Paul rudd is packing. “Yes, it’s absolutely true,” he says to the waitress, as he swigs a mouthful of Glenlivet at New York’s White Horse tavern at two on a recent Monday afternoon. “Nine inches. But then I do start measuring at the thigh.”
He swallows, goes on. “I am of sturdy stock. I have a good head of hair. I’m 5-foot-10. But I’m almost 6 feet in heels.”
The waitress smirks, then dissolves into laughter.
“Okaaay,” she says. “I’ll be over here if you need anything else.”
Rudd tilts his head, polishes off his scotch.
“Nice and smooth,” he says, lowering his voice an octave, sounding like a late-night Quiet Storm DJ. He rattles the ice in his glass.
“I got no problem with this.”
Rudd is a tavern guy.
“There’s an Irish pub on 9th that I go to every week to play cards,” he says. “It is my favorite place to be. The same group of friends. Manly guys.” He pauses. Grins. Lets the obvious comparison hang in the air. It proves too tempting.
“I am not a manly man,” he says, raising his shirt to reveal a decidedly soft belly, which he pats like biscuit dough. “I don’t go to the gym. I don’t worry about my health. I play darts. A sport for people with emphysema.”
Just then, a man approaches the table.
“Dude, you’re an actor, right?”
Rudd nods. Smiles.
“I thought so. Cool.”
As the man walks away, Rudd shouts after him, “But what do you think of my work?”
It is a deceptively difficult question. Rudd has never been easy to categorize. Ever since he made his cinematic mark as Alicia Silverstone’s stepbrother-cum-boyfriend in 1995’s hit ‘Clueless,’ he has defied expectations, playing both dark (‘The Cider House Rules’) and frothy (‘The Object of My Affection’ and Phoebe’s boyfriend on ‘Friends’). But what Rudd, 38, excels at, especially lately, is committing whole hog to hilariously absurd characters that tap the dark side of the male animal. He is the celluloid id, the king of caricature, adept at holding up a mirror to masculine foibles and making them recognizable – and funny.
Such as toxic self-confidence, in Wet Hot American Summer, in which he played a petulant horndog camp counselor with breathtaking abandon. Or preening male vanity, in ‘Anchorman,’ in which his Brian Fantana found “love” in a Kmart bathroom with a woman who was “Brazilian or Chinese, or something weird.” Or the malevolent apprehension of David in ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ a seemingly normal guy revealed bit by bit to be a delusional narcissist with an extensive porn collection. In one of the more memorable scenes, he and co-star Seth Rogen improvised their “You know how I know you’re gay” riff, an exchange that was instantly mimicked by every American man aged 12 to 39.“Paul is funny because he is so handsome but he has a sleazy, irreverent side to him that always shines through,” says Virgin director and writer Judd Apatow. “Whenever I used to see him in movies where he played someone normal, I never bought it. I always knew there was so much more going on there.”
Rudd’s latest entry in this shtick-flick genre is ‘Knocked Up‘ (June 1), another Apatow movie, which will almost surely be the summer’s biggest comedy. It reteams Rudd with Rogen, in roles written expressly for them, as best friends caught in existential crises. Rogen has a one-night stand with Rudd’s sister-in-law (‘Grey’s Anatomy’s’ Katherine Heigl), a liaison that produces an unexpected pregnancy. Rudd’s character is already married with kids, and loathing nearly every minute of it, setting a depressing example for his friend.
“I think a lot of married people will see aspects of themselves in this,” says Rudd. “I’ve been with my wife for 12 years. We saw the rough cut and it was incredibly awkward watching it together. I’d look over at her, and she’d look at me, and it was clear that I had lifted from our life, and there it was onscreen.”
Prior to filming he asked his wife Julie for a list of things she hated about him. For weeks she added to the inventory.
“It would be like, ‘Here’s one! How about your fucking coffee cups everywhere?'” Rudd remembers.
“I’m inconsiderate at times,” he admits. “Self-involved. I’m an actor, so there’s no way that I’m not. Now, I think I’m less self-involved than many others. But by definition I am a self-involved person.”
Rudd is pleased with his transition from goopy love stories to the dropped-trou inanity of modern comedy. His résumé reveals him to be an improv all-star, with stints on such cult TV comedies as ‘Strangers with Candy,’ ‘Stella,’ and, more recently, ‘Reno 911!,’ as well as a fantastically random Internet-viral reenactment of the infamous Lily Tomlin-David O. Russell smackdown on the set of ‘I Heart Huckabees.’
