PLAYBOY: Is that a joke, or have you actually done that?
RUDD: That’s entirely true. On the day I met my wife, I asked her for her phone number, and I’ll never forget this: The last four digits were 1764. I was like, “Oh, that’s easy. Brian Sipe, Steve Furness.” Brian Sipe was a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, but his number was 17. And Furness, of course, was number 64.
PLAYBOY: In a way, you were letting her know in advance exactly what kind of guy she was getting involved with.
RUDD: Exactly. She was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The fact that she went out with me anyway says a lot about her. She knew I was a big Steelers fan and a big nerd. In fact, you want to know how much of a Steelers nerd I am? I once made a player entirely out of Legos. I made a Lego version of Craig Colquitt, the Steelers punter.
PLAYBOY: Was he your favorite player?
RUDD: No, John Stallworth was my favorite. But Colquitt was number five, and I had only enough black pieces to do a five. It was pretty good, if I may say so myself. I made a lot of things out of Legos when I was a kid, but this was my pièce de résistance. I did it when I was 10, and when I left home after high school, my mom kept it. When people would come over, she’d show it to them. It survived for 30 years. Just a few years ago I was in Kansas City after my dad passed away, and I found out the punter for the Kansas City Chiefs, Dustin Colquitt, lives across the street.
PLAYBOY: Any relation to Craig Colquitt?
RUDD: Dustin is Craig’s son. So my mom invited him over, and I brought out the Lego statue to show him. I was like, “Hey, look what I made when I was 10. I was really into your dad.” I think he was a little freaked out at first, but then he was like, “My dad’s coming to town in a few weeks. He’s got to see this.” I had to fly back to New York, but I was like, “Sure, bring him over. I’d be honored.” But a few days later my mother was moving some things around and accidentally bumped the Lego Craig Colquitt, and it shattered all over the floor. So Craig never got a chance to see it.
PLAYBOY: You must have been devastated.
RUDD: No, I thought it was hilarious. My mother was destroyed. She still feels guilty about it. She’ll probably burst into tears when she reads this. But I had no emotional attachment to it at all. I just enjoyed the irony that it survived for so many years, all those moves around the country, and just when Craig Colquitt was going to come over and see it, crash, it’s all over.
PLAYBOY: Were you the class clown in high school?
RUDD: I wanted to be, but I wasn’t always good at it. I was definitely into telling jokes and trying to make people laugh as a way of dealing with my insecurities. Once I was driving in my Jeep with somebody, and I thought it’d be hilarious if I jumped out of the car in the middle of our conversation and then ran next to it, continuing to talk as if nothing was wrong. But it didn’t work out so well. [laughs] I ended up slicing my hands open pretty badly. I almost killed myself, and I didn’t even get a laugh. The girl in the car with me was just horrified.
PLAYBOY: When you’re playing a character who’s less than socially graceful, do you ever draw on a painful memory from your youth, a specific time or place when you felt uncomfortable in your own skin?
RUDD: Sure, yeah, I’ve done that.
PLAYBOY: Can you give us an example?
RUDD: Oh God, there were so many. Before you even finished that question, some memory just became unlocked in my brain. I was at a football game—this may have been in junior high or my freshman year of high school. I had the great fortune of having puberty hit me like a Mack truck, where overnight my hair curled up like Hall and Oates’s. My skin went bananas and I had acne all over the place. My mom told me not to pick at my zits because if I did they’d scar over. So I didn’t touch them, and I was very self-conscious about it. One night I was at a party, and there was this girl I had a major crush on. She was part of a social clique I couldn’t get anywhere near because I was so unpopular. I knew people had been making jokes about my zit, so I started joking about it too. I wanted them to think I didn’t care, that this huge megazit on my face was no big deal to me. And this other girl, one of the leaders of the clique, said, “Oh, Paul is just looking for attention, like he always does.” She just belittled me in front of everybody, including the girl I liked.
PLAYBOY: Did you say anything in your defense?
RUDD: Not at all. I just laughed. But inside, of course, I was distraught. I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and was like, “Fuck it!” I just squooshed the zit and pus squirted everywhere. The way I felt in that moment is the same feeling I’ve had in varying degrees throughout my life. It’s helplessness and shame and anger.
PLAYBOY: Does it go away?
RUDD: It doesn’t. And in some cases I’m really glad it doesn’t go away, because, at least for me, I’ve learned to capitalize on that feeling. I’ve devoted my entire acting career to reproducing and dwelling on that feeling. Every character I’ve played is just a variation of that kid with a zit he’s terrified of popping.
PLAYBOY: Did you feel like that awkward kid when you visited President Obama at the White House a few years ago?
RUDD: Oh man, completely. I sweated through a sports coat, which I’m pretty sure is the first time I’ve ever done that. Nothing about that was planned. I was in Washington, D.C. to shoot How Do You Know, and Reese Witherspoon and I were taking a tour of the White House. All of a sudden we were taken into some room, and then a door opened and there was Obama. I’d never seen Reese get flustered, but when he asked her who else was in the movie, she was like, “Jack Nicholson and me and Owen…Owen…Owen.…” And I shouted, “Wilson!” Like it was a party game or something. She forgot his name for a second. And then he made a joke to me, which I completely missed.
PLAYBOY: What was the joke?
RUDD: He asked about my character in How Do You Know, and I told him I’m a guy who gets into some hot water, and though his intentions are good he gets indicted by the government for possible violations. And Obama says, “Oh, so you’re playing a congressman.” And I was like, “No, actually I work for my dad in this corporation.” I’m trying to explain, and Obama interrupts me and says, “It was a joke.” I just felt so stupid. Of course it was a joke, and it’s actually a pretty good one. I’m normally pretty good at catching them. If you’re not the fucking president of the United States, I can usually identify when you’re joking.
PLAYBOY: You didn’t set out to be a comic actor. Wasn’t your original goal to be a Shakespearean actor?
RUDD: That was the plan. Maybe not exclusively Shakespeare, but definitely serious theater. I was pretty focused. One of my first acting roles in college was in an experimental version of Macbeth.
PLAYBOY: Experimental how?
RUDD: There were two Macbeths. Some other guy played the bad Macbeth and I played the good Macbeth. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: That seems unnecessarily confusing.
RUDD: Oh, confusing was the least of it. It was incredibly stupid and pretentious and awful, and I loved it. The director was one of those guys who didn’t wear shoes, and he wanted to do something fascinating and explosive. At the time, it seemed so cool to me. I was 18, maybe 19, that age when everything seems incredible. “Holy shit, you’re telling me you can set Hamlet in Vietnam?” It’s that moment in your life when you realize the world is so much bigger than you imagined.