Comedy has never been an art form that rewards beauty or self-confidence. The greatest comic actors—such as Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, Charlie Chaplin and Will Ferrell —are less-than-stunning physical specimens who wear their insecurities on their sleeves. And then there are the anomalies, like Paul Rudd. With his boyish good looks and charming personality he seems like somebody who should have the world wrapped around his finger. And yet few actors working today are as believable at portraying what it feels like to be painfully self-conscious and socially awkward.
Rudd’s movie career has run the gamut of human insecurities. There was the 2005 comedy hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which Rudd played an electronics store employee struggling to forget, or maybe win back, a cheating ex-girlfriend. In 2007’s Knocked Up he was a frustrated husband and father acutely aware of the freedoms he’d lost, at one point announcing at a restaurant, “Isn’t it weird, though, when you have a kid and all your dreams and hopes go right out the window?” And in the 2009 comedy I Love You, Man, he was a real estate agent clumsily trying to connect with a male friend.
Director David Wain, who has cast Rudd in several of his films over the past decade—from the 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer to his next feature, Wanderlust—believes the dichotomy between Rudd’s pretty-boy exterior and his not so easily concealed insecurity is a large part of the actor’s appeal. “Paul Rudd is a handsome leading man,” Wain admits. “But in his deepest core he’s still the dorky suburban Jewish bar mitzvah DJ he was as a teenager.”
Wain isn’t being hyperbolic. Rudd actually did earn a living in the early 1990s as an MC and DJ for bar and bat mitzvahs across southern California, sometimes performing under the stage name Donnie the Dweeb. But the suburban kid from Overland Park, Kansas—he was born in Passaic, New Jersey but moved to Kansas at the age of 10 with his father, Michael, a sales manager for TWA, and mother, Gloria—had bigger plans than just hosting parties for Jewish teenagers. One of his first films was the 1995 comedy Clueless.
After Clueless, Rudd’s acting work came in essentially two speeds: cute or crude. He was either the nonthreatening, mildly quirky boy crush in movies like The Object of My Affection and 200 Cigarettes and on TV shows like Friends. Or he was the handsome guy not afraid to make a spectacle of himself in comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Wet Hot American Summer. He eventually made the transition to leading man, and his track record has been hit (Role Models and I Love You, Man) and miss (How Do You Know and Dinner for Schmucks). Soon he’ll try again, with Wanderlust, in which he and Jennifer Aniston star as a New York couple trying to reinvent themselves at a hippie commune in rural Georgia.
Eric Spitznagel, who has interviewed Tina Fey and Steve Carell for playboy, caught up with Rudd at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. He reports: “Rudd and I spent most of an afternoon at the Marmont’s outdoor restaurant, where we consumed four full pots of coffee in rapid succession. Rudd also enjoyed some scrambled eggs with extra bacon and claimed that the artery-clogging meal was a direct order from director Judd Apatow, who apparently wants Rudd to ‘pack on some pounds’ for an upcoming movie. For a man who jokes as often as Rudd, it can be difficult to tell when he’s just pulling your leg. But he did scarf down an awful lot of bacon.”