On a chilly Sunday in January, Paul Rudd found himself enduring what he called “the least enjoyable, most enjoyable experience you can ever have.” He was in Kansas City, Missouri, watching his favorite team, the Kansas City Chiefs, battle the Cincinnati Bengals with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line. It was bitterly cold in Arrowhead Stadium, with the temperature dropping into the teens. To keep warm, Rudd layered three hoodies (including one from Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce’s brand) under his number-10 Isiah Pacheco Chiefs jersey. “I felt like the kid in A Christmas Story,” he said. To ward off any confusion, he affixed a nametag to the front of his jersey. It read: Paul Rudd.
Rudd lives with his family in New York, but he spent his formative years in a suburb of Kansas City and remains a diehard fan of the team, sometimes to a degree that surprises him. “I’m a 53-year-old man watching these guys that could all be my sons playing the game and I’m so emotionally invested in it,” he marveled. “And when they lose, it’s irrational how sad it makes me.”
But the Chiefs won, taking irrational sadness out of the equation and replacing it with something a good deal more fun. One of the perks of Rudd’s rise—from small parts in indie films to supporting roles in blockbuster comedies to, for nearly a decade now, superhero—is that, when he has Chiefs tickets, he gets to go down on the field and interact with the players before and after the game. “As I’m down there, I’m like a teenager,” he told me of the experience. “I can’t believe it. I’m standing next to these giant guys and hugging players. And it’s the most surreal thing.”
He didn’t linger long in Kansas City, though: the next day, he was set to fly to Australia (with a brief stopover in Los Angeles) to begin promoting Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, his latest outing as the Marvel superhero. So Rudd spent the night at his mom’s house, where he stays when he’s home, and then made his way to the airport. (He left one of his hoodies with mom, since it didn’t fit in his Australia carry-on.)
When we met the next day, in the lobby bar of a Los Angeles hotel, he was a little hoarse, and nursed a mint tea. He wore a fuzzy gray sweater, Brooklyn-dad eyeglasses, and upstate-dad Blundstones. His hair resembled a field of question marks swaying on their points. All to say: he looked like a version of Paul Rudd who’d been out in sub-freezing temperatures for four hours the previous night. It was hard to tell if the shine in his eyes was leftover joy from the Chiefs’ victory or just a small outward manifestation of his Paul Ruddness—a faint trace of the sheepish warmth that has helped make him one of the planet’s most purely appealing movie stars, and increasingly one of its more bankable ones.
This happy balance—diehard fan and sideline fixture; relatable pal and box-office fixture—is central to Rudd’s appeal, which is simultaneously overwhelming and deeply ordinary. “There’s something about him that feels so effortlessly kindred,” his friend the actress Kathryn Hahn told me. “You just know him. There’s nothing that is elevated about him or his persona. He doesn’t put on airs in any way, despite how ridiculously, like, ageless-handsome he is. It’s kind of, weirdly, always your friend Paul.”
When we met, your friend Paul was stepping into new territory, with Quantumania projected for a gargantuan $120 million opening weekend. What began as a lark nearly a decade ago—he took the role of Ant-Man in part out of excitement for the confusion audiences would feel when they learned that Paul Rudd had been cast as a superhero—had become a surprisingly load-bearing pillar of the entire Marvel ecosystem. Quantumania is tasked with introducing the next movie-spanning villain in the MCU, Jonathan Majors’s Kang the Conqueror, and consequently with setting up the crucial next portion (comprising some six films and seven television series) of the world’s largest serialized entertainment project.
Rudd was excited by the movie’s scale. “It’s going to play a big role in what’s going on in Marvel world and the Marvel movies and stuff upcoming. It’s the start of Phase Five,” Rudd said, with the tone of someone pleasantly surprised to be conversant in Marvel-ese. “And I think that hopefully what people do like about those other Ant-Man movies does exist in this one too, while also taking a little bit of a left turn into something that might be a bit unexpected and big.”
Like everything else in Paul Rudd’s absolutely extraordinary, resolutely ordinary life these days, the new film was something to marvel at, if in modest Rudd fashion. “It feels bigger,” he said.
Rudd’s appeal is so obvious and everymannish that it’s easy to ignore his striking facility with language. His diction is impeccable, his syllables laser-cut. “I’m classically trained, my friend,” he said, mock-haughty. “Sorry if my plosives are too hard and they’re getting all over you.” There is, undergirding his unending willingness to riff, a rigor not often seen in comedic actors.
