Ever since his first major role—as Alicia Silverstone’s ex-step-brother/love interest in Clueless—Paul Rudd has refused to be pigeonholed. His career has been all over the map, including serious stage undertakings like Neil LaBute’s The Shape Of Things and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a long-running role on Friends, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and 200 Cigarettes. But Rudd has always excelled at humor. Too sly for most romantic comedies, Rudd brought his keen timing to films like Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the hilarious Wet Hot American Summer, and to guest spots on Stella and Strangers With Candy. True to his versatility, he’s currently involved with projects in three different media, including the Amy Heckerling comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman, the genre-crossing meta-road-movie Wanderlust (directed by American Splendor's Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; it premièred on TV's Independent Film Channel on May 29), and his winding-down Broadway run alongside Julia Roberts in Three Days Of Rain. The A.V. Club recently talked to Rudd about his love of comedy, his wide range of fans, and his unassuming charisma.
The A.V. Club: Did you know there’s a fan-site dedicated to you that’s called “Unassuming Charisma”?
PR: [Laughs.] No, I did not.
AVC: Now you do.
PR: Well, there you go—now I’ve just figured out the remaining hour of my day. “Unassuming Charisma”? You know how hard it was to actually get the rights to that domain name? Oh, wait a minute, I mean, no, wait, forget it, never mind. That just sounds, wow. Now, would you say that I have unassuming charisma?
AVC: Well, what do you think about that assessment of you?
PR: Um, spot on. Spot on. And I would like to thank whoever set up Unassuming Charisma. Because I am appreciative. And it certainly beats Assuming Charisma, or charismatic-asshole-who-assumes-he’s-talented.com.
AVC: Do you get recognized in public a lot?
PR: Sometimes I do. What’s weird is the different types of people that will sometimes recognize me. I can, and do, walk the street. No one bothers me or anything, because most people wouldn’t know who I am. But the people that do, sometimes it’s from Friends, Clueless still. But if I’m by NYU or something. I can tell who likes Wet Hot American Summer, and who likes, uh, The Object Of My Affection.
AVC: In New York, do you get recognized a lot from Wet Hot American Summer? People who are into that film are very into it.
PR: It’s true, I know. It is true. There’s a cult with that movie. I think, like, if I wasn’t in it, I would be into that movie. I think those guys that made it are brilliant. I’m a fan of Stella and all that shit.
AVC: Why do you think it took that movie so long to find an audience?
PR: Well, when it came out, all the kids that worked for the film company that did it, like all the ones that were kind of below the people who made the decisions, they loved it. The ones who made the decisions didn’t get it. And the critics… It was really divided. Many critics thought it was really kind of meta and ahead of its time and funny, but I would say the majority of them were of a different generation, and they didn’t get it. They thought we were satirizing summer-camp movies, which is not completely accurate, and it was not their kind of thing. So, when they released it, it was so small, the release, and then it was so short, too. It only played in a couple of theaters for a couple of weeks. It’s a word-of-mouth movie.
AVC: You’re friends with a lot of comedians. And you drop in on a lot of shows. Did you ever consider becoming a comedian?
PR: I did, you know, when I was 13, 14 years old. I didn’t really think about it seriously. I was much more interested in just kind of acting and doing other things, although I really liked comedy and seeing comedians and all that kind of stuff. I still am a huge comedy fan and nerd. I’m obsessive about Little Britain, and Mr. Show blew my mind when it came out. It’s kind of cool, especially in New York, because there’s a specific kind of scene here. I’m not really a part of it, I’m not really in it, but I’m friends with a lot of people who are—I still kind of do stuff with them.
AVC: So you never wanted to be a comedian, or you sort of gave up on it?
PR: No, I wanted to early on, but when I started, when I got into college, I started liking the idea of doing dramatic stuff too. I was more interested in acting than just doing stand-up comedy. And then my interests in stand-up started getting really weird. I was into a very anti-comedian thing, a very, kind of, Andy Kaufman performance-art type thing, and I thought, “Well, if I were ever to do comedy, it would so not work, because it wouldn’t be funny.” [Laughs.] I think there are guys like Zack Galifianakis, I just think he’s like the best out there, so good. There are so many really good comedians, and I would never be as good as they are. It’s not my calling. What’s funny is, all the comics want to be musicians.Like Tom Waits or Elvis Costello. Same with actors. A lot of people say, “What’s the worst part about being an actor?” And the worst part is that you’re not a musician.
