Even in a cast as large and talented as The Office's, comedian-actor Craig Robinson stands out. As the foreman of the Dunder Mifflin warehouse, Robinson plays the foil to Steve Carell's clueless boob of a middle manager, who sees Robinson as his mentor in the mysterious ways of African-American culture. Since making his name with The Office, Robinson has branched out into feature films, establishing himself as a popular member of Judd Apatow's repertory company: He scored roles in Walk Hard, last year's hit action-comedy Pineapple Express, and in Knocked Up, where he played a wry bouncer with a strong anti-old-pregnant-bitches policy. Though he still dabbles in juicy bit parts, he had a sizable supporting turn in Kevin Smith's Zack And Miri Make A Porno, and he co-starred in the Korean monster movie Dragon Wars. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Robinson about The Office, D-War's mind-meltingly convoluted plot, playing characters with job titles and numbers instead of names, and improvising for Kevin Smith.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up doing Dragon Wars?
Craig Robinson: I was in a TV show called Lucky on FX. The casting director from Lucky was casting Dragon Wars. She called me in to meet with the producer and audition, and I got it from there.
AVC: What was your reaction to the script?
CR: They had sent a DVD of some of the CGI they had done over the past several years. I was like, "Whoa!" when I saw the battle scenes. This was crazy. It was some of the stuff they shot in Korea. I was like, "How do I get to be a part of this? This is fantastic." I hadn't even seen the script before I went out for it. Then I got the script, and it was way different, because the director doesn't even speak English, so we got to play with it a lot. I was just happy to do it.
AVC: Did you feel a little insane pretending you were running from dragons?
CR: It was fun. Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks were cool to work with. Jason and I are fast friends to this day. I was cracking them up on set because I was screaming all kinds of crazy ways. We just had a ball with it.
AVC: It's the top-grossing film of all time in South Korea. Have you gone there to bask in your D-War glory?
CR: We went to Korea to debut the movie. The weekend it came out there, we opened it on a few screens. We were there for about two and a half days. We did as much as we could, but there was a lot of press. We got to eat some Korean barbecue.
AVC: For those who haven't seen Dragon Wars, could you describe what it's about?
CR: [Laughs.] All right, 500 years ago, as the Korean tale goes, there is a child born, and there is an Imoogi, and they have a special tattoo, and once the girl becomes 20 years old, this good snake takes the child. The child is sacrificed to the snake. The snake becomes this beautiful dragon that protects Korea, I guess. This happens every 500 years. There is always a good snake and a bad snake. So 500 years pass. The girl who turns 20 is in Los Angeles. Jason Behr plays this character, Ethan, who is sent to protect this girl to make sure that she gets sacrificed to the good snake, the goodie Imoogi, who turns into the good dragon that protects the universe. What happens is the bad snake and the evil general all try to catch the girl so they can take her and make the bad snake turn into the bad dragon. Then they can take power over the universe. So now Jason is protecting her, and I'm Jason's best friend in the movie, and does this make sense? Does this sound like the movie?
AVC: Honestly, I just wanted to hear you say "Imoogi."
CR: Imoogi, Imoogi, Imoogi. So then the violence ensues, and the Imoogi chases the girl and Jason all over Los Angeles. They end up capturing her, and on her 20th birthday, they are ready to sacrifice her, but then the good Imoogi comes and saves the day. And yeah, there you go.
AVC: How did you become involved in stand-up?
CR: Comedy chose me. I always had this urge to be silly that I couldn't control. I remember my father having me read "The Three Little Pigs" to him, and I would improv all around the story, like when one pig's house got blown over, he put on his gym shoes and took off. My father is cracking up and telling me, "Hey, wait a minute. Read that part for your mama again." Ever since I can remember, I've always been silly. Then I got to the point in college where my people would always tell me things I was saying. They would come back and say, "Oh man, I was trying to remember that story you said," and repeat back to me my bits that I didn't realize I was doing. I was just being Craig. That led me into comedy. We had a talent show, and I saw a couple of my buddies. Up until then, I thought comedians—I didn't know any, I didn't see any, so they weren't real people to me. Once I saw a couple of my buddies do stand-up at a talent show, I realized it could be real. I became fascinated with it. That's all I wanted to do.
AVC: What's your stand-up act like?
