Leslie Mann came to Hollywood with a strategy: She was going to get on a TV show and learn the basics, land a part in a movie, then move on to lead roles in films. "I always had that little plan for myself," she recalls. "And then I had kids, and all my plans fell to shit. And I learned that you just can't plan."
Things worked out just fine for the actor, who after a few years off to raise Maude and Iris, her two daughters with comedy hyphenate Judd Apatow, finds herself more in demand than ever. It was 1995 when an unknown Mann beat out hundreds of actors to land the plum role of Matthew Broderick's love interest in The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey. Though the film didn't turn out to be the surefire hit people predicted, it catapulted Mann from obscurity into such high-profile films as George of the Jungle and Last Man Standing. She would continue to accept the occasional film role while raising her children, but she primarily dedicated her time to her family.
So it seems only fitting that Apatow, the man who took her off the market, would bring her back with a vengeance, casting her as the vomiting, drunk-driving, would-be deflowerer of Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. She bested that scene-stealing turn with her wry, knowing role as Paul Rudd's wife in Knocked Up, Apatow's next film as director. Though it is ostensibly the story of a young couple who find themselves dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, Rudd and Mann ended up portraying one of the most realistic couples ever captured onscreen, warts and all. Her unapologetic but vulnerable performance should have netted Mann a slew of awards, but the film was probably too successful and entertaining for the Academy's taste.
Yet her third pairing with Apatow is perhaps her biggest challenge yet: In Funny People (opening July 31), she plays Laura, a former actor who is also the great lost love of terminally ill standup comedian George (Adam Sandler). Aided by his protégé Ira (Seth Rogen), George tries to make up past wrongs to Laura, who is now married with two daughters—played, as in Knocked Up, by Mann and Apatow's real-life children. The ethereal Mann is heartbreaking and hilarious—often in the same scene, as when Laura tearfully asks George, "How could you cheat on me? I was so hot!"
In a clever bit of filmmaking, Apatow incorporates some of Mann's early acting work
throughout Funny People, showing glimpses of Laura's thwarted career in clips George watches. Mann admits the experience of watching her own work was surreal. "I have so many weird hairstyles, and my voice is really high—even higher than it is now," she says. Recalling her first commercial, for a nail polish pen, she adds, "I had crazy big hair and orange spandex. I had to audition on roller skates, dancing to 'Kiss' by Prince." But in the end, she had no shame about her humble beginnings: "Looking back, it wasn't so bad. I mean, I was making money acting!"
On The Jobs
Mann knew early on she wanted to be an actor, and at 19 she met an aspiring photographer who offered to take photos of her and introduced her to a commercial agent. Mann was raised in Orange County, about an hour's drive from Los Angeles, but in the days before GPS she would give herself four hours to find a location because she was so unfamiliar with the sprawling city. She spent a lot of time at a now-defunct coffee shop called Highland Grounds, reading acting books and using the restaurant's pay phone. "I called SAG, and they give you lists of managers, so I would just cold-call them," Mann recalls. "I didn't know what I was doing, so I would just ask question after question of people to figure it out. I still do that, to this day."
Based on a friend's recommendation, she also enrolled in a six-week acting course at the Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Acting Studio. Brown was immediately impressed by Mann's talent and commitment. "Right away, I knew she was an interesting girl," he notes. "She was very raw and unformed but definitely had a rich imagination. Just a fun person who was so serious about the work and so driven, but also had a great sense of humor about herself." After completing the six-week course, Mann moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the two-year course with Brown. She admits she struggled. "You figure out how to get through life by closing yourself down in a lot of ways, and acting class is all about opening yourself up," she explains. "So it was hard. I was an open wound for years, like a raw nerve. It could be awful."
Mann was also struggling financially. "It was a terrible time; I was all alone and trying to figure out what the fuck I was doing," she reveals. "I would take change from my mom's house and go to Circus of Values and buy ramen—but not even the Top Ramen, the really bad stuff." She took survival jobs at clothing stores, which she hated; it didn't help that she was, in her own words, the world's worst salesperson. "I just didn't care. I didn't want to be there," she confesses. "I remember Melanie Griffith came in one time, and it was so exciting, but they wouldn't let me help her, because I was so terrible." Mann was fired from several places, including a bookstore–coffee shop job that she enjoyed. "I didn't want to learn how to do the espresso machine, because all of the girls who did it had scars all over their hands," she says with a laugh. "But it was fun while it lasted."
Mann's saving grace was booking commercial work, even though she was so green she didn't understand what it meant to be in the union. "I asked a girl at an audition if it was better to be SAG, and she said yes, so I just checked the box all the time, not realizing what it meant," Mann recalls. "So I wound up getting a job, and they found out I wasn't in the union, and it became a whole thing. I felt awful because I didn't realize I had done something wrong. They had to pay a fine, and I was Taft-Hartleyed in." Mann also lost track of how much work she was doing. "I think I felt like a loser because I wasn't working as much as I wanted to," she says. "When we were preparing for Funny People, we found SAG will give you a list of all the commercials you've done. I only remember doing four, but there was actually 12 or more. And I thought, 'Hey, that's kind of impressive!' "
Getting To The Good Stuff
It was particularly impressive, considering Mann says she is "downright terrible" at auditioning. "I get so scared, and I can't seem to get out of my head," she admits. She is grateful to the kind casting directors who were patient with her, and she notes there were many who were outright rude. "It became very clear to me that the people who responded to me were the people I respected," she says. "I remember the people who were rude and dismissive; I would watch the TV show or movie they cast, and it was always a piece of shit. Always. And the people who responded to me or were kind to actors, they always made the good stuff. So when people are being assholes, you might as well not waste your time and walk away, because chances are they're going to make a piece of shit anyway." The one good thing to come of her experiences: Apatow makes sure to create a safe, friendly environment for actors who audition for him. "Judd has heard so many horror stories from me, he makes sure to be respectful and give actors the time they need," she says.