AVC: You don’t think it’s that whole grass-is-always-greener thing?
PR: I don’t know, I think there’s something about being a musician that seems more appealing. Certainly in acting, I think one of the things is being able to have control over whatever you’re doing. Essentially, at its purest form, if you take the business side out of things…
AVC: Because you’re the one writing the song?
PR: Yeah. You can write a song however you want to. If you’re acting in something, you’re at the mercy of… if you didn’t write the script, if you’re not gonna be directing it. Or if you are, you’re still reacting on what the other person is doing, unless it’s a monologue. So it’s not as much control.
AVC: But you still have some control in what you choose to do.
PR: Well, yeah, yeah, that’s about the only thing you can control a little bit. But at the same time, you still have to work, and sometimes you choose to do things that maybe creatively aren’t the most fulfilling, or the most intriguing or challenging. But, that’s what’s great about doing stuff with friends. Um, I don’t mean the show Friends, I mean my friends, doing things with David Wain. Like, we’re doing another movie.We’re finally going to be able to get another movie off the ground. After Wet Hot, it’s such a struggle. But working with those guys, and working with Judd Apatow and Steve Carell, you know, we all find a lot of the same stuff funny, and I think there’s a kind of trust there. We all kind of trust each other, which makes things more fun to work on.
AVC: So, are you aware of the “Frat Pack” term?
PR: Uh, I am aware of it.
AVC: Because you’re a friend of the people who are supposedly part of it.
PR: I don’t know if I’m so much in the… When I hear of the Frat Pack, I think of, like, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughn, I guess… And then I think of the Brat Pack, and I think of Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez, which in turn makes me think of the Rat Pack, and then I go to, like, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. And then that makes me think of the Lat Pack, which is, like, a lot of muscular guys that, do the pull-down bars and stuff. They have huge lats. Guys like Van Damme, Schwarzenegger in his day, Marc Singer. Which then, in turn, makes me think of the Matt Pack, which is, uh, you know, Matt Houston, Matt Lauer, and uh, yeah… What are some other packs? We can keep going and have so much fun… The Bat Pack…
AVC: People who played in Batman movies?
PR: Oh, that’s really good. See, I was thinking of Evel Knievel, cause he… Who else would beat somebody up with a bat?
AVC: We should get a job at Entertainment Weekly.
PR: This is the kind of stuff that EW dreams of. They could take the transcript from this interview, and I would imagine they’d devote an entire issue to it. And it would have to be one of those double issues, that were the sneak previews of the season, you know. Because literally 50 pages could be filled up with different Packs that are going on.
AVC: Do you want to talk about theater?
PR: When don’t I want to talk about theater? That’s the question.
AVC: You do very serious theatrical productions, and then very funny movie comedies. Does that ever make you feel schizophrenic?
PR: Well, that’s why I have a mosaic print over my bed, of the drama masks. Cause I really live by the tragedy and comedy. I have it embroidered on the sweatshirt that I’m wearing now.
AVC: Which do you prefer doing? Theater or movies?
PR: You know, they’re really individual. I get a lot out of both. There’s a feeling of enrichment and challenge when it comes to doing a play, and especially doing, you know, like a classical play or a tragic play. In a way, it works a different set of muscles, I guess. But I do love it, and I love great writing, whatever it is, and there are so many great plays, and a lot of the writing in a lot of plays is just stellar, and no one is making movies like that––or if they are, I’m certainly not getting cast in them. But you know, working on a comedy with your friends… Like, I would say that with Anchorman and 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wet Hot American Summer,I was working with people who are completely inspiring. I love being around that company, and I try and step up to the level of their game.
AVC: Presumably some of your movies haven’t been that much fun.
PR: Totally. Yeah, there have been a few that… You know, it’s like you go into everything with the best intentions, and you never really know what it’s gonna be. All of the elements can be lined up, and the stars are aligned and everything, and then the movie just turns out to be a clunker, or it’s not fun for whatever reason.
