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Busting Loose
Who is Dan Fogler, and why is everyone laughing at him?
September 14, 2007
By Jenelle Riley
Dan Fogler has tackled many roles in his career, but he has yet to learn how to play the part of a movie star. Let's start with the laugh. It comes at you unexpectedly, and it's similar to the unabashed, gleeful giggle of a 12-year-old boy who knows he's about to get in big trouble. Then there are the little things — things stars don't do. He tries to pay for lunch. He blushes upon hearing that my roommate has a mad crush on him. He would rather swing from a tree and make goofy faces than sit still for a photo shoot. And let's talk about that hair.

Long and wild, yet somehow not unruly, it's the kind of healthy mane that would drive Samson to envy, though it doesn't exactly give the actor the polished appearance of the next big thing.

But that's precisely what Fogler is poised to become, with no fewer than four films in theatres in the coming months. He is currently onscreen as Ping-Pong savant Randy Daytona in the comedy feature Balls of Fury. Later this month he can be seen opposite Dane Cook and Jessica Alba in the romantic comedy Good Luck Chuck. He kicks next year off with Fanboys, in which a group of Star Wars fanatics attempts to break into Skywalker Ranch. And in March his voice can be heard in the CGI retelling of Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who.

With his heavyset frame and gift for physical comedy, he has earned comparisons to actors such as Jack Black. Though this is a compliment to Fogler's comedic gifts, there's an inherent sweetness and lack of pretense to Fogler that Black has never managed to pull off. Fogler fully immerses himself in his characters, embracing their nerdiness and flaws, never winking at the audience as if to say, "I'm not really like that." A more apt comparison might be to Paul Giamatti or even Tom Hanks — the Everyman who wins you over with astonishing talent.

Fogler seemed to come out of nowhere to become one of the busiest actors around. He is jumping into movie stardom — not with comedic cameos or roles as the lovable best friend to the leading man, because in most cases he is the leading man. He booked all his upcoming roles without having to audition. Scripts are being written for him, such as Spanky Johnson: Monster Hunter, which he may also produce. He might play such iconic figures as Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Kinison in upcoming movies. He has so many people working for him — agents, lawyers, managers — that offhand he can't count them all. And he owes it all to a 12-year-old boy named Barfee.


'Bee' Yourself

Fogler grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the second child of a surgeon father and an English teacher mother. He attended Poly Prep, a private school with a strong theatre program, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. "I wasn't the best student," Fogler admits. "Theatre was the only thing I could do or I'd be homeless. Which is a good frame of mind to be in: It's the only thing you can do, or you'll die without it." Fogler majored in theatre at Boston University, where he "did Shakespeare and Chekhov and danced around a lot in tights." While at B.U., he acted in every student film he could get. "I think I spent more of my senior year acting in films than going to class," he notes. "But that was my class." Upon graduation, he hit the pavement and found himself running into rejection time and time again. "They told me I was a character actor and I wouldn't work until I was at least 35," he says. "But I knew that when parts aren't coming to you, you have to make your own parts." He then affects the tone of an almighty announcer, joking, "Let your light shine! See the beacon of Dan Fogler and bow down!"

In 2002 he received a call from his friend Rebecca Feldman, who had attended Poly Prep and done several plays with his elder brother. "She was a huge influence on me, as I used to watch her in shows with my brother and think, 'That looks like fun,' " Fogler says. "And now here I was, a starving actor with his parents paying the rent, trying to make a living, doing black box theatre and standup at Upright Citizens Brigade, and I was thrilled she would think of me."

Feldman has known Fogler since he was 13 years old, and even then he made a strong impression. "I remember seeing Dan at drama camp before he went to high school, and he was doing a mime of brushing and flossing his teeth," she recalls. "I was like, 'This guy is brilliant.'" Feldman, who ran a collective of writers and performers called the Farm, was culling those of her friends with improvisational experience to mount a show about children's spelling bees. She asked each actor to bring in a couple of characters for a show that would have a rough structure but be largely improvised and include audience participation. Fogler first created an attention-deficit-disorder-riddled child that he admits was one aspect of his personality growing up: "the kid running around giving people agita, never able to sit still." The other character he created was another part of him: the "übernerd." His name was William Morris Barfee (it's pronounced "Bar-fay," though everyone insists on saying "Bar-fee"), and with his unkempt hair, thick glasses, and a rare mucous-membrane condition that results in a breathy, nasally voice, he was a combination of all Fogler's childhood anxieties. "I've always strayed away from the nerd characters," Fogler says. "So I figured if I was going to do it, I would put my own spin on it. My brother had a collapsed nasal passage, and when he slept, I could hear him snoring three rooms down. There's a patented Fogler duck walk that my acting and movement teachers have tried to fix over the years. And, you know, some days you just can't stop your nose from running. Basically everything that traumatized me as a kid, I put into this performance."

