The actress talks about Judd Apatow, Katherine Heigl's outspoken comments, and more

Leslie Mann never set out to become a comedy star — or, really, a comedy anything. ”I’d go on auditions, not intending to be funny, but people would laugh and it would throw me,” says the actress, nestled in a corner booth at a café near her home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. ”I think there’s just something weird about me. I’m just odd.”

It’s funny the way the funny business plays out sometimes. Mann’s husband, writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, cast the actress as a hilariously out-of-control drunk in his 2005 smash The 40 Year-Old Virgin and again as a high-strung suburban wife in last summer’s Knocked Up. The scene-stealing turns showcased a wild side that many, including Mann herself, didn’t know she had. (As ”research” for Virgin, Mann let herself be videotaped getting drunk at a karaoke bar: ”I always thought that I was a charming, cute drunk person, then I saw that tape and I was just devastated,” she says, laughing. ”It was ugly.”) Not surprisingly, when Apatow was producing the high school comedy Drillbit Taylor, opening March 21, he persuaded Mann to take a supporting role where she could parachute in for a few scenes as a horny English teacher who falls for a drifter-turned-teenage bodyguard (Owen Wilson). ”Leslie’s a very serious actress, and when you watch her, you really lose yourself in the character, no matter how crazy it seems,” Apatow says. ”I always thought she was a riot, so I’ve forced her to do things in our films that she regrets later.”

Despite the growing buzz around Mann and her comedy-kingpin husband, the actress says her life hasn’t changed dramatically: ”It’s cool that I get to go out and feed my creative brain, but all this would have meant more to me when I was 22 than it does now,” says the 35-year-old. Instead, Mann is enjoying a rare sort of mid-career reboot. In the fall of 1995, the Southern California native landed the role of the doe-eyed ingenue in The Cable Guy, only to see the pitch-black Jim Carrey comedy derided by critics and rejected at the box office the following summer. ”I was shell-shocked,” she says. The experience did have one unanticipated benefit, though: The actress met Apatow, who helped produce the film. While Mann went on to well-received turns in Last Man Standing and George of the Jungle, the sting of Cable Guy faded slowly. So with the birth of their first daughter, Maude (now 10), she decided to turn her focus away from the business and toward raising a family (which also includes 5-year-old Iris). ”I didn’t know who the hell I was for a long time,” she says. ”I’m only just now figuring it out.”

Having emerged in the last couple of years as a compelling female voice in what’s often perceived as the Apatowian boys’ club, Mann strongly defends her turf. She says she was surprised when Knocked Up costar Katherine Heigl publicly critiqued the film as being ”a little sexist,” saying it ”paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight.” Mann retorts, ”I didn’t think I was a humorless shrew in Knocked Up. I think the women are just as funny as the men are in that movie. ‘Humorless shrews’ — who even says that? I just think it’s an odd choice of words.”

Later this year, Mann will step away from the Apatow factory for the Big-like romantic comedy 17 Again, costarring Zac Efron. But working with her husband still exerts a strong pull, and she’ll soon reteam with him — this time in a starring role as Adam Sandler’s love interest. ”I’m just so comfortable with Judd, so it’s hard to get in the swing of things with new people,” she explains. But it’s clear that navigating a movie career doesn’t weigh as heavily on Mann as it once might have. ”All of this is very nice, kind of like being given a second chance, but I’m mainly focused on being a mom,” she says. ”I have a little book that [I wrote] from the fourth grade that said, ‘I want to be an actress when I grow up, but I’ll probably be a bus driver.’ I loved my bus driver.” Like we said, it’s funny the way things play out.

Mann Meets Boy
The couple recount their courtship — he-said, she-said style

Mann I didn’t realize Judd was in hot pursuit. I think I had a crush on Ben [Stiller] at the time, and Judd was just this nice person I wanted to set up with my girlfriend.
Apatow I think Leslie only realized recently that I’m hitting on her. That’s how bad I am with women. I’m a very subtle stalker.

Mann I went to his house, and he made me spaghetti with Ragú sauce and Wonder bread with Fleischmann’s margarine.
Apatow I made her the most disgusting chicken parmigiana, spaghetti, and white bread. I thought I’d shown her what an amazing cook I am, what a potential spouse I could be, and she was just horrified.

Mann I had bad taste before [him] — I’d had one a–hole actor boyfriend and was into, you know, the cool guys on Melrose. And it hit me, like, ”Duh, I should be with someone who’s nice and funny and charming and sweet.”
Apatow At its core, that’s what Knocked Up is about: It makes no sense that this woman likes this guy. And that’s the story of Judd and Leslie.