Q&A: 'This is 40' star Leslie Mann and writer/director Judd Apatow

Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow

Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / December 17, 2012)

 Ridiculously, unjustly, few Oscar prognosticators include “This is 40” star Leslie Mann or her husband, writer-director Judd Apatow, on lists of likely nominees. Thing is, Apatow’s a member of the Academy—will he vote for himself?

“I’ve always voted for myself,” says Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Funny People”). “That’s when you know it’s all so silly. Because you vote for yourself and you’re like, ‘My vote would count more if I didn’t even vote for anyone else. Should I just vote for something that has no shot? [Laughs.] I’ll vote for that movie everyone hated. And my vote is 10 times more powerful.’”

It shouldn’t be necessary; Apatow’s script and Mann’s performance both are fantastic in this hilarious, insightful, sort-of-sequel to “Knocked Up,” which stands on its own and opens Friday. As in “Knocked Up,” Debbie (Mann) and her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), struggle to keep a happy home with their two daughters (played by Apatow and Mann’s daughters Maude and Iris) while facing financial concerns and the troubles of getting older.

At the Peninsula Hotel, 45-year-old Apatow and 40-year-old Mann—who pulled the hotel bed’s comforter onto the couch to stay warm—talked about each other’s musical taste, resolving conflict through screenwriting and the sexual abilities of David Schwimmer vs. Prince.

As someone who also has a wife with very different musical tastes, I responded to Pete and Debbie’s difference of opinion. Can you think of a concert you’ve each gone to for the other’s benefit to be a good sport?
Leslie Mann: We recently went to, was it John Williams? What’s his name? No, it’s not John Williams. Where did I get that name? The conductor that …
Judd Apatow: Yeah, yeah, we went to see John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl.
LM: It wound up being amazing, but I didn’t want to go. I didn’t think that would be fun to listen to scenes of movies.
JA: Then you were transported.
LM: Then I was transported. It was amazing.
JA: They played the last 13 minutes of “E.T.” with the video up on big screens.
LM: And everyone brought their light sabers. The “Star Wars” things. So that was pretty cool, but I didn’t want to go. But I’m glad I did. And then what have you done for me? Nothing.
JA: I don’t know, I spent some time …
LM: Nothing.
JA: … at a concert which I enjoyed a great deal. It was a band called One Direction.
LM: That wasn’t for me. That was for Maude. What have you done for me?
JA: I thought that was partially for you. [Laughs.]
LM: No.
JA: One Direction was like one big slumber party. I’ve never seen happier people. I’ve never been around that much joy in my entire life. What concert have you forced me to go to that I didn’t want to? Well, I enjoy all music so …
LM: No, you don’t. You don’t like my music.
JA: I love your music! You don’t like my music. [Laughs.]

What do you think of a tour they could call “The Spouse Tour”?
LM: [Laughs.] That’s a good idea.

That way if Arctic Monkeys toured with Britney Spears, my wife and I would both get something.
JA: [Laughs.] We both do like Arctic Monkeys.
LM: Yeah, we do. That’s a good idea; I like that idea.
JA: Leslie could fall asleep during any concert, no matter how loud. She has a gift. [Laughs.]

A lot of “This is 40” came from conversations between you. Was there a time when, either as something was happening or right after, you said, “That would be a good thing for the movie”?
LM: All the time. It happened a lot. Another thing that we did is if we’re upset about something we can have these conversations--what we’re upset about, what we might be afraid to say to each other, we can say through the characters.

For example?
LM: Like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Pete just admitted he was a dick?” [Laughs.]

“Pete.”
LM: Yeah, so we do that sometimes. We’ll take things that are happening to us or are happening with our best friends and then make them crazier, more extreme, and then it winds up being amusing. The longer you stay in something that’s uncomfortable, the funnier it becomes.

Was there something that because of this movie now feels resolved, or at least properly acknowledged?
JA: Everything’s resolved. [Laughs.]
LM: With us? Emotionally I think it’s truthful but that’s pretty universal. Everyone has versions of what Pete and Debbie are going through. These aren’t things that have actually happened to us. But the idea of a woman, a couple who have been together for a long time, the woman beginning to feel neglected by her husband is a pretty universal feeling. And I love that we are able to talk about that in a somewhat amusing way.

Leslie, after “Knocked Up” you said there were some things you should change in everyday life based on what you saw on screen. Did you guys have the same experience after watching “This is 40”?
JA: I always find that it’s weird that we still fight and that people still fight. It’s kind of impossible to communicate perfectly. Because you bring so much baggage from all your old issues and the other person doesn’t know where your sensitive points are. There was a line in the movie where they were at the therapist’s—which I cut out—and they said, “I always feel like we’re one great conversation away from never arguing again for the rest of our lives.” I always find that interesting. With all couples I know it’s hard not to keep falling back into your same habits of how you communicate. My family was very overbearing and loud, and it made me want to hide in the bathroom and go on my phone. My whole childhood was about going in my room and closing the door. That programming is always hard to break.

