After starring opposite Will Smith in Hitch and teaming with Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Kevin James had reached a point where it was a good time for him to go off and star in his own movie. After all, he had already been the star of his own network sitcom “The King of Queens” for nine years, and being able to steal scenes from Will Smith in a blockbuster hit warranted James being able to do his own thing.
With that in mind, James came up with the idea for Paul Blart: Mall Cop along with his long-time buddy (and “King of Queens” writer) Nick Bakay, which James co-wrote and co-produced with his other friend Adam Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison.
If it isn’t obvious from the movie title, James plays Paul Blart, the mall cop who’s really serious about protecting the East Orange, New Jersey mall where he’s been assigned, probably a little too serious, because that’s all he thinks about day and night. Paul’s Mexican wife ran off after using him to get her Green Card, leaving him with their daughter, who convinces the chubby security officer to ask out the pretty girl at the wig kiosk, played by Jayma Mays from “Ugly Betty.” Before he can make much progress, the mall is invaded by a group of skateboarding robbers trying to pull a big heist, and Paul’s the only one who can stop them. The cast is rounded out by Keir O’Donnell from “Wedding Crashers” as Paul’s new trainee and Bobby Canavale as the SWAT leader who takes his job as seriously as Paul does.
ComingSoon.net attended a fairly packed New York roundtable interview last week where James fielded questions from various reporters about his movie. (You can also read our set visit from when ComingSoon.net visited the Boston mall where James was shooting here.)
ComingSoon.net: This was a movie you wrote as well as starred in, so how did this movie come together originally?
Kevin James: Adam was saying, “You’ve got to get another movie and try to play one by yourself, and if you can come up with something great let’s do it.” I just kept thinking I could be funny in a CHiPs way if I’m some kind of motorcycle cop, something in a uniform where I could swagger. I thought that could be kind of funny. Then I thought it would be funnier if I had less authority, not real authority, and we thought about mall cops. I don’t want to make fun of them because I respect them. They have to enforce the law without any real weapons, that’s it. And no one respects them really, you see how it is. It’s a tough life, and I think they need to be heard.
CS: Did this bring back memories of your own days going to the mall?
James: Yeah, when I was growing up and my whole life, I’ve been in malls. That’s your nightclub when you’re a kid. Your social life is walking around in a pack of guys wearing my KISS black concert T-shirt and just checking out the stores and looking at girls, and that’s it. Then later on in life when I did standup comedy that’s all you did. When you bond with other comics going across the country, wherever you go, you work for an hour or two a night and then the next day you’re off so you just hit the local mall and you look around.
CS: Can you talk about shooting in an actual working mall?
James: That was tricky for everybody because they didn’t shut down during the day. They would just shut down sections at a time. It was fun because there was a good energy with everybody psyched to watch it, and we’d use a lot of people in the movie who were just shopping that day.
CS: Why didn’t you shoot in a mall in New Jersey where the movie takes place?
James: We would have actually, but that was a production thing because the rebate in Boston, it’s a lot cheaper to shoot there, to get film crews and everybody, and that was just the choice there and as long as it was East Coast, it was fine for me. That was the important thing. I like shooting movies on the East Coast, it’s just got a good feel, and I don’t think we could have faked that in L.A.
CS: Did you meet any real mall cops while researching the role?
James: Yeah, we did ride-alongs where you would talk to them. It’s not as heavy. Half of the time it’s just trying to check out the area and just trying to kill time with a magazine the rest of the time. That’s the thing. They take their job very seriously which I love, and that’s what I wanted this guy to be. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t make the New Jersey police force, but that’s okay. He loves what he does, he believes in himself, and he takes his job very seriously when everybody else around him doesn’t.
CS: Whose idea was it to have you ride the Segway in the movie?
