Paul Rudd on Playing the "Nice Guy," Empowering His Kids to Be Politically Aware

Paul Rudd - New Yorker Festival - H - 2019
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Describing himself as a "beta male" with occasional alpha tendencies, Rudd explained during the New Yorker Festival panel how leaning into that with his characters in 'Our Idiot Brother' and 'I Love You, Man' helped him deliver more "vulnerable human moments."

Paul Rudd has made a name for himself in Hollywood as the "nice guy," but during a Saturday night panel at this year's New Yorker Festival, the Ant-Man star attempted to playfully dispel that image while sharing why he's drawn to it in his films.

"I think that when I get a little nervous, I get a … smile," Rudd said about his charming interview persona during the 90-minute talk at Gerald W. Lynch theater. "I also think there's something about the Midwest. The people that I grew up with in the Midwest — there's something hardwired in them that they just don't take themselves too seriously. They don't get too big for their britches."

Rudd, who grew up mainly in Kansas City, Missouri, followed that up with a joke about his wife, who he said doesn't share audiences' vision of him. But that hasn't stopped Rudd from playing it, and even using the trope to explore images of masculinity and vulnerability. Describing himself as a "beta male" with occasional alpha tendencies, Rudd explained how leaning into that with his characters in Our Idiot Brother and I Love You, Man, helped him deliver more "vulnerable human moments."

"There are times I feel powerful, but those are few and far between," Rudd told moderator and New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter. "And I think that playing that kind of insecurity or somebody that's overwhelmed with the world, that doesn't know exactly what to do to make their life better, their relationship better — themselves better — but is fighting a noble fight? That speaks to me, and I feel like that is where I live."

He was particularly proud of how he played that through Our Idiot Brother. While talking about a pivotal scene in which his character Ned Rochlin's disastrously cheery facade "cracks" during a game of charades with his family, Rudd said the scene wasn't initially in the script, but added later. It was also inspired by an ending scene in the 1996 drama Secrets and Lies — a moment that made him cry when he first saw it.

"[Ned's] kind of unflappably positive, and in order to make that work, you have to have a moment … where he cracks, and you see what's underneath," Rudd said. "It's central for all of it and especially when you see where that anger builds. That's kind of the most important part of the film. It justifies everything else."

The rest of the sold-out conversation explored a variety of topics, occasionally getting personal between discussing Rudd's transition from comedies to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, working on Friends and the experience of having two directors for his new Netflix show Living With Yourself.

The Anchorman and Clueless actor rehashed his surprise at Marvel not having "a factory" for actors to bulk up for their roles, how he found his trainer and changed his diet. He also reiterated his previously expressed disappointment at not getting to work with director Edgar Wright. While talking about that first Ant-Man film, the star and co-writer shared why comedian Garrett Morris made a cameo appearance as the driver of a parked car that the hero falls onto the hood of.

"A lot of people might not know this, but the guy in that car is Garrett Morris, and you know he was in the original cast of Saturday Night Live," Rudd said, referring to a clip that had just been screened. "The reason we did that was because of that famous sketch from Saturday Night Live where John Belushi plays the Hulk in that whole party in the New York apartment. Well, [Morris] actually played Ant-Man in that sketch and so we said we had to get him in there for that cameo."

Specter had tackled more personal questions with the actor about his childhood and how he got into entertainment at the start of the panel, but used his pivot from Marvel to discuss how Rudd was handling politics and the current news cycle at home. For the most part, the household doesn't keep the news on in the background like they used to, Rudd explained. Still, his kids are "aware" of what's going on and have even attended the recent climate march, as well as a march against gun violence led by the Parkland students.

"We keep them engaged with the world and let them come up with their own opinions about things. We're immigrants [Rudd's parents are from London]. This is a country of immigrants, and that's a strength. So they're passionate about it and know what they're talking about," Rudd said about his family to cheers. "I keep telling them that this is an anomaly, and this is not normal. Hopefully, it will be normal again."

That was the second time Specter had broached the issue of politics in Rudd's panel, with the first time earning considerably more laughs. Earlier in the panel, Specter recalled a text message he had received from a Stanford colleague who was "very alarmed" at the role Ant-Man's "crappy" quantum realm science had played in "the horrors visited upon the American people in 2016."

"I'm so narcissistic that when [you] said the role I played in mirroring American history I immediately thought to myself, 'Was I in a film called American History [X]?'" Rudd said to loud laughs. "But yeah, if only I could shift quantum reality and right that ship."