When Mann went to audition for director Ben Stiller for The Cable Guy, she had only two small films to her credit: a sex comedy called Virgin High and a brief part in Bottle Rocket, from which she was cut. Even now, she seems to have trouble believing she won the role in Cable Guy. "I think I had five auditions or meetings with Ben," she recalls. "Then he called me at my mom's house to tell me I got the part, and it was the most exciting thing ever. I woke up the next morning and had to pinch myself; it still hadn't sunk in."
Mann was also surprised to find her career steering toward comedy. She followed Cable Guy with lighthearted fare: George of the Jungle and the Adam Sandler vehicle Big Daddy. "It just kind of happened that way," she notes. "I have a memory of being at an audition and reading something very seriously, and people in the room started laughing. That was my first memory of people's perception of me, then I just sort of seemed to head in that direction. Which is fine by me, because I love it and feel comfortable doing it."
Brown also didn't expect to see his student's career take a turn for the funny. "I don't know that I ever gave her any comedies in class," he says. "I once gave her something lighter: a piece by Jean Anouilh called Mademoiselle Colombe. And I think it was the thing she struggled with the most, because the character was so happy. She came onstage and was like, 'Why would I want to do this? Show me the wall I've got to knock down!' " But perhaps no one was more surprised by Mann's success than the owner of Highland Grounds, who had watched her navigate her early career in his very restaurant. Recalls Mann, "Years later I saw him, and he said, 'You know, I always thought you were a nut job, talking about being an actress. And you did it! That's awesome!' "
Funny, With Children
Mann acknowledges it was hard to step away from her career after struggling for so long, but, she says, "I never felt comfortable leaving my kids until they were older." It helps that Apatow's sets are a family affair, where the kids are welcome. "When they were babies, I remember thinking that I could never go on a Jerry Bruckheimer set and feel comfortable," Mann says. "Not that Jerry Bruckheimer wants me—but I felt like they would be in the way. With Judd, they know the crew, and it's a friendly atmosphere, and no one cares if they talk during a scene and ruin a take."
Still, Mann wasn't thrilled when her husband cast their daughters as her and Rudd's children in Knocked Up. "He kind of tricked me," she reveals. "He would lie and say he was casting [other] kids, then at the very last minute he said, 'I can't find anyone; is it okay if we use the kids?' And it seemed fine. With Funny People, I had the same reservations, and he tricked me again." Mann can't help but be a proud parent. "They're so good and cute," she says. "And both Seth and Adam have known them since they were babies. It's like a big family. But I would never, ever in a million years agree to let them go on someone else's set. They don't need to be exposed to that." It helps, Mann adds, that the kids and their friends have never seen the movies: "It's completely off their radar. As they get older, it could become an issue." Maude, the eldest, has expressed an interest in pursuing acting, but Mann refuses to budge. "She's trying to talk us into it, and she's a very powerful force," she says. "But she doesn't realize what the real world is like. It's hard. It's brutal. To send her off with the wolves—I couldn't do that." Of course, all bets are off when Maude becomes an adult. "She can do whatever she wants when she's 18."
Being married to Apatow, Mann also finds her personal life fodder for his movies—which has some benefits. The pair recently came across Knocked Up on TV and allowed the kids to watch some of it (she'd like to point out that they muted parts with bad language). "Things in the film really happened in our life, though they're exaggerated versions," she says. "The scene where Katherine kicks Seth out of the car on the way to the gynecologist's office, that really happened. And when the doctor can't be found because he went to a bar mitzvah, that was true. So I was able to say to Iris, 'That's your story.' " The scene Mann loves the most, however, is when the couple is taking the baby home for the first time and Rogen's character puts on the hazard lights as they drive down a California hill as the sun is setting. "That's exactly what happened with Maude," Mann reveals. "And it makes me cry every time because those are our real experiences, and we get to see them."
Of course, working with her family leads some people to cry nepotism, but Mann takes it all in stride. "He's used Seth and Jonah [Hill] more than he's used me," she points out. "So why don't people say anything about them? Judd likes to work with the same people; it's his comfort zone. We all speak the same language, and we share a similar sense of humor. It's a nice little group that gets each other." This year, Mann pulled off a sweet romance with Zac Efron in 17 Again, and she will soon be seen in the Sundance sensation I Love You Phillip Morris and Robert Rodriguez's Shorts. "People have said to me, 'You should do other things than Judd's movies,'" she says. "And I am. But the truth is, I like working with him more than anyone else. And Judd likes working with all of us. What can I say? I like my husband, and he likes me."
--Set to appear with Elizabeth Banks in What Was I Thinking? based on the book by Barbara Davilman and Liz Dubelman
--Learned she had been cut from Bottle Rocket when working opposite that film’s writer-star Owen Wilson in The Cable Guy
--Other films include Mike Figgis’ Timecode, Orange County, and Drillbit Taylor, opposite Wilson