ballroom trained. And so, with tango there's a whole culture. It takes years and years and years to really learn the culture. I was just showing her, you know, a little taste. The thing is about tango, it's a dance where the man has to lead. And in Dancing with the Stars, all the professional dancers, they've got to back-lead. Which is okay. They get into a routine. But in order to make Argentine tango look proper, the guy has to lead. So, that's what I was showing her.
Overall, how is it working with Peta?
Chong: It's incredible. She's so ambitious. She's all business, and I love that.
What's been the most surprising part of the competition so far?
Chong: The off-camera attitude. I remember Tavis Smiley and I were standing there, and I saw a replay, and we both looked like we were in pain. (Laughs) You know, when you get old you get this scowl. And inside, I'm only 16 years old. But the other body, I'm old and mean-looking if I don't smile.
How did you get Cheech to agree to a cameo in Week 1?
Chong: Well, you figure there's 14 million people watching the show, so the exposure's not bad for anybody. [Laughs]. And so, it wasn't really hard. "Hey, Cheech, you want to be in front of 14 million people?" That wasn't hard to talk him into.
Who came up with the skit for you two, rolling up in that car?
Chong: It was the producers, just from our past reputation. It's the producers that really run that show. I auditioned for the show two years ago, so I think the producers, like all good producers, plan years ahead if they can. And I think when they found out they were going to have Chong on the show, the first thing they did was think of the car and the smoke and what we're noted for. So, I've got to give all the credit and the blame to the producers.
What are you and Peta working on for this week?
Chong: The jive! [The theme is] "Most Memorable Year." My most memorable year was the year I spent in jail, so we're doing "Jailhouse Rock" — er, Jive. As soon as I finish this interview I'm on my way to rehearsal.
Are you nervous about doing the jive for the first time?
Chong: No, I'm not nervous at all. I don't get nervous. I wish I did. Even the last dance we did, I never got it right until the time I had to get it right, and I think everybody else but me was nervous. I wasn't nervous because I knew, I'll pull it off eventually. ... I've been onstage all my life, so it's really hard to even fake nervousness.
You seem to be one of the audience favorites this season. Are you surprised by all the support you've gotten?
Chong: Not so much surprised as grateful. I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm not taking the fan support for granted. I think the minute you do that, then you lose. The minute you go in there thinking that, oh, you've got it in the bag, that's when it's not in the bag. So, every time I hear people tell me, you know, I'm supporting, I thank them. ... Because I know the only way I can win is with the fan support. I can't win just based on my good looks and talent.
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC. Which pair are you rooting for?
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