"Show any signs of weakness or insecurity, that's where they go. Kids are simple to a certain extent. They calls 'em like they sees 'em ... We don't learn as a kid how to bend, not break.
"You break as a kid if you let insults hurt you and show them that and then react. Try to hit back? It piles on an aggressive force. It takes a long time to laugh it off and to learn how to handle people with a little more grace and ease so they don't feel any desire to attack you."
Neff, who plays the unprepared father in Fox's gentle comedy "Raising Hope," eventually learned to fight back.
He did it by losing 65 pounds in three months when he was 13. "I didn't want to be fat anymore," he said. "I ran two to four miles every day, swam every day and went vegetarian on a very strict diet ... That was a huge change for me. Not just in the way people saw me, but it sort of changed the way I saw life."
Actors are often ambitiously determined, but not Neff. To hear him talk, his entire career is one happy accident after another. For example, his application to college was misprocessed and he accidently ended up in theater arts.
His class hosted a casting director who encouraged the students to visit his office. When Neff did, they were casting an Internet commercial and asked him to read for it. Surprisingly, he won the part.
"It was so terrible they never aired it," he said.
"It wasn't even good enough for the Internet. But I got an agent out of it and that agent got me auditions and almost everything else I got. I did a couple more commercials and a year later they got me an audition for 'Raising Hope,' a year after I got out of school."
Actually, Neff was down to less than $5 when he auditioned for "Raising Hope." "I cleaned the house of a colleague for 60 bucks the week I got 'Raising Hope.,'" he said.
Neff, 28, doesn't fret the erratic nature of acting. "I was taught from a very early age that money isn't important. Both my parents are working artists, they don't make a lot of money. And that the main thing was to follow your passion and put that above all else," he said.
"I was never afraid. I've never really had a plan, never knew what I was going to do from one month to the next -- or one day to the next."
While his career may be accidental, his passion is not. "Hamlet" was the last play he did at college. He still bears a round scar on his arm where he ran into a stage girder in a dramatic scene with Ophelia.
"'Hamlet,' in particular, is one of those moments where you can't avoid feeling you're part of something miraculous, you're in some communion with some greater genius beyond you," he said. "And going there with the audience is a really empathic, sympathetic and emotional ride. So it's lovely."
A voracious reader, Neff tries to read at least two pages a day from seven different books. Right now he's exploring elemental particle physics and pure mathematics. "If you work hard enough you can understand anything," he said.
Engaged at one time, Neff says the hardest thing he ever did was break it off. But he's not burned by the experience. His current sweetheart is actress Caitlin Spasey ("Reign"). "I believe in love," he said. "I think as an actor it's important to live at the heights and depths of human experience. You've got to experience the ecstasy of life and the agony of defeat and loss and grief. It's our job to convey the full spectrum of human experience to people."
He's explored a variety of philosophies. "I have a faith in our curiosity and faith in the innovative, imaginative abilities of mankind. And I think, in general, in the goodness of people and our suggestibility -- we have the ability to believe things more powerfully than we think. And I think that can take us to magical places."
The new season of "Raising Hope" airs at 9 p.m. Friday on Fox.
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