Paul Rudd is about to hit the big-time with Ant-Man. But don’t expect him to change, says Molly Young. He’ll always be the most likeable man in Hollywood
On a Friday night in May, I met Paul Rudd to see a play on Broadway.
In advancing the task of examining his fundamental Ruddness, I thought a shared activity would provide us something to talk about beyond the mandatory promotional patter. (Which is this: He is starring in the newest Marvel movie, ‘‘Ant-Man’’.)
Rudd suggested ‘‘Fun Home,’’ the musical based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, which deals with topics like parenting, queer theory and Chippendale furniture.
I got to the theatre just six minutes before the play started and spotted Rudd sitting in the third row: tweed jacket, pants of no importance, museum-quality forehead. The seats on either side of him were occupied. An usher investigated.
It turned out the woman on Rudd’s left had misread the tiny print on her ticket; she moved over, and I shuffled in.
‘‘I was starting to worry that this had been an elaborate prank,’’ Rudd said, looking a little anxious.
The lights dimmed.
Here I realised the miscalculation of taking my interview subject to a dark room where we couldn’t talk. As the play began, I was left to monitor his movements in my peripheral vision and ponder freely.
One thing you always hear about Rudd is that he is ‘‘likeable,’’ which is true, but it doesn’t actually explain his appeal. On its own, after all, ‘‘likeable’’ is faint praise.
If ‘‘likeable’’ is the best adjective you can think of to describe an actor, you’re excluding a whole raft of others: intelligent, formidable, mesmeric, knee-buckling (all of which apply to Rudd).
The main thing about Rudd is not that he is likeable, but that he is funny, and that his particular flavour of funniness is something no other actor possesses at the moment.
For one thing, Rudd always seems in on the joke, even if his characters tend not to be. He gravitates toward roles that look askance at themselves.
If he plays a straight man, it’s a riff on a straight man; if he plays a dreamboat, it’s a dreamboat in scare quotes. And the detachment isn’t chilly or James Francoesque; instead, it’s inviting.
He lets you in on the joke, too. This helps: Rudd is handsome, and the union of good looks and humour is as rare in Hollywood as it is in nature. You can add Rudd to any movie, and the movie will taste better. He is the MSG of actors.
Look at other performers nearby on this scatter-plot graph. Like Owen Wilson, Rudd is affable, but without Wilson’s just-got-hit-on-the- head-with-a-mallet countenance.
Rudd is youthful, but not in the arrested-development way of a Leonardo DiCaprio. He doesn’t roll knee-deep in models.
He doesn’t wear a fedora. He is long-married, with two children. He is palpably smart. He wears sturdy walking shoes and has a taffy-like smile.
‘‘Fun Home’’ was performed at a theatre in the round, and every few minutes my eyes would drift across the stage and land on an audience member staring at the seat next to me.
It was possible, and highly compelling, to clock the process of that person as he or she converted an ordinary moment into an event (‘‘the time I saw Paul Rudd’’). The range of stares — old, young, female, male, sexually alert — suggested the scope of his appeal.
Seemingly every American moviegoer has at least one touchstone Paul Rudd performance lodged in his or her heart.
For goofballs, it’s his character in ‘‘Wet Hot American Summer’’: a belligerent waffle-eating Romeo with dumb eyes. For the Dionysian bro, it’s the desk-slapping newsman of ‘‘Anchorman’’ (and ‘‘Anchorman 2’’).
For cynics, it’s Pete in ‘‘Knocked Up’’ and ‘‘This Is 40’.’ For monogamists, it’s his horny journeyman in ‘‘Wanderlust’’.
For most women, it is Josh from ‘‘Clueless’’. Naturally, Marvel is not interested in any of the small-fry demographic slices captured by Rudd’s other movies, women included.
The Marvel bet is that the actor’s magic can be combined with the studio’s batting average to turn ‘‘Ant-Man’’ into the equivalent of Josh from ‘‘Clueless’’ in the hearts of movie-watching males. As evidence of this wager, note that a seven-inch Rudd-as-Ant-Man action figure is already available for $24.95 at the studio’s web store, limit two per customer.
Later, as Rudd maneuvered up the theatre stairs and through the front door, a wordless ripple of lit-up eyes followed him, culminating in some fans’ stopping him to take selfies outside. His effect on reality was distorting, but in a pleasant way. A sprinkle of MSG.
Pinewood Atlanta Studios is a gated complex in Fayetteville, Ga., containing what looks like a couple of Walmarts: big Duplo-block structures built on a scale that feels vaguely hostile to humanity. This is where your superhero movies are made.
It was a week after the play, and Rudd sat in his trailer at Pinewood waiting to be summoned to the ‘‘Captain America: Civil War’’ set, a two-minute S.U.V. ride away.
