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In 'This Is 40,' Family Life In All Its Glory

Five years after <em></em>Judd Apatow's <em>Knocked Up</em>, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles as married couple Pete and Debbie. Now years into their marriage with two kids (played by Iris and Maude Apatow), Pete and Debbie approach 40 less than gracefully.
Suzanne Hanover
Universal Studios
Five years after Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles as married couple Pete and Debbie. Now years into their marriage with two kids (played by Iris and Maude Apatow), Pete and Debbie approach 40 less than gracefully.

Since earning a cult following for his acclaimed television show Freaks and Geeks, writer, producer, and director Judd Apatow has become a brand name. He has a new movie out this month — This Is 40 — and also guest-edits the January "Comedy Issue" of Vanity Fair.

Pete's friend Barry (Robert Smigel) offers some advice on entering middle age.
Suzanne Hanover / Universal Studios
Universal Studios
Pete's friend Barry (Robert Smigel) offers some advice on entering middle age.

He's an executive producer for the HBO show Girls and previously wrote, produced and directed the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Beyond those hits, Apatow has also produced a litany of recent comedies, including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bridesmaids and The Five-Year Engagement. His films often feature the actors Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, with whom he first worked on Freaks and Geeks.

Several of these films have been about people who don't want to — or don't know how to — grow up, but Apatow's new movie is about adults. It picks up five years after the end of Knocked Up, and tells the story of Pete and Debbie, two of the characters from that 2007 comedy. Pete runs an indie record label and is trying to keep it afloat, while at home the couple is raising two girls — Charlotte and Sadie — and having trouble keeping their relationship fresh.

The movie stars Apatow's wife and collaborator, the actress Leslie Mann, and their two daughters, 10-year-old Iris and 14-year-old Maude, as well as Paul Rudd. And while the film isn't explicitly autobiographical, it does draw on Apatow's own experiences as the child of divorced parents and as a husband attempting to balance his work and home lives. In that way, it's his most personal film to date.

In fact, This Is 40 was shot on Apatow's own block, nine houses down the street from his home. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that that was part of his effort to integrate his work and family lives; he's reluctant to leave Mann and their kids for long stretches at a time, as many in Hollywood do.

"Just so people know," he says, "I won't be directing the next James Bond movie."

Apatow admits, however, that he was not initially prepared for the changes a family and children would bring to his life and worldview. He is still caught off guard, he says, when he's sitting around immersed in his work and miscellaneous anxieties, and his daughter — oblivious to his preoccupations — wants to spend time with him.

"It makes you realize how noisy your mind is," he says. "And it took me years to figure out how to quiet it down and just appreciate that moment with my kids. ... [T]he best part of life is that moment alone with my kids, but no one ever prepared me for that fact."

Interview Highlights

On writing a scene in which Debbie (Leslie Mann) realizes her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), is using Viagra

"I've thought about what [my wife's] reaction would be to it, and I just thought, 'That must be a funny thing for most men,' because, I guess, intrinsically, a woman would say, 'Why do you need that — am I not enough? You actually need medication to do that now?' [Using Viagra] is a real sign of age, even though in the commercials the men are handsome. The men on the commercials look like erections. They get all these tall, skinny guys, with like nice heads."

On the role of improvisation in his movies

"Improv gets kind of overblown. ... Usually, it's just a little seasoning at the end. I feel like if the actors know they're allowed to change their lines, they act differently. Most actors are obsessed with getting their lines exactly right, and I always say, 'It doesn't matter, I just want a truthful moment. So, if you like the line the way it is, say it. If you want to put it in your own words or if you can think of some embellishment, you know, go for it.' And then, [the actors] are more in the moment because of that."

On how his parents communicated with him about their divorce

"One day I found a book in the house, and it was called Growing Up Divorced, and it was a self-help book about how to treat your kids when you're getting divorced, how to communicate with them. And I read it as a little kid, and it helped me. It really did help me understand their conflicts and why they weren't getting along. ... [A]nd a couple years ago, I mentioned that to my dad and he said, 'I left that out for you so you would read it!' ... [A]nd, you know, on one level, you think, 'Oh, that's like a sweet thing,' and, on another level, you think, 'Well, you could have talked to me directly. ... You don't leave bread crumbs of books that you're hoping I'm going to read. What if I didn't read the book?' But that was a different era; people weren't as communicative about their feelings and problems."

On having a daughter, Maude, who has 100,000 Twitter followers

"In the beginning, we read everything that came in and that she was tweeting, and there wasn't much weird coming in. ... [W]e just said, 'If someone says something weird, just block 'em,' so she learns about that. And we would tell her the first month she was tweeting, 'Well, don't say that, that's obnoxious,' or 'That makes you look this way, don't do it.' But very quickly she learned how to be polite. She learned how to express herself in a way that was not cruel and judgmental of other people. ... [I]t's more about her and about our life, and people really respond to it in a big way. What's interesting now is we're all nervous about the kids being on the Internet. They see everything, so this idea that you're going to prevent kids from seeing things — yeah, good luck with that. All you can do is raise a kid who will talk to you if they see something weird."

On the different working attitudes of men and women

"With both Lena [Dunham] and Kristen [Wiig] ... you do get the sense that they approach all of the work differently than men. The things that they're writing about are different, but it's hard to say what it is ... because everyone's looking for love, everyone's looking to be happy, everyone wants to be grounded.

"There are specific neuroses to their projects that are not exactly how men are. There's more of a vulnerability to how they go about their lives. ... [T]hey're all willing to not worry about being liked. They will expose themselves and show all of their pain and frustrations and desires, and we never have a moment where they think, 'I'll look weird doing that,' or 'That makes me look bad.' They just want to expose the truth, which is what I always want. And being around them has made me want to do that more in my work."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.