It feels like just a fortnight since comic Dane Cook made the leap from MySpace hero (he's got 2 million friends!) into the role of ubiquitous romantic comedy lead -- one notable exception being his wannabe killer in last spring's "Mr. Brooks." Now he's on some kind of a roll, with what seems like a film release every few months. His latest is "Dan in Real Life," starring Steve Carell as a widowed advice columnist who during a three-day family getaway falls in love with the new girlfriend of his fun-loving brother, played by Cook.
For Cook, whose amorous female fans routinely bare their breasts in video e-mails, playing second fiddle to Carell was sort of against type. In fact, Cook said that when director Peter Hedges was considering him for the role, Hedges stood in line outside Cook's Madison Square Garden gig and polled female fans on whether they'd buy Cook as a less-than-cuddly character.
"He said, 'You're a Dane Cook fan. You love his comedy. Would you mind if Dane did a movie where he was vulnerable? Would you like to see a movie where Dane might not be such a nice guy?' " Cook recalled, just days after wrapping his next romantic comedy, "Bachelor No. 2," and before he set out on his next stand-up tour. "Using the script as a template, he quizzed my fans and found they were as excited about that possibility as I was."
In "Dan in Real Life," opening Friday, Cook plays Mitch, a fitness trainer and semi-reformed womanizer who believes he's met his dream girl in Juliette Binoche's Marie. The youngest of a large family, Mitch is the anti-intellectual skirt-chaser to Carell's wordsmith family man. And he's unaccustomed to rejection.
"I think Mitch is a little more trusting than I am," he said. "In my real family, there always seems to be something happening, some inner turmoil, but Mitch believes that something like this could never happen, and he's rocked when it happens to him. His very poignant and simple scenes have been a wonderful challenge for me as an actor."
Mitch, like Cook, is physical, and whenever it looks like he might lose the girl, he just whips out one of those trademark self-deprecating shrugs or employs that disconcertingly earnest brow, then punctuates the whole pose with a devilish smirk and he's good to go.
The movie is set on the leafy Rhode Island coast in a rambling beach house where Dan's large and quirky family has gathered to close the house for the season. For Cook, Hedges' rehearsal process was a learning experience. The director had the cast write letters to each other in character and hold daily sing-alongs to build camaraderie. He even had them live in the house together for two weeks.
Cook and Binoche woke each day and sang a duet of the Sonny and Cher hit "I Got You Babe." Then, true to their characters, they worked out and did yoga as a couple. It was good therapy, Cook said, because at the time he was grieving his mother's death to cancer. So as he reached out to Carell and Binoche for support, that intimacy informed their performances.
"Going through what I had been going through with my mother, I thought we could have a real connection and maybe share as brothers in the film, bring some authenticity emotionally."
After 17 years as a stand-up comedian, Cook said, he's still got a lot to learn as an actor. He's certainly getting a lot of practice. In the last year, he's appeared in two other romantic comedies -- "Employee of the Month" opposite Jessica Simpson and "Good Luck Chuck" with Jessica Alba. He got some critical notice for "Mr. Brooks." Next, in "Bachelor No. 2," Cook plays a professional bad date, hired by guys who want to win back their girlfriends.
"I'd just like to continue to do work that excites me and kind of scares me and challenges me," he said. "I want to build a film repertoire that is vast."
Where you've seen him
Dane Cook, 35, has appeared in a slew of small film and TV roles in the last decade, but the Cambridge, Mass., native's real success came after his 2001 half-hour Comedy Central special and the launch of his promotional website, danecook.com. Within a few years, he had the most successful comedy album in 25 years ("Retaliation"), an HBO comedy special and a string of starring film roles. This month, he's a spokesman for Major League Baseball, promoting playoffs in a series of popular TV ads.