ABOVE: LESLIE MANN IN THIS IS 40. IMAGE COURTESY OF SUZANNE HANOVER/UNIVERSAL PICTURES
We’ve got to hand it to Leslie Mann: she’s a total trooper. The night before our interview, she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, declaring up-front that she was sick while unabashedly describing her various symptoms. When we arrive for our interview, Leslie is curled up on a couch in the Four Seasons, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping tea. “I don’t think I’m contagious anymore,” she sniffles. Her illness can’t overshadow the same charm and beauty that famously caught the eye of Judd Apatow on the set of The Cable Guy (the two have been together ever since). The couple has two daughters, Maude and Iris, who can be seen in various Apatow films. They, along with Leslie Mann, are front and center in This Is 40. While she’s made very funny and strong impressions in the past (her aging party girl in The 40 Year Old Virgin remains eminently quotable) in This Is 40 Mann confidently steps into a starring role, outshining such heavy-hitters as Paul Rudd, Albert Brooks, and John Lithgow.
DREW FORTUNE: In Knocked Up, I don’t think many people viewed that as a window into your relationship with Judd, but now it’s almost impossible not to make that connection. What were your emotions throughout this whole process? Were certain things off limits? Did you ever have to say “I’m not comfortable going there?”
LESLIE MANN: Well, it was about a two-year conversation about the characters and about different things they might do, or might be feeling. So, nothing was a surprise to me. It’s all been talked through between the two of us, so it’s not like there was anything he put in the script that was a surprise. It is emotionally truthful, the feeling and the sentiment is truthful, but it is fictional. It’s not pulled from our lives. It’s also blown out of proportion and taken to the extreme for comedic effect.
FORTUNE: One thing that I’ve always admired about you as a comedic actress is that you play it pretty straight, and avoid going broad. In terms of comedic actors, who did you grow up admiring and what makes you laugh?
MANN: I like more grounded comedy. I enjoy broad comedies also, but I like Shirley MacLaine. I like that style, and I also love I Love Lucy. I like dark humor. My favorite movie of all time is Harold and Maude.
FORTUNE: I was wondering if that’s where [the name] Maude came from.
MANN: It is, it is. Ruth Gordon, she’s funny, and Bud Cort is so funny in that movie. He’s someone who always made me laugh, because I’d watch that movie back in the day when we only had three VHS tapes. I literally watched that every weekend for years when I was in high school. That kind of tone is what I like.
FORTUNE: Did you set out with comedy in your sights, or was it The Cable Guy and Judd that sealed your fate as a comedic actress?
MANN: When I was in acting class, we did a lot of really serious scenes, and we didn’t do comedic scenes. I felt like doing those scenes, it didn’t come out of my mouth the right way. I don’t know if it’s because my voice is different, or what it is about me, but it just seemed a little off. When I started auditioning, I’d take any audition I could get. The more dramatic ones didn’t go as well as the comedic. So I just kind of wound up in that world. Ben Stiller was making The Cable Guy, and Judd was punching it up. He was reading the part of Jim when I went in and auditioned. It wasn’t Judd’s movie, but that’s how we met. I think I determined my own fate. I don’t think it was Judd.
FORTUNE: I loved your role in Freaks and Geeks.
MANN: Oh, really?
FORTUNE: Yes, I think it’s one of the sweeter moments in the whole series.
MANN: How’d you like my haircut, though? They say that when a woman wants to end a relationship, she cuts off all of her hair. I’ve done that twice in my marriage, but am still married. But that was a bad hairdo.
FORTUNE: Regarding Maude and Iris, isn’t the old Hollywood rule “Never work with kids or animals?” What’s it like working with your own kids? Do they understand the enormity of what’s at stake?