“I never really got the whole thing wherein people would say you are a leading man or you’re a character actor,” says Rudd. “I never felt the need to pursue a career based on those types of categories. I want to do things that I find interesting and of quality. I’m happy to do just three scenes in a movie.”
That flexibility, married to Rudd’s affection for the provocative, has made him difficult to pigeonhole, a frustration for Hollywood, where they like their leading men less subversive.
Rudd doesn’t mind. He likes his quiet life in New York, at home with his wife and two-year-old son Jack. He has no interest in a television or movie project that he finds weak or unamusing.
“Paul is great because he clearly is a leading man, but for some reason he prefers to take any part that interests him, no matter the size or price he is paid,” says Apatow. “He is a real artist. It costs him tens of millions of dollars to take this path, but it really helps me.”
And if it seems that Rudd is suddenly everywhere – the movie ‘Reno 911! Miami’ and, over the next few months, the ensemble farce ‘The Ten’ and the romantic comedy ‘I Could Never Be Your Woman,’ not to mention ‘Knocked Up’ – it is not because he has evolved but because the culture has finally caught up with his don’t-be-afraid-to-show-the-ugly modus operandi.
“Everyone knows someone like him or has met someone like him,” says Rogen. “He is very natural and relatable. And he has this dirty sensibility about it all, which I find refreshing.”
“In ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ half of what I do is make jokes about gay people,” Rudd explains. “Now, in real life, I find people who have any lack of tolerance of homosexuality to be fucking morons. I feel the same way about people who are intolerant of any minority, black people, Jewish people. Not so much Puerto Ricans, because they’re a dirty people. But, like, Chinks, I love them.”
Rudd is nothing if not a master of the cheeky delivery. He can, and does, say anything – quips about rape, incest, ingesting fecal matter – sailing through on the absolution of intonation. Even on the most serious topics he appears constitutionally incapable of letting a punch line go. His is the humor of inclusion – the lowering or amplifying of his voice is the tell, the wink that lets you know he knows what he is about to say is shockingly offensive. The same words uttered by another actor might look cheap, mean-spirited, desperate, Michael Richards-like. But because it is Rudd speaking, most often through the window of a smile, they take on a harmless quality.
“Paul always knows what’s funny about what he’s doing,” says Rogen. “And he is getting more interesting as he gets older. Now he can riff on grown-up things like marriage and kids.”
“Paul is funny in the way you wish your friends were,” adds Apatow. “And he has mental problems.”
It is a chilly Manhattan day in early spring, and Rudd is on his way to buy wine for a dinner party. Shuffling along Hudson Street in his lug-soled boots and tweed blazer, he reflects on his current state of corporeal apathy.
“I weigh about 175 because I’m not working,” he says. “When I’m not working I won’t shave or cut my hair or exercise. I turn into Brian Wilson, the off years. I grow my fingernails out like that guy in the Guinness Book of World Records. Sometimes I’ll wipe my ass with my wrist. I’ll bare-wrist it. It’s quicker. Hey, I have e-mails to answer.”
As he’s talking a young man passes, then does a double take.
“Are you somebody?” the man asks over his shoulder.
“I’m just good ol’ Paulie from the neighborhood,” Rudd answers, grinning. Then he sets to proving as much by saying hello to literally everyone he passes. Snarling hipster: “Hello!” Septuagenarian in gray tights: “Hello, gorgeous!” Dog walker: “Hey there!” The dog walker’s dogs: “And hello to you, too!”
He does the whole routine with full commitment. His voice is a near shout, his tone cruise-ship cheesy. He leans into people, waves, nods, winks, makes long and potentially dangerous eye contact. “Let’s see how long I can do this before I get hit,” he says, half-joking.
He carries the gag a full four city blocks, and he is neither smacked nor recognized again, both modest disappointments.
Wine procured, Rudd heads toward home. On the way he muses on the source of his sense of humor. He credits his dad, a salesman for TWA. “Both my parents were English. And Jewish. I was Jewish when Jewish wasn’t cool. Comedy is a way of getting people to like you. A lot of Jewish people are funny because we’ve been oppressed for so long. None of us are superquick and athletic. A large portion of us are thickset, with massive amounts of body hair. We wandered around in the desert for 40 years. At a certain point you gotta find the humor in that.”
Raised in a suburb of Kansas City, Rudd attended the University of Kansas, then drama school in Los Angeles, where, while waiting for his big break, he worked for nearly two years as an MC at bar mitzvahs, manically dancing as a character dubbed “Donnie the Dweeb,” and generally marinating in the sort of life-altering humiliation that he now deploys as his chief comedic weapon.
