Now he can laugh through the pain

Times Staff Writer

Danny McBRIDE calls it "getting his due licks."

In three of the summer's funniest comedies, "The Foot Fist Way," "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder," the Virginia native is pummeled and tortured, blown up and gunned down, bloodied and humiliated -- an oeuvre of movie pain (and moreover, squirmy humiliation in the vein of Ricky Gervais) that has fast-tracked McBride from working the night desk at a Burbank Holiday Inn to co-billing alongside Hollywood heavyweights such as Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen and Ben Stiller, all inside of three years.

Not that any of it -- taking a punch for a laugh, infiltrating comedy's so-called Frat Pack or even becoming an actor -- were part of McBride's original plan.

"This stuff is so surreal," McBride said from the set of Universal's adaptation of the '70s sci-fi TV serial "Land of the Lost," on which he has been dodging dinosaurs and prehistoric reptile people with costar Ferrell. "Just walking into these circles and meeting people you've always admired, then doing stuff with them -- you can't even believe it."

The comedian's college buddy David Gordon Green directed McBride in "Pineapple Express" after giving the comedian his sole movie acting credit (prior to "Foot Fist"), a character part in the writer-director's 2003 indie romance, "All the Real Girls." Having known McBride since the two were enrolled in North Carolina School of the Arts' film program, Green is in as good a position as anyone to underscore the accidental nature of his friend's movie stardom.

"The interesting thing about Danny," Green pointed out, "he's never auditioned or gotten a head shot."

In THE low-budget martial-arts comedy "The Foot Fist Way" (which reaches theaters Friday), McBride plays a strip-mall taekwondo instructor -- and self-professed "king of the demo" -- more skilled at karate chopping cinder blocks and wooden boards into small pieces at parking lot demonstrations to recruit new students than getting in touch with his innermost feelings. The character's delusions of dojo grandeur turn into existential crisis, however, when his marriage hits the rocks.

Although McBride describes the 19-day North Carolina shoot as "charmed" (in indie filmmaking's relative terms), it didn't come off without a few broken blood vessels.

"It only takes one or two beers before you can be talked into breaking a board for real," said McBride, who improvised most of his scenes. "I have a few scars on my knuckles from trying to break boards that wouldn't."

Working in a post-production editing facility as a motion-control cameraman up until the film's 2005 shoot, McBride had been living in Hollywood with the ambition of staking his claim as a screenwriter and director in his own right, but he took the role after some coaxing by "Foot Fist's" writer-director, Jody Hill. "I wasn't going for anything involving acting," McBride said. "When I went to film school, I was writing and directing my own stuff."

But largely on the strength of McBride's organically cringe-inducing, so-awkward-you-can't-help-but-laugh performance, "Foot Fist" made a splash at 2006's Sundance Film Festival. And it became an underground sensation after being passed around Hollywood. That spring, the indie found its way to "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" writer-director Adam McKay.

"Danny McBride, I just couldn't take my eyes off him," McKay said. "It reminded me of the first time I saw Jack Black in 'Bob Roberts.' It was that same kind of thing, like, 'Who is this guy?' "

Likewise, "Foot Fist" made a strong impression on comedy mogul Judd Apatow and actor-screenwriter Seth Rogen, who were putting together the stoner comedy "Pineapple Express" at Sony. A meeting with McBride not only landed him a supporting part as a bumbling pot dealer caught up in a gangland war between rival drug cartels and corrupt cops (opposite a hapless pothead played by Rogen and his equally clueless marijuana supplier, James Franco), it also netted McBride's pal Green a job directing the film (which hits theaters Aug. 8). Interesting choice considering Green's reputation as a purveyor of sober indie dramas like last year's "Snow Angels" and 2000's "George Washington."

"They had met up with Danny and asked him where he had come from and what he'd done, and he introduced them to me," Green said. "It was their idea, like, 'Yeah, let's grab Danny, and you and some of your team and go make a movie with our team and see what happens."

McBride pointed out: "I was talking to them about David and how in film school all the movies he made were wild comedies. It perked Seth and Judd's interest that someone as talented as David had roots in comedy."

But AGAIN, McBride -- who in "Pineapple Express" gets shot, beaten, duct-taped to a wheelchair and blown up by a grenade -- didn't make it off the shoot unscathed. "The fight scene in my [character's] house was pretty grueling," he said. "Seth broke his hand during filming and Franco split the back of my head open when he hit me with a bong."

In the meta-narrative comedy "Tropic Thunder" -- a big budget movie about the making of a big budget war movie in which a cast of coddled actors are forced to become the soldiers they are portraying when they find themselves caught in an actual war -- McBride rounds out an all-star cast that includes the film's writer-director Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and even Tom Cruise in a high-profile cameo.

As with the other films in his recent filmography, "Foot Fist" won McBride the part; he starred opposite Stiller in the Farrelly brothers' 2007 comedy "The Heartbreak Kid." And the A-list comedian asked McBride about appearing in "Tropic Thunder" before the other principle roles had been cast. "I started hearing about the lineup, and I was like, 'Aw, this is incredible,' " McBride said.

Portraying an explosives technician who gets kidnapped at gunpoint by rebel soldiers in the film (due in theaters Aug. 15), McBride makes it a point of pride to note that he suffers quantitatively less in "Tropic Thunder" than in his other summer offerings.

And he wasn't "tortured" per se. "Unless you count being tied up with Nick Nolte," McBride said, breaking into a laugh. "That's about as torturous as it gets."


Special correspondent Stephen Saito contributed to this report.

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