Like many other moviegoers, Paul Rudd emerged from ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ thinking a lot about Brad Pitt. Having spent a couple of hours this summer in a darkened theatre, where he watched the effortlessly self-assured Pitt spar with Bruce Lee, pal around with Leonardo DiCaprio and strip off his shirt to fix a television antenna, Rudd left feeling slightly bedazzled and slightly intimidated, but also feeling that his own place in the cultural hierarchy had been clarified.
“I thought, my God, what a movie star, just so cool,” Rudd said a few weeks ago, still sounding awestruck. His voice rose to an ironic timbre — “Leo’s no slouch either!” — before it returned to its usual, gentler register as he described how the Brad-gazing experience reminded him that audiences were never going to see him in quite the same way.
“I came to terms pretty early on,” he said, “that I was not going to be the guy up there that people would watch, going, ‘Yes! That’s who I want to be!’”
Rudd has been a film and TV star in his own right for more than 25 years now, from his earliest appearances in movies like ‘Clueless’ to his first Netflix series, ‘Living With Yourself,’ out now. Though some of us may feel that we’ve known him forever, he is, at 50, just reaching a new peak of fame, thanks in part to mammoth Marvel blockbusters like ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ in which he plays the wisecracking superhero Ant-Man. He’s been filming a lead role in a new ‘Ghostbusters’ movie that is planned to open next summer and which could elevate him even higher.
But his costumed adventuring is an outlier. Rudd has carved out his particular piece of pop-cultural turf by playing people who don’t necessarily get to swagger triumphantly, save the day or induce swooning.
OK, maybe just a little swooning. But the tough, quiet Brad Pitt roles are “not coming my way, and I’m not fighting for them,” Rudd said. “Because the truth is, I don’t quite relate to them in the same way that I relate to a guy who is mildly depressed or put-upon, and trying to fight his way out of this common situation.”
His wheelhouse, as Rudd understands it, is a certain sort of Everyman who, despite the good looks and charisma, is an avatar of averageness. In his most successful performances, he is besieged by quotidian problems; he is blessed with impeccable comic timing but at his funniest when he’s flailing and frustrated. Sometimes he can seem like two people at once.
It’s a dichotomy Rudd uses to full advantage in ‘Living With Yourself,’ a comedy-drama with a science-fiction twist. In the series, he plays Miles, a dejected brand executive who has lost his passion for his work and his marriage. On a tip from a co-worker, he tries a mysterious spa treatment that he hopes will make him a new and better man — and which instead results in the creation of a clone (also played by Rudd) who is seemingly superior to Miles in every way.
With its dry, deadpan tone, ‘Living With Yourself’ is a show that might not work half as well without Rudd’s inherent duality.
Of course he can handle the role of New Miles, the guy who seems always to have a spring in his step and a smile on his face. At an August breakfast in Manhattan’s West Village, Rudd was as charming as advertised. Clad inconspicuously in a baseball cap, T-shirt and shorts, still sporting his summer vacation beard, he was conscious of his celebrity without indulging in it, as when he spoke credibly about taking the subway like a civilian. (“If I talk to somebody, they’re like, ‘Why are you riding the subway?’ Because I need to get somewhere!”)
But ‘Living With Yourself’ also allows Rudd to find the humour and the humanity in the old, original Miles: a man who was already struggling to fulfil his modest ambitions and must now contend with an unwanted doppelganger, whose very existence creates standards he can’t live up to.
The truth is, there is a certain amount of the old Miles in Rudd, too: The actor knows how it feels to want the same seemingly fundamental things as everyone else — and to be misapprehended in those pursuits. He wants to feel that he is good at what he does and is expressing himself through it, but he also wants to hold on to a sense of commonality and privacy that he sometimes feels is slipping away.
When it comes to his work, Rudd said, “I don’t have any sort of grand statement to make, to anybody. I don’t want people to know that much about me, really. I don’t have much of an interest in being an open book.”
