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In Our Idiot Brother, consummate straight man Paul Rudd is given the chance to let his hair down. As Ned, the hippie-ish sibling of three highly driven sisters (played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer), Rudd sports shoulder-length hair and a full, formidable beard. He hardly lets that outward appearance carry his performance, and his portrayal of the easygoing, honest-to-a-fault Ned is a welcome reminder that the actor is much more than the straitlaced, easily ruffled protagonists of films like I Love You Man and Role Models. Before the film’s release, The A.V. Club spoke with Rudd about getting into character, his off-screen relationships with his onscreen siblings, and the similarities between Our Idiot Brother and the one movie from his past people are always eager to discuss.
The A.V. Club: It seems like every A.V. Club interview with you starts by mentioning your role in Clueless. Do you think you’ve reached the point in your career where we can stop bringing Clueless up as the first line in your résumé?
Paul Rudd: [Laughs.] I just literally hung up from doing another interview where it was primarily about Clueless. [Laughs.] The guy was asking me about, like, “How is it being in that movie and what has that been in your life?” I was just saying that it’s really cool being in a movie that I think was a seminal movie for a lot of kids. When we were shooting it, we all hoped that [Clueless] would fall into that kind of pantheon of movies like John Hughes made, or that really struck a chord with us when we were teenagers—and that years after it was released that we all kind of felt that it had. It actually had achieved that status for a lot of people. What a cool thing it is to be involved in something that attains that level of importance in a lot of kids’ lives. So, keeping that in mind, I certainly don’t tire talking about that if people want to hear about it. It isn’t one of those things where it’s like, “I’ve moved past that! I’ve done other things!” I don’t feel that way about anything. I’ve done good and bad. I tend to be like, “Oh, ask me about something that I was in whether it was something that was good or something that was just terrible.” I’ll talk about either of them freely.
AVC: That’s a very “Ned” approach to take.
PR: I don’t know, I just think it’s like, “[Sighs.] Oh, God... Who has the energy to care?” [Laughs.] And I genuinely don’t, really. I’m just psyched I’ve been able to sustain it thus far.
AVC: The funny thing that occurred to me is that that your Clueless character is very similar to Ned, where he is a begrudgingly tolerated brother who reveals his worth by the end of the movie.
PR: [Laughs.] Yeah, and somebody was also saying that in Idiot Brother, of my three sisters, two of them I have played opposite in other movies where we were either married or romantically involved. Like with Elizabeth Banks [in Wet Hot American Summer] and then Zooey Deschanel—I did this short film where she’s my wife. And then Rashida [Jones] was my girlfriend in I Love You, Man. So now I’m in this movie where they’re my sisters, even though Rashida’s not really. Then I said, “Well, in Clueless, my love interest was my stepsister.” So I feel as if I had already laid the groundwork in getting over that semi-incestuous hump, so to speak.
AVC: At this point, is it weird to be in those situations, or has the circle become so close that it’s just a regular thing with every movie that you do?
PR: It’s probably weirder from an outside perspective than it is for any of us. I’ve been friends with Elizabeth Banks since Wet Hot American Summer. I’ve known and have been friends with Rashida for longer than that. Zooey, I’ve known for a long time. And because I’ve worked with all kinds of friends, you show up and you just fall into whatever part it is that you’re playing—whether it’s one where you’re married or [you’re siblings]. It probably feels, in our real lives, closer to siblings than it does a husband or wife. You know, husband or wife, after a certain amount of time, just begins to feel like siblings. [Laughs.] It all has the same general endpoint. Only one involved actual sex—and that, of course, is the sibling relationship.
AVC: Did that make it easier to establish the familial vibe on set for Our Idiot Brother?
PR: Probably. The familial vibe, that comes just from literally knowing each other for as long as we all have and being friends. I mean, the person in the movie that I’ve known the longest and am closest to is Adam Scott—who I don’t even have that much stuff to do with in the movie. But that guy has been one of my very best friends for 20-odd years—and same with Jesse [Peretz], the director. So it’s a little strange in a really great way to kind of take a step back and say, “Wow! I just did a movie with a ton of my friends.” I’ve been able, in the last few years, to feel that. Like when I work with David Wain and a lot of The State guys, it’s a reminder that I’ve been doing it a while, but what an incredible good fortune it is to be able to make movies with your friends. It’s the kind of thing you say to each other when you’re drunk in a bar at 21 years old. “Wouldn’t it be awesome, man? If we could make this movie? We’ll write it, so and so can play this part, you can play this part… ” It’s like, in some way, that’s happened. And this would be one of those movies where I felt like it happened.