He arrived in Hollywood in his mid-twenties, after graduating from the University of Kansas and winning a spot at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He more or less burned with youthful intensity. When submitting the audition monologues that got him into the program, Rudd read a portion of what he called blue-collar poetry. “It was,” he remembered, “about a guy that worked in a fast food restaurant, who was talking about the pressure of somebody coming in and ordering 30 burgers, or something like that. I was like, This is real and powerful and beautiful. And if people don’t see the beauty in this, they don’t get it. That was what I was like.” Which is to say: he was single-minded in the way that young actors can be. He mounted a blown-up copy of the Los Angeles Times review of the Daniel Day-Lewis film My Left Foot to his bedroom wall.
He couldn’t shake his suspicion, though, that there might be another way to do it. “I used to think, when I was lying down on my back, closing my eyes in class, and having the teachers say, ‘Now pretend you’re a lizard, but you also have to be a purple lizard. What does that look like?’ that if my friends from school walked in right now, they would just mock me endlessly. And I would want them to!”
He spent the first chunk of his career indulging his artsier inclinations, abandoning a recurring guest role on a TV series to study Jacobean drama at Oxford, and then moving from Los Angeles to New York just after filming Clueless, which promptly became a smash. “I was really focused on artistry. And, believe it or not, this might shock people, I still am,” he said. “But I thought, I really care about what it is that I do. And certainly, I want to care about what I hope I can do. I really want to learn how to do it. I don’t think I have the tools in my toolbox that I might need to sustain any kind of career. I want to try and do the things that are going to help me have a slower burn and have a career that, maybe when I’m older, I’ll still be able to do it. And so that meant moving to New York, it meant doing plays.”
Eventually, he’d find a way to tend to his other side, the one that laughed at the purple-lizard exercises—first in Wet Hot American Summer, and then in the studio comedies (it’s a long list: Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man) that boomed in the early aughts. Slowly, and then all at once, Rudd—along with Steve Carell and Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill and Jason Segel—edged their way toward the center of popular culture. Anchorman, initially, didn’t feel like much of a thing. After a few years, though, Rudd recalled, “We all heard from people that they’d started showing it on cable or somebody had a DVD and they started watching it over and over. We all heard, ‘I saw that movie when it was in a theater and I hated it. Now I love it. It’s one of my favorites. It’s so stupid and funny.’ But I think a lot of people just succumbed to it because of the repetition on cable, or they finally locked into what that whole thing we were trying to do was.”
The whole thing was: brilliantly stupid, transcendently funny, ultimately warm-hearted mass-culture comedy. Rudd’s roles in these films were all slightly different. Would-be macho TV news reporter. Heartbroken electronics store employee. Perma-stoned surf instructor. Sad husband, and then happy fiancé. “He always had this quality where you couldn’t really peg him down,” his friend Bill Hader told me. “He could do anything, and effortlessly. It’s one of those things, like Jeff Bridges or one of those guys, where you don’t catch them acting.”
Still, his function in each of those movies was broadly similar. Rudd, it turned out, is without parallel when it comes to undercutting the action onscreen, using his genuine appeal and normal-guy vibes to deflate whatever overcooked scenario the movie throws at his character. Sometimes this is intentional. As Peyton Reed, the director of all three Ant-Man films, explained, “If there’s a moment in the movie, a dramatic moment where things get genuinely emotional, Paul and I will always look for what he calls a treacle-cutter.”
It all makes Rudd a straight man who is somehow in on the joke—or at least able to let the audience in on it. “I think a lot of these roles I’m playing are intended to be from the eyes of the audience. The audience is following this character and seeing how this character reacts,” he said. “ I’m aware of that, and I don’t think that I react differently than any audience member. I want, whatever it is they’re doing, for audiences to really relate to that character, or I don’t know, empathize, sympathize, or be just entertained in some way.”
This quality, he explained, was not unlike the one at the center of the poem he’d recited to get into acting school, the one about the fast food employee. “He’s got a huge order of 30 burgers, and he’s stressed,” he said, of the poem’s subject. “He knows he’s got to get it done. And it’s coming around and he’s sweaty. But at the end, he gets it, and he’s proud of himself. It sounds like this is the dumbest thing in the world, but I remember reading, I’m like, Fuck, I get this guy.“
He went on: “It’s the human victories, the small gestures that fill you with a sense of accomplishment and pride and purpose. I see it in that poem. I see it in all those indie movies and the bands I like. I’m so connected to that thing. And ultimately, that’s still the thing. Even though it might be in some big huge superhero movie.”
