Actress Leslie Mann is an absolutely lovely person to talk to if you ever get a chance. To many, she’s become better known as Mrs. Judd Apatow and the mother of two daughters who have famously stolen scenes from her in his comedies Knocked Up and This is 40. In fact, she’s been a fairly active comedic actress for quite some time and since her last movie with her husband, she’s appeared in movies like The Bling Ring, How to Be Single, The Other Woman and more.
For The Comedian, a new comedy directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray), Mann is paired with Robert De Niro as the love interest to his stand-up comic Jackie Burke, who meets her character Harmony Schultz when he’s at a low point in life, forced to work at a soup kitchen as community service for attacking a heckler. Jackie and Harmony hit it off but things get complicated when he meets her father Mac (Harvey Keitel), who isn’t into the idea of his daughter dating a comedian, particularly Jackie.
It’s a very funny movie, especially in the many scenes where we watch De Niro doing stand-up, but also very poignant and touching, as he tries to deal with the modern world and having a relationship with a woman with her own family issues.
LRM had a chance to sit down with Ms. Mann on a very cold day in New York City back in November to talk about her role in The Comedian and her family.
LRM: In some ways, you’ve come full circle from Judd’s early movies in which you appeared, because now you’re playing the love interest of a comedian. It’s such a nice movie, and you have some great moments with De Niro.
Leslie Mann: Thank you.
LRM: I saw Art Linson’s previous movie “What Just Happened,” which I think was a book that was made into a movie with De Niro playing a Hollywood producer, trying to put together different projects. When I saw that Art’s name was on the screenplay, I wondered if he had a background in stand-up comedy, too? Do you know anything about how this came together?
Mann: Does he? I don’t think he does. Oh, it’s Jeffrey Ross, so I think it’s based on him. I think so. Maybe they worked together or something like that?
LRM: How did you find out about the role?
Mann: I got a phone call from Taylor (Hackford), and we sat and had tea together and he told me about it. I read it and loved it and got on a plane the next day to go meet Robert De Niro, which was terrifying, so scary. He was very nice, and then we just went from there.
LRM: You also have Harvey Keitel playing your father, so when you have scenes with the two of them, it must have been surreal if you’d seen any of their movies together like “Mean Streets” or “Taxi Driver.”
Mann: It was so crazy, it really was. Separately, it was one thing, working with them on their own, but when we did the scene in the restaurant, I felt like I had to keep reminding myself to check back in and don’t just sit back and watch them. It was fun to sit and watch them work together.
LRM: When someone told me the premise of this movie that Robert De Niro is a stand-up comedian, until you see the movie, it’s hard to imagine because he’s not known for that sort of thing. You’ve had this experience because you’ve seen Judd doing stand-up, so how was it watching De Niro doing it.
Mann: Well, it was interesting because he had Jessica Kirson and Lewis Friedman around to basically do what I’ve seen my husband and other stand-up comedians. Crafting a perfect joke either takes a lot of time or a lot of really smart people crafting it until it has the perfect rhythm and is funny and makes sense and is a great joke.
LRM: But also doing a whole set…
Mann: But it was like that. There was a lot of reworking things as he went, not for the other scenes, but for the stand-up stuff.
LRM: There’s a lot of stuff shot at the Comedy Cellar, but how much time did you spend there?
Mann: For the movie or in real life? For the movie, I think I was there for a few days, not much, but he did stand-up like at the Soup Kitchen and the old age home, so it was interesting to watch him do it, just creating this whole character that made it work was just fascinating to watch him putting it all together.
LRM: Did it take a long time to develop a relationship with him, not only with his character but with him as well?
Mann: You know, I felt very comfortable working with him, but we also rehearsed so much. We rehearsed a lot, and before we started working, we went to each location and rehearsed the scenes at each location, which is unusual, and then we would get together for an hour before each scene and rehearse even more. We rehearsed after work. There was tons of rehearsing going on, which was really helpful.
LRM: Is that something that Bob likes to do or Taylor?
Mann: I think going and visiting the locations and rehearsing before shooting is something Taylor does. I’ve never had that happen before, because I think it’s just expensive.
