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Drudging through the complicated social circles of high school life can be downright difficult for an awkward adolescent — but for RJ Berger, it’s straight-up hard.
Paul Iacono stars in the title role of The Hard Times of RJ Berger, a new MTV scripted television series about an awkward high school sophomore who suddenly finds himself going from anonymous to infamous thanks to the public revelation that he’s rather well-endowed. The series has been described as a high school version of HBO’s Hung, the story of a basketball coach who becomes a prostitute because of his own gifted package — but according to Iacono, Hard Times is about much more than the show’s “hard” premise.
Iacono spoke with Spinoff Online about how he became involved with the project, his assessment of RJ Berger as a character, the show’s direction going forward and much more.
Spinoff Online: Paul, how did this project come to you? How did you get involved with Hard Times in the first place?
Paul Iacono: I was out in Los Angeles on my first-ever pilot season type of ordeal. Basically, you go on three or four different auditions per week and this was just one in the midst of a lot. It stuck out to me because it was just so different from everything else that I’d read for. It was funnier and a little edgier and a little more raunchy or progressive or what have you, so I gravitated towards it. I went in sort of having an understanding of this awkward character and what they were attempting to do. I want to say that it was a Wednesday when I auditioned at first, and by Friday I had the role.
This is a story about an out-of-place high schooler, out on the social circles, but he suddenly finds himself at the center of attention after these embarrassing circumstances. Who is RJ to you? As you’re playing him, what’s your take on the character?
I mean, I really try not to focus on the big penis thing too much or anything like that. RJ is just a kid. He’s this kid who has never really had anything that’s made him special or stand out, nor has he ever had the courage to ever really step forward and have his own voice heard. But due to these unforeseen circumstances, this kid is tossed into the middle of chaos. He’s suddenly being recognized. People are suddenly hearing his voice for the first time. I think it’s an underdog story but also very much about this kid on a journey of self-discovery. He’s just starting to figure out that maybe you don’t need to play it by the book — maybe you can play it a little bit differently and still get the girl.
As you said, you try not to focus on the big penis aspect of the character — that this is a character with plenty of merit on his own and it’s interesting to watch his journey of going from little to big fish. But that said, this is a show that’s billed almost as Hung for a younger generation. How do you ride the line between a character-driven dramedy with the situational comedy based on the high concept of this well-endowed kid?
I think you really take it scene by scene. Sometimes RJ will be in the middle of a chaotic swingers dinner with his parents and in that case, he’s just the kid we talked about a minute ago. Then there are situations, like in this upcoming episode, he’s cast in the high school musical and he doesn’t necessarily get stage fright, but he gets some stage fright in the form of a massive erection. With RJ, there’s no hiding that! It becomes this almost Abbot and Costello routine between Miles and RJ trying to find a way to calm down his boner. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s a little more over the top, sometimes it’s about this appendage of his, but other times it isn’t.
This is a role that, as you said, you auditioned for on a Wednesday and got hired on a Friday. Clearly the producers saw something in you pretty darn quickly. What’s the development process been like in you informing the character’s personality traits and even story directions when talking with the creators? Do you have a lot of input on that side?
Absolutely. A film that I saw right before we started shooting this — I shot the [Hard Times] pilot last May — I saw a film called Bart’s Got A Room. My friend Steve Kaplan was the lead in it. The protagonist was similar to RJ in the sense that he’s this loser kid trying to get a date for prom. It’s a very simple film about this kid trying to figure out a prom date and then also convincing his father, played by William H. Macy, to get him a hotel room for him and this prom date that he’s trying to figure out who it’s going to be. Anyway, I guess I noticed in that film that there’s this wave of self-conscious, geeky guy stepping up the plate kind of thing. This might be part of Judd Apatow’s genius zeitgeist sort of thing, his finger on the pulse in terms of geeks coming to the surface of things and geeks getting the girl, that kind of thing.
