Fans of West Wing thesp Richard Schiff are in for a rude awakening if they go into his new film, I Am Sam, expecting to find Martin Sheen's trusty communications director, Toby Ziegler. Instead, they'll discover Schiff playing a tough lawyer out to prevent a mentally challenged man (Sean Penn) from retaining custody of his little girl (Dakota Manning).

"People are calling me bad and mean," the 42-year-old Emmy winner laments to TV Guide Online. "I guess my character does have a nasty streak, but I think he's really just trying to do his job. I needed a little convincing [in accepting the role], but I jumped at the chance to work with Sean Penn. I didn't care what judgement the audience would make about me.

"I do think that I treat Sam the way he wants to be treated, as a real man," Schiff adds. "I call him 'Mr. [Dawson]' even while I'm asking him difficult questions. I see him as an adult, and I'm just trying to protect his child."

Still, if we had our druthers, we'd much rather spend an evening with Toby than nasty lawyer man. Even Schiff seems partial to his WW alter ego. "The thing I love about him is that he can be so adamant and unyielding about the position he's taking, but somewhere in the back of his mind he knows he's out of line," he notes. "Once he gets going, he just can't stop himself. I love that."

Schiff's biggest fear? That Toby will become — yikes! — predictable. "You inevitably end up repeating yourself," he admits. "That's the nature of the beast when you're doing prime time. I'm always looking for ways to jar things a little, stir things up. The lucky part is that working with Allison Janney you don't have to look for it."

Things will get plenty stirred up in an upcoming emotionally charged episode when Toby slams the POTUS (President of the United States) for the way he's running his re-election campaign. "It's a very difficult confrontation that doesn't go very well because I get personal," previews the actor. "That's all I really should say about it."