There’s a line in the movie where Debbie is told “You’re hot and cool and nice” and that she’s “a rare find.” Judd, how much easier is it to write a female character when you’re writing for your wife and can have the way you feel about her in mind?
JA: It’s such a collaboration.
LM: I wrote those lines. [Laughs.]
JA: [Laughs.] Leslie thought that there should be a scene where she goes out and you see her in the club because in “Knocked Up” she couldn’t get in the club. So what happens when she’s in the club? She gets to go crazy and have fun and feel young and get hit on by guys and it makes her happy to have that experience. Where Paul’s a little bit of a bump on a log and he’s listening to Alice in Chains and he’s depressed and his business is going down, and she can tell she wouldn’t be able to share that experience with him. But that’s how we build the movie, which is we have this long conversation about what we want to include and what would reveal these characters. I don’t think I could write for somebody as well as I do for Leslie because I know her so intimately. And you just don’t get that experience with another human being to be able to know these corners of their personality that you would never know about somebody else. That’s why I like working with people over and over again. I have that experience less so with Paul, but I do know him pretty well so that can be included. With Leslie it’s a very special, different thing and it is what excited me about making the movie with Leslie and Maude and Iris because you never get to see an honest depiction of a family like that. They always smooth over all the rough edges and it feels a little bit shallow.

There has been the ongoing conversation throughout your career, Judd, about stories about guys and incorporating female characters. I think anyone who still has that after this movie isn’t paying attention. Do you have the sense that this movie does it as well as you’ve always hoped?
JA: I do think so …
LM: Yes. It’s exciting, isn’t it? It’s a big deal. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they’re few and far between, where women are represented where it’s kind of even …
JA: And they’re not trying to follow a treasure map. It’s just everyday life explored deeply, and it is rare in this era of big special effects movies that people even try to do it. You see it more in independent film, but I think what Leslie’s done is really brave and remarkable to go at that in such a complex way. We’re always trying to do that but sometimes—some projects they are about guys or about the guys’ point of view more than the women. I feel like that whole issue has been a little bit overblown due to very few people’s misunderstanding of “Knocked Up.” “Knocked Up” was about immaturity and what happens when out of the blue you have to stop being a goofy kid. That was the point. So if you say, “Well, I’m going to show immaturity,” I’m going to show the funniest, most hilarious, worst immaturity ever so it’s interesting to see how he pulls out of it. But some people just thought it was immature. But that really wasn’t the point.

How will you feel if Paul McCartney or any other aging rock star mentioned in “This is 40” comes up to you and says, “So, you think I look like an old lady, huh?”
[Both laugh.]
JA: I can’t say I haven’t thought about that. I love all those guys more than anything, and there’s nothing worse than when you have references to people in movies and some of them are negative because a character would attack that kind of person in pop culture. That’s not how I feel—

Has anyone ever confronted you about that?
LM: Wasn’t somebody mad? The one guy …
JA: No … he actually wasn’t mad …. Seth [Rogen] makes fun of Steely Dan and Al Jarreau in “Knocked Up,” and I love them. And I have him slam them because I think it’s an indicator that he doesn’t have good taste in music. Or he’s just into Wu-Tang Clan and nothing else. I like that people talk about what they’re seeing and what they’re listening to and it’s not all going to be positive.

Don’t get me wrong, David Schwimmer’s a nice guy, but from my experience talking to him I don’t know if he’ll love being called the sexual opposite of Prince.
LM: Oh no!

So that could be an interesting conversation coming up.
LM: I know Paul didn’t want to say it because they’re friends.
JA: I made him say it.
LM: He made him say it.
JA: He laughs in the scene when he says it, and he thought because of that I wouldn’t use it.
LM: It was the only time he said it. He wouldn’t say it again after that.
JA: I wasn’t trying to make fun of David Schwimmer. I was trying to make fun of myself. So he’s saying I don’t F like Prince. I F like David Schwimmer. [Laughs.]

I think in between Paul changes it to Ross.
JA: Which he thought meant I wouldn’t use it because Paul was in “Friends.” So he kept trying to change it so I wouldn’t use it. I did think that represented a certain point of view that it’s just a goofy Jewish guy. Like “I have sex like goofy Jewish guys, not like the greatest pop artist of all time.”
LM: But Prince?
JA: Well, he’s got a lot of energy. Like he’s a little mouse. He keeps going and going.

Isn’t that what women want, a little mouse?
[Both laugh.]
LM: I don’t think so. Not a little mouse that keeps going and going. (To Judd) That’s funny that you think that’s what women would want.
JA: He’s the Tasmanian Devil of sex.