AVC: How did you avoid going the whole romantic-comedy route?
PR: Um, career suicide seemed more interesting than that. I moved out of California. I was in my early 20s––it’s the time in your life when you can afford to do what you wanna do. And I was such a snob and an elitist when it came to my taste in music and my taste in movies and everything else, I was like, “Fuck that. I wanna do cool shit.” I would like to say that I actually said it more eloquently, but I don’t think I did. So after being Josh in Clueless, I did a play for a year, and was not interested in doing another version of Josh. Looking back, I’m really happy with the choices I’ve made in my career. I know for a fact I could be wealthier. Who knows, maybe I could be more successful, maybe not. I don’t know. But just about every single thing I’ve ever done, I’ve gone into with the right intentions, and that goes a long way. It may not pay my rent, but it’s kind of enriching in other, possibly more important ways.
AVC: Do you have a…
PR: One-bedroom? You got it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think it would’ve been different if you’d stayed in L.A.?
PR: I don’t know. I mean, who knows. I didn’t, so, you know, I don’t know. There’s probably more opportunities out there, just because there’s more things being cast out there. But there was also the whole television world, which didn’t really exist here. Though I wasn’t particularly interested in that anyway, so.
AVC: Did you like doing television?
PR: You mean like on Friends? I did. You know, the experience was just surreal. I had only intended to do a couple of shows. I was only supposed to do two. If I had signed a contract to be on the show, I would’ve—just because I tend to do this, it’s probably unhealthy, I’m sure—would’ve had a mild panic attack. Creatively, not the most fulfilling job. And that was a good show, too. And I think that they’re great. But the conventions of sitcom television is stifling, and you just have… It seemed like there was no room for spontaneity, which is crucial in a lot of comedy. Now, that was one of the great ones, so, you know, they were all really good at it, but I always kind of figured I would blend into the background anyway. This show’s about six people, not seven.
AVC: Did you get sexually harassed on the Friends set?
PR: All the time. Every day.
AVC: Did you read any of the reviews for Three Days Of Rain?
PR: I, um… You know, I didn’t read them, but they were impossible to avoid. Like literally, if you get onto a computer, you know, it’s just like “Three Days Of Pain” next to your email. You could piece it together. I know what they said, generally, and some of that I could’ve predicted, I think.
AVC: Because of Julia Roberts?
PR: Easy target. And unfair, I think.
AVC: Do you think critics just want to shoot her down because she’s a movie star trying something new?
PR: I don’t know. That is what everyone would say. I do think that she’s pretty great. I mean, I’m totally impressed with her. And I know many people who have seen the show and have been pretty dazzled, and certainly by her. Who knows what critics are thinking? I know that you make more of a name for yourself, make more of an interesting review, if you’re kind of mean-spirited. But I don’t know.
You know, people are always quick to say the critics obviously didn’t get it. Or the ones that gave good reviews, they obviously got it, but the ones who didn’t, didn’t get it. And I just think, “No, they totally got it. It’s just that this is what they got from it.” So I put less stock in them. Also, I think the criteria seems to have lessened as far as who’s a critic and who’s not. I just read reviews for things I’ve seen, and it seems like lately, in the last several years, I’m thinking, “God, did we see the same thing?”
But I think that you have to look at a critic’s physical appearance. Sometimes on TV or something, I see these critics, and the way they wear their hair… or they’ll have a mustache without any irony, and I think, “This guy’s aesthetic criteria is so completely different from mine. What I think is cool is so not what he thinks is cool.” You go, “What kind of music is this person listening to?” And then I go, “All right, you know what? We have different tastes.” So it just puts their critical analysis in a different light.
AVC: You mean like that guy on the Today show?
PR: Yeah, it’s just like, you know what? Some people should hang it up. Does anyone really think that what Gene Shalit is saying is… You had a nice run in the ’70s. Or Clive Barnes. You know, he’s in his 80s or something, and he’s a theater critic.
AVC: A lot of theater critics are very old.
PR: Yeah, they’re ancient. So I really think that anything sharp and daring and new and interesting can be a generational thing. Like Wet Hot American Summer. I can’t believe I’ve spent this much time talking about critics. Maybe I’ve revealed too much.