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"I don't wanna be a dickhead": Paul Rudd on what it's really like to be Hollywood royalty

Ageless. Handsome. Funny. But is fame all it's cracked up to be?

"I don't wanna be a dickhead": Paul Rudd on what it's really like to be Hollywood royalty
01 August 2018

It’s a small thing, and I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does. While I’m asking Paul Rudd a question, he twists open the bottle of sparkling water on the table and pours me a glass before doing so for himself. Moments before I had said that when describing him in this piece I would be avoiding the overused word ‘likable’. Goddamnit, he’s going to make this hard.

I had expected to find that Rudd, however charming onscreen, might be something of a closed book. A man who has spoken in the past about not being fond of discussing himself (something I would describe as a hurdle in a 45-minute, one-on-one interview), he could easily have been like a beautiful cat or piece of furniture: lovely to look at but nothing to say.

But a comment of his in a recent newspaper profile sparked my interest. He said that when giving interviews, it is becoming difficult to discern what is real and what isn’t: he has told the same anecdotes and answered the same questions for so long (he is 49 but, famously, keeps a portrait in his attic) that he doesn’t necessarily know whether he is telling the truth. It is this Rudd – a man amusedly conflicted about fame’s repercussions – that I meet in the bar of a London hotel after he’s climbed off the piano and put down the pineapple.

“In my twenties I often thought I was casually strolling towards a midlife crisis, and it started picking up speed”

Eye contact is important, and Paul Rudd gives so much of it you’re suspicious of hypnotism. He arrives with an entourage – a personal publicist, two Disney publicists, a personal stylist and a Welsh bodyguard called David – and stands tall and straight, surprisingly solid, in a cream suit, light-blue untucked shirt and polished brown shoes. At one point, during a break from gamely posing for photos, he stands stock-still in the way that only supremely famous people can, and the eye contact he gives me causes me to flinch. You don’t normally lock eyes with a celebrity. When you do, you immediately feel like apologising or running away.

The eye contact doesn’t let up when he sits opposite me half an hour later, the bar evacuated of everyone but the two of us. I ask him about the comment that intrigued me. 

“When you’re doing interviews for a long time and you have to reflect on what the trajectory of your life has been,” he says, “you don’t know how much truth there is or if your narrative has been moulded by the interviews that you’ve given.”

He is always going to be asked about his early influences, and has often cited early Steve Martin records. Is there truth in that? 

“Yes,” he says, “but there were many other things that I liked as a kid. Did that inspire me to go into this career? I don’t know; maybe I just liked them when I was a kid.” 

He has also said in numerous interviews that he realised he wanted to perform after his sister was born, when he started needing to compete for attention. “Now there’s truth in that as well. But it all changes.”

We all have this problem when telling stories about our lives. But for someone so regularly asked to talk about his, it must play havoc on the mind. “I’ve often said things in interviews that are not true,” he says. “I just don’t… Sometimes I don’t wanna talk about anything real.” 

This week sees the release of Rudd’s latest film Ant-Man And The Wasp. For someone who breaks into Marvel superhero echelons of celebrity, there are several stops on the fame train. Rudd explains the different reactions he has inspired over the years. 

“First, people think: ‘Did we go to school together?’ That’s level one. Level two is, ‘Whoa, hey, how’s Alicia Silverstone?’ Level three is, ‘Are you Paul Rudd?’” At the fourth and fifth levels, people know exactly who he is and what he’s been in, and they refer to a range of different movies and characters. “And then the next thing you know,” he says, “20 years have gone by.” His green eyes crinkle up, as they do whenever he finds something unexpectedly funny – which is very often.

As a young actor, Rudd didn’t dream of becoming famous overnight; he dreaded it. He says he was afraid of starring in a film that thrust instantaneous celebrity on him. Isn’t this just the hindsight of someone who managed to become increasingly well-known in the unhurried way that a Hollywood veteran would recommend? Did he really think that way at the time? 

“Oh yeah, I didn’t want that to happen. I thought it would be harder to sustain. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been ready for it emotionally.”

And so, whenever fame batted her eyelashes and beckoned him to come hither, the young Rudd instead took a side-step to develop as an actor. 

