When Jason Sudeikis was making the Farrelly brothers' 2011 comedy "Hall Pass," writer-director Peter Farrelly told the comic actor he reminded him of Jack Lemmon, the everyman Oscar winner who was equally adept at comedy and drama.
"I'm flattered by the comparison, especially given the breath of what I have done to this point," Sudeikis, 40, said recently. "I like the responsibility of being a person who can be a vessel for the story."
During his 10-year stint as a performer on "Saturday Night Live" (before that, he was a writer on the show for two years), Sudeikis excelled at playing, well, jerks, such as Pete Twinkle, the sportscaster who hosted obscure women's sports on ESPN Classic with the clueless Greg Stink (Will Forte), or the Devil, who was a frequent guest on Weekend Update.
And he's brought that attitude to several of his film comedies, including the two "Horrible Bosses" and 2013's "We're the Millers."
Though Sudeikis is very funny in person, he's also contemplative and effusive, especially when he talks about his 22-month-old son Otis' love for playing drums.
"It's pretty great," said Sudeikis, who lives in New York with his fiancée, actress Olivia Wilde, and Otis. "As any proud parent might say, 'He's a genius.'"
He's also proud of his two new films, the subtle romantic comedy "Tumbledown," which opens Friday, and the historical drama "Race," opening Feb. 19, in which he plays the coach of famed African American athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James), who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Owens' victories angered Adolf Hitler and his inner circle in the Nazi Party who were using the games as propaganda to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race.
In "Tumbledown," helmed by first-time feature director Sean Mewshaw and written by his wife, Desiree Van Til, Sudeikis gives a restrained performance as Andrew, a New York pop culture scholar who travels to Maine to interview the widow (Rebecca Hall) of an acclaimed singer. Her husband had only released one album before his untimely death.
Hall's Hannah is fiercely protective of her late husband but has had little success writing her own book. She is initially unwilling to cooperate with Andrew, but soon realizes they should co-write the book. And before long, the two discover growing feelings toward each other.
"I viewed him as a guy who tried to write a few songs and was a little bit angry," Sudeikis said of Andrew.
Andrew and Hannah, he added, "help each other knock down their walls. It's scary when you have been hurt and burned."
When he received the script, Sudeikis was thrilled that someone had thought of him for a role "outside the box that I have been handed."
"Part of what appealed to us is that this was a different role for him," said Mewshaw. "I love our favorite comedians taking serious turns and showing us a new dimension of themselves. We knew Jason a little bit from 'Saturday Night Live' and having the experience in 'Horrible Bosses' of being really interested and galvanized by his performance."
One of the things they loved about Sudeikis, said Van Til, was that he was "incredibly intellectually rigorous. Jason is actually wildly curious and wants to get to the bottom of everything."
Sudeikis liked the project so much that he was willing to stay attached to "Tumbledown" for three years while funding was secured.
"We had a different lead actress who dropped out, and we had to go find someone else," Sudeikis noted. "Everything happens for a reason."
Such as Sudeikis giving up a college basketball scholarship to pursue a career in comedy. After graduating from high school in Overland Park, Kan., Sudeikis attended a local junior college on a basketball scholarship. Besides playing sports, though, he also loved comedy and drove some 40 miles to Kansas City on weekends to perform improv at the ComedySportz Theatre.
Eventually, he gave up hoops and college and headed to Chicago, where he honed his craft with several improv companies, including the Second City National Touring Company.
He noted that if he had stayed in college, he could be teaching "drama and coaching basketball at some school in Kansas. I still might, for all we know. It's not lost on me."
And that's why he felt a real connection to "Race's" Larry Snyder, the young Ohio State University track coach whose dreams of Olympic gold in 1924 disappeared when he was severely injured. Though charming, handsome and funny, Snyder also drank away his disappointment. "He had confidence in his craft," said Sudeikis. "But there was a giant hole that booze helped."
"Most of the coaches [at the university] were old white guys," said "Race" director Stephen Hopkins. "He was very young. He had been quite a failure as a coach until he and Jesse met. What he learned from Jesse helped him to become one of the greatest coaches in American history."
Hopkins said that he saw a lot of great actors for the role of Snyder, but that they were all too old. So he cast his net wider to see younger actors. "Larry and Jesse Owens were only 15 years apart in age," he said. "It was a symbiotic relationship. It was more like a mentor and older brother."
When Sudeikis came in and read, Hopkins felt he was an "old-fashioned, James Stewart kind of film star. When I met Jason, he's a sports fanatic, and he loves the psychology behind sports. It was exciting."
Sudeikis will next be seen in the Garry Marshall ensemble comedy "Mother's Day" opening in late April, and he supplies the voice of Red in the animated "Angry Birds Movie," set for May.
He's also completed two indie films that yet to have release dates — "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," in which he plays a widower who helps a homeless girl build a raft out of trash so she can sail the Atlantic, and Nacho Vigalondo's "Colossal," with Anne Hathaway.
"I don't want to give too much away," he said of "Colossal." "I said to Nacho, 'I have been trying to tell people about this movie.' He said, 'I would say it's a movie about a woman who returns home and every time she drinks, a monster attacks South Korea.' I said, 'OK.' So that's what the movie is about."