LOS ANGELES, Calif. — A couple of years ago, British comedian Russell Brand was an American unknown who hoped to gain fans stateside by hosting the MTV Video Music Awards.
Now, he’s become the kind of A-list leading man who opens big-studio movies on back-to-back weekends.
Brand plays the animated heir to the Easter Bunny’s throne in the family film “Hop,” opening Friday. A week later, he takes on the title role in “Arthur,” a reimagining of the 1981 Dudley Moore classic. Plus he’s writing and producing — and possibly directing — two more studio-backed comedies.
“Ultimately, that’s what I’ll do more and more: Whatever people will let me get away with,” says Brand, wearing slim-fitting black trousers that match his shoulder-length curls. “I’ll do the catering, if they’ll let me, and make good vegetarian fare for all.” (The 35-year-old has been a vegetarian for 20 years.)
Brand’s success began in his native England, where he built a faithful following for his irreverent comedic style through stand-up appearances, TV and radio hosting gigs, a bestselling memoir and a regular soccer column in the national newspaper, The Guardian.
He maintained that irreverence when he came to the United States, referring to President George W. Bush during the MTV awards as “that retarded cowboy fellow.”
Brand channels the same sense of subversive mischief into his two latest film roles. In “Hop,” he plays E.B., an animated rabbit set to inherit Easter duties from his dad, though E.B. would rather be a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. He takes off from his home on Easter Island through a magic rabbit hole and lands in Los Angeles, where he befriends slacker Fred O’Hare (James Marsden) and sets them both on an unexpected course.
In “Arthur,” Brand plays the lovable but irresponsible billionaire who whiles away his days drinking and playing with his expensive toys (including a Batmobile) as his nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren), looks after him. Arthur’s all-play, no-work lifestyle is threatened when his mother gives him an ultimatum: Marry the corporate executive she’s chosen for him or lose his inheritance.
The two characters have something in common, Brand says.
“They’re wayward, mischievous spirits that have to grow up,” he says. “Both characters have got to fulfill duties placed on them by their parents and both characters want to pursue love, either their love of drumming in the case of the animated rabbit or their love of a woman in the case of Arthur.”
Both roles also required a sweetness and sensitivity from Brand that filmmakers say he hasn’t always shown on screen.
“Arthur” director Jason Winer says Brand is “the one actor on this planet who could reinvent this character for a new generation.” Not only does he have the charm and comedic chops to pull off the part, but “he is someone who has done a lot of soul searching and has actually grounded himself quite a bit,” Winer says.
“I suddenly felt excited by the idea of giving him a role on the big screen where he got a chance to show people that he has layers as an actor and that he has that sensitivity, because I don’t think either through his stand-up or his two American movies people have seen that side of him,” he says.
“Hop” producer Chris Meledandri, who directed Brand in “Despicable Me,” says the actor’s sweetness informed not only the character of E.B., but the broader personality of the picture.
“Russell is one of those actors who brings more than his vocal instrument. He also brings his creativity,” says Meledandri. “To be able to combine sort of the rambunctious side of him with the sweet side of him, it really began to set a tone for the film.”
Brand says each role presented its own challenges.
He created his cuddly bunny character (he asked producers to “make him a bit more sexy or give him a jazzy hairdo,” but they declined) in a sound studio: “There’s no one to work with, but that can sometimes be a laugh because you’ve got a lot of freedom and it hasn’t been animated yet.”
On “Arthur,” he steps into the role of one of his comedic idols.
“I’m a massive Dudley Moore fan. I really love him,” Brand says. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Arthur,’ so it was an incredible honor and very, very exciting because it was the film that made Dudley Moore a movie star.”
Brand, though, is already there. With two films about to open, he’s already developing two more. One is “about an English footballer stranded in Texas having to teach at a Texan high school where no one cares about soccer,” and the other, set to be produced by Adam Sandler, about a con-man who poses as a priest.
“They’re both comedy vehicles and I really want to direct them because I think it’s a good way, as a comedian, to showcase what you do,” Brand says.
He’s been buoyed professionally by changes in his personal life, he says. He wed pop star Katy Perry last year, and that changed everything.
“It’s given me much more strength in what I do,” he says. “For a long while, what I do professionally was all that mattered to me really. Now I think, well, whatever I do, I’ll just go back to her, and that’s incredibly comforting.”
Brand says he’d consider doing some kind of entertainment project with his wife “in a few years’ time, possibly,” and also hopes to write a third book someday.
“Have some children, make some more films, do some more stuff, then I think I’ll write about all of that,” he says.
For now, though, he’ll continue to pursue trans-Atlantic success in film.
“America is good to its comedians,” Brand says, adding he admires the careers of Woody Allen and Steve Martin.
After all, Brand sees himself more as a comedian than an actor. While making 2010′s “The Tempest,” he says co-star Alfred Molina explained that an actor is a craftsman, shaping the screenwriter’s words into a performance.
“I really respect that, but I thought, ‘I want to be an artist, not a craftsman,’” Brand says. “He’s really unpretentious and not a snob about that stuff, but clearly I’m pretentious and a snob about it.”