Some actors can tell they’re becoming more famous when their paychecks begin sporting an extra zero or two. Others know it when paparazzi start camping outside their houses. But if Paul Rudd needs a sign that he’s entering a new level of stardom, he need only walk into his living room. Along the wall of the modest two-bedroom apartment he and his family share in Manhattan’s West Village is a rack of pricey designer clothing sent over by Paramount Pictures, the studio distributing his new buddy comedy I Love You, Man. ”This is a first for me,” he says, thumbing through perfectly coordinated outfits labeled ”Letterman,” ”Today Show,” and ”New York Press Day.” ”I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t even know people did this. Seeing it makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, it’s like, ‘Sweet suit!’ But it does make me think, ‘Maybe they’re forcing me to do this because my own sense of style is so crap.”’
His sense of comedy? No help needed there. After earning a reputation as the movie world’s most dependable wingman in the zeitgeist-defining comedies Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up, Rudd has become a full-fledged lead with last fall’s hit Role Models and, especially, with this week’s I Love You, Man, a bromance from Along Came Polly director John Hamburg. In I Love You, Man, Rudd plays an awkward real estate agent who embarks on a series of man dates in order to find a best man for his wedding. The cast includes stalwarts like Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Jon Favreau, and Andy Samberg, but with Rudd appearing in nearly every scene and taking the biggest comedic risks of anyone in the group, it’s decidedly his movie.
I Love You, Man is a career-capping moment for the guy from Kansas who first gained notice as Alicia Silverstone’s dreamy stepbrother in 1995’s Clueless, and then charmed TV audiences in the role of Lisa Kudrow’s boyfriend-turned-husband on the final two seasons of Friends. Over his varied 15-year career, Rudd has blended his supremely wacky sense of humor with real dramatic chops, proving equally adept at raunch and realism. It’s a combination that’s made him impossible not to root for, on screen and off. And the hot streak he’s enjoying right now is particularly sweet since Rudd, who turns 40 on April 6, hasn’t taken the simple road to stardom. ”After Clueless, he could have very easily stayed in L.A. and had a very different career,” says Mad Men star Jon Hamm, a longtime pal. ”But he ended up moving to New York and doing a couple things on stage. A lot of people thought he was crazy. They were like, ‘What are you doing, dude? That is a big, big mistake.’ But he wanted to do things that interested him more than just being the cute guy who flirts with the girl. It was a really cool thing to watch.”
While his theater résumé is filled with dramas (like two Neil LaBute plays and a stint opposite Julia Roberts in 2006’s Three Days of Rain), Rudd’s films with Judd Apatow’s gang of goofballs hewed closer to his real-life sensibility (witness his recent manic jig on The Daily Show). ”Paul has that guy-next-door look, but at the core of it, he’s really kind of insane,” says Will Ferrell. ”His character in Anchorman was a thankless role, in a way, but as we were editing the movie, we were like, ‘Oh, no, he’s very sly.’ In every take he was doing a little extra something that we didn’t notice he was doing. His sense of humor really snuck up on us.”
It also significantly raised his profile. As someone who’s known Rudd for over a decade, I can attest that a stroll with him on the streets of New York City or at the Grove mall in L.A. today elicits countless more head turns from passersby than it did five years ago; once, when he handed a young cable-TV repairman who’d just fixed his DVR box a signed 40 Year-Old Virgin DVD, the man acted like he’d just won the lottery. ”I’ve always felt like I’m the kind of actor that some people might recognize but they probably don’t know my name,” he says, although the cable guy would probably disagree. ”I’m not a star,” Rudd adds. ”I don’t have a big drive to be ‘the guy.”’
Rudd’s career philosophy may help explain why he’s not entirely comfortable with his rising Q score, particularly when photographers follow him while he’s out with his wife, Julie, and their 4-year-old son, Jack. ”I feel like I’ve spent a good part of my career avoiding a lot of that. I’m glad that I’m not in Los Angeles to see the billboards for I Love You, Man, especially because it seems like the Role Models ones just came down. And now, having a little kid, I’m really starting to analyze this stuff more and more and how it’s going to affect him. I have had little tiny panic attacks along the road here, for this publicity tour for the movie. It’s really stress-inducing. I’ve been working a long time, and things are going well in my career right now, and I appreciate it. I’m just trying to navigate my way through all of it. I’ll be happy to go away for a while, in all honesty.”
He won’t be getting a break anytime soon, with a schedule that’s already booked up for the rest of 2009. He’ll film an untitled James L. Brooks love-triangle film with Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson this spring, before reuniting in the fall with his Virgin costar Steve Carell for Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of the 1998 French smash Le Dîner de Cons, about a disastrous dinner party. (He also lends his voice to this month’s animated adventure Monsters vs. Aliens, and will show up in a cameo in this summer’s Jack Black comedy Year One.) Still, he’d be perfectly content to stay home and jam on acoustic guitar with Jack, who’s a prodigy on the drums — though he’s not necessarily too impressed with Dad’s burgeoning career. ”He knows that I make movies — he comes to the set,” Rudd says. ”But he also knows Steve Carell and Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell. So I think he just thinks that everyone’s on TV. Like it’s not a special thing.”
Perhaps the surest sign of his new level of celebrity? Embarrassing stories from his past are now making national headlines. Fox TV sportscaster Joe Buck just told Time that Rudd ”always liked to get naked” in his University of Kansas frat house, while in last week’s Time Out New York magazine, Segel recalled waking up from a nap on the I Love You, Man set and being greeted by, let’s just say, a certain part of Rudd’s anatomy. ”The truth is, I probably can’t contest either one,” he says with a chuckle. ”I’m not Harvey Keitel or anything, but over the course of the last 20 years, there is a chance that maybe once or twice I have gotten naked for a cheap laugh.” And that is why we love you, man.