While he grew up in the Deep South and speaks with an unmistakable drawl, actor Michael Abbott, Jr. has never taken a role in a Southern comedy pretty much on principle. “I have read a loy of Southern comedy scripts that all turn into cartoons,” he laments. “I never read one that wasn’t full of caricatures.”
But that changed with Elbow Grease, a Jason Shirley film that premiered Monday night at the Sarasota Film Festival. Abbott plus the role of Randy, the main character’s next door neighbor and bringer of laughs, and for the first time, Abbott feels a connection with a character that has a backstory worth exploring set below the Mason-Dixon line. “Every character in this movie has a story to tell. Every character has an arc,” he says.
If the authentic script wasn’t enough to get Abbott hooked, hearing acting legend Burt Reynolds would co-star did the trick. While Reynolds couldn’t make the premiere, the film clearly gains marketability from his attachment to the project, something emphasized when an original Smokey and the Bandit Pontiac Firebird was parked outside the Regal Hollywood 20 on Monday.
Abbott, who biggest film role so far was as the character of James in the Matthew McConaughey-led cast of Mud, so badly wanted to land this role he ended up breaking his hand in the middle of his audition, but finished his scene anyway. Producers acknowledge another actor was in the running but the casting was done after Abbott showed such commitment.
The film was shot entirely in South Carolina, and Abbott’s contributions earned special mention from the Sarasota Film Festival. “A hilarious scene of Randy in a full-sized wrestling ring in a maycj with his high school football coach is worth the price of admission alone,” programmers wrote in the official festival guide.
SFF officials have billed this as a “Southern-fried Napoleon Dynamite,” an apt description in Abbott’s opinion. So is this the start of a Southern comedy career? “I’ll say this. I’m a little timid about anyone writing for the South who isn’t from the South,” he said.
Elbow Grease plays again today at 2:15pm at the Regal Hollywood 20.