Can Mr Paul Rudd Save The World?
With his talent for silly comedy, wry self-mockery and, er, quantum engineering, the <i>Ant-Man</i> actor may be 2018’s most perfect man. Just don’t call him “nice”.
At a time of deep world schisms, there are still some universal levellers: fridge-fresh chocolate, @dogsofinstagram and Mr Paul Rudd. Adoration for the actor straddles the divides between male and female, straight and gay, black and white, Red and Blue. Everybody, anecdotally at least, loves Mr Rudd. More specifically, the list includes, but is not limited to, 1990s nostalgists, Mr Judd Apatow fans, Lip Sync Battle devotees, Marvel nerds, Buzzfeed editors – who churn out homages such as “Why Paul Rudd Is A Dream Come True For Every Man, Woman and Child” – and, yes, those partial to a boner joke. An overzealous paparazzo even wrote him an apology letter for jumping out at him on a street in New York and was so racked with guilt that he subsequently abandoned his profession. So likeable is Mr Rudd that to resist his charms is, in some ways, to defy the basic laws of human nature. But the stony-faced waiter in the Hemingway glasses on Chateau Marmont’s terrace is so unimpressed with the actor’s lock-and-pop dance moves over his chopped chicken salad that he audibly tuts. Correction: everybody in the world loves Mr Paul Rudd, apart from this guy.
This brunch-time breakdancing is busted out not long after Mr Rudd turns up at my table, all green eyes, bed hair and banter, in a white T-shirt, jeans and Blunderstones. His specialist subject is 1980s pop culture, for which he retains a boyish zeal. It has even guided his career choices. “I used to contemplate auditioning for something and ask myself if the musicians I admired would do it if they were actors,” he says. “Would Elvis Costello do this?” His knowledge of the period’s musical minutiae is professorial. In the first 15 minutes of our lunch, he has referenced 10-hit wonder Mr Howard Jones’ obscure sidekick mime artist Mr Jed Hoile and a litany of miscellaneous geekery about Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Yazoo, Depeche Mode and The Smiths. He chose Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” for his character Scott Lang’s phone ringtone in Marvel’s new sequel Ant-Man And The Wasp, which he co-wrote. “I love that he’s so consistently Morrissey,” he says. “He’s never wavered.” The same can be said of Mr Rudd.
Notwithstanding the constant evolutions of his facial hair (today somewhere between a gentle Jesus and Mr Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart), Mr Rudd has barely changed since his 1990s turns in such era-defining works as Clueless (1995), The Object Of My Affection (1998), Cider House Rules (1999) and Friends, in which he embodied a new idea of sensitive manhood. “Up until then, masculinity had a sexy, rugged quality,” he says. “I was a fan of John Cusack as a teenager. And I was way more into Duckie rather than Andrew McCarthy in Pretty In Pink. I liked the funny sidekick.”
Since then, he has surfed every zeitgeist, often as the sidekick (most famously as the moustachioed, sex-obsessed field reporter Brian Fantana) in Mr Apatow’s improvisational comedies Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and This Is 40, engaging in battles of wit with Messrs Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell et al. Meanwhile, he became the straight-man poster boy for that new cinematic trope, the modern bromance, in which gross-out humour meets male sentiment, pioneered in I Love You, Man (2009).
Then he unexpectedly segued into the superhero genre, cast as Ant-Man at the tender age of 44 (the first film released two years later). After 25 years of acting, at 49, he still looks like a 32-year-old with a mild hangover, as if kept youthful by fart jokes alone. He winces when I say this, backed into a corner by the compliment. “Well, fart jokes might be the secret to the universe,” he mumbles. Praise, for him, is as bad as being called nice, which he says is “the most wishy-washy, passive-aggressive way of describing someone”.
