On screen and off, Leslie Mann keeps on stealing scenes—and everyone’s heart.
When Leslie Mann appears in a film—whether her role is large or small, whether the film’s critical reaction is glowing, middling, or indifferent—a couple of things can be expected: First, an audience member will nudge their companion and say something like, “Oh, I love her”; second, the reviews will often note that “Leslie Mann is the best thing in this movie.”
Mann, 45, has to be persuaded, over breakfast in Brentwood, that these observations are true, eventually warming to the notion when she’s compared to a stealth weapon that films can deploy at any moment for immediate audience-pleasing effect.
“The stealth weapon!” she exclaims with an amused chuckle. “Oh, I like that. That’s nice. I like to think of things in that way.” Still, her recent reading on positivity reminds her that “people always focus on the negative thing. It’s hard to pay attention to the good things. So, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
There’s plenty of empirical evidence. After effectively launching her career as an ingenue with a sly comedic streak in high-profile ’90s fare like The Cable Guy and Big Daddy, Mann slowed her quick ascent a pace after marrying writer/director Judd Apatow and starting their family together. But she quickly reemerged in full-tilt scene-stealing mode when the couple’s personal partnership extended to the big screen in a string of his very, very funny films: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This Is Forty.
“When I’m doing a lot of these comedies, I do think I’m being very dramatic—it’s just coming out in a way people find amusing!” says comedy queen Leslie Mann, here rocking a printed silk dress by Dolce & Gabbana ($7,795). 312 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-888-8701. 14k yellow-gold Vintage open crescent Moon Links bracelet, Broken English (price on request). Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, 310-458-2724. Diamond mini evil eye stack ring ($295), diamond single bezel stack ring ($295), and diamond white topaz baguette stack ring ($250), EF Collection. Madison, 8745 W. 3rd St., LA, 310-275-1930. Cartier Love bracelet and gold bangle, Mann’s own
Evoking the late great Madeline Kahn with her rare combo of charm, allure, and comedic go-for-broke fearlessness, Mann flourished working with other filmmakers, as well, across an eclectic array of fare: The Bling Ring, The Other Woman, How To Be Single, and, this year, The Comedian, opposite no less than Robert De Niro. The film’s director, Taylor Hackford, admits he was impressed with how Mann, a late addition to a cast of acting heavyweights including Harvey Keitel, Patti LuPone, Danny DeVito, and Edie Falco, dove in and more than held her own.
“De Niro is a brilliant actor, but he’s not known for developing a huge amount of chemistry with the actresses he works with,” says Hackford. “Yet there’s a lot of wonderful work that they did together. She’s come to a new area of her own career—she’s fabulous in Judd’s movies, but this is much more of a dramatic role than her normal comedienne work. She’s naturally funny, but I was never looking for her to deliver funny lines. [Her character’s] got a lot of problems in her life, and Leslie is able to express that in a way that is incredibly human.”
Mann’s is a Hollywood success story built less on power moves and machinations, she admits, than simply choosing a gradual path of advancement and letting her talent and the requisite luck lead her. “When I was younger, I had a whole plan for myself,” she says. “And it kind of worked out. Now, I don’t as much. I just want to work with great people, smart people, and talented people, and people who I can creatively understand. That’s my goal.”
Frieza sweater, Boss ($545). 414 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-859-2888. 14k rose-gold diamond ring, Effy Jewelry ($4,600). Broken English, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, 310-458-2724. Signet ring, Mann’s own
Reared in Newport Beach, Mann began the way so many aspiring performers do: a college acting class, some commercial auditions, some early paying gigs, and a deepening pursuit of formal training as she arrived in LA. “It felt like a high being in that environment, and it felt like everything made sense… The people I was around, their insides matched their outsides, like you could say how you feel. And that’s what acting is—it’s all about expressing your feelings. It just felt like living, for me. It was like discovering where I belong, discovering myself.”
