Off-screen, actor John Corbett is not really in love with Nia Vardalos -- his costar in the 2002 crowd-pleasing hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the new romantic comedy, "I Hate Valentine's Day," which also marks her directorial debut. But he's certainly crazy about working with her.
During a recent interview to promote the film, Corbett frequently leans forward to tap a journalist's leg in a courtyard at the Four Seasons, where he waxes enthusiastic about Vardalos' skills behind the camera, an ode that includes plenty of salty language unsuitable for a family newspaper.
"I came up with this analogy today, so I'm kind of proud of myself: Directing is like conducting an orchestra," he declares with that familiar half-grin. "You've got your flute and your oboe and the . . . guy who does this," he continues, miming a cymbal crash. "The conductor has to listen to all this; all that guy has to do is 'Ksssshhh!' on the right cue. If he [messes] that up, everybody knows it. Especially the conductor.
"My job is to stand on this mark and suck it in," he adds, unfolding his lanky limbs and standing leading-man straight, "and try not to [mess] up my words. Nia handled all those distractions . . . I swear to you, she never, ever let anybody see her sweat. On top of that, she's got to stand on her mark, suck it in, and say, 'I love you,' with a big smile. My hat's off to her, man."
Corbett famously has played a host of hunky boyfriend types over the course of his career, and "I Hate Valentine's Day" finds him back on familiar ground as Greg, the suddenly single proprietor of a tapas bar in the same neighborhood as Vardalos' perky florist, Genevieve. She agrees to go out with him, with one proviso: that they have five dates, then call it quits -- as she has determined that after that number, the romance declines in a relationship.
By that standard, this stage of his career is a kind of rule-busting "sixth date" for Corbett, who spent a couple of years making music. In 2006, he released a self-titled collection of country-rock songs and says he has played more than 400 shows with his band.
"Extra work is boring for the extras, and I started to feel like an extra with lines -- it wasn't that challenging to me," he says of playing too many "nice-guy boyfriends." "So I made a record and . . . the Nashville community really embraced me.
"But I gotta tell you, after a couple of years of being out on the road with three other guys in a van, and I'm doing all the driving because I'm a control freak, you have a real appreciation of somebody coming to your trailer door and saying, 'Mr. Corbett, can we get you a cappuccino?' What I found was, in the two years that I stopped doing it, I really missed it and liked the environment of a movie set and the relationships."
Recently, he's been exploring his darker side with such roles as a corrupt cop in director David Ayer's crime thriller "Street Kings" and a killer in the supernatural horror movie "The Messengers." But when Vardalos asked him to again be her leading man in "I Hate Valentine's Day," he didn't hesitate, despite the fact that Vardalos had no studio backing for the project -- she and the producers raised the money independently, based largely on a promo that touted the leads' chemistry at Cannes.
"I needed that time away to get re-energized. So when Nia called and said, 'I wrote this script and I want you to read it,' I said, 'What is it?' She said, 'It's a romantic comedy.'
"I said, 'Send it over!' I was droolin'. "--
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Where you've seen him
John Corbett has spent much of his screen career playing significant others; his debut was as a boyfriend on "The Wonder Years." He memorably portrayed ultra-mellow
DJ Chris Stevens on "Northern Exposure," but might be best known as one of Carrie Bradshaw's beaus on "Sex and the City" and Nia Vardalos' soul mate in "Greek Wedding." He also appeared in a junior-college production of "Hair." "I'd worked in a steel factory as a boilermaker for six years and the next thing you know, my dad who's a welder, he's sitting in the audience watching me go . . . " Corbett sings, " 'Give me a head with hair! Long, beautiful hair!' "