Joey Lawrence arrives at a Manhattan lunch wearing a pair of movie-star glasses and a fitted V-neck T-shirt. He’s in town today to promote Melissa & Joey, his ABC Family sitcom that just entered its second season as a surprise cable hit. It’s essentially a retelling of Who’s the Boss?, with Lawrence as the “manny,” opposite Melissa Joan Hart and her TV niece and nephew.
“They allowed us to be fairly racy for what you think ABC Family would let us do,” Lawrence says, in earshot of a jittery ABC Family publicist. “We had a lesbian wedding. We talk about my nuts and her”—he grasps for the right word—“female anatomy all the time, her boobs!” There are numerous scenes that conveniently feature Lawrence flexing his sculpted torso. “I got a mail-order bride this year from Russia who I ship in. We have a threesome episode. You get away with this crazy stuff.”
The craziest is yet to come. This week the former Blossom hunk is taking a break from his TV career to headline in Las Vegas. He’ll be singing, dancing—and stripping—as the newest member of the Chippendales show at the Rio Hotel. When news about the gig leaked, every online outlet from The Wall Street Journal to Fleshbot let out a collective Whoa!
Lawrence admits that he was surprised by all the attention. He says he was approached by Chippendales 50 times before he finally gave in and agreed to do it. “It’s going to be a really fucking crazy, out-of-body experience,” Lawrence says. “But it’ll be fun. I figured, what the hell? Life is short. Nothing is wrong anymore. You’ve just got to have fun, man. It’s about having fun, at times. I haven’t had a lot of fun, so I’m excited to go have some fun.”
Lawrence’s limited, three-week run as the emcee of the male dancing group will include some skin, of course. He’s planning a number during which he’ll rip off his tank top and jiggle his bare chest. He will also serenade a member of the audience with a Frank Sinatra ballad, shimmy with the other male dancers, and pose for photographs with the female (and some male) members of the audience. But when asked whether he will wear a G-string, Lawrence says, “No! No! No!”
A spokesperson for Chippendales confirms that although some of the performers bare their bottoms, Lawrence will not be showing his. He’ll be fully covered in jeans. “I’m not like the big steroid dudes that are up there on stage,” Lawrence says of his future costars. “Those guys make me look like—umm …” He thinks about it. “I’m like the fit guy. I’m not the bodybuilder guy. I never wanted to be that.”
“We are really excited to have Joey coming in,” says Kristen Makhathini, the general manager of Chippendales in Las Vegas. “He’s amazingly talented.” In one part of the act, she says, Lawrence will be playing a game in which he’ll ask a few women in the audience to perform certain tasks. “It’s hysterically funny,” she says. “The first girl has to do a lap dance. The second girl has to show her favorite sexual position. The third has to show the most creative way she can put a condom on a banana.”
Last year, Chippendales enlisted Jeff Timmons, a former member of the band 98 Degrees, to join its act and he quickly became one of Vegas’s success stories. The 360-seat Chippendales arena sold out, with more young women than the show’s typical demographic. That run was extended twice, and Timmons moved his family to the city (he’ll be starting a new musical show, with his clothes on, called Wired, this summer).
“I’ve got to move on and do other things,” Timmons says. “I can’t be in the Chippendales for the rest of my life. But I loved the gig. It was the most fun I’ve had in my career.”
It’s easy to see why Chippendales wants Joey, but it’s a little puzzling why Lawrence would make such a career U-turn. It becomes even odder when Lawrence tells me that he doesn’t even watch himself on TV anymore, since he’s been doing it for so long. For much of our conversation, the one topic that trumps all others is this: Joey Lawrence really wants to be a movie star.
“Film is my goal,” he says with earnestness. (Lawrence was discovered on The Tonight Show at the age of 5, when he tap-danced and sang for Johnny Carson, then he was cast in the Nell Carter sitcom Gimme a Break!) “When I was on a series growing up, I had a lot of opportunity to do movies that I couldn’t do—big movies. At 35, I think, my heroes that I grew up watching, they didn’t even start until they were 35, like Harrison Ford.”
Lawrence is actually 36. He uses that to fuel his argument. “You’re right, I’m 36. But 35, is where it begins. I just turned 36.” He points to the careers of Jeremy Renner and Daniel Craig, two Hollywood actors that found superstardom later.
“Look, man, it’s about finding the right little part. No ego, I’m a virgin in that part of the industry. I’ve got to pay my dues all over again, which I have no problem doing. You make a name for yourself by kicking ass on a couple of scenes here and there. You impress and do other stuff. We’re working on some stuff.”
This week, Lawrence films a guest stint on Californication as a former teen idol turned movie star turned drug addict.
“It’s about meetings,” Lawrence says. “You tell people how passionate you are about things, and when you get an opportunity, you got to win it. A lot of times, they cherry-pick from the select few at the top, but if you hang around long enough, you’ll work your way in the supporting parts, and if you prove yourself, you open doors for yourself.”
While many celebrities loathe the physical act of going to the movies, Lawrence much prefers that to renting them on DVD. He often attends with his wife or two daughters. When Lawrence was still a teenager, he used to tell reporters that he wanted a career like Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson. Now he says that in the next five years, he wants to play a role like one of his favorite film heroes of all time, Bruce Willis, did in Die Hard.
“He was self-deprecating, he could be funny, he was flawed. He was not Van Damme, because God knows, I don’t want to be that!” Even at 36, Lawrence works with an acting coach, because he wants to keep getting better. “I’m the best actor I’ve ever been now,” he says. “I don’t know how good that is on a scale from Marlon Brando to Screech, how good of an actor I am. But I think actors are like athletes, although physically we might deteriorate as we get older, skillwise we should be the best by the end of our careers.”
He goes on: “Robert Downey Jr. is incredible. I love him … Brad Pitt is the best actor he’s been. George Clooney is the best actor he’s been. He’s a much better actor now than when he was on ER. You can see by his performance in movies like The Descendants versus The Peacemaker and Batman & Robin.” He throws in a Kobe Bryant analogy, and by now, it’s feels as like Joey is gearing up to tackle Macbeth, or at least compete in the NBA finals.
It’s as if the Vegas gig isn’t even on the horizon anymore. “I’m a student,” Lawrence says. “That’s what I do. You got to watch everybody’s tape, and I’ve been acting my whole life.”