In This Is 40, Paul Rudd plays husband to Judd Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann, and father to the director’s daughters, Maude and Iris. The midlife-crisis dramedy also drew from Rudd’s experiences with his own wife, Julie: “There are major things that have played out in these [Apatow] movies that are from my life,” the actor, 43, tells me from Manhattan, where he’s starring in the Broadway play Grace. While he declined to describe those “major things” in This Is 40 (“I know what they are,” he said, “and my wife certainly knows what they are”), Rudd otherwise didn’t shy away from self-exposure.
This Is 40 looks at that midlife moment when both the previous and the next generations are dependent on you. Do you identify?
Well, I have kids so I understand what it’s like to provide for them, and my parents—I just have my mom now. My dad passed away a few years ago. But you relate to your parents in different ways as you become an adult, and at the same time you’re still their kid and will always be their kid.
How did losing your dad affect how you processed turning 40?
The word has weight to it, but I felt older before I turned 40. When I felt as if my childhood was over was when my father died. There’s a feeling of just being a kid because both my parents were alive and I’d still go home to my parents’ house for holidays. Even more than getting married or having kids, I found losing a parent is what thrusts you into adulthood. For me it was. That was when the Earth tilted on its axis and there was a paradigm shift and I felt like a different person.
Another aspect of getting older here involves health—like that scene where you’re lying on the bed showing your butthole to Leslie.
I wasn’t thrilled to do the scene, by any means. We came up with it during an improvisation when we were rehearsing, laughing at just how absurd a scene like that would be. I hadn’t seen it in a movie. You know, my MO going into this thing, which was Judd’s MO as well, is: Let’s try and show the realities of marriage and not some glossy movie version. And in a real-life marriage sometimes you ask your husband or wife to check your asshole [Laughs] for a hemorrhoid.
You’re playing someone here who’s not completely likable, who’s sympathetic but also kind of jerkish. Do you want to complicate the view of you as Mr. Likable?
I don’t really question likable or unlikable, or comedic or dramatic. Maybe I should. I am just drawn to stuff that I think is relatable in some way. I’m more interested in an unlikable character that’s well-intentioned.
But you must know there’s that view of you, that everyone loves you. I mean, not that that’s a bad thing.
[Laughs] I suppose if that’s what people think of me, maybe that’s good. Maybe there’s also something totally cloying and awful where I’m sure people are like, “Ugh. That guy.”
There’s a David Wain quote that sums up how people who know you talk about you: “Paul Rudd is a handsome leading man, but in his deepest core he’s still the dorky suburban Jewish bar mitzvah DJ he was as a teenager.”
I think that’s David describing himself. [Laughs] There is a major part of who I am that does not feel like the alpha male. I know that’s probably hard to believe. I moved a lot when I was a kid. I was always new in different schools, and so there was seeking acceptance and unfamiliarity. I’m sure that shaped my personality in many ways. I don’t feel like a dork, but I certainly have many moments of nerdism, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. I’ve always cottoned to that crowd more anyway.
And you had an outsider experience as a Jewish kid of liberal Europeans in Bible Belt Kansas.
Yeah. I’m not really a religious person but certainly an outsider, certainly different than the surroundings that I grew up in when I settled finally in Kansas City at the age of ten.
Speaking of the need for acceptance: Ever met a secure actor?
Yeah, I think they actually do exist.
You say that with a smile.
Well, I say it with a smile on my face ’cause I often wonder, Does anyone go into the profession with security as their playing field? The need for acceptance at its genesis is why I do this. My sister was born a couple years after I was, and I realized that I wasn’t getting enough attention, as much attention as I used to before she showed up, and then I learned pretty early on that if I could do a silly dance or make grown-ups laugh, then the attention would come back to me and I would be accepted. I still wonder, Is that why I do this? If I’ve met secure actors, they seem to be older—although Lena Dunham seems pretty secure to me.
Complete the title of a film about you and your family rather than Judd’s: This Is…
This is like a Judd Apatow movie, but hopefully even longer. [Laughs]
This Is 40 opens December 21. Read our interview with Judd Apatow and our review.