Rudd never set out to make a big huge superhero movie, he explained. His friend Edgar Wright, the director, spent years working with Marvel to develop a movie about Ant-Man, the lower-tier superhero able to shrink to the size of an insect. From time to time he’d update Rudd on his progress—casual conversations about work, nothing like a job interview. But then in 2014, after Marvel greenlit the film, Wright asked Rudd to take the role.
As Rudd reminded me, the scale of Marvel’s project was different in those days. He wasn’t planning on one day facing off with Kang the Conqueror. “I really didn’t think of it in those kinds of terms. I thought of it as, Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to work with Edgar?” Wright would eventually leave the project after butting heads with Marvel; Rudd and Anchorman director Adam McKay helped rewrite the script, and Peyton Reed was brought on to direct. “And here we are,” Rudd said. “And it’s like—what is it, 10 years? Eight, nine, 10?”
It’s nine, give or take. And it bears taking stock of where, exactly, we are: with Paul Rudd, by any accounting, the second-most-famous performer active in the Marvel universe. (I’ve got him behind Tom Holland and ahead of Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Pratt.) The remarkable thing is that he’s earned his standing: there is plenty of discussion about the degree to which Marvel movies are good or bad for cinema, but there is zero discussion of whether or not Paul Rudd is good for Marvel movies, because he is uncomplicatedly wonderful in them. As Scott Lang, cat burglar-turned-shrinking superhero, he’s tasked with scrawling his little Paul Rudd doodles all over the MCU: shaking Captain America’s hand too long, joking about Tony Stark’s cologne, keeping a straight face while Michael Douglas tells him to “put your foot on the central node and mount the thorax.” Reed, the director, explained that while making the first Ant-Man movie, “We really leaned into the idea of Paul Rudd being the everyman of the MCU. It’s like, in decades past, you would cast someone like a Jimmy Stewart or a Tom Hanks in this role.” (Martin Short, Rudd’s friend and costar on the forthcoming season three of Only Murders in the Building, compared him to Cary Grant.)
The first film was primarily played for laughs, and perhaps because Rudd and McKay rewrote the script, it’s one of the rare purely comic films in the Marvel universe. A year later Scott Lang popped up in Captain America: Civil War, and by the time Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Endgame rolled out, in 2018 and 2019 respectively, the character had become something like the spackling paste of the MCU: cheerful, game, and by virtue of his weird superpower, the perfect guy to throw at any problem, big or small.
As Kathryn Hahn put it to me, “How lucky is Marvel?” That Rudd doesn’t look or act like Captain America, she ventured, was key to his appeal in these films. “Despite his ridiculous good looks, he’s always had this incredible familiarity and relatability. There’s something about him that just feels like I know him. That it makes it somehow more exciting to see him in this genre. Because if he can do it, anybody can do it. That’s why it feels so thrilling.”
This all hits another gear, of course, with Quantumania, about which Rudd, when we spoke, could say nothing.
What’s this new movie about?
“I can’t tell you that.” A pause. “It’s about a bunch of ants.”
Eventually he shared a little more. The movie begins in the aftermath of Ant-Man’s appearance in Avengers: Endgame, which saw the villain Thanos zap half of civilization out of existence and Ant-Man, after escaping a half-decade purgatory in “the quantum realm,” working with the rest of the Avengers to bring them all back. “It starts with getting on with our lives after all of that, and in particular, me getting on with my life and accepting this new role of being known in the world,” Rudd said, referring to his character.
“Accepting being known in the world” wasn’t exactly a problem for Rudd, who grew used to being recognized on the street long before his superhero phase. (One scene from I Love You, Man was the culprit: “Before Ant-Man, everyone I would pass—not everyone, but a pretty good number of people—would ask me to slap the bass.”) But being famous for doing studio comedies is lightyears away from being famous for playing a Marvel hero. With the Ant-Man job came concerns—about what being galactically famous might mean for his kids, and about the shape his career might take from here. (“I was probably typecast before. Am I really typecast now?”)