I think that RJ is very much in the undertow of that. I think this is the time of the geek, the time of the vulnerable loser to step up to the plate and become his own man, because we’re in the time of now and the power of now. I think RJ’s progression as a character has been very much influenced by that film, having seen it right before we started shooting the series. And, of course, I went back and looked at Freaks and Geeks and saw how raw the actor who played Sam Weir was, how raw and emotionally vulnerable he is throughout that entire series.
RJ is a kid who is on the rise, but he’s still dealing with bullies, some social awkwardness and situations like this high school musical that’s coming up in this next episode. What was your high school experience like? How do you find yourself relating to the experiences that RJ is going through?
I went to the Performing Arts High School in Manhattan, so it was clearly a little bit different because kids are going to this school for an intended study purpose and everything’s a bit more theatrical. But besides that, it was a pretty average high school experience. I think that we all went through that and we all know what high school is. We all know how insecure and how in your head you can be. I think that all of art is pain and suffering, which is a little bit more visceral with RJ. He sort of wears it on his sleeve. I felt all of that, you know, as most of us do. I think I hid it a little bit better than most of us do, as well. I think RJ is just so raw that he’s sort of learning to cope with his situation, but he sort of wears it on his sleeve.
The most recent episode, “Yes We Can’t,” had RJ running for student body president against his rival, Max Owens. He ultimately loses to Max. At the end of the episode, if he had won the presidency, it would have been a move towards changing the status quo going forward from where we were in the pilot episode, whereas now, it’s more that the transformation is still going on but not with quite as big a leap as going from normal student to student body president. How is the show going to balance that aspect — is this going to be a show that changes the status quo of the ongoing continuity, or is this a show that will sort of be a similar package every week?
I’m glad you brought that up and you’re the first person to say anything about this. Last week’s episode was actually episode seven when we shot it, not number two. But for reasons sort of beyond my comprehension, mostly having to do with the ultimate narrative and mostly having to do with trying to show the viewers that the pilot is funny, quick and this and that, but the show also does take a bit more of a serious tone and also has a driving narrative force. I’m pretty sure that’s why they did this little switch of the episodes.
To answer your question, I think in the next episode, I think RJ takes two steps backwards now. He’s sort of lost the momentum because of this election disaster. He’s taken two or three steps backwards. Now, he’s trying to level himself out again without necessarily jumping to student government office. But I think after this episode, after this next one, it’s a pretty gradual but practical evolution of his rise in confidence. It becomes a bit more clearer, not so jumpy.
This is MTV’s first scripted series in quite a while. In your opinion, what do you think made Hard Times a good show for them to come back out the gate with — what do you think gives a show like this some staying power and relevance with the MTV viewership?
I have a 16 year-old brother and he’s not an actor, not really interested in the arts too much. It always struck me originally that he’s 16 years old and he’s grown up with, like, reality, from like the first season of Survivor. Reality has been just such a prevalent theme, that generation’s go-to for mindless, numbing entertainment on television. I think that Hard Times is sort of the first show that MTV has put out that is speaking in the vocabulary that this generation, this generation of reality, it’s speaking to them in a vocabulary that they understand.
And yet, we’re teaching them or reintroducing them, perhaps, to a scripted structure. That’s extremely important, as we all know. I grew up — I was a weird little kid, but I loved watching all of Nick At Nite as a kid. I was obsessed with I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters and those kinds of shows. I think I grew a love for that kind of structure at an early age, and these kids never really got the opportunity to because MTV has been spoon-feeding them realities at such a young age. This is the first show to sort of take that step in the other direction towards scripts again. I think Hard Times is the appropriate show to do that.
How has your life changed since Hard Times launched? In what ways are you noticing that your life is different now?
Honestly, today or last night maybe, were the first times where I haven’t really had to do something or be somewhere. I live in New York, and it’s been really nice to just sort of kick back with my friends. I went out and saw a play last night. Hearing accolades from peers and actor friends of mine and writer friends of mine, it’s just sort of nice to get a general feedback sort of thing. I’m very proud of the project. It’s inspiring in a lot of ways and I look forward to season two. In the mean time, I’m working on a bit of theater stuff with my own writing in New York at the moment.
Check out an all-new episode of The Hard Times of RJ Berger tonight at 10:00 PM EST on MTV!