He fled L.A. for a Jacobean drama course at Oxford, then later for New York theater, where he got plenty of stage work, most notably with director Neil LaBute, who later cast him in the movie version of ‘The Shape of Things’ and describes Rudd as an actor who is “not afraid to look stupid. He relishes it.”
Rudd’s role in 2001’s indie hit ‘Wet Hot American Summer‘ caught the eye of “comedy people,” he says, which led to ‘Anchorman,’ which led to ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ “which led me to be part of this group.” This group is the so-called Frat Pack, a loose coalition of comedy actors that includes Rogen, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and the Wilson brothers, among others, who work together again and again, simultaneously embracing and spoofing eternal male adolescence.
“I do love what I do,” Rudd says. “I love the company of the people I work with. But my circle of friends is pretty small. I don’t hang out with movie stars. I don’t have an entourage. I’m a normal guy. I’m fucking married.”
Rudd was never a player. He views himself more as a furry mensch, with some maturation issues.
“I have trouble with long-term things. I tend to get obsessed with stuff and then move on. Roles, songs, video games. That’s why I was afraid of marriage. Because it was like a lifelong game of Madden.”
Back at his apartment, a casual, homey space with wedding pictures on the wall and toddler toys strewn about the living room, Rudd removes his jacket and commences dancing around his living room, playing air guitar with his son Jack. Jack has become obsessed with Elton John, a development Rudd encourages by playing “Crocodile Rock” over and over while the two of them tick their hips and sing along.
“I think I was ill-equipped to deal with getting older and dealing with real life,” he says, spinning Jack in a circle. “Other people make that transition more smoothly.”
“Now I’m better. I don’t overthink or look back. Really. Why be afraid of any of it? There’s no point in freaking out about anything in life. Just see where it goes. Nothing has to make sense.”
Jack spits, relishing the wet burble.
“I don’t have the time and energy to put into anything anymore,” Rudd says, wiping his son’s mouth. “The only thing I put time and energy into is the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s just a really fun distraction from the grind and ennui of daily life.”
Rudd chuckles, exhales a long, deliberate sigh.
“That’s a jokey way of saying absolutely what I really feel.”
Over a diner lunch of hamburgers and black coffee, Rudd shares his feelings about what’s fair game for humor. “If phrased right, anything is funny,” he says. “I feel bad about it sometimes. Like we made that joke at Coldplay’s expense in ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin.’ Then I heard Chris Martin was upset, and I felt horrible about it. I did. I thought about writing him a note.”
“It all stems from wanting to be liked by everyone. I don’t like making fun of people, even though I have, a lot of times. I don’t lose sleep over it. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at all.
“Sometimes I think I’m funny,” he says, taking a sip of coffee. “But then sometimes I see myself and I think, there’s somebody trying to be funny.”
Apatow recalls one such instance.
“When we were shooting ‘Virgin’ there was a scene where Paul’s character has to have a mental breakdown at work at Smart Tech,” he says. “I wanted him to take a video camera and point it at his naked butt so it would appear on every TV in the store as he ranted. For some reason Paul could not get in the groove, so I made him video his ass for hours and hours. It was quite humiliating. He got really frustrated – not at showing his ass, just at not nailing his scene. Eventually his shame at not doing it right fused with the shame of the scene and he got insanely funny.”
“I remember when I was starting off, I said to myself that I’d hate to be one of those people that Dennis Miller makes a joke about,” Rudd says. “Fear is always involved. Fear is what makes comedy funny. But anyone who is in this business, we want to be respected. We are all fragile to a certain extent. Not me, personally. But everybody else.”
Rudd segues into a story about Barry Manilow, a man who knows something about fragility.
“I saw him in concert recently and it was fun in the way that you would expect.”
Rudd explains how, in the last 20 minutes of the show, after Manilow had just sung “Copacabana,” he launched into another song he wrote, called “Let Freedom Ring,” and cannons shot out red, white, and blue streamers all over the audience.
“It turned into this faux, bombastic, Lee Greenwoody Americana. It was so weird. I loved it. But not for the reasons that were intended.”
Rudd pauses, takes a bite of pickle.
“And now Barry Manilow is going to read this and say, ‘I fucking hate Paul Rudd.’ And he’s going to call Chris Martin from Coldplay and they’re going to talk about what a fucking douchebag I am.”
Rudd stops, considers going for the next joke, but, remarkably, passes.
“Honestly? If someone made fun of me I’d be bummed out. But I’d play it like I thought it was hilarious.”
“Look, I’m still just a man.”