WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- 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, both by the show's other characters and the TV audience, as Schmidt has become a breakout character on the second-season Fox comedy (Tuesday, 9 ET/PT), which focuses on the lives of a young woman, Jess (Zooey Deschanel), and her three male roommates.
It's all been quite a pleasant surprise for Greenfield, 32, who for years had been subsisting 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 over an egg dish 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 during his audition, bringing depth and vulnerability to what could have been just a shallow womanizer, show 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 the character to grow, which Schmidt has been doing bit by bit on the show (averaging 7.5 million viewers, 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.
A recent episode explored the nature of male friendship after Schmidt bought odd-couple roommate Nick (Jake Johnson) a cookie and said he had been thinking about him. Greenfield is pleased that the two often-bickering characters have scenes where they just have fun.
Schmidt's relationship with Jess' model friend, Cece (Hannah Simone), which has been a roller coaster of desire, fulfillment and breakup, is becoming deeper, even as she has taken up with 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, so far, it's been really great that they've just been able to focus on really building the foundation of a friendship," Simone says.
Greenfield enjoys the Schmidt-Cece relationship.
It "has thrown him for a loop in a way that has instructed the rest of his life. I think he experienced love for the first time with her and will die trying to get her back. I hope he does, for his sake," he says, although that's up to the writers. "It would be fun (to) see Schmidt in a full-on, committed relationship that he's a willing participant in, but to see him, kind of, 'What do I do now?' I think that would be a very funny dynamic."
New Girl has opened up other opportunities for Greenfield. He credits the series with helping him get a role in the upcoming film, They Came Together, which stars Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler.
Rudd was one of the first to congratulate him when he arrived on set after receiving the Emmy nod. "I was trying to be cool about it, but then saying, 'I need a minute,' " he says. "And then I walked outside the trailer, going, 'I can't believe this is happening.' "
He felt a similar appreciation working with Oscar-winning makeup special effects artist Matthew Mungle when he was transformed into an overweight, college-age Schmidt.
"He's worked with every actor you can imagine," Greenfield says. "When I was in there, I remember thinking, 'This is another one of those moments. This is so cool.' Two years ago, this was so not an option. Just little moments of gratitude."