The king is in a new court. And it's like the junior high BMOC stumbling into the varsity locker room.
"I was nervous about it because I'd worked with Adam [Sandler] before, and Will [Smith] before that, but . . . you know, I was sick of carrying those guys," says Kevin James of his lead in "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" with his cheerful deadpan. "I really felt connected to this character and wanted to make it the most physical thing I'd ever done. Once I told [Sandler] what I wanted to do, he was really behind it. And I told him, 'Of course, I'll have a mustache.' And that sealed the deal."
After nine seasons of "The King of Queens" and a few movies backing up Hollywood superstars, James is finally ready to take on the mantle of big-screen leading man. He not only stars in "Paul Blart" but also wrote and produced it for Sandler's Happy Madison production company. It's sort of "Die Hard" in a New Jersey mall, but instead of a grizzled superhero policeman fighting terrorists, it's an out-of-shape, Segway-jockeying mall cop fending off athletic crooks straight out of the X Games and parkour movement. Extreme!
And the mustache? James' celebrated authoritarian-without-the-authority facial hair is in danger of taking on a life of its own, perhaps deserving its own name (the Blart?). He takes in stride Hollywood's recent rash of the 'stache, with wannabes such as Brad Pitt seeming to rip off his character's look.
"You know what? It's so clear, it's blatant," he scoffs. "I'm sure Brad's a nice guy, but that was uncalled for, to steal some of my sexiness. It's sad in a way. It's just insecurity on his part. Clooney's doing the same thing. They're all following me, but what are you going to do?"
This is probably not what James meant when he said he thought people could see themselves in his regular-guy comedy, from his days as a stand-up out of Long Island, N.Y., through his deliveryman character in the TV series to his current film guise as a devoted but chronically underappreciated employee.
"He loves his job even though others around him don't think it's as important. And he might think it's too important at certain times and get in his own way," he says. "But he makes a journey from not believing in himself to saying, 'I can do this.' He goes from accidentally beating these guys to putting it together and using his surroundings in the mall as a weapon. Because mall cops, there's no weapons. It's a hard job to have to enforce the law and yet you have no backup and no real authority. Plus, if someone spills an Orange Julius, who's going to be coning off that area? You are. Lost and found? Directions to Cinnabon? You've got to have that in your holster."
Looking stylish in black and downright trim compared with his on-screen Blartness ("I'm pretty big in this movie. It's so funny; on the TV series I'll see what season it is by what weight I'm at."), James is characteristically humble when he's considering his leading ladies.
"I upset people all across this nation by who they cast across from me," says the on-screen paramour of sexy-tough Leah Remini, model Amber Valletta and now the winsome Jayma Mays. "I apologize. I did good in my own life, though, I'll tell you that [he is married to model Steffiana De La Cruz].
"I am batting over my head, I realize that."
Despite his years of success, though, James admits to trepidation about putting so much of himself into the project.
"It's a scary situation because you're really out there," he says. "Win, lose or draw, it's completely me, no excuses. I'm very happy with what happened. We had a lot of fun shooting it, and it's exactly what I wanted to say and do."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times