There may be no performer showing more range right now than Chicago native Craig Robinson, whose dramatic role in the upcoming “Morris From America” bears little resemblance to his menacing black marketer on TV’s “Mr. Robot,” not to mention his talking box of grits in the nutso “Sausage Party.”
“I know, right?” says the actor, musician and stand-up comic. “It’s crazy.”
The biggest stretch comes in “Morris” (opening Friday), about a widower from America who takes a job in Germany, bringing along his ill-at-ease 13-year-old son Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas).
For Robinson, the work included mastering just enough German to say a few lines in the language. “They sent ’em over so I could hear ’em, and I learned that and had a friend from Lichtenstein help me out too,” he said. “So I just learned what I needed to learn. It’s a difficult language but actually quite beautiful once you start to speak it.”
And if he heard someone speak German now? “I wouldn’t know what’s goin’ on.”
But the main hurdles for Robinson, known for his funny takesin “Hot Tub Time Machine” and TV’s “The Office,” were the serious situations that faced the movie dad, Curtis.
“I knew this character had some layers and I wanted to serve the character right,” he said. “There was a lot more to be done in character work than I had done previously. So I went in knowing I had to tackle it.”
It helped that when he arrived in Germany, Robinson shared Curtis and Morris’ sense of being out of place: “That feeling when you see the movie that we’re there but we’re isolated — it’s real.”
Up to that point, Robinson had spent little time in Europe. There was a trip to London where he often felt alone. And then a few jaunts to Amsterdam, where there was the added issue of a language barrier, “but that was quickly erased because of the weed shops.”
A seasoned musician, Robinson gets to perform a song in “Morris From America” that is heard but not seen when the teen, a huge rap fan, plays a cassette of his dad spitting Notorious B.I.G. rhymes in 1993.
Though he likes hip-hop, Robinson admits to needing printed lyrics to do the cover. “It turned out funny, the way it plays in the movie, but I wasn’t playing all goofy with the song,” he said. “I wish I could get my hands on that tape.”
Last summer the nation got a taste of the actor’s old life when he starred on the NBC sitcom “Mr. Robinson,” playing a guy who teaches at a Chicago school by day and plays with a band at night, like Robinson used to do. It was canceled after the first season.
“I dug the ride, man,” he said. “I’m not upset because, you know, I couldn’t have done ‘Mr. Robot’ this season if I was doing ‘Mr. Robinson.’ Stuff like that I always have to keep in mind. That’s been my whole career. I couldn’t have done ‘The Office’ if I had gotten this other job that didn’t go anywhere.”
His next role is himself, taking the wheel to pick up contestants “Cash Cab” style on Spike’s “Caraoke Showdown.” The musical game show shoots this fall in New York and Los Angeles, but Robinson holds out hope that someday he’ll get to do a series in his hometown, the land of “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med” and soon “Chicago Justice.”
What’s left for him? “Chicago Priest!” Robinson says.
Amen to that.