As the face of sex-comedy franchise American Pie, Jason Biggs became synonymous with gross-out humour. Now he's getting serious with a political movie called Grassroots, which is released on Friday, November 9. He talks about reining in the humour, Jake Gyllenhaal's dad acting as his mentor, and why he felt more vulnerable doing this movie than he ever has getting naked in American Pie.
By Susan Griffin
Watching Jason Biggs in Grassroots is a little like watching Will Ferrell in the drama Everything Must Go, or Robin Williams in the thriller One Hour Photo.
You're so used to seeing these funny men revel in comedy that it takes a little time for your brain to adjust to them 'doing serious'.
As the star of the American Pie franchise, Biggs has done all sorts of crude and cringe-inducing things in the name of laughs, but he's put that all behind him for his latest movie, in which he plays the reluctant press manager of a grassroots campaign.
It's a confident performance, and you soon forget he's the 'pie guy', but the 34-year-old's the first to admit he found it a struggle to rein in his instinctive desire to go for the joke.
"Especially at first, but even in the broader comedies, I've always tried to play it as grounded and as real and as subtle as possible," says Biggs.
"Well, there's only so much subtlety you can have when you're putting your penis in an inanimate object, let's be honest here," he adds, referencing one infamous scene from American Reunion, his fourth outing as the indelible Jim Levenstein, which was released earlier this year.
The challenge was part of the appeal though. "The subtlety was interesting, because there was a lot for the character to convey emotionally without a lot of dialogue and with quite a bit of restraint," he says of his character Phil Campbell.
Based on a true story, Grassroots is the tale of the opinionated and eccentric Grant Cogswell, played by Avatar's Joel David Moore.
In the 2001 Seattle City Council election, Cogswell decided to take on a long-running incumbent on a single issue - to extend the monorail.
He rallied an unlikely posse of misfits to his seemingly hopeless battle and it was left to Cogswell's friend Campbell to try and steer the campaign.
"I thought their relationship and 'bromance' was funny and sweet and real," says Biggs. "And I liked the David and Goliath aspect too. It was this underdog story."
The film's based on Campbell's book, Zioncheck For President, which recounts the 2001 campaign along with a glimpse of one of the city's strangest political figures, the Thirties Congressman Maroon Zioncheck.
Biggs didn't meet Campbell until two weeks into filming. "I wanted to find the spirit of Phil and the book," he says.
Plus the director Stephen Gyllenhaal, father of A-list siblings Jake and Maggie, "didn't want me to do Jamie Foxx doing Ray Charles", he laughs.
"First of all, no one knows who Phil Campbell is so there's no reference. We could have done whatever the hell we wanted and you would have believed it, but also in terms of telling the story, Stephen wanted us to develop these characters in their own right."
That said, when Cogswell, who now runs a little English language bookshop in Mexico City ("which you can imagine is wildly successful," says Biggs), and Campbell, who now lives in Brooklyn, arrived on set, they were impressed.
"When Phil first saw a bit of filming, he said, 'Wow, I've got to say I really feel like you've captured me'," says Biggs.
He talks fondly of Gyllenhaal, a man he credits for giving him a chance when others had him typecast.
"Stephen's very cerebral, very smart, very political," he says of the 63-year-old director. "He mined these powerful emotions and picked up those subtleties in me that he believed I had."
Gyllenhaal in turn speaks highly of Biggs, who he describes as having a "Jimmy Stewart element".
"What really made me commit to Jason was the level of craft he has. I had no doubt he could do drama and I don't doubt he'll do a lot more," he says.
"He's the everyman and if you look at the American Pie series, there's quite a serious and warm quality to him that drives the whole thing forward. Those are the kind of men movies need, not the macho dudes with guns."
Biggs was born in New Jersey to Gary, a shipping company manager, and Angela, a nurse, with whom he's still close.
"Last time they came to LA, I was busy with work so my wife [Jenny, who he married in 2008] said she'd look after them. They came back with tattoos of each other's names!" he recalls, laughing.
By age five, Biggs was acting in commercials and at 13 was cast in the TV sitcom Drexell's Class. The show was cancelled after one series but during this period he made his Broadway debut in Conversations With My Father alongside Judd Hirsch, which led to the role of a rebel in the popular soap As The World Turns.
He dropped out of university to concentrate on his acting career and, after a short-lived run in the TV series Camp Stories, got his big break in the global hit American Pie.
"For me as an actor, Jim's got everything I love. He's got heart, he's got some really sweet moments, some great jokes and some great physical comedy to do," says Biggs, but he isn't going to deny he's been pigeon-holed.
"I tend to be looked at in a certain way, which is all well and good, but when I want to do parts like Phil Campbell, it's more difficult," he says.
"I have to work a little harder to get roles like this, and that always intrigues me and makes me want the role more."
Bar a Broadway production of The Graduate in 2002, in which he starred in the role made famous by Dustin Hoffman, his resume is filled with teen comedies and romcoms.
You wonder if, with hindsight, he wishes he'd taken a left turn and done more dramatic roles right after American Pie?
"If I had the opportunity, perhaps," he muses. "This industry is very fickle and at the time of American Pie's release and success, and my status as a commodity in Hollywood, I had been acting for 15-20 years and had seen all the ups and downs, and the unpredictably of the industry.
"You do a movie that has that success, and you are given a chance to star in movies that are similar, I don't know that you'd do anything different."
He goes so far as to say he has "zero regrets about anything".
"At that age maybe I was only meant to do those kinds of comedies, because to do roles like Grassroots, I needed to be where I am now. I'm much more in tune with my personal emotions and I couldn't have played those roles back then."
It's easy to hide behind a comedy, he says. "Humping a pie, getting naked, that's fine. People ask me if that embarrasses me, but making a fool of myself on screen is not me being vulnerable.
"Me being vulnerable is Grassroots, and showing my emotional or sensitive side."
Extra time - Jason Biggs
:: Jason Biggs was born on May 12, 1978, in New Jersey.
:: He met his wife Jenny on the set of the movie My Best Friend's Girl.
:: He's the voice of Leonardo in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series.
:: He recently got in trouble for making crude remarks on Twitter about Ann Romney and Janna Ryan during the Republican Convention.
:: In 2010 he wrote a poem called Scratch and Sniff about growing up in New Jersey, which was part of an anthology about his hometown.
:: Grassroots is released in cinemas on Friday, November 9