Judd, you’ve long been fascinated by the issue of time and making different choices at different times. Is there something you look back on at a point of your life and wish you knew then, or wish you had done differently?
JA: What do I wish I had done differently? Well, you slowly evolve and learn things about yourself and it takes a surprisingly long amount of time [laughs] to heal yourself. So maybe I would have started reading self-help books when I was five.
LM: I would have told myself, “Maybe don’t get married so early. Go get Gerard Butler.” [Laughs.]
JA: Tear through all the Hollywood hotties. [Laughs.] You are my Gerard Butler. [Laughs.]
LM: Gerarrrrrd. That’s a hard name to say. Gerard.
JA: He’s turned that into a sexy name, but by itself it is not a sexy name.
LM: Gerard. “Hey Gerard.” That’s a weird name.
JA: But you look at him …

What do you consider a sexy name?
LM: Not Gerard.
JA: Javier. [Laughs.]

“Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” are two of my favorite shows. When you look at who was involved, is there something that has surprised you about one of the alums?
JA: I’m very happy that John Daley has evolved into the nicest, coolest guy ever. [Laughs.] And now he’s about to co-direct a new version of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
LM: Is he?
JA: With Ed Helms I believe. And he’s one of the writers of “Horrible Bosses.” And he was a little kid when we did [“Freaks and Geeks”]. We met him when he was 13, so I didn’t have the same relationship with him as I did with everyone else who was 16 to 20 years old. He was just this little genius kid. I didn’t even know how he was getting that performance out. I didn’t mess with it. I couldn’t believe how good he was. But as an adult he’s turned into such a wonderful person.
LM: They all have.
JA: For some reason, John feels different. I was so worried about everybody else because I knew them and some of them there was reason to be nervous about them [laughs] and John just was off doing his own thing and is a great actor and has done so much.

I just turned 30. What should I do in the next decade before 40?
LM: Are you married?

I am.
LM: Oh yeah, you said you were married.
JA: Do you have kids?

Not yet.
JA: Have kids now. Have them while you have energy. It’s something that you would delay but if you’re the type of person that likes kids there’s nothing better. So even though it’s really hard, as soon as you have them you think, “Oh, this is the best part of life. This is better than everything else.” Even though it’s difficult at times. So I say do it tonight.
LM: Yeah.

I should leave now and do it.
LM: Go get busy! [Laughs.]
JA: Like Prince! Go like Prince! Don’t do it like David Schwimmer, do it like Prince.

Plus:
On Chicago:
LM: “We’re in and out. The last time we came we went to Second City and saw a bunch of new comedians. That was so fun. I wish we could do something like that.”
On a standout at Table 52, where they ate the night before the interview:
LM: “He liked the fried chicken.”
JA: “Oh my gosh, I gotta figure out how to get it sent to the house. There must be a service of some kind. It was really good.”
Advice to new writers on getting a script into the right hands:
JA: “It’s not so much about reaching people. It is about doing good work. There’s so few good scripts that if you happen to write a great one it’ll happen. I don’t believe that there’s a brilliant script sitting on people’s dressers and they can’t find a way to get someone to read it. I think that people spend too much time figuring out how to get people to read things and not enough time fixing their scripts.”
On the “Simpsons” episode Apatow wrote 22 years ago that’s soon going into production:
JA: “It shows that at that point in my life I had many lessons to learn about writing. [Laughs.] So I’m trying to figure out how much to rewrite it now or what that process will be. But it’s still a good idea. And I feel like I should retire. It’s such a feeling of a closed circle. And I worked with Al Jean, who runs ‘The Simpsons,’ on ‘The Critic.’ He had read it back then and gave me a job on a show he created with Mike Reiss called ‘The Critic’ and he’s there now at ‘The Simpsons’ again. So it’s kind of fun because it’s the same person I tried to convince to read it in the first place. It took him 22 years to come around.”
Did he write any other TV episodes that were never made?
JA: “I wrote a ‘Get a Life’ episode, but they’re not in production. [Laughs.]”
Guilty pleasure movies:
LM: How about TV show?
JA: What about “Joe Dirt”?
LM: Oh, yeah, I love “Joe Dirt.” Psychic kids or psych detectives or anything to do with ghost hunters or “Dateline” murder shows. “Dateline NBC” murder mysteries.
JA: Anything with murder, psychics, ghost or David Spade.
How about you, Judd?
JA: I watched “Breaking Amish” this year until I heard it was all fake. And I was crushed emotionally by that.
LM: But we kept watching it.
JA: I didn’t. I like my reality TV only partially staged. [Laughs.] Not completely staged. But guilty pleasure movie … I’m more of a TV guilty pleasure. I could watch “Kitchen Nightmares” forever. It doesn’t matter if he’s helping people make their restaurant work better.
LM: It’s ruined restaurants for me … They all have slimy chicken and old lettuce in their refrigerators and mold. Cockroaches.
JA: We want to storm into every kitchen in every restaurant we go in now and see how old the beans are.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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