Robbie Amell’s career is on fire these days. The hot young Canadian actor who plays Ronnie Raymond/Firestorm in the CW’s The Flash ignites the screen in Ari Sandel’s hilarious new comedy, The DUFF. Amell turns what could have been a very stereotypical character – a charming high school jock – into a thoughtful young man with a big heart behind the slick façade. When high school senior Bianca (Mae Whitman) discovers her reputation is a four-letter word, she enlists Wesley’s (Amell) help with an image makeover that turns the school’s social pecking order on its head. Bella Thorne, Ken Jeong and Allison Janney co-star.
In this exclusive interview, Amell discussed the genesis of the project, the appeal of the story and his character, his preparation, his chemistry with Whitman, their most fun scene together, working with a young director who was open to improvising, being photobombed at an Atlanta Braves game, what it means to be a DUFF, his Parkour training, his new film Max, how upcoming episodes of The Flash will feature Firestorm’s origin story, further complications in the relationship between Ronnie Raymond and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), and what Victor Garber’s character, Dr. Martin Stein, has to do with the nuclear-powered superhero.
ROBBIE AMELL: I had a meeting here at CBS with Mark Ross (VP, Production) and I had read the script. I didn’t want to bring it up. He brought it up, which was great. He thought I would be right. I was honest with him. I said that I thought it was a very special script and story and had the potential to be one of those ageless teen comedies that could live on for a long time. I just wanted to know if they were open to improv. He said they had a good, young director, Ari Sandel, and they wanted to make it very natural and feel real. And he came through. I screen tested with Mae (Whitman) who is so unbelievable and so funny. And they were right. We got to improvise a ton in the movie. It wasn’t uncommon for us to do 8, 9 or 10 takes. Ari would be just like, “Alright, let’s try something else. Do something else. That works. That doesn’t. Try this. Got anything else? Want to do another one?” It was good.
What was it about the story and your character that really resonated with you and made you want to do this?
AMELL: When I first started reading the script, I was a little skeptical because at first the character was very stereotypical, but there’s a lot of me in him as far as what he grows into. There’s a great journey that goes on and I learned so much from Mae’s character, Bianca. He really grows into this nice young man who’s got a big heart and I think he always had it. He just didn’t really think before he spoke and would say some dumb stuff, to be honest with you. They brought out the best in each other.
What kind of preparation did it take to get into this role?
AMELL: Not too much. The biggest thing for me was I wanted to spend time with Mae. I was hoping there would be chemistry between us. We get along great. We’ve become good friends and I think it shows on screen. One of the most important parts was the chemistry between the two of us. Otherwise, nobody was going to buy it. Other than that, I thought the character had a bit of a Channing Tatum thing. Channing’s very good at doing the “a little dim but very charming and very funny” – not him personally, but his characters like in 21 Jump Street. So, I just wanted to do a little bit of me, a little bit of Channing. At the beginning, with the rude stuff I have to say, I just tried to say it without thinking so that people wouldn’t think he was a bad guy.
AMELL: Yeah, you never know. I mean, you hope that you’ll get along. The great thing is Mae is so funny and so witty and just so much fun to be around. We hung out right off the bat and we just hit it off. We just had a lot of fun. One of the reasons the movie turned out so great in my opinion is that you can tell we’re having a good time when we shot it, which is not always the case when you’re spending 12 to 15 hours together.
What was the most fun or craziest scene to shoot and why?
AMELL: Mae and I were just talking about it. The most fun was the scene called Think Rock. We were in this beautiful forest and it was lightly raining on and off, so we had to run in or out of our little tent because we couldn’t be wet. They gave us free rein on the lines, and it was a very important scene for the two of us character-wise. I think it just came together nicely. There’s a lot of improv in it. They kept in a line where Mae actually made me laugh and that’s the take that they used. For me, it feels like the turning point for both characters.
How was it working with Ari? What was the directing process like?
AMELL: Ari was great. The scary thing about the improv is you need to really trust your director because he’s also going to be editing with the editor. When you’re improvising, it’s tough to link which takes are going to be used with other takes. The nice thing was he was on the same page. He wanted the movie to feel very real. He was always honest with us if a joke wasn’t working. Right off the bat, we said, “There’s no hard feelings here. If a joke’s not working, just say it. And if you want us to try something else, just say it.” So there were no egos involved. We just had fun. He was great. It was nice. We needed a young director so that the movie could feel young and hip. I think he pulled through really well.
