The secret to chiseled abs, at least for actor Robert Ri'chard, is lemons.
Behind a home in the Hollywood Hills, he grips the fruit, taking bites between interview questions. The Los Angeles native credits lemons (he eats at least four a week) and workouts (an intense 10-minute daily regimen) for the washboard stomach and muscular arms and pecs on display in "Chocolate City," which came out Friday.
The 32-year-old actor plays Michael, a college student who stumbles into stripping as a way to help his mom (Vivica A. Fox) pay bills. But as the new kid on the pole, working under the name Sexy Chocolate, he finds himself up against veteran performers played by Michael Jai White, rapper Ginuwine and the pro dancer who goes by the name Bolo the Entertainer.
As if there weren't enough muscles to go around, model Tyson Beckford throws on a fireman costume to round out the cast. "The whole time I was on the movie, in the back of my head, I'm thinking, 'Just beat the No. 1 supermodel in the world and you'll be OK,'" Ri'chard said. "Better dancer, better body, better everything."
The actor stepped onto the set just two days after a call from director Jean-Claude La Marre, after negotiations with Romeo Miller (the rapper formerly known as Lil' Romeo) fell through. Ri'chard knew that he needed a massive workout routine to get his ripped body into its best shape.
"I went Tom Hanks on 'em," Ri'chard said, laughing. "I didn't eat the whole movie. I knew the camera added 10 pounds, so I figured I'd get as lean as I possibly can."
He dropped 15 pounds during the 15-day shoot by working out, in sweat suits and trash bags, in his trailer.
"Chocolate City" has been regarded as the black version of "Magic Mike." La Marre welcomes the comparison, especially considering how that Channing Tatum film inspired him.
"When I saw it a couple years ago, there was one glaring omission, and that was that there weren't any people of color," he said. "I saw it as a missed opportunity for them, so I decided to start crafting my own version of this subculture."
Ri'chard and La Marre note a difference between the two films, besides the fact that "everyone likes chocolate better," Ri'chard said. Still smiling, he described the film, even with its R-rated bumping and grinding, as "an American movie about when you lose yourself in pursuit of taking care of your family."
For Ri'chard, whom La Marre called "an incredibly gifted performer and a good dancer," "Chocolate City" was his first major role since "Coach Carter" 10 years ago. Though he's had gigs on shows such as Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns" and "The Vampire Diaries" and small roles in movies including "The Comebacks," none has reached the heights he expected following the positive reviews he received costarring with Samuel L. Jackson in "Carter."
Next up is "Bolden," a film eight years in the making about Buddy Bolden, as a key figure in the development of jazz. Ri'chard plays clarinetist George Baquet.
But the actor understands that to many he'll always be known as Bobby Walker from Nickelodeon's "Cousin Skeeter." The children's show, which ran from 1998 to 2001, followed Bobby and his puppet cousin (voiced by comedian Bill Bellamy) as he dealt with the ills of teenage life. Others may recognize the actor from playing Arnaz Ballard in the television show "One on One," which starred Ri'chard as the boyfriend opposite Kyla Pratt and Flex Alexander. "One on One" ended its five-year run in 2006.
Ri'chard credits both roles with instilling a desire to challenge himself as an actor. He's hoping to try his chops in an action picture, and he'd love to pair up with Kevin Hart for a revival of the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence franchise "Bad Boys."
Until then, he's just happy to be doing what he loves — something he never imagined he could when he stumbled into an acting class while trying to avoid a fight as a teen.
"No matter what pitch you're throwing, I'm swinging for the fences," he said. "And I hope people are on base, because I'm shooting for a grand slam."