LOS ANGELES - Minnesota native Joey Pollari was speed-talking in a hotel lounge about his new sitcom "The Inbetweeners" when a group of actors dressed as Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles strolled past his table.
To our knowledge, Pollari has never been a pizza-loving, crime-fighting amphibian, but at least he has a sense of what it's like to be a teenage mutant.
While his classmates at Mounds View High School went to parties and played sports, Pollari trod the boards at the Guthrie, the Ordway and SteppingStone theaters. During his sophomore year, he flew to New Zealand to shoot the Disney movie "Skyrunners."
Now, at 18, Pollari has rented a Hollywood apartment, living alone without roommates or the mother who raised him.
"The day my mom left to go back to Minnesota was a tough one. A tear or two might have been shed," said Pollari, who made the move this past January. "All my friends said that whatever I did, I shouldn't listen to Stevie Nicks' 'Landslide.'"
It's possible that whatever loneliness Pollari felt was utilized for his latest role in "The Inbetweeners," an MTV production based on a popular BBC series. His character, Will, is a new kid at school, forced into a clique of sex-obsessed losers experimenting with dating, drinking and social networking. It's "Happy Days" without a Fonzie in sight.
Pollari, formerly cast in hunkish roles, gets a chance to get his geek on. In the first episode, he's caught with his pants down -- literally -- when a group of bullies photograph him in a bathroom stall. In a future escapade, Pollari was required to wear nothing but a pair of underpants in front of a gaggle of people.
"I was very terrified leading up to the scene, but when it finally happened, it was the most liberating thing," said Pollari, who peppers his conversations with words like "magical" and "amazing." "Using my body for a real moment was very rewarding."
It's the kind of moment that may force a mother to hide her eyes, but Andrea Pollari is unfazed by such antics, so much so that when her son told her that he was leaving high school early and skipping college, she resisted having a minor heart attack.
"We really had a hearty conversation about it," said Andrea Pollari, a Vadnais Heights-based executive recruiter and coach. "He sat me down and said, 'I know a college degree is important, but if I go after it right now, I'm going to be giving up something. This opportunity might not always be available.' I was probably more supportive than others might be because I can see how passionate he's been."
It was Andrea who took a 6-year-old Pollari to a scouting event at the Mall of America where casting agents expressed interest, and it was Andrea who made sure that the money he made from a string of print commercials got tucked into a savings account for his adult years.
Pollari leaned on that money when he began to spend time in Los Angeles three years ago. After the 2009 Disney movie failed to get much attention, interest in Pollari seemed to wane. But he insists that the years of rejection were leading to something better.
"You go into those auditions and you start making fans of casting directors," he said. "Every no leads to a yes."
The most important "yes" came after four auditions for "Inbetweeners," capped by a four-hour session in which Pollari tested with dozens of others.
David Janollari, MTV's head of programming, said putting this cast together required one of the longest, hardest searches he's ever done.
"It was not only about finding the actors that would embody the individual characters. It was also about coming up with a chemistry that was believable between these four friends," he said.
Pollari and his castmates have already shot the entire 12-episode season. While he waits to hear if the show gets picked up, Pollari is on the search for more work -- and more recipes. Thanks to some urging from Mom, he's become a master cook. His recent endeavors include a berry soup and vermicelli pie. He's also become a whiz with his new panini maker.
Despite the exposure that will come from starring on an MTV series, Pollari remains a realist. He's still likely to spend more time in the kitchen than on a set.
"I thought finding furniture would be fun, but it turns out my taste is way bigger than my budget," he said. "I'm hoping that one day I can replace my Ikea bookcase with something a little fancier."
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