Jason Sudeikis knows he’s a bad influence.
At least that’s the case on the big screen, where the comedian revels in being a “motivator of bad behavior.”
“I get asked a lot to play characters that need a certain amount of salesmanship to put a high-concept comedy premise over the line — whether talking all my friends into having an orgy, or talking my buddy into taking a week off marriage, or talking friends into killing their bosses, or talking three strangers into smuggling marijuana across the border,” Sudeikis says.
“Some form of Harold Hill has reared its head. I don’t know what part of my personality is being taken advantage of there, but so far, so good.”
The performer, who was raised in Overland Park, has parlayed this ability into a star-making career.
First emerging as a cast member for eight seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” he’s now a legitimate Hollywood leading man — albeit a habitually snarky one.
“It can’t last forever,” he says of his go-to “motivator” character. “I’ve got to come up with something else, right?”
Eventually. But for now he is comfortable repeating himself by appearing in the sequel “Horrible Bosses 2,” which opens Tuesday evening.
The 2011 original grossed more than $117 million domestically on a $35 million budget. No surprise that Warner Bros. OK’d a follow-up to this tale of three mistreated workers (Sudeikis, Jason Bateman and Charlie Day) who decide to snuff one another’s employers.
It marks the first time Sudeikis had the opportunity to headline a sequel, and he wasn’t at all hesitant about doing it.
“Not with knowing how hard Charlie and Jason work and how funny I find them to be,” Sudeikis says. “We worked really hard to make this as good if not better than the first one. All three of us feel like we’ve done that. A lot of times all we can personally control is what we put on the movie screen.”
“He’s about as fast with the jokes as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says “Horrible Bosses 2” director Sean Anders, who also wrote Sudeikis’ previous comedy, “We’re the Millers.” “Lay out any dramatic situation for him and he can find and execute the funny right away.”
While Sudeikis’ bad influence is pervasive onscreen, he’s become noticeably more domestic in his personal life. The 38-year-old performer got engaged last year to charming actress Olivia Wilde (“Her,” “Rush”). The pair had their first child, Otis, in April. Both relationships have influenced how Sudeikis prioritizes his career.
“As if Olivia wasn’t enough to want me to be home, her plus a kid is even more of a home magnet,” he says. “Otis is only about seven months, so he’s not critical of my work yet — nor is he that enthusiastic.
“Now Liv and I find ourselves being even more discerning than we have been in the past in regard to where we want to spend our time, physically, emotionally and creatively.”
So who gets more film offers: Sudeikis or Wilde?
“It’s probably her,” he says. “People are much more interested watching her on camera — or in real life — than watching me. At my hottest, showbizwise, it’s a 50/50 split.”
Entertainment wasn’t always the focus of this Shawnee Mission West grad. Two decades ago he set out for Fort Scott Community College on a basketball scholarship. But on weekends he would commute 75 miles to Kansas City to attend classes at the improv theater ComedySportz.
Although his jump shot was solid, his grades weren’t, and two years later he was cut from the Fort Scott team. It provided the impetus to pursue improv more seriously around KC and Lawrence.
Then he took a gamble by moving to Chicago in 1997, where he successfully auditioned for the renowned Second City troupe. A subsequent stint with the Las Vegas company of Second City garnered interest from “SNL,” bolstered by the recommendation of his uncle, fellow SC and “Cheers” alumnus George Wendt.
Sudeikis says the best advice he learned about comedy was the same as in life: just listen.
“Del Close used to talk about having big ears — he was the improv guru I took classes with at ImprovOlympic (in Chicago). He would use music metaphors a lot, obviously because they use a lot of improvisation in jazz,” he said.
“When someone is about to go into their solo, you listen. It’s very similar to my point guard background where you want to be able to see the whole floor and dribble with your head up.”
In 2003, Sudeikis was hired by Lorne Michaels as a writer for “SNL,” where Sudeikis would often pepper sketches with Kansas (specifically KU) references. By 2005, his quick wit, good looks and onstage confidence earned him a promotion to cast member. Gradually, he became one of the show’s go-to performers.
“You’re creating and destroying on a regular basis,” he says of the notoriously demanding aspects of the late-night comedy series.
“You can’t get caught up in what’s working because you’re already onto the next one by the time you’re done. Sometimes it’s before it’s even done, depending on how heavy or light you are on the show or if your sketch got cut.”
He sensed it took a long time before audiences noticed him. But a supporting bit on a 2009 sketch firmly rooted him in the cultural zeitgeist.
