If you've heard anything about Paul Rudd, it’s likely that he’s a Nice Guy. Nary a scandal nor a salacious rumour has touched him in decades of stardom; meanwhile, anecdotes about his singular kindness abound, with Parks and Recreation co-star Amy Poehler calling him Mr Perfect and Stephen Colbert describing him as “the nicest person on the planet”. Rudd has made a long and fruitful career of lending his affable sensibility to a series of iconic comedies, as well as tender, affecting films about love and friendship. Now 50, Rudd has taken his career in surprising directions, from a science fiction television series to a starring role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—meanwhile, his reputation remains as polished as ever. Rudd doesn’t hate the Nice Guy label, though he’s not eager to be pigeonholed—and he’d be the first to let you know.
“I’m fine with people thinking I’m a nice person,” Rudd says. “I don’t want people to think I’m a mean person; I wouldn’t want to be an unkind person. But when I hear that over and over again, I don’t want it to be the number one thing people say about me.”
What’s the number one thing for which Rudd wants to be known, you might ask? “Pole-vaulting,” he quips, with that signature wry, surprising wit.
If pole-vaulting fails, Rudd may very well be remembered for Living With Yourself, the high-concept Netflix science fiction series in which his everyman sensibility is weaponised to its greatest effect. In Living With Yourself, Rudd stars as Miles, a disaffected marketing executive whose bottomless, soul-sucking ennui pushes him to make a radical bid for hope—with radical consequences. On the verge of losing a major client, Miles takes the advice of a co-worker, who directs him to an expensive miracle spa promising complete physical and spiritual rejuvenation. After cashing out his fertility treatment fund to go under the knife, Miles regains consciousness buried alive in a shallow woodland grave, where he awakens vacuum-sealed in cling film. Upon hitchhiking home, Miles is stunned to meet his own doppelgänger, ensconced in his house and inhabiting his life. Miles soon learns that the procedure wasn’t a rejuvenation, but cloning, and had it gone as planned, the original Miles would have stayed in that grave while the supercharged Miles stepped fully into his life. What follows is the simultaneously comic, heartfelt story of their tug-of-war to share custody of one job, one marriage and one life, all without arousing suspicion. For Rudd, who identifies deeply with the emotional extremes of each Miles, the chance to play two characters with the same face was seductive—and a career first.
“I relate to both versions of Miles,” Rudd says. “I think they’re two sides of the same coin, really. I can absolutely relate to the original Miles as we meet him, and I can also relate to the enthusiasm and fearlessness at times followed by insecurity that the new Miles eventually starts to feel. The show really covered a spectrum of emotions.”
Toggling between two iterations of the same character demanded that Rudd embody a litany of subtle changes, some skin-deep and others less obvious. As the original Miles, Rudd seems a man flattened by world-weariness, all lank hair, three- day stubble and sallow skin. As the new Miles, his clothes fit better, his spine seems straighter, his familiar, buoyant smile surfaces more freely. Yet despite their outward differences, both iterations of Miles traverse similar psychological territory, with each one questioning which of them is real, which of them is more deserving of their one precious life.
Among the standout beats of the series is the poignant journey into the heart and soul of Kate, Miles’ wife, who finds herself seduced by the prospect of a new beginning with the vivacious man she married, yet left cold by the disheartening reality of a partner who hasn’t shared in the lived experience of their ups and downs. Rudd notes that New Miles doesn’t have the “scar tissue” of life’s vicissitudes—just “the memory of it”. Indeed New Miles is fundamentally unequipped for the brutality of life as he’s experiencing everything for the first time, from the painful end of a relationship to the simple human pleasure of feeling the wind ruffle through his hair. He makes his way through the world with an unsustainable euphoria, only to be hurt down to his core by the slings and arrows of life, lacking as he is any hard-earned defences.
In one pivotal scene, when Kate has run away with New Miles for a romantic getaway that sours quickly, New Miles vents: “Why can’t I be happy for once?” Kate remarks: “Because you didn’t earn it.” In parsing how the lows of life counterbalance and foreground the highs, Rudd is thoughtful about the existential complications of happiness, evaluating the degree to which it must be earned.