James: You know, we did a promotion for “The King of Queens” where I rode one, and they came and taught me how to use it. I remembered it being such a fun vehicle and I thought it would be great for this, and then I found out that mall cops actually use these in a lot of malls. It takes a bit of practice. I was really nervous. You lean forward and that’s kind of how you control it. It’s with your body weight so you have to be careful where your body weight’s heavy. I got very confident and I could whip around on it. During the dog scene where the dog chases me I hit a curb and I ate it hard, so I got a little less confident after that. It’s pretty nice in the mall because the floors are smooth. Once you get used to it, I swear it’s like anything else, and they’re amazing because you can really spin on a dime and maneuver out of the way. It feels like you’re going to hit somebody and fall but the more you get used to it… My security guy Danny, when we were in the mall going through all those people, they gave him one along with me, and we were both saying the whole time, “We’ve got to get one of these for every movie I’m on now.”
CS: Why did you decide to put the name of the character “Paul Blart” into the title? Did you have a series in mind?
James: No, no, no. That was just the title we came up with. We just thought, “You know what? ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,’ that worked.” It’s a tough title, I know. It’s a little weird, but we thought “Mall Cop” was just a little too generic so we went with that. We’re not thinking about a series. We’re just thinking about bringing the story to everybody. “Paul Blart” was just a name Nick Bakay came up with, and I just laughed my ass off and said, “This is great, I love it.”
CS: How important was it for Paul Blart to have that moustache?
James: They were so frightened about that moustache and I was so insistent on it. A lot of the guys we interviewed had these moustaches, these big push brooms going on. It made the character funnier, and it made it not just be me in the other things I’ve done. I guess they were panicked because they wouldn’t recognize me and we needed all the help we can get. Me and Adam Sandler were the only guys who said, “No, the moustache is hilarious.” It adds an element of sexiness, and it was homegrown, it was all me. I wouldn’t do the Spirit gum and all that, I couldn’t do that every day. I had to actually grow it.
CS: For a long time, you’re been known for playing the everyman really well, so where does that come from?
Kevin James: From this body. I think when you have this body you just want to use it that way and have people who can relate. If you look at this body, I mean not everybody’s gotta look like Will Smith out there in “I Am Legend.” It’s not all that when you go across America and beyond. I try to connect with the everyday every guy and bring them on the journey with me so they can see themselves in my character, as opposed to like watching a James Bond thing where there’s something they could never do.
CS: In this movie, you get to do a lot of physical things with that body.
James: Yes, that was the intent, that I would leave it out there and really push my limitations, and we had fun doing it. I’ve always loved to do the physical type of thing like “Die Hard”; the only problem is it’s not Bruce Willis, it’s me.
CS: Did you use a stunt coordinator?
James: Yes, we did. My original stuntman, the guy who kinda doubled for me on “The King of Queens” all nine seasons, the first day of practicing a stunt comedy so this was a fun action movie to be able to do. We thought it would be funny if we got hurt and really hurt his knee, and couldn’t do it, so we had to find somebody quick and we ended up finding this guy, Jeff Gibson, who looked just like me… I thought – this was heartbreaking. “I got this guy who’s just like me and he moves unbelievable!” And then he takes off 40 pounds of padding and he’s actually in great shape. I was just so dismantled at that point. He was a great fit actually, and we dressed him up like me, but I did most of it. I did everything I could do. I hate heights, but I tried to do as much as I could.
CS: That body seems to get you a lot of beautiful woman. You’re even a bit of a sex symbol in some ways, so can you explain that?
James: A sex symbol? Are you drinking? I don’t even know how to address that, that’s insane to me. I don’t know. Isn’t that sad? I must have done something in a past life. It’s tough. I don’t know how it happens, I try to explain it to people. I did pretty well though growing up, I was pretty good with the ladies. I didn’t have any rap or anything like that really, any game, but I did alright. I was proud of my women. But I don’t know, I love food, I really do. It’s so hard to get in shape, and I go up and down. I was heavier in the movie; I don’t know if you noticed, a little bit bigger there and sitting in the editing room for two-three months, I gained 25 pounds from there, so I went up even higher and came back down. I’ve just been exercising like crazy. I’m not going to stop with the food, that’s just something I won’t do. Without a doubt it’s always been pizza, but it’s been New York pizza. That’s the thing about Long Island pizza, you can go to any set of stores you pass on the road and you’re fine going in there. There’s like a deli, a stationery store and a pizzeria, and that pizzeria’s going to be unbelievable, and I’ve yet to find it in L.A., it’s hard.