CR: It's musical. It depends upon if I have my band with me or not. Usually it's me at a keyboard cracking jokes, being flirtatious, and telling some stories. I like to keep it organic. My main goal is to connect with the crowd. I leave room for improv. Whatever happens, happens. When I bring my band with me, it turns into the Craig Robinson comedy dance party.
AVC: It sounds a little jazz-like.
CR: Exactly. You have the basic act, and whatever happens in the room around that. You've got to leave some room for that.
AVC: What was it like appearing in the short film "Prop 8: The Musical"?
CR: That was crazy. It was like being in high school and getting ready for a play or for a concert. It was awesome. I worked with Jack Black, who was hosting the videogame awards on Spike TV. I just did that this past Sunday. "Prop 8" was a good opportunity to go in and work with all those people. Margaret Cho was awesome. I don't have anything bad to say. We had fun just learning the steps and the songs.
AVC: What is it about?
CR: It's about, obviously, Proposition 8. [The controversial California ballot proposition banning same-sex marriage. —ed.] It talks about how the people who were for Prop 8 came in to spread some hate so they could take away the rights of gays to marry. The musical starts out, the people who didn't even know Prop 8 was about to exist were just happy that they were able to get married and be gay and be gay and married. Then the Prop 8 people came in, and I played one of those people, and there was a Mormon priest and priestesses, I guess. I don't know. Then Jesus came in, who was Jack Black, and was like, "Well, the Bible says lots of things, if you want to go by the Bible." It was done by Marc Shaiman, who has done all these amazing musicals that won Oscars. After Jesus leaves, Neil Patrick Harris gets up and says, "Hey, gay marriage will save the economy." So it is a very funny and cute idea. Obviously, it is in support of getting Proposition 8 overturned.
AVC: What are your own feelings about Prop 8?
CR: I voted no. I would like to see it overturned. It is a form of discrimination.
AVC: Was Darryl originally conceived as a regular Office character?
CR: I think he originally was supposed to be on the sidelines. They created the character, so I don't know what their thoughts were. They definitely created the character for me. After about three years, they made me a regular.
AVC: How did you feel about Darryl breaking up with Kelly?
CR: I was like, "What's next for Darryl if he isn't dating Kelly?" I'm fine with it, though, because these writers always have something up their sleeves. I never know what the story is going to be until I'm at the table read. I'm always looking forward to what's next.
AVC: At the same time, having you date Kelly was a way to get more screen time.
CR: Like I said, I'm happy with what's going on over there. They always give me a chance to shine. I can get out there and score 40 points, or score five or 10, so I'm cool with it.
AVC: One of the best moments from this season was a long shot of your character walking to his car after Kelly dumped him. What kind of direction were you given on that scene?
CR: Randall Einhorn, the director, was like, "You walk out and you can smell the flowers. You can taste the air—it's so fresh." We shot it several different ways. One was the way you saw, and another was me busting out the door like a kid who just got out of school for the summer. My arms were up and I'm screaming. We kept with the subtlety, though, and I loved the way it played.
AVC: How much input do you have into the character?
CR: Once we are filming, we have some leeway to play around, but I just go with what the writers are going with, and play it out.
AVC: One of my favorite scenes is when Darryl is talking to Michael Scott about the fluffy fingers that all the gangs do. Is it difficult not to laugh when you are doing an incredibly ridiculous scene like that?
CR: Yes. You have to stop and start again every once in a while. That's the beauty of working with Steve Carell, because it makes you a better actor, especially in those scenes. You are like, "I'm just going to hold it. I'm just going to hold it." Sometimes you can make it through entire takes.
AVC: One of the running gags of The Office is Darryl teaching Michael Scott about black culture, which he's woefully ignorant about. Where do you think Michael Scott gets his ideas about black culture before he seeks out Darryl?
CR: I think he just watches television and movies and assumes everything from there.
AVC: Do you think Michael Scott looks up to Darryl like he's the cool kid he wants to impress?
CR: Oh, absolutely. Michael idolized Darryl in so many ways.
AVC: Do you think Darryl has some level of affection for him?
CR: Darryl treats Mike with kid gloves. He knows he doesn't mean harm, but it's like, "Yo, you go too far each and every time." He tries to keep the kid gloves on him, but at the same time, he has to exercise patience.