“I think happiness is fleeting,” Rudd says. “It’s moments. I mean, there are babies that have happy moments. Did they earn that? I think we all have our happy moments. We try to hold on to them as long as we can, then they go away. Then we have our bad moments and we recognise the bad moments for what they are; those are bad moments that help us appreciate the happier moments coming along down the road. I would like to think we don’t have to earn that.”
Living With Yourself is a sharp portrait of marriage’s agonies and ecstasies, of the rage, grief and resentment that punctuate every joy and triumph—and of how a clean slate would sap a relationship of the meaningful bond shared adversity can cultivate. Rudd confesses that it was this exploration of selfhood and its mutation throughout the course of relationships that attracted him to the script. The show asks what constitutes our best selves and why we so often fail to live up to those ideals in our relationships with the ones we love most. Yet despite the original Miles’ extended dark night of the soul, the series offers a hopeful vision for his future, as well as the future of anyone who sees themselves reflected in Miles’ struggle.
“I think you can reboot,” Rudd says. “It takes getting honest with yourself and I suppose in many cases, it involves heavy doses of therapy or real inward self-analysis. I suppose all self- analysis would be inward, which is redundant. But I don’t think that being in a spiral of depression and immobility is anything that has to last forever.”
One might think that completing a Netflix project would leave Rudd with some sense of enlightenment about the approaching content singularity. Though Rudd is just as behind on his ever-lengthening queue as anyone, his view of the crowded streaming landscape is a generous one and a characteristic stroke of optimism.
“It’s definitely changed,” Rudd says of the filmmaking business. “I see it in the movies that are being made now—what gets funded and how quickly they leave the theatres. There are so many formats. There are so many content providers. There’s a lot of quality stuff getting made, but the way we watch it is so different. I feel like I’m watching less than I ever have, but maybe it’s like music. Maybe it’s always been overwhelming and if something speaks to somebody, they’re going to find it.”
Up next, Rudd will star in a more traditional project: a new Ghostbusters film. Slated for theatrical release in July 2020, this Ghostbusters departs from the franchise’s standard New York City playground in favour of a suburban setting, with Rudd reportedly starring as a seismologist who blows into town to investigate a series of mysterious earthquakes. The film is written and directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the original films. For Rudd, who saw Ghostbusters in cinemas multiple times as a teenager, the Reitman lineage threaded into this project made for a singular experience.
“That was one thing that did feel different than working on just anything,” Rudd says. “There was something about Jason being behind the camera and Ivan Reitman being there too, producing and talking to him for a while. There was something really special about it because it does seem like it’s the family business to a certain extent. To be a part of that is an honour. I certainly felt honoured to be invited to the party.”
This Ghostbusters will ignore the events of 2016’s Ghostbusters, the Paul Feig-directed comedy that saw an all-female cast of Ghostbusters strap on proton packs in an alternate universe divorced from the two original films. Though largely commended by critics, Feig’s Ghostbusters was subjected to a barrage of racist and misogynistic online abuse, with trolls mobilising against the film in a GamerGate-esque smear campaign. Any actor would be forgiven for experiencing trepidation when wading into such a hotly contested franchise, yet Rudd isn’t sweating how moviegoers respond to the film.
“I feel excitement more than anything else,” Rudd says. “I don’t really worry too much about the other stuff. I don’t know if that serves any purpose. You just can’t take on the importance of something to so many people. You hope people enjoy it like they do the original movies. You hope it turns out all right and that’s really all you can do.”
Though he may be more unafflicted by them than most, Rudd is no stranger to great expectations. In 2015, he entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Scott Lang, a master thief who saves the world from imminent danger by shrinking down to ant size with the help of a supercharged shrinking suit. Rudd describes his Ant-Man experience as “surreal”, noting how the extreme visibility of the project is unlike anything he’s experienced before.
“It’s an honour to be part of something so major in so many people’s lives, especially kids,” Rudd says. “It’s strange that no matter where we go in the world, people know these characters and have really strong feelings about them. I came to it a little bit later, but I went to a Comic-Con in San Diego. We went there to announce Ant-Man so I hadn’t even filmed any of it yet. I went to Hall H and I was there with all the other Avengers. It was the first time I had seen them all. The experience was similar to going to a music convention with The Beatles. The response from the Marvel fans was deafening.”
