Although comedian Joey “Coco” Diaz’s true love is stand-up, he doesn’t mind squeezing in a film or television role every now and then to broaden his horizons.
“Nothing is as fun as doing stand-up – nothing,” Diaz told me in his thick New York accent via phone from Los Angeles. “But that’s what’s great about being a stand-up comedian and an actor. I can book stand-up all year long and if I get a movie, ‘bang,’ I cancel it. I don’t lose.”
Born in Havana, Cuba, Diaz grew up on the West Side of New York where he played defensive end for his high school football team. Now, cast in “The Longest Yard,” a remake of the 1974 film, which stars Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, Diaz finds himself back on the gridiron once more.
“After [high school], I never played football again,” Diaz said. “With this it was a lot different. You had to get used to having a helmet on again.”
Diaz started his film career playing a referee in 1998’s “BASEketball” and then went on to received other roles, including 2002’s “Analyze That” starring Robert DeNiro and 2004’s “Taxi” starring Queen Latifah. He has also made special guest apperances on television shows, including “Cold Case” and “Law and Order: SVU.”
A personal favorite film moment, Diaz said, was when he played one of the train passengers in “Spider-Man 2” who stands up to Doc Ock.
“Oh, I would have beat up Dr. Octopus,” Diaz said, explaining that there just wasn’t enough room on the train during the fast-paced scene. “I would have knocked him out…and showed him who was boss.”
After his brush with cinematic heroism, Diaz then heard about the remake of “The Longest Yard,” a film he first saw as a child, but had doubts about the idea of redoing the Burt Reynolds sports flick.
“When I heard they were going to do a remake and it was starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock I was like ‘Yughhh,’” Diaz said. “But then I though about it and realized that [“The Longest Yard,” 1974] had a lot of gaps. I knew Adam would break down the characters a lot more.”
In “The Longest Yard,” a former professional quarterback is forced to put together a group of inmates to play football against the prison guards. Diaz, portrays a convict named Big Tony, a “violent, but lovable…ex-mob guy from New Jersey” whose been in the pen for 15 years.
“He’s kind of whacked,” Diaz explains, “but you love him for who he is anyway.”
Once he found out he got the part, Diaz said the first thing he had to do to prepare for the role was get into shape. Although he had been studying Tang Su Do (a type of martial arts), Diaz, who professed that he is an orange belt, knew he wasn’t as physically fit as he needed to be.
“They had a personal trainer working with me just stretching,” Diaz said. “I don’t even have to tell you what kind of shape I was in.”
Despite his flabby appearance, Diaz did look up to muscle-head football players growing up, including New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Not one of those hardcore football fans, per se, Diaz, who admitted he was “a fan of whoever covers the spread,” also followed the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers. Like the original, this year’s “The Longest Yard” uses pro-football players to help add to the realism of the film, including ex-Chicago Bear Bob “The Beast” Sapp and ex-Cowboy Michael Irving.
“I first met Michael Irving on ‘The Best Damn Sports Show Period’ and I fell in love with him immediately,” said Diaz, adding that he would rather watch Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) instead of football. “He has this really warm personality and is such a strong-minded guy.”
Along with Irving, Diaz said he also had a close bond on the set with Chris Rock, who he knew from the stand-up circuit.
“I would just turn to Chris and say, ‘Chris, I need a line’ and he would come up with something in like two seconds.”
Improvisation was a perfect match for Diaz who always ad-libs when on stage. He said that working with actors like Sandler, “who doesn’t go by the script,” felt like home to him.
“Anything can happen with Adam,” Diaz said. “I figured it out and made adjustments so I could get into the scene with his type of mentality.”
In one such scene, Diaz said he stripped down to a thong and a pair of work boots and went up to Sandler telling him he was going to do the scene in his limited attire.
“[Adam] said, ‘Hey, do what you want,’ and then he started laughing his ass off. It’s encouraging when someone is open to your ideas like that.”