AVC: Looking over your filmography at the IMDB, you've played a lot of characters who don't have names, just job descriptions and numbers. Like Night At The Museum 2, where you play Tuskegee Airman 2.
CR: Tuskegee Airman, I play alongside Keith Powell from 30 Rock. He's Tuskegee Airman 1, and we have a funny/sarcastic dialogue that I can't really say too much about. We go back and forth, and they come back to us a couple of times. And we have a nice moment with the Tuskegee Airmen and Amelia Earhart. We get to meet, so it's really nice to have gotten that part.
AVC: In Fanboys, you play THX Security Guard #5.
CR: Yeah, we're protecting the Millennium Falcon and all of the Star Wars artifacts leading up to George Lucas's office or something like that. Me and Will Forte and Danny McBride—we're the guards, and Danny is the chief of us. And fanboys try to sneak in and we catch them.
AVC: You played Club Doorman in Knocked Up.
CR: That's my calling card.
AVC: It's surprising that the character doesn't have a name, because it's such a great role.
CR: Thank you. That was my… I get a lot of accolades from Knocked Up, and sometimes people quote me. Everybody will quote something different, and it's always like, "Wow. I didn't even think people heard that." So it's always fun to go over that and get a free beer because people love that role.
AVC: What line do people quote to you most often?
CR: "Old pregnant bitches running 'round the club." I wanted to get some T-shirts made with an old pregnant bitch with a circle and a line through it.
AVC: And how were you not able to make that happen?
CR: I don't know. Maybe I will. I wonder who would recognize it.
AVC: In Curb Your Enthusiasm, you played Attendant #1.
CR: Oh yeah. Working with Larry David was like a dream, because of all he's done in comedy. He's so intense. He's so focused. He's so to-the-letter about comedy, so it was cool to watch and learn from him. I had auditioned for Curb three times, and the third time was the charm. I finally got it and was able to work with the man. It was the season-five finale where Larry went to heaven, and I was the one who said, "He won't lend you his golf club, and you're giving him your kidney?"
AVC: Arrested Development, Studio Guard #1?
CR: Wow. I played opposite David Cross' character, and I forget the name of the girl who played Maeby. [Alia Shawkat.] I had so much fun doing that. There's this one part where David Cross and I were up for the same role. I'm going, "Oh yeah, I'm going up for that," despite being a security guard. That was the joke. There was a moment before the cameras rolled where I'm looking David up and down, real seductively but real slow, real creepy, and he said "I will pay you a hundred dollars if you do that during a real take." So we were just doing silly stuff between takes. That was a nice short-and-sweet deal, and it felt good to be part of a classic TV show.
AVC: Now that you've got some major supporting roles in big films under your belt, are you ready to leave unnamed characters behind?
CR: Oh, absolutely. All of that stuff is in the works and things look pretty bright. We've got some meetings and all these things going on. I think we are going to have some main characters in the future.
AVC: You were in Zack And Miri Do A Porno with Seth Rogen. You've both worked extensively with Judd Apatow, who is famous for encouraging improvisation, where Kevin Smith is known for discouraging ad-libbing. Did Smith allow improvisation on Zack?
CR: Definitely. This was supposed to be the first movie he did that on. He just told us to go for it, to do our thing. I wouldn't have guessed that he'd ever discouraged improvisation, but I guess he's just used to doing scenes down to the letter. He was very encouraging about doing improv at this particular time.
AVC: Were there any particular improvisations you were especially proud of?
CR: There were a couple of things. Tisha Campbell came out with both guns blazing. She was going off. She was totally off-book, so I just had to catch up with her and go with her toe-to-toe. Kevin's direction was that at first I was kind of stunned, but then I think, "Are you going to take that?" So I'm like, "Oh yeah, here we go." Then the titty auditions, that was all improv. Kevin just told us to start here, then end up somewhere else.
AVC: In your bio on the Office website, it says that you used to do Richard Nixon impersonations as a child. How did that begin?
CR: "I am not a crook." I would hold the air in my cheeks, in my jowls, and look down and put my eyebrows down and throw up peace signs. I must have seen him once, or I saw my father do it. That was the first impression I ever did, not that I do impressions now. I do a little Michael McDonald when I do my act. That's about it.