Rob Schneider: It's not easy being a slob

He has made a career out of playing repulsive underdogs. And, he tells Ryan Gilbey, James Joyce showed him the way
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The Independent Culture

The pocket-sized, pop-eyed actor and writer Rob Schneider comes to our meeting hotfoot from the Channel 4 breakfast show RI:SE, where he has been playing court jester. They introduce him there as a Hollywood legend, which is pushing it a bit, but then RI:SE has been passing itself off as light entertainment for long enough, so who's complaining? Schneider is called upon to peruse the morning papers with Jade from Big Brother. Newsnight it ain't. Then he drifts through a string of mediocre impressions, the best of which - Peter Lorre - is greeted with bafflement by the audience, most of whom are skipping paper rounds to stand about making the studio look full.

Those youngsters are the ones on whom Schneider is counting to snub The Matrix Reloaded this weekend in favour of his film, The Hot Chick (see Anthony Quinn's review), in which he plays a working-class slob whose body is invaded by the spirit of a schoolgirl, giving him ample opportunity to prance around in skimpy pink outfits that show off his pizza-and-nachos midriff. Schneider is likeably grungy, and his appeal may come from languishing cheerfully at the bargain-basement end of a lucrative modern genre: the gross-out comedy. While the Farrelly brothers take the kudos, and Animal House producer Ivan Reitman takes the money with modern variations like Road Trip and Old School, Schneider is content to exhume hoary old gags in amateurish star vehicles. The term "so-bad-it's-good" might have been coined for him.

He shoehorns some of those gags into our conversation. "I've been studying teenage girls all my life," he leers. "Mostly in showers." But quickly it transpires that Schneider has all the honest self-deprecation you would expect from someone whose acting career consists of contriving extreme ways in which to humiliate himself. "There's always that big, violent set-piece in a Scorsese film," he notes, "where someone is beaten with a baseball bat, then has their fingers cut off and is forced to eat them in front of their parents. My films are the same. The audience expects to see me subjected to horrific physical injury." In The Hot Chick, he crashes violently down a run of stairs before slipping on a muffin and crashing down some more. It's a visual thing.

Still, I don't think slapstick is what Schneider is really about. Mostly he is preoccupied with reinforcing his own masculinity by appearing to undermine it. His career is fast becoming an extended dare - a one-man Jackass. And in The Hot Chick, he accomplishes what the Jackass boys come so close to doing, what that whole show is pointed toward, and yet cannot ever quite manage: he kisses another man, sincerely, even tenderly. It was, I point out, an unusual decision to play that scene straight. "Yeah," he chuckles, "and right before, I was whispering in that actor's ear: 'I'm gonna have a Thai boy crawl up your ass...'"

Oh dear. At least Schneider took an active part in selecting his kissee, which must be the mark of a man comfortable with his own identity. "During casting, I saw this guy and I thought: 'Sure. I could kiss him.' If that makes me a homo, then fine, I'm a homo." With Schneider, the things that are endearing about him are jumbled up with the crumminess, the cheap, coarse jibes. But it's the absence of egotism in his film work that ultimately insulates it from cruelty. In his 1999 hit comedy, Deuce Bigalow - Male Gigolo, he played a timid escort tutored by his pimp to utilise his "mangina" to please women; he pole-danced with a living-room lamp, and threw himself at the mercy of ravenous or obese clients who threatened to eat him for breakfast.

Every joke hinged on how implausible it was not only that women would pay to sleep with this man but that someone so wretched could qualify as any kind of man at all. Numerous comics from Woody Allen to Norman Wisdom have flirted with being unlovable, but few have dared to be as downright repulsive as Schneider. That has become his niche - it's why he was chosen to host the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Show, and it's at the heart of The Hot Chick. I'm sure that's also why he delights in revealing, unprompted, that he has a "worldly" 21-year-old Mexican wife.

Surely, I suggest, there has to be some emotional damage from constantly playing the underdog. "If it's funny, I'll do it, whatever it is. I never write from a place of vanity." He spotted his natural vulnerability early on, and exploited it. "I guess it started out as a sickness and became an art form. I always had this nervousness that made people laugh. At school, some teacher said something mean to me and crushed me, and I thought: I'm way more sensitive than anyone here - that's my weakness. It wasn't until a long while after that I realised it was actually my strength." For no apparent reason, he adds in a hushed voice: "James Joyce. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. You don't know what's leading you."

By the time he hit the stage in the comedy clubs of his hometown, San Francisco, he had perfected a persona of calculated ineptitude. From there, he became a regular on Saturday Night Live, the anarchic TV revue that launched John Belushi, Mike Myers and Schneider's close pal Adam Sandler (Sandler produces Schneider's work, and the two invariably have walk-on parts in each other's films).

Schneider never got the recognition afforded to those performers, but he came close. One of his most cherished creations was Sensitive Naked Man. "I was on a flight and I suddenly thought: What if I was naked right now, but I treated it as everyone else's problem?" The morning after the show had aired, he overheard people in supermarkets imitating his voice, reciting his lines. "I could see the potential for being a drug addict, because you couldn't get close to that high. You'd do the show, go to the party, hear people the next day singing your praises. And you'd be going home to your girlfriend who you'd ignored for the past week."

Some of Schneider's friends on the show died of drug overdoses, but his poison was booze. "I became a very heavy drinker. After four years on the show, I was a wreck. I was sitting in hospital after throat surgery. I'd had a kidney stone removed, and I got a broken ankle from running to work in the snow. I had a tube up my dick and I had to get a shot of morphine every time I wanted to pee. That's when I decided to quit. It was killing me."

Even now, he maintains that he can't go on for ever. "What I do comes at a price. I don't know if psychically I can keep regenerating." One way might be for him to place himself in the hands of a decent film-maker, as Sandler did by appearing in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love. Schneider comes over proud thinking about that picture. "I always knew he could act. That's the real Adam in that film. He's got some built-in rage. We both have. It's this white-male-anger thing. For a lot of guys it's destructive, but we turn it into comedy."

He claims to have happily surrendered to Jack Nicholson the part he was due to play in Sandler's forthcoming film Anger Management, but he needs to catch up with Sandler, and quickly, before he becomes just a footnote in his chum's career. He may care not to be reminded of that urgency. When I put it to him that his films are a guilty pleasure, he bristles for the first time. "I'm tired of being a guilty pleasure," he sighs. "I wanna be the one they can admit to liking. I always get this. People come up and say, 'You know what? My entire family despises you and we thought Deuce Bigalow was going to be a gigantic waste of time and money, and we were surprised we didn't hate it as much as we expected to.' Like that's gonna put me in a good mood."

'The Hot Chick' is released today