When David Cross was invited to appear in Todd Berger's new black comedy, It's a Disaster, his first impulse was to say no.
The American comic had just spent eight very pleasant months in London, and was anxious to get home to New York to resume work on his multi-pronged film and TV career.
But his new wife, actress Amber Tamblyn (General Hospital) – they married last fall after a two-year courtship – had a project in Los Angeles and he accompanied her out west.
There, Tamblyn's friend, America Ferrera (Ugly Betty), asked again if Cross would read Berger's new script, to which she was already committed.
Again, Cross demurred – he had no great desire to spend three weeks shooting in L.A. in mid-summer.
"But Amber just said, 'Oh, c'mon, just read it, read it,'" Cross recalled in a recent interview. "'You'd be perfect for the role.'"
He ended up reading it in one sitting, then promptly called Ferrera and said, "I'm in."
It's a Disaster is your classic indie – a small-budget, one-location film. The script brings together four essentially dysfunctional thirty-something couples for a Sunday brunch in one of their homes.
"I liked it a lot," says Cross. "I liked Todd's pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, the restraint and the naturalness of it."
The meal becomes one kind of disaster, a claustrophobic, Seinfeldian mash-up of competing neuroses, infidelities, self-absorption and schadenfreude.
Then it gets worse, with news that unidentified terrorists have unleashed a chemical weapon attack on LA. Sooner rather than later, everyone is going to die.
The film's critical reception in the U.S. has been mixed, but Cross is unfazed.
"In a world in which seven or eight movies come out every week, most of them crap or pretentious or cloying or bombastic, this one," he insists, "really appeals to me."
Cross plays Glen Randolph, largely the straight man to the others' mishegas.
Even before he committed to the project, Berger had signed Julia Stiles (Silver Linings Playbook, Dexter) to play Glen's brunch date, Tracy, a woman having a streak of bad luck with men. Her streak continues with Glenn who, it turns out, also has some major cuckoo up his sleeve. (Stiles is about to shoot a supernatural horror thriller directed by Spaniard Luis Quilez, and then appear in The First, as screenwriter Francis Marion, in a biopic about Mary Pickford.)
The shoot, says Cross, was "a lot of fun, except that we happened to pick the hottest weeks in recent history.
"And because it was supposed to be fall, in the film, we were all wearing sweaters, and just baking under the film lights."
Cross, 49, discovered the lure of comedy as a child. Growing up in Atlanta, Ga., he remembers treasuring Jonathan Winters, Monty Python and other comedians' records. "That was unusual for a kid."
Just before his 18th birthday, he went to a local club called The Punch Line and did his first stand-up act, about seven minutes of esoteric material influenced by the likes of Andy Kaufman, Steven Wright and Steve Martin.
"It was the craziest story, no exaggeration," he says. "I killed. I just killed. It almost could have been a prank, because the audience went nuts. I remember saying, 'Oh, I see my red light is on'– my cue for getting off stage and they started hollering, 'No, no, more, more.' I really wasn't that funny, but I got this huge ovation."
It was, he says, a classic case of first-time lucky, "like a .200 hitter in baseball who gets called up from the minors and gets five RBIs in his first major-league game."
For his next 20 performances, he could not buy a laugh. "I just ate it – as I should have. I thought, 'Wait a minute, what's wrong here? This stuff worked before? It must be you, the audience, not me.'"
For the next decade, Cross honed the stand-up craft. He won his first HBO special in 1999, was voted number 85 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time, won an Emmy for writing for The Ben Stiller Show, and in 2003, landed the role for which he is probably best known, as Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development, with Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Cera.
Cancelled by Fox in 2006 after three seasons, Arrested Development is now staging a comeback. Next month, Netflix in the United States, Canada and several other territories will begin airing what amounts to season four – 15 new episodes that reunite much of the old cast.
Lately, there's also been talk of a movie version of the show. "We'd all certainly like to do it," Cross allows.
"But to say it's in the works is a stretch. It's not anything beyond a desire at this point."