Despite, or maybe because of, his limitations, Barfee is also overly confident: He always responds with a triumphant "I know!" when told his spelling is correct. Part of his assuredness rests in his secret weapon: a magic foot that literally spells out the words for him. Fogler is clearly fond of his creation, referring to him as "Mr. Barfee" — as in, "Mr. Barfee has been very good to me." But Feldman is quick to remind people that the character and the creator are very different people. "Dan is nothing like Barfee," she says. "He has a certain inner nerd, like we all do. But Barfee is much more of a bull in a china shop than Dan could ever be. Dan is actually kind of introverted, in a way, and very modest."

After a two-week workshop in May 2002, the show, titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, opened in October that year at the Present Company Theatorium on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It quickly became a word-of-mouth hit. "People were coming back more than once, which never happens in downtown shows," Feldman recalls. A huge break occurred thanks to Sarah Saltzberg, who played overachieving student Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre and also happened to be the weekend nanny of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who was so impressed with the show, she recommended it to lyricist William Finn. The lyricist, along with acclaimed theatre director James Lapine, developed the play into a full-length musical — now called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — that workshopped and opened at the Barrington Stage Company in the Massachusetts Berkshires in early 2004. After a successful Off-Broadway run, Spelling Bee opened on Broadway in April 2005 at the Circle in the Square Theatre, where it's still running. Less than two months later, on June 5, Fogler won the Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a musical. In his emotional speech, he thanked his longtime girlfriend, life coach Jodie Capes, saying, "We did it! And we did it with this hair and in this body. Be brave, be different."

Fans, 'Balls,' and 'Luck'

Even before the Tony, Hollywood was calling Fogler, an irony that was not lost on the actor. "I'd been told by everyone, from my mom to agents, about weight, about appearance, about making a good impression," he says with a laugh. "Mr. Barfee was an amalgamation of all the things people wanted to change about me: 'Tuck in your shirt! Comb your hair back, for God's sake! Get some contacts!'" Yet embracing these characteristics led to his success.

The first sign that things were changing was during the workshop in the Berkshires. "At the end of the show, here comes the head of William Morris, and he hands me a card," Fogler recalls. "I was flabbergasted. I'd been working for years, sweating my ass off in black boxes in New York City, and I had to come out to the middle of the Berkshires to meet the head of William Morris." Fogler signed with the agency; he's currently repped by Brian Stern for film and TV and David Kalodner for theatre.

During the Off-Broadway run, Fogler was approached repeatedly with TV offers, all of which he turned down. "It would have interfered with the show," he says. "It was my baby, I wasn't going to leave it. I don't care what kind of money they were offering; if I had left, I wouldn't be talking to you now. I would have been in some pilot that never went anywhere, and had a lot of people pissed at me for leaving the show."

Although Spelling Bee is an ensemble show, it became very apparent early on that he was becoming the breakout star of a fantastic cast. He and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who played sweet-natured Olive Ostrovsky, were singled out with Tony nominations. Having watched other friends find success while he was struggling, he understood how others might resent him. "There is a tendency to say 'Congratulations' through gritted teeth," he notes, adding that the close-knit cast of Spelling Bee was always supportive. "I've acquired the philosophy fairly recently to just worry about myself. We all have the same goal: to be a working actor. You can't worry about that guy who suddenly gets picked up in the helicopter and taken to the front. You have to worry about where you are right now."

Fogler noticed something interesting after he won the Tony: "Off-Broadway, I was getting all these television offers. Then after I won the Tony, it was film. 'Come be in a film.'" Also interesting: They were straight-up offers, not auditions. "I haven't auditioned in a long time," he says, sounding almost embarrassed by his good fortune. His first experience on a studio set was a small role in the 2006 comedy School for Scoundrels. He was surprised by how comfortable he found himself in front of a camera, hitting marks. "The only difference between it and my student films was that the lights were a little brighter," he notes. "I only worked a couple days on that set, but after that I had a lot of confidence. I knew I could do this. It was in the DNA."

When it came to taking lead roles, the first script that piqued his interest was Fanboys. "People had been asking me what I wanted to do, and I kept saying, 'I want to make movies that pay homage to the films I fell in love with as a kid,' " he says. "Boom, here comes Fanboys, which is basically paying homage to every great movie you've ever seen, with a Star Wars through-line as a bonus. That was a no-brainer."