What awaits Rudd on the other side of Ant-Man’s showdown with Kang the Conqueror is unclear. When I asked if he was under contract for further Marvel films, he said, “I don’t think I am.” And then elaborated: “I don’t think I’m under contract. But then again, I’m not so sure I was under contract for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
I wondered: does he want to make more Ant-Man films? “Oh, God, man,” he said, with a laugh. “I just want to take a nap! Part of what’s fun about being an actor is not knowing one year to the next—sometimes one month to the next. It’s part of the reason I took this job in the first place, you know—new experiences. I always want to keep my hand open to see, Ooh, what’s going to come? I don’t try to steer my ship toward any one kind of thing. So if it’s in the cards or if it’s not in the cards, I don’t know.”
Ultimately, Rudd took solace in being able to think through these questions at 53, rather than, say, 33. “There’s a little bit of comfort in being the age I’m at,” he said. “I don’t put any kind of false importance on it. My life is my life, and then there’s this side of it.”
Rudd’s ability to wear lightly the burdens of Marvel-scale fame isn’t exactly new, Hader shared. For years, he said, the wallpaper on Rudd’s phone was an image of the 20th Century Fox logo, only in place of the studio’s name, the text read “NOBODY CARES.”
A few hours before we met, while on the flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles, Rudd pulled out his copy of The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, Paul Newman’s posthumously released memoir. Newman is something of a north star for Rudd—less in the sense that he’d dare compare himself to the guy than that Newman modeled a way of working Rudd admires and deeply relates to. “Paul Newman was, like, the ultimate no-bullshit guy,” he said. “I love him.”
His friends might describe Rudd the same way. Bill Hader painted a bucolic picture of weekends at the Rudds’ home in upstate New York: “He’s just a normal dad, barbecuing stuff and throwing a football around, playing games. He has these ATVs and you can go out on those. Paul does chop wood, which I would never do. One time the power went out and I was completely worthless, but Paul was very much the man.”
Things felt different at 35,000 feet. Rudd, deep in the Newman book, hit a section about the actor’s work with the directors Martin Ritt and Elia Kazan, and his time studying at New York’s legendary Actors Studio. And at that moment, hours before he’d begin promoting his tentpole superhero film, Paul Rudd suffered a brief but acute bout of self-doubt. “I sometimes feel like I don’t know how to do any of this,” he said. “And I didn’t really learn, maybe, some ABCs that other people have learned.” He had learned to combat this feeling—in part by reminding himself that he’d acted in plays forever, and that was really how you learned the craft. “I suppose it’s not an uncommon thing for many actors to feel that I get it/I’m a fraud simultaneous thing,” he said. “But boy, I was feeling it on the flight today.”
It got worse: he flipped next to a section about Newman’s guilt at so often filming on location, instead of being at home with his family. So when Rudd landed, he called his kids, just to let them know that he loves them. His kids, 18 and 13, responded the way kids might: “They were like, ‘Jesus, dad. What the…? Have you been drinking?’ My son actually asked me if I was drunk. I’m like, ‘No, I’m trying to be a good dad. All right. I admit it. I was reading the Paul Newman book on the flight in.’”
We talked about Newman a bit longer. I asked if Rudd had seen Ethan Hawke’s documentary about Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, before remembering that the project was populated by Hawke’s actor buddies—and desperately trying to recall whether Rudd had in fact appeared in it. He hadn’t, it turned out. “And it’s a sore spot,” he joked. “Ethan knows.” He joked about making his own documentary—one about Alfred E. Neuman, the Mad mascot, maybe. Or: “I’ll do a five-part documentary on Fred Newman, the guy that does all the sound effects with his mouth.”
The funny thing about both of those Paul Newman projects is the way they, too, reveal self-consciousness and frustration, even in one of the 20th century’s iconic actors. Newman, it turns out, was particularly sensitive to the way his looks, rather than his acting chops, had gotten him through the door.
“We’re all insecure beings,” Rudd reflected. “And there’s probably some special kind of insecurity reserved for actors.” As in: “Why do you even choose this as a profession? Is there some kind of deficiency? Is there really some kind of need for approval? What is the genesis? I wonder.”
It felt somewhat out of character to watch Paul Rudd contemplate insecurity and Hollywood angst. Sure enough, he almost immediately cut into a joke: “I’m sitting here, and as I’m saying this, “I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if Michael Winslow’”—the other sound effects guy, the one from the Police Academy movies—“ever got jealous of Fred Newman?”
Photographs by Daniel Arnold
Styled by Marcus Allen at oh.mgmt
Grooming by Rheanne White at Tracey Mattingly Agency
Tailoring by Ksenia Golub
Special thanks to The Dead Rabbit