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Adam Scott: You know you love him

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Adam Scott used to take himself way too seriously. He fretted. He stressed. He approached every acting job — even the ones that didn’t require any acting — with an overwrought intensity that would have Stanislavski tiptoeing quietly out of the room.

”When I first came to Hollywood in the early 1990s I worked as an extra in music videos,” recalls the 38-year-old as he chomps into dinner at a trendy Hollywood burger joint. ”I did this Tia Carrere video set in a coffeehouse. I was in the background, having coffee with a model, while Tia Carrere was singing on some stairs. That’s all I had to do — drink coffee. But I made up a whole backstory for my character — who I was and what I was doing at that coffee shop. I even tried to improvise with the model. She thought I was an idiot.”

Fortunately, Scott has lightened up since then, and it’s done wonders for his career. Thanks to his charismatically laconic characters on TV sitcoms such as Party Down and Parks and Recreation, as well as less charming but still hilarious supporting turns in big-screen comedies like Step Brothers, Scott will never have to work in music videos again. In fact, he’s about to take his greatest leap yet, carrying his own romantic comedy, the R-rated Friends With Kids. Granted, it’s a low-budget, art-housey rom-com — written and directed by Kissing Jessica Stein scribe Jennifer Westfeldt, who also costars — but Scott has a big, juicy leading-man role just the same. The first of his career.

Scott plays a commitment-phobic Manhattanite whose platonic best friend (Westfeldt) lives downstairs in the same apartment building. When all their pals (Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig, and Westfeldt’s real-life boyfriend, Jon Hamm) start having babies and disappearing into parenthood, they hatch a plan to have a baby of their own, without the fuss of love and marriage. It sounds like the plot of a Kate Hudson movie, except that Westfeldt’s script, which never sugarcoats how rough reproduction can be on relationships, is far smarter than that. So, for that matter, is the acting.

”Adam is so funny and dry and sardonic, with that disaffected humor that he does so well,” says Westfeldt. ”But at the end of this movie he also has to shift into being really emotional and heartbroken. Adam had to deliver on both counts. My whole movie depended on it.”

Here are some fun facts about Adam Scott: He grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif., where his mom was a high school teacher and his dad a college professor. After high school, he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, where he became friends with fellow students Paul Rudd and, later, Jon Hamm. His first real acting job, not counting music videos, was in the pilot for a short-lived 1994 MTV show called Dead at 21. ”I thought I was going to be hugely famous after that,” Scott remembers. ”I was like, ‘I hope everyone is going to be cool with me after this thing airs.’ And then I didn’t get another job for six months.”

When he did get another job, it was a spot in an episode of Boy Meets World, followed by about a decade’s worth of equally forgettable walk-ons on shows including ER (he played a guy who got hit by a car) and in films like Hellraiser: Bloodline (he got his guts ripped out). There were small victories — a sizable part in the 2002 thriller High Crimes, a bit as Howard Hughes’ press agent in 2004’s The Aviator, a role as a male nurse in 2007’s Knocked Up — but things got so rough that Scott’s girlfriend, Naomi Sablan, then a producer on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, had to support them both. (Scott and Sablan have since married and have two young children.) ”Adam had the opposite problem that I had,” Hamm says. ”I was weirdly old-looking when I was in my 20s. I couldn’t get parts because I looked like I was in my 40s. But Adam has always looked preternaturally young. It’s only now that he’s settling into manhood that it’s become easier for audiences to accept him as ‘the Guy.”’

Party Down was what turned everything around. The Starz original series about a bunch of wannabes working as caterers in Los Angeles barely kept up in the ratings with the Weather Channel. But Scott identified with his disenchanted-actor character and found the show’s improv-heavy format liberating. ”We were just screwing around, but we were screwing around passionately,” he says. ”I was able to just relax and let myself bleed into what I was doing rather than being tense and trying to play a character.”

That skill comes in handy on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, where he plays the adorably awkward Ben Wyatt. ”He’s like an Italian sports car,” says Amy Poehler, his onscreen love interest. ”He’s pretty on the outside but really fun to drive when you get on the inside.” Scott, meanwhile, admits he continues to have ”that guest-star mindset. I’m still wondering if I’m ever going to work again.”

He’ll work again. In fact, Friends With Kids is just the start of Scott’s big-screen surge. In November he’ll appear alongside Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in a comedy called The Guilt Trip. After that, he’ll take a supporting role in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, along with a comedy about grown-up children of divorce called A.C.O.D.

Of course, Scott still sometimes frets. He still stresses. He’s still occasionally haunted by the ghosts of old performances. ”I went on the Internet and found that Tia Carrere music video the other day,” he says. ”You know what? I’m not even in it. I got cut.”

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