LRM: You have a lot of background actors including the old age home so did you end up doing those rehearsals in front of all of them?
Mann: No, before, yeah.
LRM: So when Bob went out and performed his actor, a lot of them were seeing it for the first time, in some ways?
Mann: Both. I think for the stand-up stuff it’s different. That’s ever-changing, but yeah, just like I said. We would go rehearse before.
LRM: Have you done a lot of filming in New York before this movie?
Mann: I have, yeah. I’ve done my last few movies here. I’ve done How to Be Single. I did The Other Woman here, and I did something in between. Yeah, we shot them here. I love working here.
LRM: I was curious about the timing because I thought Judd was here for a year making “Trainwreck,” so I wondered if this was filming around that same time.
Mann: We shot this after Trainwreck, yeah.
LRM: But you were living here when Judd was making his movie here, too?
Mann: No, no… he was only here for 2 and a half months. We’re always in and out, doing stuff, back and forth.
LRM: What was this experience like shooting in New York with Bob, who obviously knows New York better than anyone and vice versa.
Mann: I know. I remember walking down the street with him when we did one of those scenes, and the amount of people… it happened to be a beautiful warm night so a lot of people were out on the street, but people love him. People love him everywhere, but in this city especially. He’s very gracious and it was fun.
LRM: What would you like people to get out of this movie? It’s an interesting mix of comedy and drama, and it’s almost like a romantic comedy in some ways.
Mann: I think it’s a story about—well, for my character—two people who are kind of lost and struggling and failing and they find each other and become better people from knowing each other, but he is like a larger than life character and so is my father in the movie. So it’s finding someone like him who can help me through and help me understand my father and help me to stand up to my father helps my character become a happier person. That’s what was good.
LRM: Were you surprised how this movie had a nice happy ending, because it seems so rare these days. Bob’s done a bunch of comedies but this is one of those movies that could have gone either way.
Mann: It could have gotten dark? I know.
LRM: I just felt that it couldn’t stay nice the whole way through.
Mann: Yeah, I think it shows him and both of us coming out of this dark place and creating a better life for ourselves and seeing… well, we don’t want to talk about the ending, but it’s a funny ending. (laughs)
LRM: What else have you been doing recently? Do you still try to work fairly regularly?
Mann: You know, I don’t really work that much. One of my daughters just went away to college at Northwestern, so she’s freezing her @$$ off in Chicago right now. I feel very lucky that I get to be a mother most of the time, but then when something like this comes around, I get to do something like this. So I feel very grateful that I’m able to work and also be with my kids, but obviously, my priority is the kids.
LRM: Is your older daughter going to try to do more acting because she’s done some stuff outside of Judd’s movies.
Mann: Well, now she’s allowed to. Our rule is that they can work a little bit, but it would have to be with our family, but when she turns 18, she can do whatever she wants, so she immediately got a job when she turned 18 and graduated high school. Now she’s in college and I think she’s probably going to want to get into it, but I don’t know. She’s in school so we’ll see.
LRM: I hope she gives Judd a good rate if he wants to use her again…
Mann: Hopefully, she will not, because he’s taken advantage of them over the years. (laughs) He’s gotten them for cheap.
LRM: Is there anything else you’re lining up to do soon?
Mann: I’m not sure right now. We just finished this in April, and then my daughter went to school, graduating, and so I should start figuring out what I’m going to do. I take time in between… yeah… to live my life.
LRM: This movie seems to have come out of nowhere. Usually a movie like this you’d see at a festival and then it will come out six months later, but you said you finished filming it in April. So Taylor’s probably been working on it the last few months.
Mann: Yeah, really hard.
LRM: I know Judd regularly allows for improv on his set and ends up with a lot of extra scenes, but was there anything like that on this movie at all?
Mann: There wasn’t. With the stand-up stuff, I know that was a process, but with the other stuff, it was so rehearsed. We were rehearsed so much, so no, not a lot of improvising. Maybe in the rehearsal process and then we (added stuff).
The Comedian opens nationwide on Friday, February 3.