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Robbie Amell: Why 'The DUFF' Might Surprise You

02/20/2015 01:25 EST | Updated 02/20/2015 01:59 EST
eOne Films

You might think Robbie Amell is playing a stereotypical high school jock in teen comedy "The DUFF," in which he stars alongside Mae Whitman and Bella Thorne. Especially considering he spends over half of his screen time shirtless, doing a pec dance worthy of Terry Crews. But as audiences will soon find out, Amell's Wesley is anything but typical (he's got a steady supply of bad dad jokes, for instance), and the same thing goes for "The DUFF," which, in true John Hughes-inspired form, is about fighting back against high-school stereotypes. "It's not your usual teen comedy, which I think is surprising a lot of people," Amell told The Huffington Post Canada.

The "DUFF," for those still trying to figure out how to use "bae" in a sentence, stands for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend." And after Wesley lets Bianca (Whitman) in on the open secret that 99 percent of the school (staff included) considers her to be the DUFF for her two BFFs, she enlists her childhood friend-turned-star quarterback to help "reverse-DUFF" her, and hopefully land a date with her crush in the process. What Bianca really ends up doing is learning how to define herself as more than just a label.

With "The DUFF" now in theatres, HuffPost Canada sat down with Toronto native Amell to talk about why the role worried him at first, how he and Whitman spent the shoot trying to crack each other up, and why he's glad he graduated high school before everyone got smartphones.

HuffPost Canada: This movie's different from your average high-school comedy. Was that part of the appeal for you when you signed up?

Robbie Amell: I read the script and you know, the first little while, especially because I'm reading it so specifically for my character, I was worried that he was too [much of a] stereotypical "dumb jock" -- this is a guy who people have seen before, this is a guy I've seen before, I don't like this guy. And then, you start to see what he's really about, and that's where I thought I could bring a little more of myself to this character. Then they cast Mae, which made it even more appealing. And then we chemistry-read together and I figured if I could make her laugh, I had a shot at it. And I thought of some alternate jokes, cracked her up and booked it.

Did they let you guys improv a lot on set too?

A ton. This movie is so heavily improvised, which I really think makes it feel natural and real. The story was great, and the script was really great -- I can't take away from the screenwriter -- but the nice thing about the two of us was it relied so heavily on chemistry that we had to fool around with the scenes and find little things that worked for us. Especially since we're supposed to have this history ... we grew up together, we were neighbours, we didn't just meet at the beginning of this movie. I think we did a great job of establishing that. And we really spent most of the shoot trying to make each other laugh.

Did you two do anything special either before or during shooting to try to develop that shared history?

We just hung out as much as possible. The good thing was you never know if you're going to like each other, dislike each other, get sick of each other, and we shot 12-hour days and we would confide in each other in what we thought was funny and what wasn't. And we would go to dinners. The whole cast was close. We'd karaoke, we went to an Atlanta Braves game, we became a very close family very quickly, which is the nice thing about shooting on location. You don't have the excuse of "Well, I'm going home to get a good night's sleep." You hang out, you go to the hotel, you go back to work.

You brought it up earlier, your character starts out as the stereotypical jock, but it's nice the movie allows him to become more than that. Did you enjoy getting to subvert expectations and be the one giving Mae's character fashion tips and doing the makeover montage?

For sure. That was all fun stuff. When I first read it, like I said, I was worried with the first 30 pages. And then you really get to see that this guy is kind of goofy, which I think for the most part has been missed in teen comedies. The stereotypical good-looking jock or the Freddie Prinze, Jr. type role, that guy is rarely goofy and allows his guard to come down and get weird. And I think they gave me freedom to do that and make the character a lot more relatable.

And when Mae and I were talking about it, we figured we would try and bring as much of ourselves to the characters as possible, and luckily we share a goofy sense of humour. She loves dad jokes, and I've started to become more and more like my dad over the last few years.

How long did it take to shoot the makeover montage? Because she has to go back to wardrobe every time and get set up again, right?

That was a six-hour scene, shooting wise. And I had the easy part, I just sit there and watch Mae. That was the first or second day of filming and I mean, Mae kills that scene. She is so funny, and that was part of the reason we became really close really quickly, because you're really putting yourself on the line in Mae's position there. That's a terrifying scene to shoot. You're surrounded by people you don't know.

A scene like that, it's so tough. It relies so heavily on Mae, and we lucked out. I don't know what this movie is without her as the lead. I don't know who else could make it work and bring the sort of charming ease that she does.

How was it for you getting back into that teenage mindset? Were you able to channel anything from your own high school days or has the landscape changed too much?

You know, it's pretty similar. Walking through the halls, seeing the other students -- because we were shooting in a live high school -- for the most part, high school hasn't changed that much. The social media aspect definitely comes into it, but we're young enough to be very social-media savvy.

It is pretty terrifying to think back to high school where everybody would have a camera phone. Because I probably wouldn't be an actor today if everyone in my high school had a camera at their disposal at all times. It kind of sucks, you can't really get away with anything. You can't make any mistakes anymore that aren't documented. But other than that, it was pretty similar to my high school experience. I just had to channel a little bit more of a dick at the beginning of the movie. And then I could be more myself.

Is that a hard line to walk? Because Wesley's got to be cocky without losing the audience or making them turn on him.

For sure. And I always asked Mae to make sure that I wasn't coming across too mean or rude. There's that scene where we're at the party and I have to tell her that she's "the DUFF" and the words are incredibly mean, but it has to seem like this guy hasn't thought about them at all. He's just throwing them out there, and part of the reason he's OK with doing that is because they have this long history of knowing each other forever. It's kind of like saying something to a family member. You say things to family members you would never say to a friend because they're blood. And then it's not until he realizes the repercussions of what he said that you get to see the real side of him.

Had you heard the term "the DUFF" before this?

I hadn't. About half the people I asked had heard about it, and half the people hadn't. But it's interchangeable with any rude term somebody's called in high school -- or out of high school. And the nice thing about the movie is it has that anti-bullying message, which for the most part, if you have a good message in a comedy, it's normally beat over the head endlessly, or it takes the humour out of the movie. And I thought that was what was really special about this movie: the message is there, but it's still a very funny, very real-feeling movie.

"The Duff" is now playing in theatres.

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