To join the Avengers isn’t just to star in a popular franchise with a colossal cult following—it’s to become part of a staggering commercial machine that spans the globe. Avengers merchandise rakes in over USD1 billion yearly, according to CNBC, allowing characters like Ant-Man to loom large in the imaginations of children everywhere.
“Being an action figure is pretty cool, I’ve got to say,” Rudd says. “The first time I saw myself as an action figure, I couldn’t believe it. When I saw myself as a Lego figurine, I really tripped out because I loved Legos growing up. I see myself as a Lego piece, then an action figure, then a Pez dispenser. I’m not so jaded that I don’t get a kick out of all of that.”
It would be easy for someone whose titles include Ghostbuster and Ant-Man to let fame corrode their sense of self. Yet Rudd, a level-headed Kansas City native, has a characteristically Midwestern sensibility about fame.
“I try to put everything in its proper place,” Rudd says. “It doesn’t define who I am. It’s a part of who I am now—it’s something that I love and it’s my job. But I view myself as a dad and a husband and a friend and all of those things way before I would ever view myself as Ant-Man or a movie star. I don’t; I just don’t. I don’t come from this; I don’t live in California. It’s a really fun job.”
Rudd’s turn as Ant-Man comes as the discourse surrounding Marvel movies continues to evolve in surprising new directions, with legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese making headlines by arguing that Marvel movies aren’t cinema. Scorsese compared the films to “theme parks”, claiming that “it isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”. Rudd is sceptical of the discourse, yet also a deep believer in the emotional power of Marvel movies.
“It seems to me that this gets asked of people just to keep a story going,” Rudd deadpans. “I love Martin Scorsese. I think I know where he’s coming from and I know where we’re coming from when we’re making these movies. If we’re talking about what art is meant to create, isn’t it some kind of response, some feeling, some emotion? I know these movies create that for many, many people. If there’s anything to mourn, it’s that middle- budget films are harder to make now, even in light of all the different streaming services. You can’t get stuff made, but I tend to think that these movies are really good movies.”
Owing to his latest turn as a screenwriter, Rudd has a more direct hand in the making of movies than before. Rudd, who dryly describes himself as a “B-minus” writer, wrote the screenplay to Ant-Man as well as its 2018 sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Screenwriting has shifted his on-set perspective, allowing him a new vantage point as a storyteller.
“When you’re writing, you’re thinking of the movie as an entire thing,” Rudd says. “If each character works, what their arc is, what they’re dealing with, what their backstory might be. By the time we’re filming, I have a much clearer understanding of what the movie is. We change it all while we’re shooting, but I feel like I know it better. It’s really interesting when an actor shows up and says their lines as they interpret them and then it becomes its own thing—it’s no longer this thing that lived in my head.”
Now at the midpoint of his career, as he broadens his resume with screenwriting and producing, Rudd has grown reflective, particularly about what he values outside his day job.
“I really value my privacy,” Rudd says. “You’ve got to stay grounded in the world and as I get older, the things that really bring me joy are smaller things. As a result, I want my world to get smaller.”
As for his strategies to protect his privacy, chief among them is staying off social media. You won’t find Rudd uploading vacation photos to Instagram or riffing jokes on Twitter, though he isn’t immune to social media FOMO.
“There is a bit of a feeling that I know the world is functioning in this way,” Rudd says. “There’s a language that’s being spoken and there are ways in which people are relating to one another that’s different from what I know. Sometimes I think, God, I’m not speaking this language! Does that make me feel like I’m not a part of the human race? In some ways, but I don’t feel it too deeply. Certainly never enough to start up one of those accounts and I think that overall I’m happier for it. I never had an iPhone until I got one for Christmas. Growing up, I never had pagers. I never wanted to. I just don’t think it’s healthy to always be reachable. I think we all need our own headspace and time to be alone with our thoughts, not so attached to our phones and scrolling. If I had social media, I’d get addicted like it seems so many other people are.”
