Hands up if your school teachers were ever as hot as Salma Hayek or looked uncannily like The Fonz? And extra marks for those whose biology teacher did a spot of cage fighting on the side.
This is the bizarre situation for the pupils of Wilkinson High, the fictional school in Kevin James’ latest comedy Here Comes The Boom.
It’s a classic tale of triumph over adversity, perfect for these penny-pinching times. When the failing school faces a budget cut of $46,000, which would see music teacher Marty (Henry Winkler) laid off, biology teacher Scott (James) turns to Mixed Martial Arts to raise money.
With encouragement from his colleague Bella (Hayek), he puts up with the bruises to save the school’s music program.
While James had done a little wrestling in high school, he had to learn to fight for the film — and go on a strict diet.
“It was horrible,” says the normally cuddly actor, who made his film debut in 2005 alongside Will Smith in Hitch.
“He was eating just green lettuce and stuff,” adds Puss In Boots star Hayek, who looks effortlessly glamorous yet tiny sitting next to James.
“The most horrific thing about it is you train for so long and you’re still fat,” quips James, 47. “I just ate raw for eight months of my life and I’m still jiggling.”
James spent a lot of time with fighters on the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit, including Dutch former heavyweight champion Bas Rutten, who appears in the film.
“It’s an incredible discipline. These guys are doing what could be conceived as the most barbaric thing in the world, where it’s just two men in a cage. It was exciting for me in a crazy way.
“I got to meet a lot of these people and you realise they’re just husbands and fathers and friends — they’re real guys who just love doing this for the sport of it.”
Hayek admits she was actually surprised by how “sweet” all the fighters on set were.
“You think it’s gonna be a set just full of testosterone and violence but it was really warm,” says the Mexican-born actress.
“I remember when we were shooting, I was like ’I don’t understand, are we doing an action film, is this a comedy or is this just a nice drama about a school?’ And then I realised it has a style of its own.
“Usually all these movies about men fighting are very violent. In this movie, it’s a lot more than that.”
As for playing teachers, the duo had their share of school experiences to draw on.
“I had one teacher in fifth grade who said something about ‘pereza mental’, which is mental laziness, and how it was a disease and you have to understand it and push yourself to learn,” recalls 46-year-old Hayek.
“This stuck in my head and it has come in handy many times when I’ve become lazy — especially as you get older — about learning more and making yourself better.”
“I didn’t listen to the advice from my teachers,” adds James. “I had some great teachers too but I didn’t love school. I was a smart kid but I wouldn’t apply myself. I would hear that one a lot.”
Luckily for James, who was born in Mineola, New York, he discovered a love of comedy which set him on the path to fame and fortune.
“I grew up in a household where comedy was always present in some form at the dinner table, we’ve always had it,” he says.
“Even during the bad times, you always try to find something funny. It’s always been a great release of tension for me and my family and it’s something I always want to be part of my life. Without comedy, I don’t know if this life’s worth living.”
Hayek admits she struggles to teach Valentina, her five-year-old daughter with French billionaire husband Francois-Henri Pinault. “She asks me so many questions that I have no idea how to answer,” she says.
“She’s really smart. When you have children, you become inspired but you almost don’t have a choice because you want to look good to them.”
James, who has two young daughters and a baby son with actress Steffiana de la Cruz, has a different approach to teaching his kids.
“I always pretend I get a phone call right in the middle of a question. I go ’Oh, I gotta take this, I’ll be back’.”
Hayek and James first worked together on the 2010 comedy Grown Ups, which was written, produced by and starred Adam Sandler.
“We just bonded,” says James. “When you have the opportunity to work with people you admire, you take it.”Hayek added: “We were making each other laugh so we said we have to do something together.”
Now firm friends off-screen, there was a slightly awkward moment in Here Comes The Boom when the pair had to kiss.
“She wanted a double,” says James, laughing.
“Because I’m really good friends with his wife and children,” Hayek butts in with mock horror.
“I mean, I’ve been kissing people on screen all the time but we’re good friends and the kids are good friends. He’s actually a very good kisser.”
“I will leave my family right now,” jokes James. “I’ll run away with you now Salma, we’ll never look back.”
Thankfully, Hayek insists she was joking.“It was through a fence — nobody opened their mouth but he does have good lips,” she says.
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