‘The Machine’ Star Bert Kreischer on His Improbable Journey to the Big Screen

‘The Machine’ Star Bert Kreischer on His Improbable Journey to the Big Screen

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Bert Kreischer is living proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

In the mid-’90s, Kreischer went on a Florida State class trip to Russia, and to make a long story short, the Russian mafia forced the 22-year-old college kid to rob a passenger train that included his classmates. The Florida native somehow made it out of Russia unscathed, and after enough time had passed, he began telling the story on radio shows and podcasts until it became the focus of his viral stand-up comedy special, The Machine, in 2016. A few years later, Kreischer sold a movie version of The Machine to Legendary Entertainment’s Cale Boyter, who boiled the indirect pitch down to “The Godfather Part II meets The Hangover.”

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The film’s premise revolves around Bert and his father, Albert (Mark Hamill), getting kidnapped by a Russian gangster (Iva Babić) as a form of payback for Bert stealing a family heirloom on the train to Moscow all those years ago. Written by Kevin Biegel and Scotty Landes, the Peter Atencio-directed film has a bit of a dual narrative, as the present-day storyline plays out alongside flashbacks of young Bert (Jimmy Tatro) during the fateful class trip. 

Going into the Serbia-based production, Kreischer — who’d never really acted before, let alone led a studio movie — felt considerable anxiety, owing to the fact that he apparently didn’t have too long of a leash.

“So we did the first scene of the movie in the therapy office, and I was so nervous that I was gonna get fired,” Kreischer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And then I went over to Cale (Boyter), the producer, who had told me that if (Legendary vice chairman, worldwide production) Mary (Parent) wasn’t happy, she would just shut it down. And I was like, ‘Can I act?’ And he was like, ‘You can definitely fucking act.’ And I was like, ‘Thank God.’”

The Machine isn’t Kreischer’s first brush with Hollywood, as Oliver Stone optioned a 1997 Rolling Stone article about his hard-partying exploits at FSU, the nation’s number-one party school at the time. A script eventually made its way to National Lampoon, and the humor magazine turned it into the Ryan Reynolds-led Van Wilder (2002). Unfortunately, Kreischer’s name and story were rewritten and lost in the shuffle, providing the comic and reality TV host with plenty of motivation. 

“I always wanted to be bigger than that movie. And for a long time, it was not that way. It was, ‘Oh, that guy who was connected to that movie,’” Kreischer says. “But I had nothing to do with that movie. I’ve never even seen the movie. So it’s been cool to have that as a goal or a high-water mark that I want to get above. I want to be a bigger comic than that movie or have The Machine, God willing, be bigger than that movie, so people say, ‘Can you believe the two were ever connected?’”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Kreischer also discusses how he didn’t play it cool around his co-star Hamill and even tested his patience over some basic Star Wars trivia.

So, when you first got back to the States in the mid-’90s and you started to tell this train robbery story, did anybody believe you?

I didn’t tell it. I didn’t tell anyone, really. I got cheated on when I was in Russia. When I got home, I found out that my girlfriend slept with my best friend, and so that was my reality. No one was like, “Hey man, I know you’re crying, but how was your trip?” (Laughs.) So it wasn’t until I did Loveline with Dr. Drew that one of my classmates called up and said, “Hey, why don’t you tell Dr. Drew about the time you robbed your class in Russia?” And I went, “Oh yeah.” And Dr. Drew was like, “What?” So I explained the story on Loveline, and then he had me come back the next night and tell it again. And it was even better that night. So I’d tell it sporadically. I probably told five of my radio friends on their radio shows; it was a good, fun radio bit. And then people would call in and say, “Oh, I was in Russia at the time. That’s exactly how it was run.” And then I told Joe Rogan, and that changed my life.

When you first got home, did you write down as much detail as you could possibly remember? 

No, I kept a diary when I was in Russia, but I wrote in Russian and I can’t read it now. (Laughs.)

Has part of you looked over your shoulder ever since that experience? 

No, everyone says I should, but I guess I’m just blissfully ignorant. So I have not looked over my shoulder.

(L to R) Bert (Bert Kreischer), Irina (Iva Babic) and Sponge (Martyn Ford) in Screen Gems’ THE MACHINE.

(L to R) Bert (Bert Kreischer), Irina (Iva Babic) and Sponge (Martyn Ford) in Screen Gems’ The Machine.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

So when the Rolling Stone article came out in ‘97 about your hard-partying ways, you really didn’t become paranoid that the Russian mob or one of the robbery victims would see it and be reminded of you?

No, the only time I felt like I was gonna get in trouble was when I posted the story on Facebook like six years ago, and one of my classmates left a comment, saying, “Hey, I was in Bert’s Russian class. I was on this trip to Russia, and this story is a hundred percent true. He fucking robbed us.” And then she tagged all of my classmates in it, and so I was scared to read what everyone’s response was going to be. But the overwhelming response was that this was an amazing story. I still wondered, “Oh shit, am I about to get in trouble?” because I did rob them. But I’ve talked to a great number of classmates and they’re all cool. It’s funny what people remember from the story, but they’re all cool. They come to my shows, and it’s been fine.