CS: Did you always intend for this movie to be a PG family movie or did it become that as it went along?
James: At first, we just thought the idea of me in a real “Die Hard” movie would be funny, but then as it went along we were like, “You know what? It can be a family movie, and I want everybody to be able to go and kids to be psyched to see it.” I know when I go to a kids movie and it’s not for the parents and they just check out, I want to make it for everybody so everybody can have fun things and take away fun parts of this movie and enjoy it. That’s where it ended up being, and it kind of felt like the best home for it.
CS: This was your first time producing, so what was it like being a producer on this movie as well as acting in it?
James: Scary. It was scary, not only producing but writing and putting myself out there. Eventually it was going to be where I have to take a chance alone without Will Smith or Adam Sandler – I’m sick of carrying those guys. I just wanted to be sure that I could be my funniest, and I really connect with the material and put something out there that everyone would have fun with. This one I’m proud to do, and I felt like this was it, definitely.
CS: Were you able to separate your role as producer from the other things you did?
James: Well, they all kind of tie into together, a lot of them do, because when you’re on the set you’re writing and working and producing, and bring certain things in. I drew the line obviously at budget. We didn’t have a big, huge budget in this movie either, it wasn’t that expensive, so we really had to keep tight on schedule, and we had really great line producers for that. I didn’t worry about money so much. We worked at night, too. They’d shut the mall down at night and we just had to keep shooting, because we didn’t have the time to hang out. It was tough. It was a very pressing schedule, but we got through it, and it was okay. It was a lower budget crew and everybody came together like the little train that could. Everybody was really psyched and happy about the movie, and it was just a good feeling on set and that’s important to me, to have a fun time with everybody and everybody felt like a part of it.
CS: Is there better camaraderie and energy in making smaller movies?
James: Well, no, I worked on “Hitch” and Will can get as much money as he wants from anybody, he can do anything he wants, and there was a great vibe on that set, as there was on “Chuck and Larry.” I really think it’s the person who’s leading the team there. I’ve just been fortunate enough to work with two who are honestly the best. Will just sets the tone. It’s great learning for me, because I watch and see how it can be done, how he is just so smart in what he does, and the same with Sandler. His buddies are all in the same movies, he’s just so loyal. You can do a good job and have a good time and be nice at the same time.
CS: Steve Carr has directed many of these kinds of comedies, so were you the one who chose him to direct this?
James: I didn’t know too much of his work. I knew that he did “Daddy Day Care” with Eddie Murphy, so I knew that he’d worked with a huge comedic star, and he’d done a lot of music videos, he was big on that. As far as the comedy was concerned and the story, I was so clear on what we wanted with Nick Bakay and Todd Garner, another producer on the movie. We all knew exactly what the story was, so it was a tricky mix. We wanted a director who could bring cool shots and help the project, but also not get in the way. Not to say that we wanted to steamroll somebody, but we were just so clear on what we wanted to do, so he knew that and he was like, “Let’s just shoot this thing and it’s your vision and we’ll make it the best we can.”
CS: Did you do a lot of improvising on set anyway?
James: Oh, yeah, and the cast we had was really great at that, too. Once we got what we needed–we had one place where we needed to start the scene and the other to end–certainly not like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but once we had one in the can, we’d do different takes and have fun with it and see where it would go. It was frustrating because a lot of the physical things that we did, like the fight with the woman in Victoria’s Secret. It went on for a long time, but we had to cut it at some point. If it wasn’t servicing the story you have to cut it. There was a bit with a kid, because that’s another thing mall cops have to deal with a lot of time is they have to bring these kids to the lost and found and find their mommies, so we had a scene with a kid that was really funny where I return him to his mother and she says, “Okay, go ahead and give the fake cop a hug.”
CS: One of the things in the movie that might make a difference whether people love it or hate it is the guys who rob the mall who ride motocross bikes and skateboards. It’s kind of a strange idea, so who came up with that plot device?