Better adjectives would include clever, nostalgic, funny, sensitive, self-mocking, understated, silly and improbably well-adjusted. In short, he’s an American with a very British sensibility. His parents were both born in the UK. He revels in the humorous banalities of life, such as the way in which one of his Ant-Man action figures looks less like him and more like Mr Harry Connick Jr. “There is something pretty hilarious about knowing you exist in action-figure form,” he says. “When the first Ant-Man came out, there was a Mr Potato Head Ant-Man. I also have a Lego figure. I got a kick out of that.”
It’s even possible to place Mr Rudd in the British comic tradition, although he considers himself simply “an actor”, for underlying his juvenile sense of humour is a bedrock of intelligence. He digested quantum entanglement theory for the script of Ant-Man And The Wasp. “I’ve always responded to complete silliness from cerebral thinkers,” he says. “Take the guys from Monty Python, who went to Cambridge or Oxford [University] and did Upper-Class Twit of the Year.” And like most Brits, he has a knee-jerk reflex to undercut all schmaltz (“Sentimentality is so gross”) or actorly self-importance. His iPhone screensaver is emblazoned with the words “Nobody Cares” in the 20th Century Fox logo. “Whenever I hear actors refer to themselves as artists or talking about ‘the craft’ or ‘the work’, I’m like, give me a break. Artist? Picasso was an artist. You sound like a twat.”
This downplaying of himself has made him a kind of “enhanced Everyman” of Hollywood, seemingly ordinary yet cuter, funnier, better at dancing, both more charming and yet somehow reliable. For beneath his mercurial mind and cornucopia of looks and characters, there is something anchored and constant about Mr Rudd. He has worked with both Mr Apatow and Mr David Wain (director of cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer) fives times, with Mr Seth Rogan four times and with Messrs Jason Segal and Steve Carell thrice. He has been with the same manager and the same partner, now his wife, for more than 20 years. He admits that he’s “change-averse”. “I say to myself, ‘Well, am I going to get a better agent?’ I love my agent. ‘Am I going to get a better wife?’”
With all this in mind, it’s easier to see the draw of the consistency of a superhero franchise, one in which, as lead and co-writer, he has free rein to undermine the macho, the overblown or the heroic. Oh, and himself. Could there be a more self-deprecating, 1990s-new-man version of a superhero? “Well, I don’t think anyone’s going to look at me and say, ‘You know who he reminds me of? Thor.’”
Mr Rudd seems to relish the opportunity to be in on the joke. “There’s something a bit ridiculous about watching someone run around in an ant suit,” he says. But the arch-geekery of Marvel fans, bloggers and Comic-Con appeals to his own inner enthusiast. The state-level secrecy surrounding Ant-Man’s new suit meant that he had to wear a black cloak between takes of Ant-Man And The Wasp, which he filmed at Pinewood Atlanta last year in tandem with Avengers 4. “There are moments where you want to say, ‘It’s a movie about ants.’ But there’s something endearing about the passion of the fan base. When people are really into a specific thing, unless it’s collecting bodies, I think there’s something pure and joyous and celebratory in it.”
One could say that, whether by nature or nurture, Mr Rudd inherited the nerd gene. He was born in Passaic, New Jersey, to British-Jewish parents. His father, Michael, worked at Trans World Airlines and, after he retired, ran historical tours to Europe. His specialist subjects were WWII and the Titanic, supported by a basement full of artefacts and memorabilia. His father’s work meant that the family moved around a lot, says Mr Rudd. “It’s probably where my fear of change comes from.” His father was also “very, very funny”. Mr Rudd has fond memories of cuddling up to his beloved father, who died when Mr Rudd was 39, on the sofa watching Monty Python. But he is not one to spout apocryphal tales about the genesis of his acting. “People ask me, ‘When did you want to become an actor?’ Well, subconsciously, I probably knew it when my sister was born and all of a sudden I wasn’t the only show in town anymore. And I learned early on. ‘Hey! Look what I can do, Mum and Dad!’” He has memories of dancing for them as a toddler. “‘Oh, I’m making you laugh. Oh, I’m getting your approval. Please like me! I’m better than her!’” The roots of acting are usually very simple, he says: “Please like me!”