Did this classmate’s Facebook comment help inspire the subplot with the ring?

With the ring?

Fictional Bert stole a ring from a friend/classmate named Ashley (Rita Bernard Shaw).

Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot about the movie. (Laughs.) I was like, “What ring?” What’s so funny is I found a ring at SeaWorld like 15 years ago and I held onto it, so I thought you were talking about that. I held onto this ring for 15 years, and then this woman hit me up because the ring belonged to her mom, so I gave it back to her after 15 years. So I thought you were talking about that, but no, that plot device was put in by the writer, Kevin Biegel.

Did Florida State discontinue this trip to Russia in the immediate aftermath?

I don’t think so, but they discontinued me. They did not like me when that Rolling Stone magazine came out. They like me now, though.

Mark Hamill and Bert Kreischer THE MACHINE.

Mark Hamill and Bert Kreischer in The Machine.

Courtesy of SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

So you sold this movie during a pitch for two other ideas?

Yeah, I went in and I pitched two other really good ideas. And (Legendary’s) Cale Boyter was just like, “OK, I wanna make a movie with you. I think it’ll be fun. Which movie do you wanna make?” And I was like, “Wait, you’re telling me I get to make a movie?” And he was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna give you $20 million to make a movie. What movie are you making?” And I said, “Well, if you’re saying I can make a movie, I wanna make The Machine.” And he was like, “Yeah, why didn’t you pitch that?” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know. Part of me is afraid that it’ll be a hit movie and I’ll get kidnapped by the mafia.” And Cale was like, “Sold.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “That’s the movie. It’s The Godfather Part II meets The Hangover. I love it. Don’t say anything else. You sold a movie, and we’re making a movie.” And then I literally walked out of Legendary and was like, “I don’t know what the hell I just sold.” But sure enough, he just knows what he’s doing. Between Cale and (director) Peter Atencio, they really made this project freaking awesome.

Has this experience made up for the Van Wilder (2002) situation? That always seemed like a thorn in your side.

It’s not a thorn. If we’re gonna deep dive my id or my ego, I always wanted to be bigger than that movie. I always wanted people to know me and then have that be a footnote in my life. And for a long time, it was not that way. It was, “Oh, that guy who was connected to that movie,” but I had nothing to do with that movie. I didn’t write that movie. I didn’t star in that movie. I’ve never even seen the movie. So it’s been cool to have that as a goal or a high-water mark that I want to get above. I want to be a bigger comic than that movie or have The Machine, God willing, be bigger than that movie, so people say, “Can you believe the two were ever connected?”

Would you still want to make the rest of your Florida State story with Jimmy Tatro playing young Bert again? Or has The Machine scratched that itch?

No, I would love to, dude. I would love to just make movies about my life for the rest of my life. When Jimmy Tatro and I were drunk in Serbia, I was talking about this other project, and he stopped me and very candidly said, “Hey buddy, I think I’m done playing Bert.” (Laughs.) And I said, “Really!?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve had my fill playing you.”

When you pitched the role of Bert’s dad to Mark Hamill, did you take the opposite approach from everybody else and pretend like you’d never heard of Luke Skywalker? 

Oh no, quite the opposite. I might’ve told him that I wanted to be him when I was a child. I was obsessed with Star Wars, and Luke Skywalker was my guy. I wanted a certain car when I was a child because it looked like his (landspeeder). The Mercedes 350 convertible looked like that landspeeder. I wanted a brown one. So I am not good at hiding. When I am impressed by a celebrity at all, I overshare and geek out. I’m not the cool guy.

Bert Kreischer and Mark Hamill in THE MACHINE.

Bert Kreischer and Mark Hamill in The Machine.

Courtesy of SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

Did you pepper Mark with questions during your downtime? 

Yeah, you would think I was writing a book about him. The first thing I said to him was about R2-D2 and he said, “Oh yeah …” And I said, “What?” And then he said the guy’s name (Kenny Baker). And I said, “There was a guy inside R2-D2?” And he was like, “You’re joking, right?” And I said, “No, there was someone inside that?” And he said, “How did you think it moved around?” And I went, “Wait, he drove that thing around?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Wait, was C-3PO a person?” And he was like, “Oh my god, you’re kidding.” And I was like, “No!” 

Iva Babić, who plays the gangster in the movie, had never seen Star Wars, and when we went to dinner the first night, she said, “Hey, whatever you do, don’t bring up Star Wars. I don’t know the movie.” And I said, “For real? You never saw it?” And she said, “It wasn’t big in Croatia.” And I was like, “It was big everywhere. It’s a pretty big movie.” So we sat down, and that’s when I said, “Mark, Iva loves Star Wars.” And she was like, “Oh yes! Those good guy versus bad guy movies are my favorite to watch.” And I said, “Iva, who’s your favorite character in Star Wars? And you can’t say Mark.” And she went, “Uh, Chewbacca.” And I said, “Iva, can you do your impression of Chewbacca?” And she was like, “Hello, I am Chewbacca. It is so good to meet you.” (Laughs.)