Last year he filmed ‘‘Ant-Man’’ at this same complex, and now that the character has been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you can expect to see him popping up in future big-budget properties.
When he appeared on ‘‘Late Show With David Letterman’’ in April, Rudd described his superhero’s powers in these words: ‘‘He wears a suit, and he shrinks down to the size of an ant. And he can also, um, control the ants. Communicate with the ants.’’ Cue audience tittering.
Rudd’s path to leading-man status has been less a rocket ascent than a pinball trajectory.
He grew up in a suburb of Kansas City to British-born parents. ‘‘I wasn’t one of those kids who was like, ‘I want to be an actor,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘It wasn’t in my wheelhouse at all. I wasn’t from a family that did this or in a place where people did this.’’
He acted in college, moved to Los Angeles, was cast as the Mr. Knightley analogue in ‘‘Clueless,’’ then went to study Jacobean drama at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England. After Oxford, Rudd moved to New York and alternated theatre work with movie work. He has lived there ever since.
Rudd co-wrote the ‘‘Ant-Man’’ screenplay, which may be a reason the movie has a light subtext of self-aware why-is-this-movie-getting-madeness that will either charm you into submission or make you squirm, depending on your level of cynicism about Hollywood.
It’s the same gloss of irony that shimmered across the surface of ‘‘Guardians of the Galaxy’’ and the world was fine letting that movie have its cake and eat it too, for the simple (but sort of profound) reason that Chris Pratt seemed like a guy who deserved cake.
Surely the same is true of Rudd. He is the kind of optimised everyman that normal everymen might elect into the office of representing them on-screen, if such men were given a ballot.
To prepare for the day’s scenes, Rudd drank black coffee and watched an infomercial about an eight-in-one all-purpose wheelbarrow available for four easy payments of $39.95.
One of the wheelbarrow’s advertised functions was as a ‘‘rock mover,’’ which made him laugh. It also converted to a snowplow, which aroused Rudd’s skepticism: ‘‘I’ve seen a lot of wheelbarrows in my time, and none of them can do that,’’ he said, changing the channel.
The trailer’s interior was clean and entirely brownish. Everything had a dimmer switch or was in some other way adjustable. In the dressing-room area, Rudd’s Ant-Man costume constituents were tidily arranged.
A variety of exoskeleton pieces, which I’m not allowed to describe, were laid alongside a smattering of accessories and an array of foundation garments, right down to a silky square of underpants. It was a new version of the suit, made for ‘‘Civil War’’ and Rudd had not yet tried it on.
There was a knock on the door: A woman had arrived to help him into his outfit. ‘‘It’s like a pit crew,’’ he said.
‘‘I can’t get into the suit myself.’’
When Rudd emerged from the dressing room a few minutes later, he was standing very erectly and looking like a man-size version of his own toy.
‘‘I can’t bend my knees,’’ he said.
‘‘And I can’t really sit down. But I can dance!’’ (He danced.)
Then he angled his way into an S.U.V. and was driven around the corner to the set, which looked like a disembodied quarter of a sports arena made entirely of green-screen material, populated by a fleet of heavy machinery and a couple of hundred people engaged in detailed tasks.
Many of the crew on the set worked on ‘‘Ant-Man’’ too, and they wore frayed ‘‘Ant-Man’’ baseball caps and goofed around with Rudd as he plodded around in his heavy suit. They did not instinctively stay out of his way, as they did around some of the other actors.
‘‘It’s gonna be a scorcher,’’ someone said.
‘‘Can I get you a hot coffee?’’ ‘‘Yes,’’ Rudd said. ‘‘Also do you have any chili?’’ Next, he stepped into a tent among a row of tents, where the Ant-Man costume was further rigged by six more people.
The choreography of this rigging must also remain secret. Whenever Rudd roamed the studio grounds in uniform, he wore a cloak covering himself from head to toe, to thwart stealth photographers determined to leak pictures of the costume online. Even the uncloaked eight-pace journey from his trailer to the S.U.V. presented a slight risk.
People care deeply about revealing these things to the world — the size of a thigh holster or the cut of a reinforced combat trouser — and Marvel cares deeply in turn.
Members of the Marvel security team on the set spoke of ‘‘bloggers’’ the way Dick Cheney once invoked a ‘‘global terror network’’ — in order to suggest a cabalistic threat, to make a rhetorical point about risk, to justify seemingly irrational behaviour, or all three.
There were designated garbage bins for sensitive documents. When a distracted crew member dropped a call sheet, it took one second for three other crew members to dive for that sheet and press it back upon its owner. Because who knows what could happen?
