Paul Rudd took People magazine’s 2021 Sexiest Man Alive crown last week. That was the easy part.
The challenge for Rudd, 52, is to stay on the “sexy” throne with his latest projects. His creepy psychiatrist in Apple TV’s “The Shrink Next Door” doesn’t do Rudd any alluring favors. But “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a whole new world.
Rudd plays Mr. Grooberson, the hottest slacker summer school teacher.
“Paul makes everything look good, I don’t know how he does it,” says “Afterlife” writer/director Jason Reitman. “He makes dialogue funnier. He’s a great classically physical comedian. And he’s unstoppably handsome.”
Rudd reveals to USA TODAY how he serves up a hot platter of Gary Grooberson in “Ghostbusters; Afterlife” (in theaters Friday).
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Rudd’s Grooberson, who happens to be a seismologist, is a cool breeze in dreaded summer school, playing vintage horror movies in class.
“I can’t imagine how much I would have liked having a teacher that walked into class on the first day and said: ‘You don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here.’ And then showed ‘Cujo.’ ” Rudd says. His Grooberson still manages to connect with fellow science nerds like Phoebe (McKenna Grace), the new kid in town and granddaughter of late Ghostbuster Egon Spengler.
“I like it because he really doesn’t talk down to kids,” Rudd says.
He’s not a perfect role model. Grooberson wears cheap sunglasses rather than safety goggles when performing a ghost trap experiment with Phoebe that blows out his windshield.
The teacher is one of the many flawed but lovable caregivers Rudd has played in his career – from a loving father and petty thief in the “Ant-Man” franchise to philandering camp counselor in “Wet Hot American Summer.”
“In absolutely no way should anybody ever leave their kids with the characters that I’ve played,” he says.
Wearing upscale tropical apparel (a subdued Hawaiian shirt under a blazer), Grooberson takes Phoebe’s mother, Callie (Carrie Coon), on the sweetest first date. It’s not the cocktails served in cat glasses, it’s how Grooberson listens to Callie’s problems that’s winning.
Coon has less lofty ideals about Grooberson’s appeal for her struggling single mother Callie. “He is available and speaks in complete sentences,” Coon tells USA TODAY, adding one red flag: “His name is “Gary Grooberson’ “
After his date, Grooberson hits the local Wal-Mart for ice cream. The fateful excursion turns paranormal weird and initially wondrous with the store shelf appearance of Stay-Puft mini marshmallow men. The digital characters were added after filming, so Rudd’s awe-filled reactions were aided with low-fi practical effects.
“There was a prop guy underneath with a pencil poking the bag so that I could see the bag movement as (the Stay-Puft men) are trying to get out,” Rudd says. “I got a real kick out of that.”
The Stay-Puft creatures turn nasty (“they’re cute, but vicious,” Rudd says), and a Terror Dog emerges to give chase through the Wrangler jeans section. Rudd wasn’t afraid to fully commit to fear.
“Awkward panic running somehow comes easy to me,” he says. “When you’re being chased by a Terror Dog, you take the restraints off and just go chaotic.”
Grooberson makes a headfirst dive across his car hood, sliding through the broken windshield into the front seat to flee. “That was kind of my ‘Mission: Impossible’ moment,” says Rudd, who turns indignant when asked if he was replaced with a stunt person. “What are you talking about, man? Absolutely that was me. I’m Ant-Man!”
Rudd admits to “being a little bit nervous” before shooting the stunt but then performed successive dives, landing in the seat without injury. “Thankfully, that car wasn’t a stick shift. But it was actually fun.”
Rudd was swept up with the original 1984 “Ghostbusters” mania as a teenager. “I saw it a few times. It was such a big thing, everyone was talking about it at school. ‘Ghostbusters’ had that magical component that just struck a chord with people.”
On the proton-pack-filled “Afterlife” set,Rudd didn’t need to fake the wonder. “I was actually holding a ghost trap in that scene. These are things I have known my whole life.”
Perhaps the only downside to the Grooberson portrayal is that there is no “Afterlife” boogie. As the film’s publicity kicked into gear in September, a video compilation in May of Rudd’s joyous dancing throughout his career went viral, giving a taste of what might have been.