MANN: They have no idea. Up until just recently, they were in Knocked Up and Funny People, they really have no idea what they’ve done, because they can’t see the movies, and neither can their friends. It’s not something that we bring home. We don’t talk about it, and they actually don’t give a shit and could care less. It’s been fine, and they just have fun when they’re at work. It’s like hanging out with Mom and Dad and their friends. Maude, now that she’s a little older, she kind of seems a little more interested. She’s really good in the movie, and it seems like she got a handle on how to act. She figured out how to do some things that were pretty awesome, like connecting emotional life with dialogue, and then just being awesome. It’s important to me that they stay in school and just be normal kids and not have the pressure of all of this. It would be a terrible idea to put a kid into this kind of world. Some kids are maybe built for that, but I just don’t want that for mine.
FORTUNE: Do you think LA is a good place to raise kids, or is it a necessary evil?
MANN: Up until about three years ago, I was always looking for somewhere else to live. We shot Talladega Nights in North Carolina, and were there for three months. Maude went to school there. I loved it, so I wanted to move there. Whenever we would go out of town, I wanted to move to that place. I always wanted to move to the place that wasn’t LA, because it does feel chaotic and stressful. But I think that stress and chaos follows me wherever I go. I think I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I’m not going anywhere, and I’m doing the best that I can with my kids. It’s kind of cool, though, because they have so much diversity, and I think it’s better to grow up that way than in North Carolina surrounded by white Republicans.
FORTUNE: You and Rudd have some steamy scenes together. Does Judd ever get jealous?
MANN: [whispers] He’s so jealous. No, he doesn’t get jealous, and it’s really weird. First of all, Paul and I are like brother and sister. I’ve done it with him, and Adam Sandler too, but it’s never really serious. I think if we had mood lighting and it was a serious sex scene, then it might get awkward. But, it’s just so goofy that I don’t think he cares.
FORTUNE: Hitchcock had his Alma. How involved are you behind the scenes?
MANN: I’m not involved in… Oh, my God, my sinuses just drained. You know when they just depressurize?
FORTUNE: Ohh, I’m sorry. That’s such a boring question, too. I want to ask something else. Would you ever do a dowdy, Oscar-bait film?
MANN: I think it’d be fun to do a comedy Oscar-bait film. Comedy is hard to do, and I don’t know why it doesn’t have its own category. I don’t understand why people think it’s harder to do drama than it is to do comedy. It doesn’t get respect. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It would be more gratifying to get something for a comedy, because it doesn’t happen much or at all.
FORTUNE: As Good As It Gets was what, ’96?
MANN: Yeah, or Annie Hall. I guess there have been some. It’s always fun to think about winning an award. I thought about winning awards when I was a little girl. Everybody wants to win an award for something.
FORTUNE: What’s your advice to actresses who don’t want to fuck up their career before they turn 23? How do they come out well-adjusted like you?
MANN: Somebody said that me the other day. “You’ve taken the scenic route.”
FORTUNE: That’s a more flowery way of stating my question.
MANN: [laughs] Well, I worked when I was younger and was totally obsessed, and it ruled my life. I really couldn’t think about anything else. Then I got pregnant and became a mother, and suddenly nothing was about me anymore. All I thought about was my children, and I went through that for quite a while. Then I just slowly started working again. I think that at the time, when I was first pregnant, it was hard to make the transition from being totally self-involved to not being able to think about myself at all. At the end of the day, I think that’s the best thing that someone can go through. I think it makes you a better person. It doesn’t mean that people who don’t go through that aren’t good people. For me, it was a good thing. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way, and thank God I didn’t put my career over family. That would have been the biggest mistake of my life. I’m really happy it went the way it did. So, how not to fuck up your career? Don’t make it all about work. Have a real life, too. You have nothing to offer if you’re just some machine actress.
FORTUNE: What’s a perfect day for Leslie Mann? Judd and the kids don’t have to be there.
MANN: Okay: Going to bed with a lot of food, like ice cream and Top Ramen, closing the drapes so it’s really dark, getting under the blankets, and then watching some kind of psychic show, like Psychic Cops, Psychic Detective, or Psychic Kids. Ghost Hunters is so awesome, too. There’s something that relaxes me about watching really crazy shit like that.
THIS IS 40 IS OUT TODAY.