Have you ever woken up in a sweat and wondered if you were secretly German? If you have, and you've also been anticipating the new Kevin James comedy, Here Comes the Boom, you might actually be German.
His 2011 film, Zookeeper made nearly $17.5 million in Germany alone, compared to the $80.4 million it made domestically. Paul Blart: Mall Cop made nearly a third of its foreign box office take in Germany. Kevin James is disproportionately popular in Germany and a handful of other seemingly unconnected countries, including Venezuela.
Lovers of democracy watched with heads bowed when Hugo Chavez beat Henrique Capriles Radonski in this week's election. So when we sat down with Kevin James a day later, we thought there had to have been another way. Could that way have been Kevin James?
Kevin James is incredibly popular in Venezuela. Could he have beaten Hugo Chavez in the election and, if so, why didn't he run?
"Um, boy," James tells us, looking down into the high gloss of the table separating him from the reporters awaiting his answer, their stubby fingers sticky with the glaze from the junket's free pastries. "I think, you know what I think it is? I've got to sum it up this way: I'm basically an idiot."
He looks up at the nodding room and smiles. Then, perhaps demonstrating his lack of political acumen, he continues, "And I think that makes it very difficult to go into the political field. You know, when you're fooling people and go, 'I've got to shut up, I don't know what I'm talking about right here.' It's just not for me. I think pretty much anybody can beat me. I'm not very good. But I'm honest!"
Fortunately, James has a backup plan of being an international film star. In his latest, he plays a school teacher who moonlights as a mixed martial arts fighter in order to raise money for the defunded music program at his school. He is encouraged by the love of a beautiful woman, played by real-life beautiful woman Salma Hayek. Viewers who have not seen James' previous television or film work might find it dubious that he is able to lure such a vision into his clutches. James understands.
"I knew the challenges of bringing her into this movie right away as a love interest where you go, 'Oh, no one's going to believe this. This is miserable.' And she was like, 'We can do this, we can do this.' And I was like, 'I don't want to do this. This is what I get blamed for in every movie I do.'"
Fortunately, James persevered. As star, co-writer and producer of the film, he ensured that his old friend Salma got the role, certain that she was the perfect person to bring winsome but tough school nurse Bella Flores to life on the big screen. James's only condition was that he could "ugly up" Salma for the part.
"And we tried but you can't do it," he said with a knowing exasperation. "You literally can't do it. She kept coming out in different outfits and I'm like, 'Go back again. Try another outfit and make her ugly.' You can put a potato sack on her and she looks great, she looks fantastic. But she's the funniest. I really enjoyed her and she was great for this part. She's the one who motivates me to be a better man and kind of put some effort into things."
But one wonders after playing the romantic lead opposite beauties like Hayek, Winona Ryder, Amber Valetta and Rosario Dawson if perhaps, in the name of fairness, James ought to think about casting a woman with a skin disease or something.
"You can do that and you should do that because it's more like -- I feel like I'm the weird one," he confesses to the grinning horde of pale, overfed reporters. "I'm the ugly one in these relationships. You want to make things as realistic as possible sometimes. But sometimes the best person and the one you have in mind, they happen to be beautiful."
James clasps his fingers. He's wearing a black promotional t-shirt for Here Comes the Boom and it's his face, not Hayek's, that is on the oversized poster against the wall of the conference room we're in.
"But believe me," he continues. "No one knows more than me going into it, you have people say, 'Oh boy, Kevin. He gets this one and this one in this movie. It works out that way. But in real life, my wife is beautiful and I met her on a blind date and she didn't know who I was. And we went out and just hit it off. So sometimes it happens. I remember seeing that. I would be in the mall saying, 'How did that guy get that girl?" But you see it in real life! So I kind of show that side of it and I understand it, I do."
It's not just Hayek that catches the eye in Here Comes the Boom, but the many fighting sequences, as well. James's character is trained by a retired MMA fighter played by actual retired MMA legend, Bas Rutten.
"I mean, he steals this movie from me and I'm happy he does," James says. "He's such a unique personality and he's got such charisma. I've been telling him for years, 'You gotta stop fighting and go into this acting. You're really great.' And I was happy to put him in this movie because it's going to make me look good. And I knew that even though he was playing an ex-fighter, he's not the typical ex-fighter guy. He's got very funny things that he does on his own that he brings to this character. With the crazy noises he does, that's all him."
The film is more than Salma Hayek's beauty, fight scenes and Bas Rutten's crazy noises. It's also an inspirational story of perseverance. That's something James knows a little about, having needed to convince the UFC that he wasn't "just making a mockery" of their sport and doing "Paul Blart in the ring."
"It was important for the UFC that I wasn't a guy who just was a teacher and a guy who never did sports before, who never fought before or wrestled and just walked into the UFC and could fight. So they said you need to be, which I wasn't, a decorated collegiate wrestler at a really high level, even if it was 20 years ago, for it to be believable that, you know, that you'd be able to compete with these guys, so that's what we did."
That meant 14 months of training and a complete diet change, even after which James found himself struggling to keep up with the real MMA fighters he was facing, given that they were often 20 years younger than he was. But as tricky as it was to balance the comedy and the action, what James found most rewarding was the opportunity to pay tribute to the teachers who had shaped him as a young man.
"A lot of the principles they taught me, I still adhere to this day and it's 30 years later," he says. "You think that school ends when it ends but it doesn't. It carries on."
Who knows what's next for Kevin James? Right now, he's just focused on his latest film. But it's only six more years until Hugo Chavez is up for reelection. Maybe by then an impossibly beautiful woman will spur James on to win one for democracy.