Apropos of nothing, Craig Robinson is singing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”
The Beverly native best known as Darryl Philbin on “The Office” is in the next room prepping for an interview about “Peeples,” his biggest chance at flying—er, being a leading man. (Actually, first he entered the room saying, “All right, RedEye, baby! Now this is for real.”)
Obviously, the higher stakes haven’t diminished his personality. When prompted, the die-hard Sox fan doesn’t hesitate to revive his rivalry with Illinois native and Cubs fan Nick Offerman or teach me a dance from the “Thriller” video he impressively replicates in “Peeples,” opening May 10.
In the film, the 41-year-old actor (who left Chicago in ’99 and now lives in Los Angeles) plays Wade Walker, who wants to propose to his girlfriend Grace (Kerry Washington of “Scandal”) but first must meet and impress her father (David Alan Grier), a federal judge. At the Trump Hotel, the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Second City alum, soon to be seen with Seth Rogen and James Franco in “This Is the End,” talked about considering stardom, his feelings about nude beaches and what he wishes Darryl had done on “The Office.”
“Peeples” is your first big leading role. When you look back, do you remember anyone telling you it wouldn’t happen or that you were just a supporting player?
I’ve always been encouraged. Maybe a long time ago in college … people were like with trepidation, “It’s tough!” I don’t recall anybody saying, at least to my face, “No! He can’t do this!” Probably because I was already on my way to doing what I want to do.
I was going to say, why would they say that? I’m sure you were funny and had a big personality then too.
Yeah, but in college nobody went into comedy. It wasn’t the thing to go into. You don’t go to college going, “I want to be a stand-up.” It was just so unheard of.
People on IMDB are having a somewhat ridiculous debate about whether Grace and Wade would get together in real life. How do you respond to that?
Nice! Grace and Wade are together so there’s no debate there. In real life, Craig Robinson/Kerry Washington? Kerry is an amazing person, and I would definitely date her, so sure.
She talked about you guys fighting like family on set. What’s an example of that?
I don’t know. It was just a very real—we kept it real. It was a real environment. We sang together, we played together. I don’t remember too many fights, if any. I think one time Kerry was mad because I was texting. She’s like, “Ahh! I don’t like that!” It was one of those moments where I probably shouldn’t have been. She was right. Again. Of course.
How did you respond?
I put my phone away.
And said “Sorry, honey?”
Yeah, exactly. That’s what you do when Kerry Washington says she doesn’t like something. You fix it.
This movie prompts the question: How many times have you been to a nude beach?
I have not been.
I would absolutely. Is that an invitation or …?
Yeah, I’m going after this interview.
Sweet! Good thing it’s not cold …
Why haven’t you gone yet then?
I mean, it’s not on the top of my list. They’re always so remote. There was one in Canada I heard about, but it was like oh, you gotta go 40 minutes. I want the one that I can just go and be like, “Ahhhh!” Like David Alan Grier was in the movie, “Here come the judge!” [Laughs.]
So next time you buy a place you’ll have to find somewhere around the corner from a nude beach?
No, in that case I’ll just go in my backyard … Nude backyard.
How often do you do that now?
Not often. Now I just kinda get nude to go outside and get the mail. I live in an apartment building, so I go … down to the mail room, and I just hope nobody’s down there to see, and I hope the cameras don’t catch it.
What’s something you wish Darryl got to do on “The Office”?
I don’t know, maybe spank Angela or something; a nice sex romp scene. I don’t know; everything he got was a gift. I don’t know that they expected me to be around that long. I certainly didn’t think I was going to be around that long. I didn’t think it was going to be to the point where I was in all the episodes and toward the end of the run. So I’m cool with whatever he got.
Why didn’t you think so?
It’s television, it’s Hollywood. You don’t know. Each season is a new, ‘OK, are we going to get picked up?’ There’s always wondering. I’m not writing it and I don’t know what I’m doing until the table read in that instance, so I just didn’t know.
And you have a new show coming up.
“Mr. Robinson.” It’s NBC. It’s a single-camera as well. And it centers on me as a funk band leader/substitute music teacher. [The] funk band [gigs don’t] pay a lot, so I substitute teach for cash on the side. One day they put me in a music class and then I’m like, “Oh, I can do this.” That’s to the dismay of the principal, played by Jean Smart.
What’s something new you get to explore through that?
Well, just from doing the pilot, I’m producing, I’m in the editing room and there’s already a whole world of things that are open to me: My acting role, my production skill role, I’ll be able to direct, I’ll put some writing together. It’s very exciting. If it gets picked up.
In “Peeples,” you lay down on a stuffed lion for comfort. What was your comfort item as a kid?
Comfort item? Probably any food. [Or the] piano … I didn’t have a comfort thing. Did you have one?
I had a stuffed dog.
What was his name?
It’s not like I brought him with. He’s in the other room.
[Laughs.] You’re going to be like Tom Hanks if you get separated from him. “Wilson!!!”
Quick Craig Robinson
His message for Nick Offerman now that the baseball season is up and running: “Nick Offerman—suck it! Sox are going to do it over your Cubs! Get over it.”
What he wants when he returns to Chicago: Deep-dish sausage pizza from Connie’s. “Remember that for next time, Connie’s.”
On Tyler Perry, who produced “Peeples”: “I love Tyler Perry’s movies. I was in ‘Daddy’s Little Girls.’ He didn’t write or direct this. He’s just taking his name and his production and his brand and shining a light on us to lift us up. It’s amazing and we couldn’t be more humbled and honored … For as many [people who criticize him], there’s a lot more lifting him up. He comes in No. 1 almost every time. I think every time you do your vision you have to get people criticizing. He’s doing what he wants to do, period.”
On Michael Jackson (after singing part of Jackson’s “Butterflies”): “It was one of his later works. It’s like, “Man, still had it.” You know what I w as thinking about, he’s the ultimate showman. He had this tour coming up and he passed away and what’s the number one rule of show business? Leave ‘em wanting more. And that’s how he went out.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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