Photograph by Andrew Macpherson
As I am led into the editing room at Apatow Productions, the unmarked, three-story West L.A. studio that is the Starship Enterprise of the comedy universe, I am greeted by a wall of video monitors that are playing, and replaying, a snippet of dialogue that sounds an awful lot like “dusty vagina.”
I have come to meet Leslie Mann, the wife of writer-director-potentate Judd Apatow and the puking bimbo of his first movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin; the shrill hausfrau of his second movie, Knocked Up; and the costar of his third movie, Funny People, an emotionally riskier tale of infidelity and mortality scheduled for release this summer.
Curled up on the couch in a full-length down parka, nursing a bottle of ultracaffeinated Coca-Cola Blak, Mann rises to offer her hand. “It’s nice to—,” she begins to say.
The phrase, I realize, is coming from a scene between Apatow’s cinematic alter ego, Seth Rogen, and newcomer Aubrey Plaza, who is, indeed, intent on preventing a certain part of her anatomy from becoming, uh, underutilized. The clip is being rewound and dissected, over and again, as Apatow and his team of editors try to strike just the right balance of frankness and filth. I glance at the screens, pretending I have not stumbled into something awkward, then back at Mann.
“I keep hearing vagina,” she says.
“Dusty,” I add, with half a grimace.
“Dusty Vagina,” says Apatow, who is sprawled on another couch, legs extended, hands tucked between his thighs. “That’s an old DJ at KMET.”
My guess is that Apatow has radio host Dusty Street in mind, not that it matters. In his distinctly male playbook, which includes producer credits for just about every clever and profane box-office hit of the last five years, from Anchorman to Talladega Nights to Superbad, keeping inappropriate thoughts bottled up is akin to a social disease. Bongs and porn and body hair, schlubby guys and out-of-reach girls, gay jokes, penis jokes, crowning-baby jokes—these are the obsessions of Apatow and his coterie, in the movies and in life. As the resident lady of Apatow’s clubhouse, Mann is not only accustomed to the crudeness but animated by it. “I like that all these guys just feel very comfortable saying whatever,” says Mann, who met Apatow in 1996, on the set of Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy. They have two daughters. “Sometimes that means talking about dirty boy stuff. But I don’t get grossed out. It’s funny to me. I just appreciate the honesty.”
With Funny People, Apatow has written his wife the role of her career, a part that is at once dramatic and slapstick, sentimental and mischievous. Portraying an unhappily married mother of two girls, Mann finds herself drawn to an old flame, a stand-up comedian played by Adam Sandler, who has learned he is terminally ill. Semiautobiographical—Apatow used to emcee at the Improv and was once Sandler’s roommate—the movie is sure to be perceived as a milestone in Apatow’s coming-of-age, “a film that’s willing to be really stupid and silly and also to be grave and take on real life,” says his production partner, Barry Mendel, whose highbrow credentials include Munich and The Royal Tenenbaums. As Mann’s domestic facade unravels, she is at times clownish, breaking into an Australian brogue and singing a Hebrew prayer; other times she seems to be channeling every regret she has ever known, her lips quavering and eyelashes batting away the tears. “She’s a very emotionally honest actor,” says Mendel, “the most emotionally honest person in the film.”
A graduate of Corona del Mar High School, Mann is the daughter of a thrice-married real estate agent who moved her children every few years while they were growing up. When I ask about her father, Mann scowls: “You really wanna go there?” She got her start in commercials as a teenager; in a spot for Coke, she played Fay Wray to King Kong, kicking the gorilla, huffily, and stomping off in a feather boa when he chooses a soda over her. The commercials paid for acting classes, which led to a series of dame and damsel parts, including the socialite-in-distress of George of the Jungle and a Hooters Girl turned podiatrist in Sandler’s Big Daddy.
With her blond waves and fine porcelain features, she has drawn comparisons to Mia Farrow and Madeline Kahn, but it is her voice that has most defined her: a high, ditzy, baby-dollish patter that, with little provocation, can turn into a man-eating screech. “It actually used to be much higher,” says Mann, whose footage from decades past has been incorporated into the Funny People script. “It’s just, like, so much deeper now. I honestly don’t know where the high voice thing came from in the first place. Why do people have high voices? Emotional problems? What is that? It could easily be that. And now I’m getting more normal, and my voice is getting deeper. I don’t know. It’s weird to see the difference.”
Because Funny People is an Apatow film, even the tender moments take indelicate turns. In one of her most compelling scenes, a torn and stricken Mann confesses to Sandler, “You were, you are…were…are…the love, the love of my life.” They hug, and a disarmingly gentle Sandler takes her hands in his. “There are those hands again,” Sandler says.
“My big hands,” Mann says.
“Always made my penis look small,” Sandler says.
Mann’s sniffles, which are being cycled through a bank of computers under the command of Apatow’s longtime editor Brent White, erupt into giggles.
“Thank you, hands, for that complex,” Sandler says.
We watch several versions of the exchange—it was shot four times with three cameras—as Apatow mixes and matches the best fragments from each take. Mann is laughing onscreen, and she is laughing on the couch, as tickled now as she was when it was filmed.
“That’s cute,” she tells Apatow. “I like that.”
“He gets nervous with how intimate it is,” Apatow says, “and he makes a dick joke.”
“Like you, honey,” Mann says.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Apatow says. “Made a career out of it.”
Despite her reservations about putting their kids on display, especially in such an R-rated milieu, Mann gave in to Apatow’s wishes and allowed Maude and Iris, now 11 and six, to appear in Knocked Up and once more in Funny People. I ask whether the girls have seen either movie. “Oh my God, no!” Mann says. “They have no idea what it’s all about. They won’t know until they’re 18.” She will let them see 17 Again, the man-in-a-boy’s-body comedy, due out in April, in which she costars with tweenybopper heartthrob Zac Efron. At 37, Mann is mature enough to play the cougar, sharing a kiss with Efron that sent eldest daughter Maude (the one who, in Knocked Up, improvises a fantastically gruesome explanation—storks, butts, lots of blood—for the origin of babies) into a tizzy. “When I got home, she ran up and licked my face,” Mann says. “She wanted to taste Zac’s spit.”
We have moved into Apatow’s office so that we can talk without any more anatomical intrusions. Mann has shed her parka, revealing a pinstriped button-down blouse, skinny jeans, and classic Stan Smith-model Adidas. When she married Apatow, neither of them had much notoriety; they now rank sixth on the Forbes list of “Hollywood’s Top-Earning Couples,” just behind Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. “I was dating a lot of mean actor-y boys,” says Mann, “and then I met Judd, and he was just the nicest person—man—I’d ever met. I wasn’t used to nice men. But now I am. Maybe that’s why my voice has gotten deeper.”
As if on cue, the door swings open. Apatow is checking up on us. “Soon,” he tells Mann, “you’ll be Johnny Cash.”