Paul Rudd began this manic whirlwind month by earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — albeit modestly.
At the induction ceremony, he recalled walking down the fabled boulevard as a youngster, reading the stars’ names and thinking what so many others had: “Who’s that?”
The fact that millions of others will see his name and ask the same question, he joked, “is humbling beyond belief.”
But at this point, is Rudd ever really in situations where people don’t know who he is?
“Absolutely,” he says, calling from his home in New York on a recent morning. “For the great majority of my career, I was always the ‘that guy’ actor. ‘Oh, I’ve seen that guy.’ I still think I fit into that category. Sometimes I’m not even a ‘that guy’ actor. I’m just, ‘Who’s that guy?’”
Things should change dramatically before the month is out. Rudd, who was raised in Overland Park and attended the University of Kansas, becomes the latest Marvel Comics superhero to commandeer pop culture. He takes the lead in “Ant-Man,” opening Friday, July 17, playing a size-shifting crime fighter who encounters (and will ultimately join) the Avengers.
“What’s different about ‘Ant-Man’ is it’s a movie kids will see,” Rudd says. “I’ve never been in a movie kids actually saw — most of the movies that anybody saw at all were rated R.” (This one is rated PG-13.) “That aspect alone makes it different for me.”
The 46-year-old headliner admits the fandom hoopla “snuck up on me,” despite two decades of living in the limelight. As the Marvel adage goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“People ask me if I could shrink anything, what would that be? I immediately thought of my stress levels,” he says.
Rudd portrays Scott Lang, a skilled cat burglar recently released from prison. Hoping to stay on the straight and narrow so he’ll be allowed to see his young daughter, Scott instead gets lured into an even riskier proposition. He’s recruited by an aging scientist (Michael Douglas) to retrieve dangerous technology that can shrink people to ant size but boost their strength.
“It’s essentially a heist film,” says Rudd, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
The $130 million picture was shot last year around San Francisco, where the action takes place, and a disguised Atlanta, where tax credits for filmmakers are abundant.
The numerous motion-capture scenes proved the trickiest, he says.
“I had never done anything like that, so it was a little weird to go through the whole movie in a suit and surrounded by cameras, pretending I was getting stepped on. The rolling around and the physical stuff of shooting it was fun but wasn’t easy,” says Rudd, who repeatedly shows off his newly acquired six-pack abs during the movie.
The project also presented his first opportunity to work with Oscar-winner Douglas — “acting royalty,” Rudd says. Douglas plays Dr. Hank Pym, creator of the Ant-Man technology and the original hero in the 1960s comic book source material.
“Every single thing he does has gravitas and emotion and complexity,” says Rudd, who is quick to cite some of his favorite Douglas roles: “I remember seeing ‘The Wonder Boys’ in the theater and thinking it was such a nuanced, home run performance. And ‘Falling Down’ is one of my favorites. That’s a movie I’ve thought of when preparing for other things or writing other things. But watching him as Liberace in ‘Behind the Candelabra,’ that was a true tour de force.”
Rudd also closely collaborated with David Dastmalchian, who portrays computer expert Kurt, one of Ant-Man’s larcenous sidekicks. Coincidentally, Dastmalchian also grew up in Overland Park.
“One of my favorite things about watching Paul on set was how sincerely kind and generous the guy is — must be that good Midwest blood,” Dastmalchian says.
“For me, I was terrified as filming began. We were shooting the ‘waffle’ scene at our apartment, which is when (rapper/actor) T.I. and I first meet Scott. The guys started riffing, and Paul opened up some hilarious streams of improv. I felt frozen with fear. Finally, I let loose. The take ended, and Paul smiled at me and nodded. I hadn’t exactly manifested some kind of comedic gold, but I had held my own, and he just kept giving me opportunities to play. I needed that.”
A favorite game during their months-long shoot together was trying to outdo each other with obscure Kansas City references. If one said an Orient Express, the other countered with a Zambezi Zinger — long-gone Worlds of Fun roller coasters.
“That was so much fun,” Rudd recalls. “What started off as general stuff like Pogo’s (nightclub) and Dapper Dan’s (boutique) then turned into, ‘What was the name of the steakhouse at Oak Park Mall that was on the second floor that nobody ever went to?’ Once we started going down that rabbit hole, there were so many things I remembered that I’d completely forgotten. Such pleasure.”
Rudd was born in Passaic, N.J. (a city dubbed the Birthplace of Television). He moved to Kansas City at age 5 for a couple of years before his family relocated to Anaheim, Calif. They returned when he was 10, and Rudd eventually attended Broadmoor Junior High and Shawnee Mission West High School.
“I used to work at Oak Park Mall in a clothing store called the Imagery,” he says. “It was only there for a little while, opposite the food court. It was like new-wave fashion for those who were just not satiated by the cutting edge of Oak Tree, Merry Go Round or Chess King. You could pop up to Imagery and get yourself a pair of pants that had pleats in the ass.”
Already immersed in theater and hoping to pursue acting professionally, Rudd grew out his hair and enrolled at KU.
“I made up my mind that I would go there for two years and get a general education, then go to this school called the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (in Hollywood) and just study theater. I had this game plan the entire time I was at KU,” he says.
The decision did not come without some second-guessing.
“The first year being enrolled at the academy, I had a tinge of regret that I’d left because I loved being at KU even more than I anticipated. I thought, ‘Oh no, now I’m just studying obscure plays and I’m going to be dumb,’” he says. “In California, I was thinking, ‘All my friends are at a KU basketball game, and I’m working in the kitchen at a Bennigan’s. Why couldn’t I have just waited to graduate?’”
Considering the 50 feature films and even more television appearances to his credit, it all seems to have worked out.
Fortunately, Rudd continues to enjoy a strong bond with his hometown. His most high-profile connection emerges during the annual Big Slick Celebrity Weekend, which he co-hosts with fellow celebrities from the area — Rob Riggle, Jason Sudeikis, Eric Stonestreet and David Koechner — to raise money for Children’s Mercy Hospital and its Cancer Center. They persuade other stars, such as Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde and Johnny Knoxville, to take part in various charity events.
“Every year all five of us are confounded by the number of people who say, ‘Yes, we’ll come,’ because it’s a haul,” says Rudd. “It’s hard enough to just keep an evening free if somebody invites you to dinner, let alone get on a plane and fly away for the whole weekend. But people are nice. Once we explain what we’re doing, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m in!’”
The highlight, he says, is meeting the patients and their families at the Cancer Center.
“The kids are so great. And the staff is amazing. It’s a very clear reminder of why we’re doing it all,” he says.
Rudd remains proud that he is a family man. He is married to former film publicist Julie Yaeger, whom he began dating two decades ago, around the time of his breakthrough in “Clueless.” They have a young son and daughter, both of whom love Kansas City despite never having lived here. (“My son is a huge Chiefs, Royals and Sporting KC fan. He loves barbecue and talks about it all the time. He would move to Kansas in a heartbeat,” Rudd says.)
No matter where “Ant-Man” takes him, it won’t diminish the relationship with his hometown.
“I’ve lived in New York City twice as long as I ever lived in Kansas. And yet, Kansas was where those formative years of school and high school and college were that registered for me,” Rudd says.
“So much has happened in my last 20 years that Kansas City is a reminder to me of who I am, where I come from, my friends that are my friends way before I ever started doing this as a job. It makes me feel a little sane.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
RUDD ON TV
Paul Rudd is making the talk show rounds to promote “Ant-Man,” including:
▪ “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” 10:35 p.m. Monday, July 13, NBC
▪ “Kelly & Michael Live,” 10 a.m. Wednesday, July 15, Fox-4