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Jason Sudeikis might bolt ‘Saturday Night Live’

Just weeks before the national political conventions get underway, a crucial figure has yet to commit to the presidential race.

Jason Sudeikis, who plays “Saturday Night Live’s” Mitt Romney as a cheerfully button-down, out-of-touch, Ward Cleaver-like figure, said he has not yet decided whether to return to the sketch show when it resumes this fall.

After nine years at “SNL” — the last few as the show’s most valuable straight man — Sudeikis has been spending recent months focusing on his movie career. He plays the long-suffering aide to Will Ferrell’s blundering congressman in the political spoof “The Campaign,” which opens Friday, and is currently filming the road comedy “We’re the Millers” opposite Jennifer Aniston.

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Stepping away from “SNL” entirely would be a risky decision for Sudeikis — for every alumnus of the show who successfully transitions to film or other TV work, there’s a cautionary tale who flames out. And playing an election year contender on “SNL” is a high-profile, potentially career-boosting gig — Tina Fey won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Sarah Palin during the 2008 race.

A chance to ride the zeitgeist, however, doesn’t seem to be enough of an enticement for the 36-year-old actor to stick around. Sudeikis said he wants to take on more responsibility at “SNL” but maintain the flexibility to pursue other projects, a tricky balance to strike on a notoriously demanding live weekly show.

“I’d like the opportunity to use creative muscles that ... haven’t been asked of me for the first nine years that I’ve worked there,” Sudeikis said in a recent reflective interview at a Sunset Strip hotel. “It could be some sort of title change. The least of the concerns is anything financial. I’m not buying a boat because of writing skits. It’s more having a desire to give more to a place I really believe in. To stay just for the juice of being in the public eye — of being Mitt Romney — is not enough.”

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In town from New York for a “We’re the Millers” table read, Sudeikis is mellow but politic about his future, wearing workout clothes and a pair of gleaming white Nikes, a gift from his girlfriend, actress Olivia Wilde. His face has a splash of freckles, normally hidden by makeup when he’s on screen.

Sudeikis’ Romney drops phrases like “jiminy cricket” and “whoopsie daisies,” and shamelessly panders to groups as diverse as pet owners, Dungeons & Dragons fans and piercing enthusiasts. Nailing down the character has been challenging, he said, because Romney has revealed so little of himself on the campaign trail.

Unlike “SNL’s” gifted President Clinton impressionist, Darrell Hammond, Sudeikis doesn’t devote hours of study to create an uncanny resemblance but relies more on an instinctual sense to create a character. “I usually just watch something for a couple minutes,” he said. “I’ll be more inclined to read something about someone and figure out what external influences make him who he is or what he is than poring over tapes.

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“It’s a weird time in the world. You say one wrong thing and lose points. We’re probably just watching a guy who’s scared to screw up. So my Mitt is a little square, a little boring, a little disconnected from the human experience.”

In “The Campaign,” Sudeikis’ character, Mitch, is the most high-functioning clown in a political circus. From director Jay Roach and writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, “The Campaign” stars Ferrell as Cam Brady, an airhead Democratic congressman from North Carolina who is running for reelection against bumpkinlike Republican big money pawn Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis). A bipartisan skewering of the modern electoral process, “The Campaign” is chocked with torn-from-the-headlines details — Cam’s devotion to his hair was inspired by a widely circulated video of John Edwards preening to the tune of “I Feel Pretty” and Marty’s campaign funders, the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), are a nod to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

“I think ‘The Campaign’ is right on time,” Sudeikis said. “People are getting cynical about the news. It doesn’t seem like there’s one place to watch where you get the straight dope. You watch the channel that proves your point. I would argue that comedy has taken on the role that folk singers had in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the sense that people come to us for the truth.”

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In “The Campaign,” Mitch manages Cam’s gaffes, which include punching a baby and tweeting profanity. In one improvised scene, he pantomimes the words to the Lord’s Prayer to Cam from the back of the room during a debate.

“I never thought of anyone else but Jason for that part,” said Roach, who also directed “Meet the Parents” and “Game Change,” the HBO drama about Sarah Palin’s vice presidential campaign. “Mitch was designed to be this likable guy who always has to clean up after the candidate’s messes and scandals. We wanted someone who in his earnest desire to do the right thing for his candidate sometimes gets caught up and goes too far himself.”

Sudeikis has been honing the role of a straight man with an inner goofball since attending high school in Overland Park, Kan. When he and a friend performed the “You Can’t Handle the Truth” scene from “A Few Good Men” at a forensics competition, they helped propel their high school team to a state championship. The event was something of a showbiz eureka moment for Sudeikis. “I wasn’t nervous about being on stage for whatever reason,” Sudeikis said. “It just felt like goofing around.”

He attended community college in Kansas on a basketball scholarship for a year and a half before dropping out, and bounced around to various improv comedy venues, eventually joining Second City, the storied troupe that launched Bill Murray, John Candy, Fey and Sudeikis’ uncle, George Wendt.

In 2003, “SNL” hired Sudeikis as a sketch writer and he began appearing on air in 2005, his boyish looks and sharp timing equipping him to play characters like cops and newscasters who drolly react to the over-the-top antics of castmates like Kristen Wiig and Will Forte.

Sudeikis’ film work often places him in the role of a guy who can’t get the respect he wants; last year he played a beleaguered husband with a wandering eye in the Farrelly Brothers’"Hall Pass"and an exasperated employee driven to murder his sleazy boss in"Horrible Bosses."In “We’re the Millers,” which is due next year, he’s the lead — a pot dealer who hires a phony family to help him move a 200-pound stash of marijuana across the border.

The movie roles have meant that he’s at “SNL” for only half the week, Sudeikis said, and have minimized his input on the show. “You start at ‘SNL’ when you’re young and hungry, but I don’t want my pro years to be my ‘SNL’ years,” he said, borrowing a sports analogy. “This is me getting to play for K.U. or Duke or North Carolina, with pro-caliber people, but I don’t want this to be it.”

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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