“From Justin to Kelly” has only a 10 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes ― meaning the 2003 film featuring “American Idol” stars Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson sits right alongside Mariah Carey’s “Glitter” and Britney Spears’ “Crossroads.” It’s basically part of the “bad pop star films you love to hate” genre. Or it’s reached cult status because of the cheese factor.
Since “From Justin to Kelly” landed in theaters, Clarkson ― the first “American Idol” winner in 2002 ― has gone on to produce hit singles and win multiple Grammys. She will soon make her debut as a coach on NBC’s “The Voice.”
But what’s become of Guarini, that year’s runner-up?
Actually, he’s up to more than you might think. You can often find Guarini starring in Broadway or other major theater productions. He also performed at the 2017 Tony Awards. And Guarini is the guy who hilariously plays Lil’ Sweet in all those Diet Dr Pepper commercials.
It’s all afforded him a pretty normal and comfortable life. Guarini, 39, resides with his wife and kids in a Philadelphia suburb near where he grew up.
“It works for me here. I commute into New York when I’m doing a show. I fly to wherever I need to fly when I’m doing other stuff,” he said. “I just love that I can have a house and a backyard and good schools, and literally both sets of our parents a mile away. It’s just ideal.”
Guarini also has a healthy social media presence. On Twitter, he’ll chime in on politics (he’s not a fan of Donald Trump), or poke fun at himself.
With “American Idol” returning to television on March 11, there’s plenty of nostalgia going around. The 2002 “American Idol” contestant catches us up about where he’s been, how he feels about “Idol” returning and more.
I went through your Twitter feed recently and enjoyed your commentary. At what point did you start having fun with it?
I mean, Twitter, it can be a wonderful and a terrible place at the same time. As I’m sure anybody who’s ever used it knows. I like to have fun. Really, I do. When there are times when I feel like I need to say something serious, I do it, but mostly it’s fun. I have the ultimate card in “From Justin to Kelly” and license to make fun of myself. It’s great. It was such a fun movie to make, but also it’s something that I can use my self-deprecating humor to highlight.
When you were making that movie, at the time, were you like, “This is going to go down as a bad movie,” or you were like, “This is going to be great”?
I wasn’t even thinking this is going to be good, this is going to be bad. I was thinking, “I want to do a good job.” At the time, I’d acted on the stage before, but I’d never acted in front of a camera in that way. I literally went from a nice, sensible 25 miles an hour to like over 1,000 miles an hour every single day for six months. The culmination of that was the filming of a movie. I wanted to keep up and do a good job. Once I saw the final cut I was like, “This is a good movie like in the vein of ‘Beach Blanket Bingo.’” I saw that we were going up against “The Incredible Hulk” and a couple other big movies. I knew we were going to get killed, and then the fact that they didn’t let reporters in to see a preview. It was all trending downward. But at the end of the day, I had a really great time making the movie. I wouldn’t go back and change anything.
I think it’s one of those things that probably seems so long ago to you now, because you’ve done so much since. I mean, you were just at the start of your career.
It feels like a completely different life. Like a life long ago, it really is.
Now you’re a dad, you have three children? You have a 13-year-old daughter?
Yes, I do. She just turned 13, and she is sweet and kind, and really funny. Especially the “kind” part is always that challenging part at 13. It’s sort of the 50-50. We scored on the good side of that. I have a soon-to-be 5-year-old and soon-to-be 7-year-old. They’re both boys.
Do they think what you do is cool or, like, oh that’s just Dad?
It’s really funny. My 13-year-old gets it mostly from the commercials, and the way her friends react to it. She’s been to the Broadway stuff that I’ve done. She’s seen the commercials, and things like that. She’s seen “From Justin to Kelly.” It doesn’t really particularly faze her, which I love. My two boys don’t really get it. My middle son has been to the set with me while I was filming for Diet Dr Pepper. My youngest is in performing arts preschool. Can you believe it?
He definitely has the entertainment bug. We just had his recital ― it’s the first time he’s been onstage, like a proper stage. I’ve never seen that look of joy and exhilaration ― the smile on his face while he was doing what he was doing was just ― I mean, I cried. My wife and I were just sitting there in a puddle of tears watching him love every second up there.
You live kind of close to where you grew up in the Philly area, or no?
Yes, exactly. I live in the Philly suburb. I just was fed up with LA and made a change. I wanted to move back to the East Coast scene. I went to school in New York, and I missed it. I moved back here, and I ended up falling in love with a girl I had known a long time. It’s a small town. Her mother was my English teacher in junior high. We had known each other forever and we ended up falling in love. She had this beautiful little 2-year-old girl from a previous marriage. We fell in love, and we decided we’d have a couple more, and she’s a wonderful writer.
The Diet Dr Pepper commercials have marked kind of a resurgence of your career in a different way. What’s that been like for you?
It’s so wild to me. I think we’ve been doing it for four years now and every single time I step on that set dressed the way I’m dressed I giggle to myself. Because I’m being paid to do the silly, improv, funny stuff that I do in my living room for my kids ― to get them to eat, you know what I mean? It’s great. I feel very lucky to be working with such a great organization, such a great team of people. It’s been consistent throughout the four years with the same team. They are funny, they are professional, and they really encourage a sense of play and joy on the set. It comes through in the commercials.
What does it take to film those spots?
Usually for what we do, it takes a week. The first three days are me reading with everyone else who’s being shot. I’m behind the camera reading with the actors as they are being filmed in the real world, and then the last two days are usually reserved for the green screen days where I get dressed up. I am going from 6 in the morning until at least 6 at night shooting in front of the green screen, and having to climb on the set pieces that are huge in order for me to look small, you know what I mean. I’m 6-foot and in the last two campaigns Lil’ Sweet was 3 feet 4 inches and 3 feet 6 inches. Everything that I interact with has to be either green screen, or has to be proportionately that much larger in order to make me look half the size that I am.
