Wow, did Jay Mohr just say the wrong thing. Last year, he played Bob Sugar, the ruthless rival sports agent who showed Tom Cruise the pink slip in Jerry Maguire. Now he’s trying to charm the pumps off Jennifer Aniston as sweetly smitten wedding cameraman Nick in Picture Perfect. Asked if each character represents an equal side of himself, Mohr responds, ”There’s probably more of me in Sugar than in Nick.” And a whole nation heaves a sigh of disappointment.
”People are going to freak out after what a bastard I was in Maguire when they see how nice I am in Picture Perfect,” says Mohr, 26, currently Kevin Bacon’s competition for ad exec Aniston in Perfect. In fact, Nick, who willingly lets Aniston stomp on him in a variety of public places, is almost masochistically decent compared with the scheming Sugar. And Mohr, vaulting from naughty to nice, found his first true leading role a little frightening. ”He was nervous,” reports Perfect director Glenn Gordon Caron, a good shepherd to up-and-comers who guided an inexperienced Bruce Willis through four seasons of Moonlighting. ”But he succeeds beyond everybody’s expectations, including his own.”
It’s safe to say expectations for Mohr weren’t that high back in suburban Verona, N.J., where he was a mostly unsuccessful class cutup with a comedic batting average even lower than his SATs. ”I was more annoying than funny,” admits Mohr, the third child of Jean, a nurse, and Jon, a marketing executive. ”I wasn’t the guy everyone liked. I was the guy that wouldn’t shut up.” His first brush with an appreciative audience occurred at a teen comedy night at a nearby stand-up club called Rascals, where the laughs came freely. Soon, Mohr was a traveling teen comic with two edicts from Mom: ”Don’t say the F-word, and no comedy on a school night.” The gag orders were canceled after graduation when he began pursuing comedy full-time. In 1991, at age 20, Mohr landed a real job hosting MTV’s mouthing-to-the-oldies game show, Lip Service.
Not that he’s particularly keen on talking about his brief gig on the silly show. ”Nah,” Mohr retorts when asked for a quick reminiscence. ”No reason. It’s just something you did. Like picking someone up at the airport. You never say, ‘Hey, remember six years ago, you picked your friends up at La Guardia?’ It doesn’t need to be talked about.”
Regardless, it got other people talking. His season of Service led to a brief stint on Saturday Night Live (he joined the cast in 1993, at the same time as Norm Macdonald) — though that wasn’t a write-home experience either: His two-year run included little airtime beyond the occasional Christopher Walken impression. ”I think being on Saturday Night Live made me not be impressed by anything,” Mohr figures. ”All that waiting around for, like, a glimmer of stage time, just getting angry every week, trying to impress [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] and everybody… Always not getting your sketches on even though you know they’re funnier than something Joe Schmo’s doing, which isn’t funny but he’s got a movie coming out so they’re going to put him on instead… It was just an oppressive, horrible, horrible place to be. I went to work feeling nauseous.” (A spokesman for the show wouldn’t comment.)
When SNL stalled during Mohr’s contract renegotiations, he left the show unemployed — and undaunted. ”I got my legs broken so much that I came out of there with so much moxie,” he says. ”Now every audition is like, I dare you to give this to someone more famous than me.” Case in point: his high-pressure Jerry Maguire screen test opposite Cruise, which simulated their tense lunchtime firing scene. ”What he did was he laughed at Tom Cruise,” remembers Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe, who was won over by Mohr’s risky chutzpah. ”Just laughed at him.”
”I got off on that, man,” says Mohr. ”We just kept staring at each other. And Tom was staring at me like he was going to come across the table and beat the sh– out of me. It literally must have been about 30 seconds, which was like the longest time — like, Normandy wasn’t that long. And I remember the whole time in my mind going, I have the next line. I hold the cards. Let me show them how not afraid of Tom Cruise I am.”
In fact, Mohr made for such a memorable villain that some people can’t imagine him as a movie hero. ”I don’t think he’s the guy that you look at initially and say, ‘Here’s a leading man,”’ says Caron. Though Caron pushed Mohr for Perfect, the execs at Fox weren’t convinced either. ”At the start of the [casting] process, I’d never even heard of him,” Fox president of film production Tom Rothman says of Mohr, who at that time was appearing as the Gomer Pyleish brother Wayne on The Jeff Foxworthy Show. To help Mohr’s cause, Crowe put in calls to Rothman and the studio’s chairman, Peter Chernin. ”I just said, ‘This guy is on fire,”’ says Crowe. ”’He’s bringing good work out of everybody. Talk to Tom Cruise — he’d tell you the same thing.”’ As Rothman remembers it, ”The gist was, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t hire him.”’
Even after getting the job, Mohr still felt the pressure of the competition. ”The first day he came in he looked at Kevin Bacon and went, ‘God, he’s in great shape. I’d better go to the gym,”’ says Caron. ”And I said, ‘That’s not what this movie’s about!”’ He also needed knuckle-rapping tutelage from his director on proper movie manners: Caron once hauled Mohr off the Perfect set and into a bathroom to bawl him out for goofing off. ”I went, ‘I’m sorry. Sometimes I can’t help it. I’m a comedian,”’ Mohr recalls. ”And he screams, ‘You’re not a comedian! You’re an actor!”’
”We just started screaming at each other,” Caron concurs. ”I said, ‘I put my balls on the line for you! This is a f—ing movie! You’re going to be the leading man, man! And you’re going to blow it on bad deportment? Are you out of your f—ing mind?!’ We just screamed and threatened each other the way guys do, and then we shook hands and went on with our work.”
Mohr, who lives in L.A. with his girlfriend, actress Nicole Chamberlain, and rottweiler, Shirley, shows remarkably little of a typical comic’s gregariousness — particularly when explaining that the tattoo on his inner left arm that says ”Will 12-27” marks the date his cousin was killed by a drunk driver in 1995: ”Two days after Christmas,” he mumbles softly. The darker mood will emerge on screen when he follows Picture Perfect with January’s Suicide Kings, a kidnapping drama that pits rich kid Mohr opposite a Mob boss played by, of all people, Christopher Walken. After they met, ”I brought all the old tapes from [SNL],” says Mohr. ”He loved it. He loves all impressions. I did an impression of Phil Hartman doing Kirk Douglas and he was on the floor. It wasn’t even good!”
For now, Mohr is anxiously awaiting the response to his Perfect alter ego — and contemplating life as a possible Hollywood player. ”A friend of mine asked, ‘What’s going to be your angle?”’ he says. ”I went, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, ‘Are you the new young actor with beard stubble and a cigarette?”’ Mohr pauses and shrugs unapologetically. ”You know what? I’m not Stephen Dorff. I’m the guy without an angle. And who knows? In September I might be a movie star.”