Grace, Craig Wright’s new Broadway play, opens with a man seated on a tacky floral-print couch. His hair is a mess. A pastel suit hangs loosely off his body, while his chest and feet are exposed. A shiny revolver is in his mouth.
That this disheveled loon is played by Paul Rudd—with great conviction—is a bit of a shocker. After all, he is best known as the genial, dimple-y dreamboat we’ve come to root for in everything from Clueless to a string of Judd Apatow comedy hits. Now he’s playing a Christian evangelical from the Midwest who moves with his wife to Florida to start a chain of gospel-themed hotels. “Where would Jesus stay?” he says to his skeptical spouse. She is soon drawn to their moody neighbor (Michael Shannon), a melancholy man left deformed by a tragic car accident, and things soon take a turn for the worse.
Rudd opened up to Newsweek about his against-type role, his favorite memories from the cult classic Clueless, his favorite bar mitzvah DJ songs, and much more.
What attracted you to Grace? It’s a very dark comedy.
I hadn’t really seen anything like it. I read it and I was engaged immediately. I was trying to visualize the stage directions and the way the two apartments would be featured simultaneously and the reverse chronology stuff, but ultimately it was a very interesting part and different part for me.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen you kill anyone in a film before, let alone onstage.
I don’t think I have! And there’s not many plays that open right with someone blowing their brains out!
Did you need a change of pace from films?
I’ve always tried to work on movies and plays, and it had been six years since I’d done a play [2006’s Three Days of Rain], and that time had gone by quickly. I hadn’t really made a concerted effort to do a play—I was a little burnt out, in all honesty. But a couple years ago, every time I would see a play I’d think, “Wow, it would be really fun to do one again.” And this was the first one I’d read in a while that I thought would be really fun to do.
Is it more creatively satisfying for you to act in a play?
Acting in a play takes a lot of focus, concentration, and energy. The big myth is you have a show at night so you have your days off, and that isn’t the way it works! Your day revolves around the show, and two days a week you have two shows a day, and there’s only one day off. It is a full-time job but a great one, and I love doing it. But depending on what it is [affects] how creatively fulfilling it can be. I spent the early part of my career doing plays and independent movies, and while I’m grateful that I work at all still and consider myself extremely fortunate, over the last few years I’ve gotten jobs in big studio movies that have much higher visibility. I hit that Apatow trend there. And those movies are very creatively fulfilling because the actors are involved in many different capacities.
It’s fascinating misdirection because here, Michael Shannon plays the Phantom of the Opera–esque good guy and you’re essentially the villain.
Shannon has killed a lot of people! You’ve seen him with guns before. I’ve known Michael for a while and have always loved watching Michael, and have seen him in a bunch of plays but never worked with him, so that was a big reason to do this as well.
It’s an hour-and-a-half ride with no intermission. How do you keep your energy up?
I try to eat the right foods so I have the energy to do it. Right now I’m lying in bed about to take a nap, so I’ll try to do that if I have the time, so I’m ready to go by the time the show starts! When you’re in the middle of it, it’s like being on a ride, and it’s not until the play is over where I feel tired and ravenous.
There’s a great line you say to your wife early on in the play, “Now that we know the Lord works this way, do you know what I can achieve in the hotel industry?” The play provides an interesting commentary on Christian evangelism and how it’s become a cottage industry. What’s your take on that?
I think that the character I’m playing has a very Calvinist approach where if you live your life a certain way and follow the rules, you will get the payoff. I like the idea that there are these four people, all in the same space, who have their own points of view and keep constantly banging up against each other.
Was it strange to be a Jewish kid growing up in Kansas? I imagine this evangelical subject matter must hit pretty close to home.
Oh yeah, man, I grew up in the Bible belt. While I’m not the born-again Christian I’m playing, I know a lot of people who are because I was surrounded by that. It’s not so foreign to me.
The idea of gospel-themed hotels is pretty hilarious. Have you ever had any strange business ideas of your own?
As a kid, I had ideas to make a quick buck like making T-shirts and selling them. A friend of mine and I were in college and there were all these “Don’t Be a Dick” shirts that were popular at the time. We made one about safe sex and we just sold ’em. We actually made some money selling ’em.
You also DJ’ed bar mitzvahs. What’s the craziest thing to happen at a Paul Rudd–DJ’ed bar mitzvah?
[Laughs] Nothing really crazy would happen but I just remember the whole experience being crazy. I was just out of college and going to acting school, so I got this job working on the weekends, and I had never seen bar and bat mitzvah receptions that were such huge deals. The Laker Girls were at one of them! It was surreal. It was a weird job and I did it for about a year.
“I grew up in the Bible belt. While I’m not the born-again Christian I’m playing, I know a lot of people who are because I was surrounded by that. It’s not so foreign to me.”
What were your most-played songs?
“Can’t Touch This” was pretty big at the time and “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred. But then you still had your classics like “What I Like About You.” It was always good to start a set out of a slow dance with “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller, because then you get the grandparents up and dancing. You don’t throw MC Hammer at them right out of the gate. These are the tricks of the trade.
I’m a huge fan of Clueless, and that film still holds up so well. It’s a true ’90s classic. How do you feel about its legacy?
It was exciting and new and a great experience shooting it, but as far as the reaction afterwards, mine is very different from everybody else’s. I’m certainly aware of how many people like that movie and were of an age where that movie resonated with them in a way that maybe some of the John Hughes movies did with me when I was a kid, and to be a part of something that people liked that much is very gratifying and really cool.
Are there any memories from filming Clueless that have really stuck with you?
I remember we had just done a read-through before we started shooting, and all of us went out to have drinks at this bar, St. Nick’s. It was the second movie I’d ever worked on and everything was very new. I’m still friends with [writer-director] Amy Heckerling—I love Amy—and I still see Alicia [Silverstone] every once in a while. There’s that thing of just, wow, we all worked on that and that was a while ago. It’s a cool feeling.
This Is 40 is coming out soon. When you hit 40, you had your first leading role in a studio film with I Love You, Man, which did gangbusters. Did your outlook on your career, or for that matter, life, change when you turned 40?
There is a general thing where you think, “Oh, my God, the weight of even the word ‘40.’” But for me, my father died when I was 39 and that was the change for me, so I was still in a daze by the time I turned 40 and didn’t process that the way I should have.