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Greenfield finds the soft side to his 'New Girl' character

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Where some might have seen an egotistical jerk, Max Greenfield saw “New Girl's” Schmidt as an insecure guy.

“I just played it very vulnerable. It was just, ‘Oh, he's not so much of a d----- bag, as he was written' ” in the pilot, the actor says, employing the show's oft-used descriptive parlance. “He's more like a sad little boy who's just looking to be accepted.”

That he has been, by the show's other characters and by its audience. Schmidt has become a breakout role on the second-season Fox comedy, which focuses on young Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and her three male roommates.

It's all been a pleasant surprise for Greenfield, 32, who for years had subsisted on guest shots or short arcs on shows such as “Veronica Mars” and “Ugly Betty.” He was looking for something longer lasting — and wound up with an Emmy nomination.

“I was so excited to have gotten the (“New Girl”) pilot. I was quickly becoming a guy that tested for a lot of shows and didn't get them,” he says during lunch at a favorite spot near his gym.

“You become a guy who gets very close to getting a show so many times that people start to wonder why are you not the one who's gotten the show. And then they become afraid of you and don't want to be the one who says yes. But, luckily, I dodged that just in time, I think.”

The New York state native, a married father of a 3-year-old girl, stood out in his audition, bringing vulnerability to what could have been just a shallow womanizer, “Girl's” creator Liz Meriwether says.

“What's amazing about Max is he manages to play this character as a good guy. Everybody else in to audition played the guy as a bad guy,” she says. “He brought so much emotion to the part. It completely changed my idea of the character. He made it into this guy who was all of those (unflattering) things, but ... was coming from this needy, great, insecure, wonderful place.”

That depth allows Schmidt to grow bit by bit on the hit show (7.5 million viewer average, and a Top-10 show among young adults). Yes, the bravado and manic desire to be cool are there, as is a tendency to be shirtless, but so are developing relationships.

An episode explored the nature of male friendship after Schmidt bought roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) a cookie and said he had been thinking about him. Greenfield is pleased that the two characters have scenes where they just have fun.

Schmidt's relationship with Jess' friend, Cece (Hannah Simone), which has been a roller coaster of desire, fulfillment and breakup, is deepening, even as she has a new boyfriend.

“They have a physical chemistry, they have that emotional connection, but they had no foundation. They didn't have that friendship. This season it's been really great that they've been able to focus on really building the foundation,” Simone says.

Greenfield enjoys Schmidt's relationship with Cece, which “has thrown him for a loop,” he says. “I think he experienced love for the first time with her, and will die trying to get her back. I hope he does,” he says, although that's up to the writers. “It would be fun (to) see Schmidt in a full-on, committed relationship he's a willing participant in, but to see him, kind of, ‘What do I do now?'”

“New Girl” has opened up doors for Greenfield, including a role in the film “They Came Together,” which stars Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler.

Rudd was one of the first to congratulate him on set after the Emmy nomination. “I was trying to be cool about it, but then saying, ‘I need a minute,'” he says. “Then I walked outside the trailer going, ‘I can't believe this is happening.' ”

Bill Keveney is a staff writer for USA Today.

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