That doesn’t mean Rudd can’t appreciate the strange serendipity he has enjoyed in his career, and which has steered him to some indelible cultural moments, whether it’s the final season of ‘Friends’ or the highest-grossing superhero movie in history. As he put it, “I’ve lived enough life to know that nothing you think is going to happen happens in the way you think it’s going to happen.”
No sooner had he finished saying this than a server came to our table and offered us a complimentary plate of breakfast pastries.
In some alternate universe, maybe Rudd could have just continued smirking and slappin’ da bass through character comedies like ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘I Love You, Man.’ But his trajectory took an unexpected turn about five years ago when he was asked to play Scott Lang, the hero of Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man,’ which was to be directed by Edgar Wright.
Rudd was excited about the idea of working with Wright, whose action-comedies include ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Baby Driver,’ and Marvel thought Rudd could perfectly embody both the sweet and the unsavoury sides of the title character.
“Scott Lang was a criminal — we meet him coming out of jail,” said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “But also, he has a child, and you’d need somebody who could be funny and do action and who you would feel for as the father of this little girl.”
Rudd’s comedic chops were also an asset if Marvel ever hoped to fulfil its long-term vision of cramming all its heroes into one film. As Feige put it, “One day, this person might need to do a scene with Robert Downey Jr.”
When Wright left the film over creative differences and Peyton Reed took over as director, Rudd stayed on as an actor and a behind-the-scenes contributor of ideas and dialogue, eventually earning writing credits on ‘Ant-Man’ and its sequel, ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp.’
One might assume that Rudd chose to do ‘Living With Yourself’ as an attempt to get back to his comic roots, to show that he encompasses more than his internet caricature or to stake his claim in the streaming television gold rush. But as it happens, Rudd isn’t a rabid consumer of serialised TV — “I haven’t seen ‘Fleabag,’” he said in our conversation, “but I know I love it.” (He has since seen two episodes, he said by text.) He just happened to have read and liked the scripts.
‘Living With Yourself’ was created and written by Timothy Greenberg, a former executive producer for ‘The Daily Show.’ Greenberg, who wrote all of the show’s first season, drew his inspirations from various sources, including a persistent childhood nightmare about meeting his exact double, as well as a frequent argument he had with wife, who wondered why he was sometimes very sociable and other times sullen and solitary.
“She would say, ‘Why can’t you just be the happy you?’” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Who doesn’t want to turn on a switch and always be the best version of themselves?’ But we can’t do that.” (He added that he and his wife were “very happily married” and “beyond this now.”)
A lifetime in show business has made Rudd protective, not only of himself but also of his family: a wife and their two children, whom he discussed only from the standpoint of his angst about raising them in a metropolis like New York City.
Now his film work also requires a level of secrecy that he is unaccustomed to, and he worried that even my describing the contents of his breakfast would give away whether he was or was not in training for another ‘Ant-Man’ movie. “Feel free to not put in the fact that I’m eating bacon,” he said. “Eggs would be fine.”
(Asked what further plans Marvel had for Rudd and his character, Feige, the Marvel Studios president, said: “The chess pieces were arranged very purposefully after ‘Endgame.’ Those that are off the board are off, and those that are still on, you never know.”)
Rudd had to be cautious, too, when talking about his ‘Ghostbusters’ movie, which is directed by Jason Reitman and will reportedly feature appearances from founding ‘Ghostbusters’ cast members like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.
“I grew up watching that movie,” Rudd said of the original ‘Ghostbusters,’ “and this happened to be one where it completely works on its own. You don’t want to do it just because it’s part of a larger thing, but there is the added bonus of being part of something that has a real place in culture.”
But he would not say what it was like to strap on a proton pack for the first time, or if he even wields one in the film.
“It remains to be seen what I strap on,” Rudd said. “I’m not giving you anything.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Living With Yourself’ is now streaming on Netflix.