Since his role in last year’s Fame remake, New Jersey native and Professional Performing Arts School graduate Paul Iacono has spent his time in Hollywood, filming MTV’s upcoming return to scripted programming, The Hard Times of RJ Berger, which premieres on Sunday night. In the series, created by David Katzenberg and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith, Iacono, a young-looking 21, plays the titular character, a high-school outcast with a freakishly large genitalia. We spoke to the actor about the show and big expectations for his own endowment.
You’re an East Coast guy: How was life in L.A.?
Well, I was back and forth, and I’m here in New York as much as I possibly can be — I just love New York too much. I got a place here on the Lower East Side, and I live by myself because I like the solitude. After filming, I needed to isolate myself a little bit in general; I needed to spend a little time focusing on myself. I viewed L.A. as a necessary evil.
So how was your first experience filming a TV show?
Shooting Hard Times nearly killed me. We shot one episode, 30 minutes, in three and a half days, on location at a real high school in the suburbs of L.A. That’s a lot of work for any TV show, but when you are the title character and in every scene, you don’t have the leisure of coming in and saying, “I’m a little tired, didn’t get much sleep last night” and then half-ass it until noon. The camera is on you and you have to be on 100 percent all of the time. It was physically draining and emotionally draining; I had to be on all of the time. But of course, it was that much more rewarding.
You went to high school in Manhattan, right?
Right, at the Professional Performing Arts School, class of 2006. It was amazing. It was like suddenly you’re not the only person who knows the complete libreto to Company, and there’s solace in that. It’s an island of misfits, really — everyone is sort of an outcast in way or another. They all gather there and culminate there — not that everyone gets along, not that it’s a utopia or anything, but there’s some sense of understanding. So I can absolutely tap into RJ’s feeling like an outcast and being ostracized — I get that. But my method was just to play it honestly. I have a theatrical background so I have a tendency, not just with this, but even in my personal life, to be a little over-the-top and larger-than-life. But I just wanted to play this character honestly. He’s a 15-year-old kid whose life sucks and all he wants to do is get laid.
Why does his life suck?
He has two friends — one is a chubby, obnoxious guy scheming ways to get cooler and more popular, he puts one foot forward and takes three steps backwards and somehow RJ always gets stuck in the middle of his stupid plans. His other best friend is a girl named Lily who’s more of a troll next door, she’s his “friend” but more of his stalker. She’ll do anything to get close to him. But he lusts after the most beautiful girl in school; he has forever. Her name is Jenny Swanson — the name sums it up. She’s just the perfect, all-American girl and she dates RJ’s arch-nemesis, of course, who goes out of his way to antagonize RJ to all extents just because he knows that RJ, deep down, has a thing for his girl. Not that anyone thinks RJ has a chance. And his parents are sexaholics, they’re swingers, and they’re constantly engaging in sexual acts in front of him. His father tries to give him advice and tells him to be more direct, he says, like, “Next time you’re in the library, take her hand, unzip your shit,” and the father and mother start acting this out over dinner. And he kind of does know it’s going on.
So there’s some uncomfortable humor here. Is it more like Welcome to the Dollhouse or American Pie?
Ah, I love Happiness. But it’s somewhere in between Solondz and American Pie. It’s all about the tone. And it’s MTV.
How did you get involved with the project?
I was in kind of a dark phase. I’d just gotten out of a relationship with this Schmollywood girl. I was looking for something to motivate me and focusing on auditioning. This was in a lineup of a bunch of auditions, I just went in and I gave it my all, and it wound up being the right project. I always gravitate towards sick, dark, fucked-up humor.
So your own experiences in high school were similar to RJ’s?
Fairly similar, but high school was fun. When I was a freshman, I wouldn’t call myself a loser, but I wasn’t popular by any means. I’ve always sort of been a weird guy — in my tastes and sensibilities and what I find interesting. There were more adult things that I liked to do. When I was a freshman in high school, I just wanted to go see Broadway plays. But I got older and the more you raise that freak flag and own your weirdness, people see that and respond accordingly. RJ is learning to embrace that fact that he’s not a jock and he’s never going to be — he’s a weird kid, but he has a good heart and a big penis, so what’s not to love?
So is there like a Boogie Nights scene with a prosthetic penis? How do they reveal that your 15-year-old character is well-endowed?
It’s left to the imagination, so it can be as big as you want it to be, you know? I think everyone has their own idea of what a monster penis looks like. But through these crazy circumstances, in the first episode, his basketball shorts fall down. All of a sudden he goes from being anonymous to infamous — it doesn’t make him cool, though.
It’s, like, weird-big?
It’s weird, absolutely. But I don’t really know, you know? From RJ’s perspective, or me playing RJ’s perspective — when I was 15 years old, I didn’t really have much to compare by, as far as my own size. So I don’t think RJ knew that this thing was so big.
Do you feel like there’s going to be some added pressure on you now as far as your own endowment?
Um, yeah. Clearly that will be like a thing, and all I can say is I hope that I can meet peoples’ expectations? I’m coming up with a line of T-shirts to make with slogans, like, “Find out for yourself!” or “Could be, who knows?”
Have you been prepped for …
The penis talk in interviews? Not really, no, but people have asked me, “Are you afraid you’re going to get pigeonholed?” Because it’s TV, and that happens a lot, and it’s such a specific role. But Paul and RJ don’t look anything alike, really. It’s a whole other person — the wardrobe, the hair, the glasses. I become another person, which is my job. I’m a theatre actor first and foremost and I hope this is just one role in a long career, and hopefully the next role I play will be a character with a really, really, really small penis.
You know the Hung guy just virtually gave measurements to Men’s Health! I guess that’s the one way to go.
Yeah, that’s good for him … but a little mystique never hurt anyone.
Who do you see as the average MTV viewer?
I don’t know; I don’t watch MTV. MTV’s never appealed to me before. But I’m currently up-to-date with it; I’ve fist-pumped with the Jersey Shore kids. Snooki’s reintroduced herself to me about eight times. The Situation is a very sweet guy.