Justin Kirk takes a joy ride

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2012 - 9:20 AM

The former Minnesotan shifts his acting career into high gear with a new network sitcom.

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BEVERLY HILLS - Most Los Angelenos consider driving to be a chore. Not Justin Kirk.

On his free mornings, the Minneapolis-trained actor leaves his 1,200-square-foot bachelor pad near the Hollywood sign, picks up a 20-ounce black coffee from the gas station and climbs into his Chevrolet Volt for an aimless 90-minute cruise.

"Welcome to paradise!" he said as he tooled past the ritzy Rodeo Drive shops while punching up various satellite-radio stations until landing on Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind."

"This is my favorite thing. It calms me."

Kirk's trips are about to get a lot less frequent. Before year's end, the 43-year-old actor will appear in four feature films, including "Mr. Morgan's Last Love," in which he plays Michael Caine's son; "Nobody Walks," co-written by red-hot "Girls" creator Lena Dunham; and "Vamps," an Amy Heckerling comedy that lets him slip into the role of a sex-addicted bloodsucker.

And then there's "Animal Practice," the new NBC sitcom in which he plays a cruel-to-be-kind veterinarian whose most sustainable relationship is with a monkey.

Like Gregory House, who hobbled off the air earlier this year, Dr. George Coleman spends his waking hours battling the clinic administration and slamming idiotic humans.

Did we mention there's a monkey?

NBC is so high on the show, it's premiering commercial-free on Sunday, right after the Olympics closing ceremony.

The role couldn't be more different from Andy Botwin, the hedonistic tag-along he plays on Showtime's "Weeds," which wraps up its eighth and final season this summer. That's just fine with Kirk.

"For the last two months of shooting 'Weeds,' I've been turning to the camera department a lot and saying, 'Well, there's another thing I won't be able to do on 'Animal Practice,'" said Kirk, flipping back his skinny green tie at an upscale eatery so it doesn't get stained by his chicken pot pie. "But the only reason to do this was to do something diametrically opposed to the last character. I wouldn't want to do another version of a fun-loving uncle type on a network show."

Kirk wrapped up the Showtime series last week and almost immediately reported to work on the NBC sitcom. Earlier this year, between shooting films and "Weeds," he squeezed in a two-month Broadway stint in the acclaimed play "Other Desert Cities."

He spends so little time at home, his refrigerator rarely contains anything more than hot-sauce packets.

"I'm concerned, but not surprised," said former Minneapolis filmmaker Wyatt McDill, who befriended Kirk in 1982 at Children's Theatre and directed him in the 2009 independent film "Four Boxes." "He's living proof that a grown man can sustain himself on restaurants."

Eating out has its advantages. The day before shooting the "Animal" pilot, Kirk was sitting at a restaurant when Clint Eastwood, who shared the screen with an orangutan in "Every Which Way But Loose," walked in.

"If there was ever a good omen, that was it," said Kirk, who proceeded to break into the first few lines of that film's theme song.

Kirk in wonderland

Born in Oregon, Kirk moved with his mother to Minneapolis at age 12 and almost immediately got hooked on local theater, appearing in productions of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Pippi Longstocking" at Children's Theatre. He still considers the Twin Cities his home away from home; just last week he rocked out to Soul Asylum when the Minnesota-based band made a stop at L.A.'s Troubadour nightclub and he gets downright misty-eyed when someone mentions Twin Cities radio station 89.3 the Current.

But when he turned 18, Kirk decided to take his chances in New York City. In just a few years, he found his way to prominent roles, appearing in Frank Gilroy's "Any Given Day" and earning an Obie award for "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (His cellphone ring is of "Compassion!" co-star John Benjamin Hickey singing a song about Kirk's character.)

But Kirk had less success on the small screen. When he was 25, he was fired from a guest spot on "Touched by an Angel" and a WB sitcom, "Jack & Jill," went down the hill after two seasons.

Still, Kirk earned enough from that show to buy his Hollywood home and things were looking up after he was cast in Mike Nichols' HBO version of "Angels in America," opposite his future "Weeds" co-star, Mary-Louise Parker.

That's when Kirk finally felt comfortable being in front of a camera rather than an audience. "With all those crew guys around, it can be a pretty foreign atmosphere," he said. "It took me a while to learn how to live there."

'He changed the show'

But even if Kirk was ready to be a TV star, the industry wasn't ready for him. After his Emmy-nominated turn in "Angels," he couldn't find work for more than a year.

Then came "Weeds."

The show's creator, Jenji Kohan, said she was struggling to fill the role until Kirk walked in on the last day of auditions.

"You write things on the page and you hear it in your head and what he did wasn't in my head at all," Kohan said. "But I loved this guy he presented. He changed the show."

Parker practically coos when Kirk's name comes up.

"I think he's a completely underrated actor," she said. "I think he belies his own talent in a way because he works so hard, but makes it look so easy."

Kirk has always prided himself on taking an almost "Zen-like approach" to his work, focusing solely on his role and not being distracted by anything else. But that will have to change. This is, after all, his show. Well, his and a monkey's.

"I used to watch Mary-Louise having to look after something between takes and thinking, 'Thank goodness I don't have to worry about that,'" he said. "But now, it's sort of on your shoulders a little bit."

Does Parker have any advice for Kirk as he prepares to become a prime-time star?

The actress' voice melted into a babyish whine: "Tell him to come back to me."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin

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