6:45am PT by Jackie Strause
'Living With Yourself' Creator and Star Paul Rudd Unpack the "Jigsaw Puzzle" of Their Clone Dramedy
Paul Rudd has tackled a range of roles, but Netflix's Living With Yourself is the first time the actor had to wrap his mind around playing two versions of the same character.
The eight-episode sci-fi dramedy, created and written by Timothy Greenberg, stars Rudd as Miles, an unsatisfied middle-aged man who finds himself meandering about his marriage, job and life, having seemingly given up on the idea that things could be better. When a c-oworker tips him off to an experimental therapy treatment, things go disastrously (and comically) wrong. Instead of emerging as a better version of himself from the DNA-enhancing procedure, Miles has mistakenly been cloned. In a clever two-episode opening arc, Old Miles must confront New Miles — a better, cheerier and refreshed version of himself who is now settling into his life.
"I used to have this nightmare as a kid about running into another version of myself," Greenberg, formerly a Daily Show executive producer, tells The Hollywood Reporter of his inspiration for the windy, existential tale. "But where it all gelled together was once I was married and had kids and was living with my loved ones and saw the way I was behaving, sometimes as a better version of myself and sometimes worse. It became a real question for me: Why is it so hard for me to be my better self? And, more generally, why is it so hard for us to be our better selves?"
Four years ago, Greenberg began writing and eventually turned his questions into a pilot for IFC. But after penning what was then a 10-episode first season, Living With Yourself would ultimately make its way to Netflix. And while the turnaround from the cable channel to the streaming giant was quick, the months between allowed for Greenberg to take advantage of longer episode lengths and add back in some of his bigger-budget ideas. By the time the script made its way to Rudd, the actor had a tightened and complete eight-episode story ready for his review.
"It read like a great book that I couldn’t put down," Rudd, also an exec producer, recalls to THR of accepting his first starring role on TV. "There was a singular point of view, and it was apparent in the writing that this was something that had been worked on for a while, because it had such dimension and complexity to it in that you’re seeing the same event that happened in an early episode happen four episodes later through another set of eyes, and it made me rethink everything I had already seen and imagined."
Similar to other recent existential TV offerings like Amazon's Forever, Netflix's Russian Doll and NBC's The Good Place, part of the fun of watching Living With Yourself is going in somewhat blind to the very bingeable and theoretical twists and turns that await as the story unfolds. The eight episodes shift the narrative to show multiple perspectives, and the story jumps back and forth in the chronological timeline.
"I thought this was a really high-concept way of dealing with the actual themes of the show," says Rudd of larger life questions surrounding happiness. Greenberg adds of those themes, "It’s a little bit that familiarity breeds contempt, but when you fall short of being anything less than wonderful to the people that you love, what the hell does that mean? What does it mean to all of us?"
With the season tightly written, the challenge then came in filming Rudd's dual roles, a task that the team — including Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed all eight episodes — first looked to the actor to sort out. What ended up as a 61-day shoot also meant they had to film the eight episodes in the same amount of time typically allotted for a 90-minute movie.
"We wanted to give Paul the most time prepping and performing in the roles," Faris tells THR. "But you want to be shooting as much of the time as possible, so our biggest stress was that we had to be prepared and you don’t get a lot of prep time on these things."
After polling around town to see how others have approached a dual TV or film role in the past, the team realized quickly that there was no one way — particularly since Living With Yourself requires Old Miles and New Miles to often be in the same frame. So Rudd ended up forgoing a regular stand-in, and the team instead developed a system where he could truly act opposite himself. Rudd would record the voices of both characters and, using an earpiece, flip back and forth to do the scene from both perspectives. Starting with the character who was most driving the scene, Rudd would then act off the recording of his other Miles. The lack of a scene partner presented challenges, like lining up eyelines and mimicking choreography so he could properly react to anything physical his other self was doing, from a slight movement to the more challenging slap in the face.
"It was like he had two brains," Faris brags of the show's star. "Paul knew what he did last as the other character, while also trying to memorize what he was doing next." Adds Dayton, "When you see his back, 95 percent of the time it’s Paul from doing both sides [of the shot]. There would occasionally be a moment in the edit room where the other Paul would disappear and you’d realize you had forgotten that he was acting to thin air. It was this very interesting thing for us as directors to watch someone not just shape a character, but shape a scene by controlling both sides of the conversation."
Rudd knew it would be challenging, which is part of the reason he jumped at the role. "Even if I’m acting opposite somebody you’re not going to see in the scene, I’m still acting opposite somebody while filming it and that will, in essence, change the direction of the scene because I’m going to react to whatever somebody opposite me is doing. Which is fine — if I wasn’t going to have to go around and do the other side of it," he explains of his approach. "So, I thought that if I’m going to be the architect of a scene with these two characters and know the direction it’s going to go in or the direction I'm going to take it in, it would only make sense that I would be reacting off of myself."
Because the season was filmed in block shooting and out of order, Rudd would often jump back and forth from Old Miles to New Miles and across various episodes. Keeping track, he admits, was like a "jigsaw puzzle" and would sometimes require helpful reminders from Greenberg and the script supervisor about what had happened in the prior scene for his characters. "It starts to become just overwhelming and tough to keep in order," says Rudd, still talking of the process in present tense. "Thankfully, I read all of the scripts so many times. I think sometimes a big key to anything is just to read the script over and over again, so that it's ingrained and you know where you’re at. But this was very confusing!"
Even Greenberg himself had his own trick for keeping track of the narratives. "We had to figure that out carefully in the writing and, from pretty early on, we had built a calendar that you could look at and see where all the events happened, just to make sure it all lined up," he says. "There were some things that didn’t work out exactly right that we had to adjust. It’s possible that someone might catch a mistake! But I’m pretty sure we got it all lined up."
To viewers, the two Miles are discernible by slightly differentiating looks. Old Miles wears his dejection heavily with a slumped and out-of-shape posture and glasses, while New Miles has a cleaner and sharper sense of style and haircut — a makeover that Miles' wife Kate (played by Aisling Bea) doesn't seem to notice. "Striking that balance came from our understanding of who each character is, like who New Miles is and what does it mean to have the same memories but not the same physical experiences? To not have actually lived through the pain but to remember it — how does that leave you? That led to these two characters and characterizations that Paul landed on naturally," says Greenberg,
Now, Greenberg is ready to release Miles-squared unto the world and see how the duo fares on Netflix. "I think the audience has gotten more sophisticated that they’re willing to tolerate cross-genre things," he says of the draw to shows that are hard to define in the traditional comedy or drama sense. "I don’t know why it’s a thing now, other then I feel like science-fiction has become much more prevalent in popular culture than it was maybe 20, 30 years ago. There’s just a really sophisticated audience for that, and it’s natural. There are all these cross-genre kinds of things, like the zombie comedy, so I feel like it’s pretty natural to have the existential comedies as well. Groundhog Day was like the master class of existential. But that one really feels like a comedy. Ours feels more dramatic."
Living With Yourself is streaming now on Netflix.