PLAYBOY: Was it around this time that you started working as a DJ?
RUDD: Yeah, I think so. I did it only occasionally, at this 1950s-themed bar in Kansas City. I had long hair like Michael Hutchence, the guy from INXS, and I refused to cut it. So my bosses made me wear an Elvis pompadour wig every time I worked. It was jet-black and cheap, and over time it got frizzy and didn’t look like a pompadour at all. When I moved to Los Angeles, one of the guys who also deejayed at the Kansas City bar was working for a company called You Should Be Dancing, and he got me a job. I spent my weekends doing bar mitzvahs and keeping 16-year-olds psyched about MC Hammer.
PLAYBOY: You became famous on the bar mitzvah circuit for something called the Donnie the Dweeb dance.
RUDD: Oh Jesus. That happened after an oppressively long day. I had two bar mitzvahs in one day, the first in Santa Barbara and the other in Thousand Oaks. With all the traveling involved, it was like an 18-hour day. Somewhere around the middle of the second bar mitzvah, I was on the dance floor with these kids, and I guess I just cracked. I couldn’t take it anymore. I got so slaphappy that I started dancing spastically, kind of mocking the whole thing just to entertain myself. But the kids thought it was funny, and the following week I was at another bar mitzvah and some kids came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re the guy who does the dork dance.” And I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And they said, “Last week at so-and-so’s bar mitzvah, you did this dance.” They went to my boss and begged him to make me do it. And my boss was like, “Look, man, you have to do it.” So I went out there and he got on the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Donnie the Dweeb!” He gave me a name.
PLAYBOY: What exactly happened during this dance?
RUDD: I don’t know how to describe it without offending many groups of people. It was a combination of…let’s just say some mental disabilities and physical ailments. The full front of negative stereotypes. With socks pulled up. It’s pretty much a metaphor for how I felt about the zit in high school. I was putting on a show for everyone while inside I felt like Coco in Fame, taking my shirt off and showing my breasts for a director. That’s how I felt about it. It became kind of a recurring theme for me.
PLAYBOY: Why did you give up being a bar mitzvah DJ? Did it happen only when your acting career finally took off?
RUDD: No, it was long before that. I had some friends coming to town, and we were going out to the Magic Castle. I told my boss a month in advance, “I need Saturday night off.” But then the weekend came, and I ended up getting requested for this girl’s party. She really wanted Donnie the Dweeb. So my boss said to me, “Can you just stop by and do the dance? I’ll give you $25 and you can get out of there.”
PLAYBOY: Did you do it?
RUDD: I did. And I brought along my friends. One of them was Joe Buck, who went on to become a play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports. And the other was Jon Hamm.
PLAYBOY: From Mad Men?
RUDD: Yeah, both these guys I’ve known since I was a teenager. They came into town, and I said, “Before we go to the Magic Castle, we need to swing by this party. I just have to do this one quick thing.” So we went, and they had no idea what I was doing. They knew I was a DJ for parties, but they had no clue how bad it had gotten. My boss saw my friends, and he said, “I’ll introduce Paul, and you guys can come in as his henchmen”—I guess because they were wearing suits.
PLAYBOY: Wait, hold on. You, Jon Hamm and Joe Buck were all in suits?
RUDD: We had to be, because there’s a dress code at the Magic Castle. So Jon and Joe came out and they were standing to the side, and I pulled the bat mitzvah girl from the audience and put her in a chair in the center of an empty dance floor. And in front of hundreds of guests and family members, I essentially gave this teenage girl a retarded lap dance.
PLAYBOY: Wow. That sounds——
PLAYBOY: That’s one word to describe it.
RUDD: It’s the only word! But at this point, I’d become numb to it. After it was all over I walked over to my friends and said, “Okay, guys, let’s go.” Very casual. We went out to the lobby and—I’ll never forget this—Joe Buck looked at me with the most confused expression on his face. He said with utter earnestness and sincerity, “What the fuck just happened in there?” And at that moment, the reality of what I’d been doing with my life came crashing down. I answered him the only way I could. I said, “I honestly don’t know.” The next day I gave my notice. I quit. I never deejayed again.
PLAYBOY: Even without the DJ job you weren’t particularly happy in Los Angeles.
RUDD: I wasn’t.
PLAYBOY: You once claimed you had a meltdown in the mid-1990s. What happened?
RUDD: It was a series of things coming down on me all at once. I got a job on this TV show called Wild Oats, and it made me skittish. I kept asking myself, “What if it’s a hit? I’ll have to keep doing it for seven years.” The audition was fun, because we got to improvise and goof around, and it felt as though it could be okay. But I got cold feet. My hand was literally shaking as I signed the contract. Even though I needed the money and I was lucky to be a working actor, I was 24 and precious. This is where acting and youth really screw with you. I wanted to do theater. I wanted to do cool indie movies.
PLAYBOY: It got so frustrating that you painted obscenities on the walls of your apartment.
RUDD: Yeah, but that was just a product of age. It seems so romantic to paint on your walls and feel like a tortured artist when really you’re just a whiner. I’d write things like “Fuck this, fuck that.” I wrote about all the things that were getting to me. This was around the time of the Northridge earthquake, in 1994, I think, which was traumatic for me. It happened in the middle of the night, and it spooked me so much that for the next few months I was constantly feeling earthquakes. I’d be in the middle of a conversation with somebody and I’d say, “Did you feel that?” And they would say, “No. What are you talking about?” It was a weird thing. I just didn’t feel sure-footed anymore. A bunch of traumas happened to me in a short time. A friend of mine was killed in an awful car accident, and then I got mugged. It was right around the time we were shooting Clueless. I was in the parking lot of Jerry’s Deli, and the guy was like, “You don’t think it’s a real gun?” He shot it at me, and I could feel the breeze from the bullet next to my head.
PLAYBOY: Did it seem Los Angeles was telling you to get out?
RUDD: Wait, it gets better. I got into five car accidents in just one week.
PLAYBOY: Five car accidents? How is that possible?
RUDD: Two of them happened when my car was parked. I wasn’t even driving at the time. It really did seem like a weird cosmic message from the universe. I’m not somebody who lives my life based on cosmic anything, but it did feel like, “Oh yeah, I get it. Message received, universe.”
PLAYBOY: Why move to New York?
RUDD: Because in New York you don’t need a car. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: That can’t be the only reason.
RUDD: I lived there as a kid. I was born just across the bridge, so it was familiar to me. I’ve always felt safer in New York than in Los Angeles, as weird as that sounds. I don’t want to be surrounded by the industry all the time, and that’s what you get in Los Angeles. Not long after I moved to New York I was cast in this play called The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and I remember walking to rehearsal, holding my script and some coffee, and I just felt so…sane.