“I wanted to learn the craft – excuse me while I just bring up some bile in my mouth,” he says, “but it’s true.” 

“When you look at the state of the world and what’s going on, who gives a shit if I’m drinking out of a pineapple in a photoshoot for a magazine?”

After Clueless, he moved to New York to act in a play, and after his first job on a TV show, he went to study Jacobean drama at Oxford’s British American Drama Academy. Listening to him describe this period, I wonder if being 22 in Oxford might have been the happiest time in his life.

“I loved it. I loved working on Shakespeare. I loved living in the dorms at Oxford. I loved walking the campus. I loved getting tea. I loved memorising the lines. I loved working on the plays. My hair was down to the middle of my back. I was enthusiastic and optimistic and taking everything in. It was joyous.”

It was also grounding, he says: “It made me feel as though my place in all of it was the right place, which was infinitesimal. I was a small cog in a wheel that’s been spinning for a long time.”

How has he changed in the intervening 27 years?

“I thought about this recently and I think that one of the great joys in life is knowing that everything’s ahead of you – the big questions, such as: ‘I wonder what I’m gonna do for a job when I grow up’; ‘I wonder who I’m going to marry’; ‘I wonder if I’ll have kids’; ‘If I have kids, I wonder what their names will be’; ‘I wonder where I’m gonna live’. When I was younger, if everything got me down it didn’t matter because all that was ahead. I think that it’s sometimes harder in life when those questions have been answered and all of a sudden you think, ‘What do I have now to look forward to?’”

This is how midlife crises happen, I say. Rudd thinks that, like most things in his life, his midlife crisis has been a slow burn.

“In my twenties I often thought I was casually strolling towards a midlife crisis, and it started picking up speed all throughout my late twenties, thirties, forties… I joke, but then I also think there’s truth in that.” 

When you’ve starred in some of the most successful comedies of the past 25 years, become a superhero who gets his own suit and defied the fundamental laws of time in the way that Paul Rudd has, one might imagine that you wouldn’t have a care in the world. Rudd is quick to say otherwise. 

“Just because I do this as a job and I’m famous doesn’t mean I don’t experience all the things everybody else experiences,” he says. “There are some things I don’t worry about as much as other people might, but I bet I worry about certain things that most people don’t.”

The photoshoot, for example, triggers a certain level of internal conflict. 

“Because I’ve done comedies, people say, ‘Let’s have fun with this and make it funny.’ I’m torn. If I see myself in these photos, sometimes I get sick to my stomach and I think, ‘Why did I do that?’ And yet in the moment I’m, like, ‘Let’s get this pineapple!’” But, he says, it’s important to retain a sense of perspective: “When you look at the state of the world and what’s going on, who gives a shit if I’m drinking out of a pineapple in a photoshoot for a magazine?”

The person who gives most of a shit, of course, is Paul Rudd. And it’s sweet that he gives so much of a shit. He gives so much more of a shit than I had expected: about how he can help make the photos as funny as possible, about whether he’s a bad interviewee, about not taking credit for specific lines in Ant-Man, and about the effect that his fame has on his children. 

“I want to be as normal a person as possible,” he says, “but it has changed. I’m aware of being in crowds. And it can stress me out; I sometimes get a little more stressed out about certain things than other people do. If I’m with my kids I’m thinking about everything from their perspective: I always want them to know I’m there with them. I’m constantly wrestling with that. It confuses me; I don’t know the right way to approach it all.”

Rudd sees people that are so famous they are divorced from society and he feels bad for them. But he knows that, as an act of self-preservation, he can’t live the life of a regular person either. His life is warped by his fame, and he has to occupy a position somewhere in the middle. Over the years, he has stopped making eye contact with people while walking down the street. And, nearly 25 years after he appeared in Clueless, he is still trying to work out exactly how he feels about being a megastar. 

“I don’t wanna be a dickhead,” he says. “I don’t wanna be rude to people and I wanna be appreciative, and I am appreciative. I’m not complaining about it. I’m just trying to sort it out as it goes along.”

Ant-Man And The Wasp is at cinemas now

(Photography: Matt Holyoak)