I’d hazard a guess that more actors aspire to be heartbreakers, or the object of unbridled lust, than the third, and less well-known, category of totally believable spouse and father.
But Paul Rudd has made that niche his own. Handsome, but not a chiselled edifice. Real, but not dull. That’s why he’s perfect as Pete in Judd Apatow’s new, very funny midlife crisis movie, This is 40. There’s Pete hiding in the toilet, trousers at his ankles, playing Scrabble on his iPad while his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), entertains their kids. There he is lying about how financially screwed his business is and consoling himself with cupcakes that he’s not supposed to eat. Or fantasising about how much simpler his life would be if Debbie just, well, died. It takes a special kind of actor to make this, if not appealing, then certainly understandable.
Rudd ensures that Pete, despite his penchant for wearing brand-spattered Lycra to ride his road bike, or his enjoyment of singing along to Pearl Jam in his car, is much more than a walking cliche. Instead Rudd ensures that we feel compassion for him, that we understand how hard it is to be at that place in life when you fear all the best is behind you and you’ve no idea what lies ahead.
Sitting in a posh hotel, he does not look like a man who would have any reason to have a midlife crisis.
Rudd is 43, he’s been married for ten years to Julie. They have two children, Jack, seven, and Darby, three. He has a successful Hollywood career and he’s one of the few screen actors who can hold his own on stage too. He’s done everything from Shakespeare under Sir Nicholas Hyntner in New York to being directed by playwright Neil LaBute to starring opposite Julia Roberts when she made her Broadway debut. It all seems pretty charmed. So was turning 40 a big deal for him?
“No,” he says, “I had several things that happened to me before I was 40 – my father died, so when 40 happened I was just in a different headspace. I was grieving and sad. And so it was like, well, now I’m 40, that makes sense, I feel 40.
“There are things that I love about the age that I’m at, and I’ve never tried to pretend that I’m younger than I am, but there are some other things that are kind of like,” he pauses before coming up with, “a drag.”
Yes, of course, it’s easy to be nostalgic about being in your twenties and thirties and he says that he doesn’t forget that he had some “tough times” during those decades, but still, he seems to look back pretty fondly. Of course, there’s the freedom that comes with having fewer responsibilities, but it’s deeper than that, he reckons.
“I think there’s something about living in a place where everything is ahead of you. You get to ask yourself those questions like, who am I going to marry? What are my children going to look like? How many am I going to have? What am I going to do for a living? Where am I going to live? All of these things that are really exciting, that not knowing is exciting and every day is light because there’s so much great stuff ahead of you. Possibilities.” He pauses. “When you turn 40 a lot of questions you had when you were younger have been answered. And so maybe once they’re answered they might not be answered in the way you imagined and also, then it’s like, well what am I looking forward to? What’s ahead of me? What am I hoping to achieve next? It’s a time for introspection and reevaluation. And there’s something about that that’s kind of a drag.”
He smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
“In my case, I have experienced painful episodes – my dad – and I have a mortgage.
“Not only do I have a mortgage, I’ve made a will. I know what a 401K is. I know what a retirement plan is. I don’t want to know what that stuff is, it’s a bummer.
“I think the combination of getting married, having children, losing a parent, turning 40, understanding certain tax forms, paying a mortgage - all of these things piled up over time just make you want to go to bed early and think about which prescriptions you’re going to need,” he says, beaming.
I tell him it sounds like he’s talking about being reluctantly ground down into adulthood.
He giggles. “I eat dinner way earlier than I ever used to,” he says. That’ll be because your digestive system won’t be able to cope if you leave it too late, I tease him. “Exactly, if I go to sleep at night and I’ve just had a meal, it’s going to lay on my chest.” He laughs.
This is 40 is a comedy and a properly funny one at that, but there’s no denying that it’s also built around characters who are on the edge – they’re struggling to cope with their lives. Is their marriage what they hoped for? Is their professional life about to hit the skids? Are they simply the sum of their parents’ shortcomings? Rudd’s character, Pete, in particular, is a man in a bad place. It means that he’s a character in that uncomfortable place between funny and falling apart. It’s a Rudd speciality. It’s why he was right for Pete in Knocked Up, the wistful thirtysomething already married with two little kids, pretending to be going to see gigs when actually he was attending fantasy baseball meetings. Five years on, Pete and Debbie are muddling along. They look pretty much the same – she’s toned from working out with her personal trainer and her highlights are better, he’s tubbier from eating cupcakes and his hair is longer. Beneath the surface, though, things are not well. Their kids (Sadie and Charlotte, played as in Knocked Up by Apatow and Mann’s children, Maude and Iris) bicker all the time, their marriage is feeling a little stale, their financial predicament is looking a bit tricky and they’re both about to turn 40.
