COMEDIAN ROB SCHNEIDER really has suffered for his art. Not only did the poor guy survive roles in disasters such as Surf Ninjas, The Beverly Hillbillies and Down Periscope, he managed - somehow - to keep his head held high through a dismal double bill with Sylvester Stallone (Demolition Man and Judge Dredd), and even a date with Jean Claude Van Damme (Knock Off). But now, Schneider says, all the suffering is done and dusted. He hit the big time in 1999 with the low-budget surprise package Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, which went on to gross US$65 million (HK$507 million) in the United States alone. And he's followed that up with The Animal, a similar low-budget production that dragged in US$20 million in its first weekend of release. What those figures mean is that Schneider is now a bankable Hollywood star - and that's why he enters the room smiling in a smart, tailored suit and bright Hawaiian-style shirt. 'I'm the last person people would expect to be a movie star,' laughs the 37-year-old American, in Hong Kong for his promotional tour for The Animal. 'I'm not a very pretentious person. I'm the kind of guy who just gets lost in the crowd. But now, I'm not worried about anything. I mean, I'm in, like, bonus territory in my career. I couldn't get shot three years ago, I've been through the toilet.' Schneider grew up in San Francisco, born to a Jewish father and a Filipino mother. The Bay Area was, he says, a great place to fall into the clutches of comedy. Early on he has memories of Bill Cosby tapes being played by his father and he would later tag along with his parents as they checked out the city's wealth of comedy clubs which at the time could boast performances by comic legends Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder and Steve Martin. Then, during his teens, Schneider fell under the spell of Monty Python and the films being made in the US by people like Mel Brooks. And there was no turning back. 'If you ask anyone involved in comedy what was the high-water mark of comedy, they have to say Monty Python - both their films and their TV show,' he says. 'If they don't say that, they don't really know what it's all about. 'And films like [Brooks'] Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein - I saw those films and cracked up.' These influences made him look further afield - to the works of those on the cutting edge of European comedy, most noticeably Dario Fo (the Italian winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature) and the bizarre Romanian Eugene Ionesco (who famously said: 'It's not certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it's mankind'). Both revelled in the theatre of the absurd, in a physical style of fall-down comedy that Schneider quickly embraced - with immediate success. 'I suppose that's why people don't really worry about me getting hurt when I make films,' he says. 'I noticed early on that people would laugh at me when I was getting hurt so I thought 'OK, let's do that. That is an area I'll have success in'. But I'm always kind of laughing inside, and I think people pick up on that.' After honing his act on San Francisco's comedy circuit, Schneider found his way on to the crew of TV's Saturday Night Live. He started as a writer but his considerable charm worked quickly and he found himself in front of the camera as well. But, he says ruefully, the new-found success wasn't all it was cracked up to be. 'Getting into SNL basically meant you finally had a career,' he says. 'But I never really got on with the rest of them. I think a lot of the older SNL people thought 'Who are these young people'. They hated us because we were inspired and they were bored.' And so he moved on to movies - first came the shockers and then came success. Deuce Bigalow took everyone by surprise, and The Animal did the same. It follows the inept Marvin Mange (Schneider) and his attempts to get on to the police force. He's a loveable lame duck, much like Deuce was, and when a car accident puts him on the brink of death, his life is changed by a deranged doctor who puts him back together with animal parts. But there's a catch; these animal parts bring animal instincts along for the ride and Mange has to learn - quickly - to harness his new-found talents. The film has some classic scenes but is more a sum of its parts than a complete triumph. But the catch is Schneider - he obviously has so much fun at his job, that it becomes infectious. 'I have to go for what excites me because, at the end of the day, at least I'm excited about it,' he laughs. 'Adam Sandler [a long-time friend] and I pride ourselves on the fact that there's a certain joy in our work and if you give yourself over to it, you'll have a good time. If you don't, you won't. It's as simple as that. 'If I wasn't writing my own movies, I wouldn't be working. I mean, I'm a little ethnic, I'm a little short. If I wasn't creating my own roles, no one else would be. Now I've been offered a pile of work but it's all crap. So hopefully soon some Spanish directors or Asian directors will come and save me.' The Animal opens today at UA cinemas, the Broadway circuit, Cityplaza, AMC Festival Walk, and the GV circuit.