Did she then watch it during production? Did she feel obligated at that point?

No, but what’s so crazy is what she compared it to. She said, “It’s not like Star Wars was Family Matters.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” And she went, “Family Matters. Now that was a good show, with Urkel.” And we were just blown away. She was so obsessed with Family Matters that we just had to put it into the script.

So that’s where her character’s Steve Urkel impression came from.

Spoiler alert to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but when she says her final line in the movie, we laughed so hard at her impression of Urkel that we just had to put it in the movie. We were crying, crying, laughing. She is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met with no intent to be funny. She has never tried to make anyone laugh, but she was so funny. We taught her, “Deez nuts.” I was like, “Hey Iva, will you pass me deez?” And she goes, “What?” And I said, “Deez nuts.” And she said, “I don’t get it.” And I said, “It’s an American joke. It’s really funny.” And she said, “Why is it funny?” And I said, “It’s just big in America.” So we were sitting in the tent when Mark walked in, and she said, “Hey Mark, pass me deez.” And he went, “What?” And she said, “Deez nuts.” And I was like, “You don’t do it to Mark, Iva. It’s not done to Mark. Do it to Cale. It’s better when you do it to Cale.”

You’ve been on sets before in some capacity, but what was the biggest lesson you had to learn as lead actor? 

Oh no, I’ve never been on set, ever. 

There are a couple things on your IMDb. 

This is my first acting job ever. I mean, I did a pilot when I was 26 for CBS, and I acted on The Shield, but I’ve never been on a movie set. First of all, I found out very quickly that I have no interest in being an actor; I want to be a movie star. I’m not good with the craft and serving the project. I care about me and me having a good time. (Legendary) was doing another project and Cale was like, “Would you be interested in doing this?” And I said, “I don’t know. Can I walk around the way I do here and go into people’s offices?” And he was like, “Absolutely not.” And I said, “No, I’ll pass.” (Laughs.) But I had a fucking blast. I enjoyed it so much. It was, without question, the best thing I’ve ever done in my career. It was the funnest thing I’ve ever done, and no matter what happens opening weekend, I have beautiful memories of those three months, shooting the movie.

Did you quickly figure out how to hit your mark and whatnot?

Nope. You can see it in the movie, but I look down to make sure I hit my mark. You can definitely see it. In the fight scenes, I made the noises of the punches, and they were like, “Hey man, you gotta stop doing that. No one punches like that.” But that’s what you do when you rehearse. I talked to Arnold Schwarzenegger about it and he said, “When I (shoot) a gun in a movie, I go, ‘Pop, pop, pop.’” (Kreischer concludes his Schwarzenegger impression.) And I was like, “I did the punches!” So, if anyone thinks I did a good job, I appreciate it, but I am so green. It was just fucking fun.

Iva Babic and Bert Kreischer in THE MACHINE.

Irina (Iva Babic) and Bert (Bert Kreischer) in The Machine.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Stand-up comedy is a different discipline, but it’s still performance. So do you think that experience served you well on this movie? 

Yeah, I think so. This is gonna sound so stupid, but doing single-camera hosted shows on Travel Channel like Bert the Conqueror and Trip Flip was the most learning I ever did. I had to ask people questions and have them respond. I talked to Rosario Dawson right before I did the movie. I was hosting a show with her, and I was nervous. I was like, “I don’t think I can act.” And she was like, “Honey, you act all the time.” And I was like, “No.” And she said, “No, when you ask those people questions (on the Travel Channel) and then they respond, that’s acting. Just do that. Just be natural in front of the camera.” And I was like, “Oh.”

So we did the first scene of the movie in the therapy office, and I was so nervous that I was gonna get fired. And my wife, who is brutally honest to a fault, came over and said, “That was fucking great.” And I was like, “Wait, do I look like normal on camera?” And she went, “You look awesome.” And then I went over to Cale, the producer, who had told me that if (Legendary vice chairman, worldwide production) Mary (Parent) wasn’t happy, she would just shut it down. And I was like, “Can I act?” And he was like, “You can definitely fucking act.” And I was like, “Thank God.”

And then, as I got more and more into it, I started to like acting. I loved finding emotion and crying. I loved that. I loved the serious parts, I loved the goofy parts, I loved all of it. Like I said, I never had any intention of ever being an actor in my career, but I was bit by the bug, man. There’s actors I want to work with because I want to see their process. I want to work with Jonah Hill because I want to watch him act. Everyone says that he’s amazing on set. I also want to work with Vince Vaughn. So I left the set, saying, “Dude, I fucking love this shit.” 

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The Machine is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.