James: Me and Nick did, because it’s like a “Die Hard” thing, but we didn’t want these typical bad guys and we were thinking, what’s a cool way to get around the mall that hasn’t been seen every time? We thought it would be a cool angle to get these guys in there and rig the mall where they can skate and bike around, it might be a neat way to utilize it instead of just running from store to store. Once we started doing this, we realized kids are going to love this, too, because these are the guys. None of them are real actors. Mike V., the guy with the long hair. these guys were great and willing to do anything.
CS: In writing this, what was something you wanted to show that you hadn’t had a chance to do before on your show or previous movies?
James: What I most wanted out of this movie is for people to root for this guy. We built it that way that this guy just gets stepped on. At every screening we’ve shown they’re cheering for him and I love seeing that because he’s the underdog. When you get invested in this character and you see yourself in him, it’s like you’re winning with him.
CS: How did you feel when you heard that Seth Rogen was also doing a movie about mall cops? (Observe and Report)
James: You know what? I love Seth Rogen, too, and I think it’s going to be such a funny movie, and I was just devastated when I heard there’s going to be another one. That might have been another reason why we geared it away from what he was doing. I know he was going hard R I think (I think it’s that way, I don’t want to speak for him.) I’m sure that will be a great movie. I’m just glad they separated our movies, and I don’t think we’re the same in that way. I got less worried as we went along with it.
CS: Would you ever see yourself doing more R-rated comedies?
James: I got two kids now, so I’m not against doing them. I love going to see them and I laugh so hard, but I’m trying to do movies where I’d be okay with my kids going to see it or in the future, when they grow up seeing it. It’s a tricky thing and I like being in that world of “I want to make it for everybody” where its fun for kids and they can love it and then adults can take something away from it, too, and not just be bored to tears watching it.
CS: Are you going to be doing any more stand-up?
James: Yeah, I do stand-up every once in a while. We were just up at Mohegan Sun. Whenever you have a break with writing a movie and you want to get away, I never consider it work. Doing standup is fun. I’ll work with Ray Romano a lot, we’ll go together like a much less funny Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, less talented, but we’ll go to Vegas together and perform. I just enjoy it, it’s like a vacation for me. I want to take time to write all-new material and really perform that the right away, but then yeah, I certainly wouldn’t be against doing a (performance) DVD.
CS: Have you had any thoughts about returning to do TV?
James: If this doesn’t go well, yeah, that could be a big possibility. It’s hard to do both, and they’re different, because you’ve got a live audience with a sitcom, but I did it for nine years. It was a good run.
CS: Do you have any other movies in the works?
James: We’re working on a movie now called “Zookeeper.” I play a zookeeper–another guy in a uniform, no moustache in this one, we may go very bushy sideburns just to go crazy–I don’t even know, but it’s really in the beginning stages of that. There’d been a draft of it and there’d been writers on it but we’re rewriting and working on it now, and I hope to have my fingerprints on it and bring what I can to it. I’m not touching anything slimy, I can’t do snakes.”
CS: Do you find it very different writing for TV or stand-up or for a movie?
James: It depends on the project and what you’re writing about. There’s always going to be some element of me that I bring into everything. Obviously my standup is me, but even in “Mall Cop” there are certain elements of me and what I feel. You just kind of make it more charactery in some ways. There’ll always be something from my own life I bring to it.
CS: Which is the most satisfying for you?
James: It’s hard to say. It was pretty gratifying last night to watch the movie and watch kids and families enjoy it like they did, and we’ve seen it a few times with the audience response. It’s funny because I asked Sandler, he’s been doing it for so long now, “Where do you get the excitement? Where does it come from? What drives you?” We went to one of the screenings of his movie, “Bedtime Stories,” and we were standing outside the theater before we go in. He goes in last and sits behind everybody, you don’t know how it’s going to test, and he was so nervous like he was going to be brought onto “The Tonight Show” for the first time or something. I was like, “This is it, man, this is what drives you,” and he was just as nervous as I was, and he’d done this so many times. He doesn’t have to prove anything. But Will was the same way, too, because he cares, and that’s good.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop opens nationwide on Friday, January 16.