Some people talk with their hands. Robert Hoffman talks with his fingers extending from the hands, flowing from the arms and the trunk. But the classically trained dancer, award-winning hip-hop choreographer and rubber-boned scene stealer of "Aliens in the Attic" isn't waxing balletic with those dexterous digits; he's describing prank videos in which he scares the bejesus out of total strangers.
"It takes me about a five-day ramp-up to get mentally ready," Hoffman says of shooting his "Urban Ninja" opuses, which have collected millions of hits on various websites. He dons full black ninja gear over his blond hair and hides in public places, waiting to spring out at people. "To know you're going to be going out where there are police officers, gang people, paranoid war veterans that carry guns. . . . One guy turned on a reflex and punched me in the stomach."
The puncher seemed to take it well, however, when Hoffman came back and congratulated him for being the first to strike the prankster.
That goofball streak is apparently genetic.
"My dad is an uber practical joker; he has this uncanny knack to create the most awkward situation possible," he says.
The elder Hoffman, who runs a temp agency in Huntsville, Ala., sometimes tells applicants that for their drug test he'll be shooting them with a reactive substance in their elbows -- then produces a giant needle. "Unbelievable. This man is a psycho. So I think that's where I get it from. Also as a kid, I had to deal with being uncomfortable a lot and find light in it. That's taught me to laugh off everything."
In that context, despite being known primarily as a dancer and choreographer, the 28-year-old Hoffman seems a natural for his current role in "Aliens in the Attic." In the comedy, pint-size extraterrestrials plan to invade Earth with only a handful of plucky kids in their way. Hoffman plays a scheming preppy who becomes a spastic automaton controlled (badly) by the unwelcome visitors.
"My whole life has been building my library of creative movement," he says, adding that on the set, "We'd have a premise, then 'He does something funny.' They'd go, 'Rob, what do you want to do?' I'm like, 'Really? I can do a monkey walk here and then prance like a Pussycat Doll, and then what if I bowl over the car and then do a pratfall.' 'Great! Get him a mat!' The pressure was completely off and the support was completely on."
As a rebellious boy growing up in Alabama, Hoffman became fascinated by dance after watching his first Michael Jackson videos.
"Any time I could, I would just move. I would shake my shoulders like Michael; that was part of what I wanted to be," he says, acknowledging that his discomfort in his surroundings was countered by his mother's help.
"I don't think Alabama was the place for me. There are some elements I really love and others I just did not get along with; a kind of blind conviction and a lot of condemnation. Me and the school systems just did not get along."
Fortunately, his mother encouraged formal dance training and enrollment in a fine-arts school: "I was dancing every day, I was focused, I had somebody work with me on schooling in the morning and then just dance all day. I got to go wild creatively.
"As a kid, I think I was hip to a lot of things. I said, 'The people around me are not happy.' These teachers, these preachers, they're not what they preach. Somebody asked me what I'd tell the 12-year-old version of myself. 'You're right, dude. The people around you are nuts.' "
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Where you've seen him
On the big screen, Robert Hoffman starred in "Step Up 2: The Streets" and danced in such films as "From Justin to Kelly" and "You Got Served" (the last of which earned him an American Choreography Award in 2004). He has created a number of hugely popular viral videos, including "The Yes Dance," "Dancer Face" and the "Urban Ninja" series, on punchrobert.com. He was on the MTV series "Wild 'n Out" in which he rap battled comic Katt Williams. The two "had this big grudge match -- never, not ever, not one day, one episode in four seasons did he ever get me. I would stomp him every single time. The last episode we did, he was furious because he didn't get me."