AVC: So not being that familiar with Steve Coogan, how did you approach the scene in Our Idiot Brother where you walk in on him naked?
PR: Well, I was familiar with his work and have always loved him, from Alan Partridge to a lot of other British comedy—The Day Today and other things he’s done. I’m a huge fan, and one of my favorites, I told him this, that I think one of the great comedic performances of the last decade was Hamlet 2, which is completely under-acknowledged. Whatever you think of it, it’s such a bold take on the character, and he’s so funny. I think the movie’s hilarious too. He has that scene where he kicks his leg up, and that big poncho that he’s wearing, you can see his dick. I always took him to be somebody who knew how funny it was to flash your balls. So when we did that scene, I was crying. That was the hardest I laughed [any day on set], because of the way that he did it, and the thought that went into it as to why it was funny. Kind of deconstructing what’s going to be the funniest way of doing this: to cover himself with his hands, and then to bend over and get his keys where he’s hanging some brain from behind. It’s so startling and funny, it was a tough one to get through. But I’m shit for most things. I laugh at everything. I laugh much more during takes than I do during real life. Maybe because you’re not supposed to. I’ve ruined many takes because I will lose it. That was one where I was like, “Oh God, please.” I couldn’t look at it—not because it was gross, but because it was too funny.
AVC: How did you get into the headspace of Ned, who’s trusting and honest to such an extreme degree?
PR: Well, that was the thing that struck me the most when I read the script: how much I liked that guy. He was totally sincere and without any kind of judgment, and was noble, and I loved the idea of being able to play that. You don’t see a lot of people like that. And I thought it would be a fun world to exist in for six weeks. Whatever I’m working on, the character I’m playing tends to slowly bleed into my own real life. Not in any kind of creepy, Method actor-y kind of way—it’s just an innate kind of merging. So I thought that would be a fun mindset to have for a while.
I never thought when I read it, “The guy’s an idiot.” In fact, it was the opposite: I thought that he was an idealist, but was a good guy who was self-aware. And it was one of the things that Jesse Peretz and I would talk about beforehand. We tweaked the script a little bit to include a line which was voicing his own ethos, which is to give people the benefit of the doubt. And while it doesn’t work out all of the time, I believe that people want to rise to the occasion. To be able to have that kind of awareness, and making the way that this guy lives an actual choice—there’s something enlightened about it. And while some of the choices that he makes might be considered idiotic—like selling weed to a uniformed police officer—it’s not like he doesn’t know he’s a police officer, and it’s not like he doesn’t know that it’s probably a bad thing to do. He trusts the guy, and still gets screwed over, and then he still tries to maintain this level of goodness.
AVC: Several times throughout the movie, Ned attempts to reunite with his dog, whom he’s named Willie Nelson. As Ned, did you feel a bit of kinship with the actual Willie Nelson?
PR: Willie Nelson is the perfect person, it seems to me, to think about. Because something tells me that he operates on his own frequency. I don’t know him. I mean, I’m definitely a fan of his. But he’s totally true to who he is, and you know that his tour bus probably smells like the High Times front office, and there’s a very “golden retriever” quality about him—loyalty and goodness. Willie Nelson just seems like a good dude. So I was really happy he said we could use his music and his name [in Our Idiot Brother]. I heard he likes the movie, so I hope I’ll get to meet him someday.
AVC: When Our Idiot Brother played the Sundance Film Festival, Jesse Peretz said he wanted to make the movie just so he could have you grow a beard for it. Is that the type of casting you can only get from him, or do you think there are some bearded roles in your future courtesy of other directors like Judd Apatow or David Wain?
PR: I don’t know. Maybe [Zach] Galifianakis and I, and Franco Harris from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the three of us can do a Three Amigos kind of movie but have it very beard-heavy. Who else would you get? The ghost of George Bernard Shaw. If George Bernard Shaw were alive and an actor that enjoyed making boner jokes, we could put him in it. You know, now for the rest of the day I’m just going to be thinking about people with beards. Will Oldham. We’re all going to do the Will Oldham story, like what Todd Haynes did with Bob Dylan [in I’m Not There]. The great thing is, at the very end, we’re going to have Cate Blanchett play Will during the Bonnie “Prince” Billy years.