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 theater, 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 awe-struck. 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,” which debuts Oct. 18. Though some of us may feel that we’ve known him forever, he is, at age 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.
O.K., 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 humor and the humanity in the old, original Miles: a man who was already struggling to fulfill his modest ambitions and must now contend with an unwanted doppelgänger, 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 unsavory sides of the title character.
“Scott Lang was a criminal — we meet him coming out of jail,” said Kevin Feige, the 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 fulfill 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.”
Rudd also reprised his role in the battles royal of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Endgame.” But even as his stock soared, Rudd tried to remain down-to-earth. Feige recalled a trip that he and Rudd took to Hong Kong Disneyland earlier this year to open an attraction based on “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” during which the actor shared an email he received from his mother. She was reminding him to appreciate how special it was to be featured in a Disney ride.
“I thought, oh, that’s why Paul Rudd is Paul Rudd,” Feige said. “Because his mother is incredibly attentive and nice and emails her movie-star son these things in the morning.”
For all of his previous Ant-Man experiences, Rudd said he had never felt so acutely under the microscope as when the widely hyped, widely watched “Endgame” was released in April.
Throughout its opening weekend, Rudd said, “I noticed a heightened awareness. It seemed as if, no matter where I was, people had just seen the movie or they were going to it. Kids had seen it, and then parents of kids knew their kids had seen it.”
As he relayed this memory, Rudd started coughing and he paused to catch his breath. “I just choked on my own spit,” he said. “I swallowed wrong, and I wasn’t even swallowing. This is my allergic reaction to fame.”
The differences in his life since then, Rudd said, as his tone turned arch again, have “been noticeable, but you adjust — and I adjust by staying in my house and peeing in bottles like Howard Hughes.”
He didn’t seem to find as much humor, however, in the inventory of ostensibly well-intended internet posts and memes that comment on his seemingly eternal youth and celebrate him for apparently never aging over the course of his career.
Rudd said he was not on any social media, but when I asked if he knew about this strain of online commentary, he dryly answered, “I’m aware.” He continued: “It’s certainly nicer than hearing, God, that guy looks like [expletive]. I don’t know what to say about any of this — there’s nothing really to say about it.”
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 serialized 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.”)
Rudd added many of his own ideas to the series. He wanted the protagonist’s name changed from George to Miles (he felt he’d played too many Georges in other movies); he had specific jokes written for his characters; and he even had his own strategy for playing Old Miles and New Miles in scenes where they appeared opposite each other.
(As Rudd explained, he first made audio recordings of his dialogue, then filmed his scenes wearing an electronic earpiece that played the recording back to him. “It became like choreography,” he said. “I would hear the words and remember my actions, and I would act like I was looking at myself.”)
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), the husband-and-wife filmmakers who directed all eight episodes of “Living With Yourself,” said that Rudd’s input had been welcome and offered in the right spirit.
They added that his affability was crucial to helping viewers navigate the opening minutes of “Living With Yourself,” which focuses on the pitiable, rundown Old Miles.
“That is the luxury of having an actor who has a body of work and who brings so much of themselves to the screen,” Dayton said. “You aren’t starting at zero. When you see Paul in the first frame, you already know a lot.”
Faris said that the old Miles character “is kind of unleavened, but he helps you get through the first part of this, because you know it’s Paul — you know there’s going to be more than just this guy who’s down in the dumps.”
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.
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.”
Rudd made “Living With Yourself” partly to show that inadequate people can be redeemed, he said, but any inquiries into his own shortcomings were gently deflected with humor. Could he really be flawed himself? “No, that’s the crazy thing!” he said with exaggerated amazement. “That’s what makes it really hard to play these parts. I interviewed a lot of people who do have flaws. I have hours of tapes, filled up notebooks.”
Maybe Rudd wouldn’t reveal, in that setting, what exactly made him as imperfect as everyone else. But the point of a show like “Living With Yourself” is that we all have these imperfections — even those of us who outwardly appear perfect — and there is comfort in this universal truth.
“There are some days where we really feel we’re on our game,” he said. “We’re sharp. We feel comfortable and relaxed. We feel good about how we look, or we feel comfortable about the day. And then there are the other six days of the week.”
Realizing, perhaps, that he was on the verge of saying something too straightforwardly sincere, Rudd put a hand to his heart and began to rhapsodize.
“I think Billy Joel put it best in ‘Keeping the Faith’ when he said the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems,” he said.
He held up his coffee mug and announced: “To William H. Joel. I don’t know if H is his middle initial, but for the purposes of this toast, it is.”
For the record, Billy Joel’s middle name is Martin, but we’ll let Rudd have this one.
Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter whose latest book, “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams, was published in May. @ditzkoff
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