Were Rudd active on social media, he’d likely be more entrenched in the day-to-day online culture wars, particularly as they relate to the fluctuating state of comedy. The Judd Apatow era that made Rudd a household name has largely ended, with the bro comedy genre (think The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) now seeming dated and downright distasteful. Rudd is optimistic about the future of comedy, though not without concerns about what some perceive as an online mob mentality.
“I think it’s an exciting time for comedy,” Rudd says. “I think that you can still be daring. I don’t think that people necessarily want to be hurtful to others. I don’t think that’s a goal, but the world has definitely changed. People talk about not wanting to perform at colleges in the same ways as they used to. Everyone’s afraid of testing out material because somebody might have a phone, then there’s a whole judge and jury out there online, so it seems to me that comedians find this tricky. However, I don’t do stand-up, so I can’t speak for them. But sometimes you think, God, these are jokes. It would be nice if everyone could just laugh again. It’s important that the human race laughs because that’s the way we hear each other.”
Though Rudd is known primarily for his work in comedies, he never set out to be a comedian—in fact, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, later travelling abroad to study Jacobean drama in England. Such an education lent him a nuanced perspective on the interplay of comedy and drama.
“I didn’t imagine that I’d be going into comedy,” Rudd says. “People sometimes talk about me as a comedian, but I never did stand-up. My background was classical theatre. I never thought in terms of comedy or drama, really. I just liked comedy. I have a desire to do interesting roles and different things, but even as a kid, before I was an actor, I remember thinking that there were so many actors that I thought were funny and that people didn’t talk about them in the same way. Comedy wasn’t as important as the serious stuff. I never agreed with that; I don’t think that’s true.”
Even as Rudd’s career has taken surprising turns into uncharted waters, it has retained serious staying power and cultivated within Rudd a deep sense of gratitude.
“Sometimes I’ll look around and realise that I’m now the veteran on set,” Rudd says. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m pleased and proud that I’ve been able to sustain a career that’s gone in some directions I would never have predicted— and that I’ve just been able to work. There are a lot of incredibly talented people in the world, much more than me, and I’ve been lucky enough to do this, which is humbling.”
In considering the length of his fruitful career, Rudd is reminded of a memory from way back at the beginning of his life as an actor—something he’s been ruminating on that illuminates how these decades have changed him. That memory transports him to his early 20s when, as an aspiring actor who’d just moved to Los Angeles, Rudd was rear-ended at a stoplight.
“I got out and the guy was crying,” Rudd recalls. “I said, ‘It’s cool, accidents happen, it’s no problem.’ I was super nice, and he said, ‘My dad’s going to kill me; our insurance rates will go up.’ I said, ‘Hey man, don’t worry about it. Here’s my number. We don’t need to go through insurance; I don’t want your rates to go up.’ I did something really nice.”
When Rudd had his car repaired to the tune of USD600, he eschewed the insurance middlemen as promised and met up with the driver’s father, who baulked at the price and offered to give him USD200. Rudd argued that USD200 wouldn’t pay the bill, to which the man said: “My son described the damage; there’s no way that was USD600. Here’s USD200.”
“I took the USD200 and I drove away, realising I was out USD400 by being nice to this person,” Rudd says. “It’s always bothered me, even in that moment. This is how I’ve changed. When he told me that, I said, ‘All right, just give me USD200.’ I was stunned. If that happened now, I would key off on the guy. I would say, ‘Absolutely not—USD600 is what it cost.’ The ‘nice’, it stays with you, because sometimes you get screwed by being nice. I think I hold onto the rage underneath it a little harder and longer than I once did. But I still think people should be kind, people should be nice, because the world is rough.”
Rudd laments that he never got the driver’s name as he jokes that he’d love to call him out in print. He’s eager to get the Esquire fact-checking department involved in this ongoing investigation and he’d like to pay an uninvited visit to the driver’s house, wherever he may be now.
If you’re reading this and remembering that you rear-ended Paul Rudd 20-some years ago, it’s time to come clean. Rudd has a few things to say to you—but he’s a nice guy, so he probably won’t demand that USD400.
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