The second script that came across his desk was Balls of Fury, a smart movie that masquerades as a dumb summer comedy, co-written by Reno 911! creators Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant. The pair knew Fogler was perfect for the role of Daytona, a washed-up Ping-Pong champion who is recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the underground competition of a dangerous crime lord (Christopher Walken). "We saw him in Spelling Bee, and we just laughed at every word that came out of his mouth," Garant recalls. "Really it's the same kind of character: the dorky guy who is really good at one thing, and that one thing makes him a rock star." Still, Fogler needed some convincing. "I saw the title and the name Randy Daytona, and I was like, 'Is this a porno?' " he recalls. "I originally passed. I was worried about being a young actor and making the right choices. Then I met with them, and I realized I was in good hands. So I relaxed into it and let them have their way with me...and then it became a porno."

Express surprise that Fogler, who had been struggling just a couple of years earlier, was okay with turning down roles, and he remains firm: "You gotta be smart, man. Even the right decisions fail horribly sometimes. You have to set a foundation, so over the course of three or four films, people understand what you're trying to do. If you just take the first thing you're offered, because of the money or your own desperation, that's the signal you're going to be sending out: I'm desperate, I'll take anything. You have to have pride and care about your future."

While he landed Fanboys and Balls of Fury based on Spelling Bee, he got the role of the lewd, immature plastic surgeon Stu in Good Luck Chuck without director Mark Helfrich having even seen his work. "Some friends had talked to me about him, and I had never heard of him," Helfrich notes. But the name stayed in the director's head, and after Fogler won the Tony, the two had a chance to meet. "Not only was he a fantastic actor, but physically he fit the role: short, big, and hysterical," Helfrich says. "I cast him just off the meeting and what people had said about him, and I liked what he had to say about the role." Once on set, Helfrich was taken by the actor's instant chemistry with star Dane Cook and Fogler's improv abilities. "He would always throw in something extra on every take. And it cracked up the entire crew," Helfrich says. "We have outtakes that will be on the DVD of just hysterical Dan Fogler improvs." Helfrich was also impressed by his dedication to the role: To play the character, Fogler cut off his hair.

In the Range

The actor knows it's a pivotal time for his career, and all he can do is try to keep a good head on his shoulders. "It's tough, man, because people are coming at you from all angles, telling you either you suck or you're great," he says. "And you can't believe either one. You just have to know in your heart what you are." He credits years of reading theatre criticism for helping him develop a thicker skin. "I've gotten some bland reviews, some lukewarm ones," he notes. "Some people just don't get it. I saw that a lot with Mr. Barfee. My impression was, whenever I met those reporters, they were Barfee."

He is continuing to build on his film foundation with several upcoming projects, including a starring role opposite Topher Grace in the 2008 comedy Kids in America. Fogler has formed a theatre company, Stage 13, and recently wrote and directed Elephant in the Room!, a twist on Ionesco's Rhinoceros, which played at the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival.

The number 13 is no accident: It's the superstitious Fogler's lucky number, and he insisted it be Barfee's in Spelling Bee. "The number 13 officially made me a man in the Jewish religion," he notes. "Many nice things have happened on the date of the 13th. I once won a ton of money on Friday the 13th." He was even set to play Alfred Hitchcock opposite Ewan McGregor in a film titled Number 13, but the project has been put on hold.

Stage 13 also doubles as a film company, and it recently produced Fogler's first movie as a director, Hysterical Psycho. Fogler hadn't been looking to direct a movie, but he thought it would be excellent preparation for playing Hitchcock. In January the actor went to Maine and shot the movie in black and white, "Christopher Guest-style," with a few friends. "I felt like I found a new love," he enthuses. He found the editing process very similar to sculpting, his other love: "Hours would fly by; it was very Zen."

On the horizon is Spanky Johnson: Monster Hunter, and the possibility of the Kinison biopic. But Fogler is reluctant to discuss anything before contracts are signed. He says he wants to play a range of roles, on stage and on screen: "I want to be able to exercise all of my abilities in this industry. My game plan was to go in there and knock it out of the park. I knew I had an affinity for comedy, and people were seeing me as the next comedy guy from Spelling Bee. That's what opened the door for me. But I want to be in the next Godfather, the next Goodfellas. There are dramatic roles out there I want to sink my teeth into." His favorite actors are Method actors; he's a big admirer of Marlon Brando. "He was doing things no one had ever seen before," says Fogler, who adds that he has occasionally done deep research for roles. "My feeling about approaching parts is that you can get there many different ways. Sometimes you've got to go and live in Europe and be a cobbler to get into the mind frame. Other times it's just putting on a frickin' hat. It's not any less realized; it's just a different angle. So I've acquired many different styles."

And he's proud to have reached this point in his career doing things his way: "Look, I want to be 6-foot-2 and have a chiseled jaw and swooping hair. But sometimes if you embrace the things you are…your dreams will come true." He pauses before busting out into that brash laugh again. "Jesus! I can't believe I just said that." As Mr. Barfee might say, "I know!"


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