AMELL: Atlanta was great. I had never been. I played a lot of golf any day I had off that wasn’t a weekend. So, if I had a half day or a day off during the week and the rest of the cast was shooting, I would go play golf. Nick (Eversman) and I played a couple games. But other than that, the cast, we all hung out. I mean, we would do dinners. There was a great karaoke place we went to one night. We went to see an Atlanta Braves game. There’s a funny story. At the Braves game, we took a group picture and in the background there’s a guy picking his nose. He’s wrist-deep in his nose. We don’t know if he was in on the joke. It’s either the best photo bomb in history, like the funniest bad joke I’ve ever seen, or he has no idea and he just got caught picking his nose. I think Skyler (Samuels) and Bella (Thorne) may have Instagramed the picture, but it’s a really funny picture. After the picture, when we noticed it, we were all still at the game, and we kept looking at him to see if he would look back. If it was a joke, he played it off super cool because he never even glanced back.
Have you ever had a personal DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) moment where you either realized you were somebody’s DUFF or you helped somebody else who was?
AMELL: No. The DUFF can be hurtful if you’re using it in a real way, but if you’re just goofing around with friends, I think it’s just a fun little term. In the real world, I don’t really think there are DUFFS. Either everybody’s a DUFF or nobody’s a DUFF at all, because you could argue that anybody… that Tom Brady is somebody’s DUFF. Everybody’s a DUFF. So, in that case, is there really such a thing as one? It’s a fun little term.
AMELL: It was great. I wrapped shooting on a Wednesday on The DUFF and I missed my flight. So they put me in a car and drove me from Atlanta to North Carolina overnight. I arrived. I slept for two hours. I hopped into hair and makeup and they shaved my head. Then, they threw me into my military fatigues and into boot camp with ten Marines. The haircut was nice. That was the easiest way to transition from character to character. I play a Marine named Kyle. I’m over in Afghanistan and I have an IED sniffing dog. We’re out and we find a huge weapons cache, the biggest in our platoon’s history. The next day we’re out and the dog gets hit by an IED. I go to save him and I get killed in the process. So, a lot of the movie is about my body and my dog being sent back to the United States and my family grieving my death and looking after this dog. It’s loosely based on a true story. These dogs come back and they have PTSD, and a lot of them have to be put down. Some of them can find homes, but Max is going to be put down. My mom and brother go to stop it. The only person the dog doesn’t freak out around is my brother. So, my brother starts to look after the dog, and it’s him learning who I was and getting a better relationship with me after I’m gone. It’s a pretty special movie. Working with Boaz was amazing. I just shot some promos and additional work for that. The dogs are so unbelievable. They had five or six dogs. Most of the work was one dog. They built this fake Afghanistan village. It was so hot that they had to swap the dogs out occasionally. It’s amazing what these dogs are trained to do. They’re really unbelievable.
What’s it been like being part of The Flash?
AMELL: Oh, it’s great. I had a show on the CW called The Tomorrow People which was so much fun to shoot. It’s the same executive producer, Greg Berlanti, who offered me the role of Firestorm. Of course, I said yes because I get to play a superhero. I found out while I was shooting Max. I wrapped Max, went to Toronto to see family, and then flew to Vancouver. It was great. About 80 percent of the crew was from The Tomorrow People so it was like going back for a second season. They’ve given me such cool stuff to do with the fire on my hands and shooting stuff out of my hands and flying. It’s just every kid’s dream. And I get to work with Victor Garber. That’s as cool as it gets.
The show has quickly become a fan favorite which is very rare for a season 1 show. When did you first realize the show was so popular?
AMELL: My cousin (Stephen Amell) is Arrow so I’ve seen the unbelievable ride he’s gone on and the amount of fan base that they’ve built. When they did The Flash crossover episode — not this season on The Flash and Arrow – it kind of acted as the first episode of The Flash or the first time that they introduced Flash. You could see that there was going to be something really special there. Grant (Gustin) is so great and the cast they put together is so unbelievable. And The Flash is just such an iconic character. I feel like they’ve really done it right. The visual effects are incredible. They’re pulling all the stops on this. I’m really excited for all of them. It kind of is what I expected it to be. I expected it to be this big. I would have been a lot more surprised if it wasn’t this big.
