When it came time to complete the transition from kid star to grown-up actor, Hilary Duff put a scorpion down her pants and grabbed a microphone to sing the double entendre-laden “I Want to Blow You Up” in this year’s film “War, Inc.”
Safe to say, though, that Nickelodeon star Josh Peck has one-upped his one-time Disney Channel rival with his own grown-up role in the darkly comic “The Wackness.”
In the film, Peck’s Luke Shapiro, a sexually repressed, socially awkward teenage dope dealer, manages to land in jail, get evicted from his family’s New York City apartment, struggle briefly with erectile dysfunction and ultimately have his heart broken. On the positive side, he manages to lose his virginity to a beautiful girl — in a buck-naked shower scene with Olivia Thirlby, who plays the stepdaughter of Luke’s psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley).
“It’s definitely a different sort of forum than people are used to seeing me in,” acknowledges Peck as he sits in the suite of a fashionable Beverly Hills hotel. “But I really hope that the Nickelodeon audience can sort of take a leap of faith with me and accept me in this new arena.”
Dressed all in black — and sporting a scruffy dark beard — the actor has evolved in many ways from the funny fat kid he portrayed when the hit teen show “Drake & Josh” made its debut on Nickelodeon in 2004. For one thing he’s now a trim young man of 21, having lost some 100 pounds during the show’s four-year run.
“But just because the pounds went away ... doesn’t mean any of the body complexes went away,” he says at one point, smiling but fidgeting slightly with the laces on his sneakers.
“When I look in the mirror,” he adds with a laugh, “I still see a goofball.”
‘I really identified with his weakness’As a result, he says, the role of the emotionally fragile but ultimately decent 18-year-old pot dealer “just really kind of spoke to where I was at that time in my life.”
No, he laughs when pressed on the issue, he did not lose his virginity in an outdoor shower like Luke does. Nor did the native New Yorker ever sell marijuana in Central Park out of a dilapidated ice-cream pushcart. In real life, Peck was too busy making a name for himself as a standup comedy prodigy, appearing at age 8 in clubs such as Catch a Rising Star and Stand Up-New York.
“But I really identified with his weaknesses,” he says of Luke. “I think the themes of this movie at its core are something very universal. The need for redemption and taking a moral inventory of where you are and feeling lost in a world of sheep ... and feeling that you’re the only one who doesn’t fit in.”
A shy, overweight kid growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Peck says he got into standup comedy as young as he did simply because it was the only thing he was good at. He was 14 when his mother, seeing his burgeoning talent, packed the two of them up and headed to Los Angeles so her only son could try his luck in Hollywood.
Not long after arriving, he landed a part in the ensemble cast of “The Amanda Show,” a kids variety series starring then-teenager Amanda Bynes. He hit it off so well with fellow cast member Drake Bell that they soon had their own sitcom.
In “Drake & Josh,” Peck was the uptight, insecure foil to co-star Bell’s laid-back slacker. In real life, he’s funny, friendly and unfailingly polite (he apologizes when room service brings his dinner early and puts it aside rather than eat in front of a visitor).
Peck still feels insecureBut when it comes to insecurities, Peck says, he can match those of either Luke or his “Drake & Josh” persona.
“Oh man, you assume someone would have me,” he jokes when the talk turns to his eventually getting married, settling down and raising a family.
“Maybe, I guess so,” he mumbles when reminded that “Drake & Josh” attracted its share of teenage girls who grew up watching the show. Then he quickly changes the subject with a joke about his sexual prowess.
He split with his longtime girlfriend some time back and is seeing no one in particular these days, Peck says, instead choosing to hang out with his mother, his friends and his dog and to keep in shape on the basketball court.
“I’m not very good but it’s very therapeutic for me,” he says .
He’ll have little time for play this summer, however. “Drake & Josh” remains so popular in reruns that he and Bell are reuniting in a couple weeks to film a Christmas movie.
Despite the show’s continuing popularity, writer-director Jonathan Levine says he never saw “Drake & Josh” before he cast Peck in the lead role in “The Wackness.” It was the young actor’s still-trying-to-figure-it-out attitude, Levine says, that won him the part.
“He felt so real. So authentic. And I felt for him so much when I was looking through the camera,” says Levine, adding he based the film in large part on his own experiences coming of age in New York City in the early 1990s.
For his part, Peck is eager to take on similar, more challenging roles. He recently completed another film, “Safety Glass,” in which he stars opposite both Thirlby and Duff, this time as a disillusioned young man growing into adulthood.
“I’ve got a pretty short haircut and an ’80s thin mustache in the movie, so I look quite psychotic,” he says happily. “It’s pretty awesome.”