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Lucy Punch, turning her back on fame?

Among the many familiar faces (Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel) in the raunchy new comedy “Bad Teacher” is one not so familiar — and one who nearly steals the movie. British actress Lucy Punch plays the role of Amy Squirrel, a goody two-shoes middle-school teacher in Chicago who is engaged in a very dirty little war with Diaz over a man and the hearts and minds of children.

The film opened to surprisingly big box office ($31.6 million in its opening weekend) and mixed reviews, although even critics who didn’t like the movie singled out Punch for praise for her gung-ho turn. Some predicted future stardom.

In the movie, Punch is a redhead (she’s a blond in real life) and speaks in an annoyingly broad Midwestern accent.

“I twanged it up a bit because this character is supposed to be so unlikable, and that made it more irritating,” says Punch, 33, whose lines in the film are peppered with upbeat euphemisms. In a typical bit, her character exclaims “Shut the front door!,” where others might end the phrase with a more colorful phrase suitable for an R-rated movie.

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Her inspiration came from an unexpected source.

“To me, when I read it, she was so much on the page that I said to Jake [Kasdan, the director], ‘Am I crazy, or is there some flavor of Sarah Palin here?”’ the actress says. “If not Palin, then her younger sister or a cousin who is a teacher. It’s her sort of perky energy and certain turns of phrase, and her ambition and drive and confidence.”

Although “Bad Teacher” audiences may feel as if they’re discovering Punch, she is no newcomer. She was in the CBS sitcom “The Class” (2006-07) and had showy roles last year in Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” and the Steve Carell comedy “Dinner for Schmucks.”

In a phone interview from Norman, Okla., where she is shooting “Yellow,” a dark indie comedy directed by Nick Cassavetes, Punch says she always wanted to be an actress. She grew up in a middle-class family — her father worked in advertising, her mother in market research — and was auditioning for TV roles even as she studied art history at University College London in her hometown.

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One of the roles she landed after college was on “Let Them Eat Cake” (1999), a short-lived BBC series that reunited the groundbreaking British comedy team of Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Dawn French (“The Vicar of Dibley”). A longtime fan of the duo, Punch says she was too in awe to speak with either on the set but nonetheless managed to absorb from them the cornerstone of her comic credo: “They had a total lack of vanity and embarrassment in the name of comedy, and I think I learned that from them,” she says. “I’m not ashamed to look like a total idiot.”

After half a dozen years of steady work in England, and following several brief visits across the Atlantic to test the waters, Punch decided to give Hollywood a go. Within months, she was a regular on “The Class.” When the show was cancelled, she opted to stay in Los Angeles. “I figured I’ve got an apartment, I’ve learned how to bloody drive a car — all I knew was how to drive to the set and to Whole Foods, and with everyone honking at me — so I thought I might as well stay and see how it goes,” she says. “There were highs and lows, but I’m really glad I stuck it out.”

The major high — “my best experience,” she calls it — was Allen’s “Tall Dark Stranger,” in which she played a promiscuous gold digger. “She’s the vulgarian of the piece,” says Punch, who, in the film’s single best joke, whines in disappointment after seeing Ibsen’s “Ghosts” that it wasn’t scary. Punch also relished making “Schmucks,” in which she played Paul Rudd’s odious fiancée, another vulgarian.

When Punch auditioned for “Bad Teacher,” director Kasdan had seen neither “Stranger” nor “Schmucks.” “She was completely new to me,” Kasdan says. “But she came in and read and she owned it.” The director says the timing was right, explaining, “She’s as naturally funny as anybody and has just enough work under her belt to feel loose and ready to let her enormous talent express itself.”

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Next up for Punch, in addition to “Yellow,” are “The Giant Mechanical Man,” a romantic comedy with Topher Grace and Malin Akerman, and “Powers,” a pilot for a police detective series costarring Jason Patric for FX.

With her looks and comic chops, Punch could be a star in the mold of Kristen Wiig, who had a breakout role this year in “Bridesmaids.” But that’s not what Punch envisions for herself.

“I’m sure my agents would like me to play leading roles, and I guess I should, but I’m more interested in the character parts. They’re more fun, challenging and interesting,” she says. “The actors I admire, like Ben Kingsley or Daniel Day-Lewis, they totally reinvent themselves in every part. I hope I get a chance to do that.”

calendar@latimes.com


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