A barn owl could swoop down, snatch the paper, eat it, fly directly over a Marvel superfan’s house and regurgitate the call sheet in a scrutable format onto that fan’s flagstone patio. Stuff could go viral.
Rudd emerged from his black-ops costume tent and headed over to chat with his stunt double.
An undisclosable number of other Avengers were also on set with their stunt doubles, and it was fun, in a primitive way, to see the pairs standing next to each other: the actor, on one side, looking like a photograph of himself; and the stunt double, on the other side, emitting the distinct aura of a knockoff.
Around 9.15, it was time to shoot. There were shouts of ‘‘Here we go’’ and ‘‘Rolling”.
Rudd put his Ant-Man helmet on. They filmed a scene. It took four seconds. Everyone went back, reset and filmed the scene again. Another four seconds. Then a pause. Rudd removed the helmet and drank some water.
He vanished for a moment and then reappeared carrying a padded briefcase with tubes streaming out of it that plugged into the lower back of his suit to circulate chilled water throughout the armored costume. The briefcase was not so much a frivolity as a form of insurance against passing out.
The Georgia weather is so crazy — so hot, so sticky, so much like being baked inside a fruit pie — that it consumed all small talk and evaporated all vanities.
Between shots, Rudd exercised a knack for inclusive tomfoolery. At one point, his assistant of two years, a human-shaped sunbeam named Thomas Deming-Henes, wheeled over a swivel chair in case his boss wanted to sit down. Before sitting, Rudd exaggeratedly paused and wiped a mote of dust off the seat.
‘‘Oh, here, let me get that,’’ said Deming-Henes, pretending to clean the dust with a corner of his shirt.
‘‘Oh, here, let me get that,’’ said another crew member in turn, wiping Deming-Henes’s shirt corner with his own shirt corner. Rudd: ‘‘Can this be reupholstered?’’
Then, affecting to sit down: ‘‘Why aren’t you guys lowering me?’’ Giggles all around.
Twenty feet away, a different Avenger hammily belted show tunes into a personal fan while some crew members pretended to laugh. Noninclusive.
Even if he’s angelic about it, Rudd is still a grown man being paid tons of money to depict a bug. And that does take a village. When he sat in the chair, a kink formed in his cooling tube and blocked the flow of air.
An assistant noticed and darted over to fix it. Someone else paper- toweled the actor’s forehead.
A third person buffed a buffable portion of his costume. He was offered water, almonds and gum in Bubble Breeze and Arctic Grape flavours.
I was eating an apple from craft services and joined the chorus to offer Rudd a bite, which he accepted like a suckling pig — his hands were gauntleted and immobile — and then had an allergic reaction to.
If he knew he had an apple allergy, why did he take a bite? ‘‘It seemed like the right thing to do,’’ Rudd replied, his tongue fuzzy. It was a mild allergy.
‘‘I’m not good at small talk, I’m really not,’’ Rudd told me after the play in New York, inching his way through a glass of Scotch.
‘‘I’m not that great at any talk.’’
This wasn’t entirely true, but his fluency see-saws, depending on the topic of conversation.
Talking about himself: not very fluent. Talking about bagpipes, moving sidewalks, music with synthesizers, the sinking of the Lusitania, baseball, aquariums or Paul Newman: very fluent.
Rudd was more reflective in Atlanta, where he was staying in a high-rise hotel suite with a view of downtown: two pools, two cranes, a residential hotel, a construction site and a billboard for Jimmy John’s restaurant.
The room had a microwave and a leather ottoman topped with a fan of regional magazines. (Rudd: ‘‘I brought those with me.’’) That morning, he had a fitting and then an interview and then a nap, during which he had a dream that he could no longer remember.
He handed over the slab of a room-service menu and said: ‘‘What looks good? Probably nothing,’’ which was correct.
Lately, he had been eating a lot of plain almonds and oatmeal in order to snap nimbly into the Ant-Man costume.
In New York, I had asked a lot of questions about this particular aspect of the Marvel machinery: When Rudd was hired, did someone at the studio tell him precisely how much he needed to weigh and which of his muscles to magnify?
Are actors fully customizable, like luxury sedans? The answer is yes, but tacitly. ‘‘No one said anything to me,’’ he said. ‘‘I just kinda took it upon myself.’’
He added: ‘‘I had a great trainer, but Marvel didn’t find him for me. I found him myself. I was like, ‘Make me an ant.’’’
The same applied to research, which Rudd undertook on his own.
For example: ‘‘The fascinating thing I discovered about ants is, if some water comes along and they need to avoid drowning, they innately know to cross their legs with each other and connect to create a raft.
The youngest ants, the baby ants, are the most buoyant, and they put them in the middle.’’
I asked him how he incorporated this into his performance. ‘‘It’s in there,’’ he said.
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