AMELL: Well, you’ll see in February, I’ve got a couple episodes coming up. You’re going to see my character and you’re going to be introduced to Victor Garber’s character, the other half of Firestorm. Things are not going to be easy. The last time you saw me, I flew away and told Danielle’s (Panabaker) character not to look for me again, and obviously she does if I come back. The relationship there is really difficult. You’ve got two minds inside one body fighting for control. So, it’s going to be dangerous. There are going to be repercussions. But there’s some really cool stuff coming up. It’s tough. I can’t tell you too much. (Laughs)
What were your thoughts on The Flash and Arrow crossover episodes?
AMELL: They were actually the two best episodes of both shows that I have ever seen. I thought that it was the best episode of Flash and the best episode of Arrow. I just thought they were so great. Flash added a little bit of comedy to Arrow, and Arrow added a little darker grittiness to Flash. I thought they worked unbelievably well together. I know how hard the cast worked for those episodes because they’re already shooting such incredible hours on each show individually. To go and wrap one show and go shoot the crossover with the other, it was well deserved.
What have the producers told you about future episodes and where your story arc is going?
AMELL: (Laughs) I can’t tell you any of that, but there is some very cool stuff coming up. The next two episodes I’m in, the first one is almost like the origin story of Firestorm. You’ve seen the accident that created it, but this shows you what’s been going on in the time leading up to that and currently inside Ronnie’s head, and hopefully they can figure out what to do about it.
Is it possible there could be a DC spinoff for Firestorm?
AMELL: I don’t know. I mean, they always talk about it. But the tough thing is they’ve already got The Flash. They’ve got Arrow. They’re doing a Super Girl show on CBS. All the people involved are very busy. Who knows?
You practice Parkour. What is that training like and how did you get into it?
AMELL: Well actually I got into that because my cousin did. There’s a place called Tempest in L.A. It’s unbelievable. It’s a jungle gym for adults. It’s gymnasium floors. It’s walls that you can hang from. It’s really designed for that. If you YouTube Tempest, there’s an unbelievable video showing you the whole place. Stephen got into it because of Arrow, and I was like, “This just looks so cool. I’m going to dive into this.” It’s a pretty badass place. It’s unbelievable training for your body, but also stuff that you always wanted to do and didn’t think you could. That’s the place to learn because there are mats everywhere. There are foam pits. It’s really just a jungle gym for adults so you don’t hurt yourself.
When you’re not acting, I understand one of your passions is being a part of a non-profit charity that helps children with HIV and AIDS. Can you talk a little about that?
AMELL: I helped out with a charity called One Heartland. I used to be good friends with the head of the charity, and I would go to the Mall of America every year and do a dance marathon with them. They’d do a 24-hour dance marathon and then I’d go up and visit. There’s a camp in Malibu and also one in Minnesota and a few others. It’s a great charity where they send kids and siblings and cousins affected by HIV and AIDS to a week of all expenses paid camp. They cover all medical bills. They cover everything so that these kids can just be kids. They have to deal with so much on a daily basis from bullying to just having to take their medicine every single day to having to worry about things that kids shouldn’t have to worry about. So it’s this beautiful place. Every kid you talk to they’re like, “This is the best week of the year for me. It’s the best week of my life.” So, I got to do some stuff with them. To be honest, I haven’t done anything in the last little while because my friendly connection there isn’t there anymore, but it is a really special charity. It’s called One Heartland now, but it used to be called Camp Heartland. It’s really amazing to be put in a position where I can do these little things. To me, they’re so simple and easy. It’s very rewarding. My fiancée, Italia Ricci, is on a show called Chasing Life, and it’s been amazing to watch her journey. She’s now an ambassador for three different cancer charities. We go to the Third Thursday at Children’s Hospital L.A. and just get to spend time with these kids who face more in a day than I have in my entire life.
The DUFF opens in theaters on February 20th.