Night Out: Craig Robinson’s Turtles Give Him Guilt Trips

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Night Out

By STEVEN KURUTZ

On a recent evening, Craig Robinson, the actor and stand-up comedian known from the TV show “The Office” and the movies “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Knocked Up,” sat in Zum Schneider, a Bavarian beer garden in the East Village, practicing his German.

“Ich war verheiratet,” Mr. Robinson, 44, said to a young waitress who had grown up in Germany. “Meine frau ist gestorben.”

The waitress’s eyes widened and her face softened in sympathy.

The translation of Mr. Robinson’s how’s-your-day small talk? “I was married. My wife passed away.”

Mr. Robinson’s German, it turns out, is limited to the dialogue he learned for his new movie, “Morris From America.” In the drama, which comes out Aug. 19 in select theaters (it’s now available on DirecTV), he plays a single father who moves to Germany with his hip-hop-loving teenage son for a job. Stranded in the land of EDM and bratwurst, they learn to lean on each other in what becomes an affecting father-son story.

The actor delivered his lines without cracking a smile. “I love the deadpan,” Mr. Robinson said of his trademark style. “It’s such a strong go-to. It lets the audience make their own decisions about what you’re thinking.”

After gaining fame as a comedic straight man, including as one of Judd Apatow’s ensemble players, Mr. Robinson was drawn to the dramatic role in “Morris,” he said, because he loved the way the father relates to his son, in a here’s-the-straight-dope vernacular.

But he almost didn’t get the part because in a meeting with the director, his low-key manner was mistaken for uninterest.

“He said he didn’t get the vibe that I wanted to be part of it,” Mr. Robinson said. “But he couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Working with funny, improvisational actors like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, he said, teaches you to be a patient comedy opportunist. “You have to hop in like a sniper,” Mr. Robinson said.

He is a skilled comedic slayer at this point. He began his career as a stand-up in the mid-’90s, in his native Chicago. He worked as a schoolteacher and as a bouncer until his career got going. “And when I say I was a bouncer, I’d go get the bigger guys and say, ‘Hey, they’re fighting,’” Mr. Robinson said.

He won some comedy competitions, moved to Los Angeles and began auditioning for movies, losing out on a role in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin but landing “Knocked Up” and then “The Office.”

At the beer garden, Mr. Robinson, dressed in a black Reebok T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, was low energy, though not strategically. He was simply tired after winding up a New York press tour for the new film, which included appearances on the “Today” show and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” And he had just experienced the actor’s version of a marathon: all-day back-to-back interviews with entertainment journalists.

“Not one of them was a woman,” Mr. Robinson said with lament.

Unlike his “Morris” character and Darryl Philbin, the divorced, unamused warehouse foreman he played in “The Office,” Mr. Robinson has no children and has never been married.

“In L.A., I was dating this girl, and she moved in for a while,” he said. “That ended bad. And now I’m just kind of fine.”

He does go home to two pet turtles, however.

“They’re just awaiting my presence,” he said, adding that when he’s away for long periods, the turtles, Haag (there used to be a Dazs) and Priscilla, let their displeasure be known. “They have a little attitude when I come home. They won’t eat the food I sit out right away.”

Mr. Robinson was flying home to Los Angeles the next morning. After relaxing at the beer garden, he planned to attend the premiere of “War Dogs,” whose stars include his friend Mr. Hill.

At the bar, he enjoyed his pilsner and the waves and smiles from strangers who recognized him, including a city bus driver who stopped, opened the bus door to yell, “Hey, man!” and then closed the door and continued down Avenue C.

After talking about doner kebab, a kind of street food he grew to like in Germany, he became nostalgic.

“Berlin is where it’s at, bro,” Mr. Robinson said. “I don’t even party here, really. Something happens when I get out of the country. Berlin was all night long.”

Soon a black S.U.V. pulled up to take him to the film premiere. When he arrived at the theater, where photographers stood outside, Mr. Robinson instructed a reporter and photographer, “You guys get out first.”

Seconds later, the car door opened and Mr. Robinson stepped out, luxuriating in the flashing cameras. Though it wasn’t his movie, he looked, for a moment, like a dramatic leading man.

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