“Conflict, anxiety, stress, and all that stuff,” he says, smiling. “It absolutely will eat away at you and it can be very dramatic and also…” he lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “It’s funny. Hopefully.”
Rudd is undeniably a movie star and yet he speaks like someone who’s still on the outside, still hoping to make it. Maybe the outsider thing has something to do with being the son of British parents – “the first American in the family”. Maybe it’s because his family moved a lot when he was a child because of his father’s job. Maybe it’s just because he’s extremely modest.
Rudd has been around a long time. He came to attention in 1995 teen hit Clueless before appearing as Mike, Phoebe’s boyfriend, in a slew of Friends episodes. But it has been his collaboration with Apatow, which began with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and continued with The 40-year-old Virgin (2005), and Knocked Up (2007) that have made him famous. He’s also worked with David Wain on oddball comedies Wet Hot American Summer (2001), The Ten (2007), Role Models (2009) and Wanderlust (2012).
What does that filmography reveal, apart from a taste for comedy which often pushes the envelope and sometimes goes too far (he grew up watching Fawlty Towers and Monty Python and still has a love for British comedy so perhaps it’s not that surprising)? Two things: firstly, that no matter how low-key Rudd is, he is most definitely a bankable star; secondly, that he must be a genuinely fine fellow, otherwise why would people want to work with him again and again? Apatow has chosen Rudd to be the onscreen husband to his wife and father to his children. Twice. What higher compliment could there be? “It’s strange,” he says, running his fingers through his hair. “I’ve spent, when all is said and done, almost an entire year in Judd’s shoes.” He smiles. “What’s weird is how not weird that’s felt. I’ve started thinking, oh, is it weird that I didn’t think it was awkward? But I think because there’s comedy built around it, that alleviates a lot of the stuff that might make it a little tense.”
There’s also the fact that Rudd and his wife and Apatow and Mann are friends. They hang out together. They spent a long time discussing This is 40 and bringing their own ideas and material to the process. Apatow knew that he wanted to show marriage in a different way and, of course, explore some of those subjects that are taboo while still keeping it funny.
“When Judd was thinking about the movie we talked on the phone a lot,” says Rudd, “but then he also wanted to hang out with my wife and me and we’d have these kind of therapy sessions. We’d talk about our marriage and life and our kids and our parents. He’d make notes. And while I don’t see any specifics from my life in this movie, it’s a fiction, there are certainly things in it which are not foreign to me.”
Rudd’s children are much younger than the teenage Sadie in the movie, but I wondered if that glimpse into the future of heightened emotions and hormones frightened him?
“She is something else,” he says of Maude Apatow, 14, who plays Sadie and who spends the movie in a teenage cocktail of being in a fit of pique and a state of utter confusion.
“She’s a great kid – so bright. In that scene where she was screaming at us [Rudd and Mann], I felt as if I saw someone fall in love with acting. I saw it happen. She was very nervous. She’s emotional anyway – she’s a 14-year-old girl – but she’s so talented. When she did that scene it was very emotional for all of us and the crew too. It was a profound moment.”
Rudd clearly loves acting. He maintains, though, that although some movie actors get to “dictate” the roles they play, he’s not one of them.
“Not all of us can pick,” he says. “Even before I did this as a job I knew as a kid when I used to watch actors being interviewed on TV and they were inevitably asked about why they’d chosen this or that part, even then I thought, wait a minute, isn’t it hard to get an acting job? Don’t you audition for stuff and then you kind of hope to work?
“So, to me it’s more about if I can get a job, it has to be something that works in terms of what I’d like to do or has some sort of integrity – I don’t just take any job.” He stops for a moment. “But there are others I’d love to do and I just don’t have the option.”
It doesn’t sound like a crisis, or even a complaint, but there’s no punchline either. It’s just a statement of fact. And with that, he’s done.
This is 40 is on general release in cinemas from Thursday.