Josh Peck is glad to be back amid the noise, crowds and cabs. He’s a New Yorker, born and bred, raised by his mom in Hell’s Kitchen. But at 14, he moved to Los Angeles when he was cast in Nickelodeon’s “The Amanda Show.” He soon got his own series - the zany, volume-pumped “Drake & Josh,” with Drake Bell.
After several seasons, D&J parted. Peck, 21, now has several films due out in coming months. But it’s “The Wackness,” a dark, coming-of-age tale, that’s destined to give Peck some “serious actor” street cred. Young writer-director Jonathan Levine cast Peck as Luke Shapiro, a lost, friendless pot dealer who sees a therapist (Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley) in exchange for marijuana. Things get dicey when Luke falls for the shrink’s stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby).
The quirky doctor-patient friendship, budding like Luke’s ganja, is set against the backdrop of New York circa 1994, the start of the Giuliani era. Not that long ago, yet it feels like some freaky time capsule, packed with artifacts like mixtapes, O.J. headlines, Zima - plus a “dope” soundtrack of classic rap.
Peck recently sat down with Joseph V. Amodio at Manhattan’s Regency Hotel.
Q. “The Wackness” is a far cry from “Drake & Josh.” You must’ve been psyched to be cast.
A. I was going to the bank that morning and it was an odd day because ... I just don’t go to the bank. (He chuckles.) My mom gives me cash, and I spend it. So my manager calls, saying, “You booked ‘Wackness,’ man.” I freaked out for 10 seconds. Then I realized I would have to be buck naked in the movie and all my neuroses flooded back to full effect.
Q. Guess a love scene can be pretty nerve-racking.
A. I was afraid that when the robe fell so would the heavens.
Q. You’ve actually lost a lot of weight in recent years, haven’t you?
A. About 100 pounds, over two years. I stay healthy. I play on a basketball team - I’m awful, but damn it, I play with a lot of heart.
Q. Are you a Knicks fan?
A. They’re a tough team to love, but I . I hope they acquire LeBron in a couple a years. I think they’re really gonna turn it around this year.
Q. Your mother was a single mom. Did your parents divorce when you were young?
A. I never met my dad. Yeah ... that’s how that goes.
Q. And you grew up an only child?
Q. So did I.
A. Oh, represent! But I have a big brother from the Jewish Big Brothers Foundation. He’s a big part of my life, and I call him my brother. I love him to death.
Q. Luke starts with a bleak outlook. Why do you suppose so many teens feel that way, and so many parents seem clueless, saying, “But these are the best years of your life?”
A. Everything is overblown at that age, but in a roundabout way ... it is the best time of your life. Pain reminds you you’re alive. With Luke, it’s like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” He doesn’t want to be one of the masses. But what’s better - to be a sheep or be aware that there’s a greater existence? A lotta people get older and cease exploring that.
Q. Any college plans?
A. Maybe one day. I’m not that academic.
Q. Well you can pull out an Aldous Huxley reference with the best of ‘em.
A. Thanks. (He laughs.) I read pretty voraciously. I’m sort of a book nerd. I love drug memoirs, like Hunter S. Thompson’s books. “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” should be required reading for anyone. And I want to learn French, so I can be in a French-speaking movie. It’s so sexy. And I’m kinda in love with (French actress) Eva Green, the new Bond girl. She’s quite lovely.
Q. Was it nice to be back, shooting in New York?
A. It’s great. We shot (“The Wackness”) in all five boroughs.
Q. And on Fire Island.
A. I’d never been there. We shot scenes on the ferry and got to eat at one of those fabulous, seafood, down-home restaurants. It was pretty close to the end of the day, we were drinking beers and knew we were in the home stretch.
Q. What was Ben Kingsley like?
A. He’s a “sir” and he laughs at a good fart joke. He gave me advice on how to conduct myself and treat people on the set. Things to value when you’re blessed with a little success.
Q. Guess you’ve been blessed.
A. I’m real lucky. Actually, I had a pretty cool moment recently, playing in a celebrity charity basketball game. Magic Johnson was our coach. I’m tall as actors go, so I played power forward. (He quickly sits up.) I’m grabbin’ the rock off the boards but pretty much I get iced outta every (expletive) game ‘cause I’m not a shooter, y’know? So one time I get the ball, throw it up - it doesn’t go in. I’m sitting on the bench and Magic says, “Yo, next time - (his voice intense) shoot the ball.” So I get the ball, put it up, it goes in - God comes down and She puts the ball through the hoop for me. Magic comes on the court and gives me a high-five, and I think - this is a moment in my life that’s pretty unreal. (He sits back on the sofa and smiles.) That was pretty cool.