When Mr Rudd was 10, the family moved to Lenexa in Kansas, and he found himself a British secular Jew in the Christian Midwest. One of his coping mechanisms was ordering British imports at his local record store. He went through a series of musical male role models: Mr Adam Ant, Mr Howard Jones, Mr Michael Hutchence from INXS. He wanted his mother, who trained as a hairdresser, to cut his hair like theirs, but he wasn’t allowed. “I really, really tried to be an iconoclast,” he laughs. He went on study theatre at the University of Kansas and ended up lodging in the Sigma Nu fraternity, “an artsy-fartsy one”, where male bonding consisted of listening to The Smiths. After college, Mr Rudd moved to Los Angeles to study at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts: West and worked part-time as a DJ at bar mitzvahs.
After early breaks in NBC drama Sisters (1991) and Fox’s Wild Oats (a kind of prototype Friends set in Chicago), he was cast as student lawyer Josh, Mr Knightley to Ms Alicia Silverstone’s Emma, in Beverly Hills-set Clueless. It was his big break, but a dark time. While filming, he was mugged at gunpoint. Shortly afterwards, his friend Justin died in a car crash, which pushed the sensitive Mr Rudd into “a meltdown”. A few weeks later, he was involved in a bizarre series of road accidents in the space of a week. His car was stolen. He rented a car, but it was totalled in a hit and run. He borrowed a friend’s car, but it aquaplaned. He rented another, but it also got hit. He promptly decided to move to New York, where in 1995 he met Ms Julie Yaeger, a publicist on Clueless. They married in 2003 and had two children, Jack, now 12, and Darby, eight. Twenty-seven years later, he still lives there. “When I come out to LA, it’s like, ooh, I’ll stay at Chateau Marmont. It’s dipping my foot in the cool of the movie industry because this is fairytale land to me now.” More often than not, he’s at home making Jack Spotify playlists (Jack reciprocates with hip-hop compilations) or cracking dad jokes. “My favourite thing is when they roll their eyes because it’s such a dad joke, but I know they find it funny,” he says. “They kind of try to fight a smile.”
He says he has become more sentimental in recent years. “I’ve experienced more profound moments in my life: my dad dying, being a parent. All of a sudden your sensitivity is heightened. I see things on TV like Undercover Boss and they knock me to the ground. My kids make fun of me. ‘Oh, Dad’s crying again.’” Some of his work has followed suit. The Fundamentals Of Caring (2016) was about a bereaved father caring for a boy with muscular dystrophy. “It sounds like an insufferable film, but it’s really endearing because they make dark jokes about each other’s conditions,” he says. His recent turn in Ideal Home, as the embittered and downtrodden life partner of Mr Steve Coogan, a cookery presenter and old “queen”, who have a child thrust upon them, is, rather improbably, equally touching.
Despite being the actor probably most synonymous with male bonding onscreen, in real life Mr Rudd doesn’t see his male buddies, who include Mr Justin Theroux, as much as he’d like. “Because you feel like an asshole being social when you have a family,” he says. “You can’t just go, ‘I’m going out. Bye!’” He does, however, do a regular poker night with his Ant-Man co-star Mr Bobby Cannavale. “It’s gone on for so many years that there’s now a fantasy football league we all play in and we do a list draft at the weekend when we’re all together.” He gets his more electric kicks from improvising with the Frat Pack. “Improvising with Will Farrell is like jamming with The Beatles or playing tennis with Serena Williams,” he says.
He’s also considering taking up woodwork. Meanwhile, he gets a warm fuzzy feeling from Marvel fans. “Fandom, like sport, is such a leveller, no matter where you stand politically,” he says. “There’s no middle ground right now between a Trump supporter and Trump hater. It’s Yanny and Laurel. But put those two people at Comic-Con with a shared love of Captain America and… That’s why I became an actor, to bring people together. Create world peace. You know, when you’re an artist…”
Ant-Man And The Wasp is out now (US); 3 August (UK)