When you are out and someone recognizes you these days, what do they recognize you mostly from?
It’s so crazy. I was in Mexico doing a show for New Year’s in Los Cabos and a family walked up to me. We’re in this massive resort, beautiful, crazy, out of the country sort of thing, and this family walked up to me, and they’re like, “We absolutely loved you in ‘In Transit,’” which is the last Broadway show I did. Not that many people saw “In Transit.” It was one of the shows that kind of got caught in the current. It didn’t last as long as you wanted it to, not as many people came to see. Anyway, they came up weeks after that, and then other people will come up. I was doing the Philly’s parade, and I cannot tell you how many 40, 50-something men, blue-collar men, from Philly ― good, hardworking salt-of-the-earth U.S. people yelling in a high-pitched voice, “Lil’ Sweet!” It was shocking. I’m barely recognized from “American Idol” anymore.
You were thinking about doing “The Lion King” around the time of “American Idol,” right?
In the summer of 2002, I had just been told a week or so before: “You are going to Hollywood.” I didn’t know what that meant. Nobody knew what that meant. It meant a plane ride to LA. I’m going to LA. I’m going to compete more. In that week, the casting director, Jay Binder, for “The Lion King” called me up, and he said, “We have a part for you in ‘The Lion King.’” Now I had been auditioning for years, and I was never right. They were saying, “We want to work with you, but we just got to find the right thing.” Here I am having always wanted to be on Broadway, being offered my very first Broadway role in “The Lion King,” which is an amazing show. It would have been an amazing part for me to play. I had to say, “Well, I’m going to LA to do the show. I may get cut. Can I call you back in a week?” I go out and I make one cut, second cut, third cut and I call the casting director back, and I say, “You know what? I’m really so grateful for your offer for this role, but I think I want to try this other show. It seems to be going well.”
No regrets then for doing “Idol” over “The Lion King”?
One hundred and fifty percent no regrets. I needed to learn, sometimes, the hard way about the entertainment business. I needed to go through the ups and downs of those years between “Idol” and my Broadway career to understand how to take care of myself, how to truly be professional, be a man. I got the blessing of being able to have a wife and children, a family along the way.
What would you say the hardest part or most challenging part of your life or career has been through those ups and downs?
I think the biggest challenge for me, right after “Idol” especially, was having to come to grip with the fact that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how nice I was at the end of the day, it is show business, not show friendship. It is a business, and these people whoever they are I’m not singling them out, but all of the people I worked with at the end of the day they are looking out for themselves. I understand that I can be kind, I can be sweet, but I also have to be a shark as well. It’s so easy to lose any sense of that when you’re in LA. It’s not real. It’s not reality. I’ve learned to not buy into my own press. To not buy into the things that people say both positive and negative. As you see on Twitter, I’ll have fun with it. At the end of the day, all that matters to me is my family and my ability to express myself, even if no one sees or hears it.
Are you beyond the point of taking anything personally? Twitter can be full of trolls.
I’m human. My God, it’s possible to take things personally. I wish I could say I didn’t take things personally. You can take it personally, but how you choose to respond is what defines who you are.
I think that circles back to what we talked about in the beginning of the conversation: The reason your Twitter presence has stood out in many ways is because of the way you’re just self-deprecating. You go along with it.
It’s not about me at the end of the day. It’s just like there’s so much going on right now that’s so much more important than the tiny little squabbles we find ourselves in, especially on social media. It’s like, “OK, come on.” It’s like, “Seriously.” That’s why I make a joke out of most things because most of it is silly. When you see me making posts that are a little bit more serious and to the point even with a little bit of a wink ― that’s my wheelhouse. It’s using humor to ease the burden of really serious subjects. My voice is so much smaller than other people’s. My social media presence is so much smaller than other people’s. For the people who do listen, for the people who do see it and enjoy it, I’m just grateful for that. It’s that mentality of one person. If you can make one person smile, if you can make one person rethink a subject or a situation that is not harmful, if you can reach one person and help out, then it’s worth it for me.
What do you think about “American Idol” coming back again?
I really believe that it is in such good hands with ABC and Disney. I think if there were any company that could revitalize it, and well, and this quickly, it would be Disney-ABC. Look at their track record. Look what they’ve done with “Star Wars.” Look at what they’ve done with the Muppet franchise. There are so many really great people there, and I know for a fact that both Fremantle and Disney-ABC have got a lot of tricks up their sleeve. They would not be bringing it back this quickly if they did not believe it was going to be something really spectacular, and that they could take it and kick it up a notch. I think it’s wonderful that Ryan [Seacrest] is hosting it. I don’t think anybody else could host it the way he does, and I think it’s going to be something wonderful. I can’t wait to see it.
When was the last time you talked to Kelly Clarkson? Has it been a while?
We run in such different universes. I can say without a doubt that she will always be a friend and that I will always be, and have always been, one of her biggest fans. I’m so happy and proud, and just over the moon about how well she has done. She is an absolute icon, and you couldn’t have a prouder friend than me.
What’s happening next for you?
What’s really great about the Lil’ Sweet campaign is that it gives me the ability to pick and choose a lot of the projects that I do. Right now, I’m working on a couple of potential theater shows this year. I’m in talks to do potentially some hosting. It’s like I wear so many hats. I host, I do music theater, of course, and I’m always writing music. And my desire above all else is to finally put out some new music. To have that renaissance in my career because I’ve had really cool renaissances, but the one thing that got me started is the one thing that I don’t feel like I have had my fair share at, yet.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.