“The one I hear nice things about often is me silently but enthusiastically dancing on ‘What Up With That.’ It’s great when I get pictures of people dressed up like me for Halloween or dressing up their kids like me,” he says of the curly haired character in a red tracksuit.
Sudeikis confesses he still watches the show every Saturday. Not surprisingly, he’d like to host an episode, just as fellow former castmates Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig have.
“The show means a lot to me, as do a lot of people who are still there,” he says. “I love sketch comedy. It’s my favorite medium of comedy. I believe in it tremendously — as nerdy as this sounds — as an art form.”
It’s harder to extract other examples of comedy that Sudeikis loves. He ponders quite a while before citing something he’s seen recently that made him laugh out loud.
“I’m very cautious with this if I’m going to give my stamp. I enjoyed watching that ‘Too Many Cooks’ thing,” he says of the “Adult Swim” viral video that lampoons ’80s sitcom credits.
“I’ve seen similar versions of that joke at ‘SNL,’ but that was really well-executed. In that same vein, the thing Adam Scott has done with ‘The Greatest Event in Television History’ — the ‘Bosom Buddies’ one he specifically did with Paul Rudd — it was just so fun and well done.”
Ultimately, Sudeikis says he hopes his comedic career veers into a name-brand zone a la Will Ferrell.
“I’d love to be at a place where if I’m involved with something; people already know their money is well-spent,” he says.
“If that includes producing things or moving into a directorial place, that would be something fun to aspire toward. I’m always inspired by friends of mine.
“Bateman just finished directing his second film; Charlie and his buddies more or less run ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ To have creative autonomy in that space would be a lovely goal to work toward.”
Something regularly in his creative control is the Big Slick Celebrity Weekend, a charity event launched by Sudeikis, Rudd and Rob Riggle to benefit the cancer center at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
The annual gathering in Kansas City began in 2010 as a poker tournament, with the KC actors bringing along high-profile buddies (Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Johnny Knoxville, etc.) to play with them. The event has raised nearly $2 million.
Sudeikis has a number of other projects in the works. He’s finished an indie romance opposite Rebecca Hall (“Iron Man 3”) called “Tumbledown” and a comedy opposite Alison Brie (“Mad Men”) titled “Sleeping With Other People.”
He’s also attached to take over the iconic Chevy Chase role in “Fletch Won,” a prequel revealing the intrepid reporter’s first case. He even wrote an episode of the eccentric TV series “Garfunkel and Oates.”
Sudeikis also spent the summer filming “Race” in Berlin. It’s a sports biopic about Olympic runner Jesse Owens, covering his life from 1934 to ’36. He portrays Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder.
“I’m flattered to be part of the retelling of that story. To be front and center and have the blessing of Jesse’s daughters, I’m really excited about that,” he says.
However, his schedule in Europe didn’t stop Sudeikis from returning home to attend several games during the Royals’ post-season run.
“Our hands were red from high-fiving,” he says.
He and Wilde turned up for Game 2 of the World Series (his first since attending Game 6 of the 1985 Royals-Cardinals matchup). He brought a trio of childhood friends from KC with him to Game 7.
“Three of my buddies — my best friend since kindergarten, my best friend since fourth grade and best friend since eighth grade — we all went to Game 4 (against Baltimore) when we clinched the pennant,” he said.
“We came in the ‘Goodfellas’ way through the kitchen, more or less, which was actually through the clubhouse. My favorite thing about it was I got a teacher to call in sick, an emergency room doctor to call in sick and my third buddy had just moved from part time to full time in marketing, and he asked off early on literally that first day.
“I felt like Ferris Bueller taking out three Cameron Fryes. What a good feeling!”
Sudeikis, ever the bad influence …
“Horrible Bosses 2” director Sean Anders recalls his favorite moment working with Jason Sudeikis:
“One of the funniest moments we shot is not in the movie. In the scene, Jason and Charlie (Day) are hiding in the bathroom of Jen’s (Aniston) dental office, trying to avoid detection. We rolled camera, and the guys just kept being more and more noisy, all the while acting like they were being sneaky.
“We did several takes and each ran over 10 minutes long. I was in tears laughing as the situation got more and more ridiculous.
“During the edit process, I fought and fought to keep some version of it in the movie, but it only worked if it went on and on and there was no defending that, funny as it was. It just interrupted the action for too long to stay in the movie. It still bums me out, but boy was it funny on that day. Hopefully, it’ll wind up on the DVD extras.”