That included the realization that she had a facility for mining big laughs out of a character and that she needed to play to that strength—an epiphany that came during a dramatic audition. “It was at the Chateau Marmont,” she remembers. “I don’t know what it was for—but it was a serious role. I remember people laughed, and it really threw me, and it threw me so much that I couldn’t remember my lines! I was like, ‘What?’”
“I thought about that for a while, like, ‘What just happened? What was that?’” she says. “I then slowly started heading into auditioning for comedy stuff. I wasn’t doing well in the dramatic parts. It felt like I was doing better in comedy. That’s where I was having the most fun.”
“But I do think in my head, when I’m doing a lot of these comedies, that I’m being very dramatic—it’s just coming out in a way that people find amusing,” she laughs. Her characters’ predicaments may be hilarious, even humiliating, but Mann’s playing every genuine feeling she can find in the setups.
It’s an emotional time at the Mann/Apatow household. The couple’s two daughters, Maude, 19, and Iris, 14—both of whom have acted opposite their mother in films directed by their father—are entering phases of their own lives that are definitely leaving their mother acutely aware of increasing empty-nest angst. “It’s crazy!” she exclaims. “They don’t need you anymore. My whole life is my kids… then I do work stuff sometimes.”
While her eldest is exploring her own path at an out-of-state university and her youngest is discovering her independence for the first time, “It feels like a void, and I could cry just thinking about it,” she admits. “It’s so hard! Yes, I do need to head into the ‘I have more time on my hands’ [mode] and be happy about that, but right now I’m mourning my kids not being around all the time.”
“When I was single and on my own as an actress, the transition from that into being a mother was just as hard as this transition that I’m going through right now. I didn’t put those two together until right this minute,” Mann muses. “It was really hard to go from being a single person, doing everything for myself, to doing everything for this little baby. I really struggled. It took me a solid, like, three years to settle into that. So now I wonder if it’s going to take three years to settle out? Or maybe it never goes. Hopefully my kids will just move back home and we can all live together again! That’s my dream.”
“Maybe not for them,” she adds. “That’s, like, a bad dream to have for my kids, huh?”
Dress, Fendi ($3,850). Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-550-5900. Pipe ring, Jennifer Fisher ($215). Barneys New York, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-276-4400. Division ring, Eddie Borgo ($170). Saks Fifth Avenue, 9600 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-275-4211. Signet ring, Mann’s own
With Mann and Apatow celebrating their 20th anniversary in June, I suggest that perhaps the majority of Hollywood marriages aren’t really the fragile, fleeting, fickle things the public imagines. “Name two!” she counters. We settle on the pairings of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, with Mann and her husband rounding out the list. And no, two decades did not pass, as they say, in the blink of an eye.
“Feels like forever! It feels like 20 years,” she laughs, remembering how the minister and a banjo player were the sole attendees of their 1997 wedding in Hawaii and how they promised themselves they’d throw a genuine party with friends and family to mark their five-year anniversary. “We didn’t—too busy,” she reveals. “Then we said, ‘At 10 years we’ll do it’—then we didn’t. Fifteen—we didn’t. Now it’s 20, and we’re like, ‘There’s so much going on! Iris is graduating from middle school. Everybody has all their stuff going on...’ I think we’re going to have to skip the party. So it’s going to be 25.”
“We have so much in common and we have a lot to talk about,” she says of the durability of their bond. “We spend a lot of time together, and there’s still no shortage of conversation.” And yes, the two comedy super-pros still get a kick out of making each other laugh. “He laughs a lot—sometimes I think he’s just giving me courtesy laughs. I don’t give him courtesy laughs, so he knows he’s scored when I laugh.”
As Mann prepares herself for new chapters in her personal and professional lives, it’s clear that her studies in positivity and her knack for zeroing in on the funny are certain to serve her well. As she glances at the latte that just arrived, she notices something a bit askew about the foam design floating in the cup.
“Is that, like, a weird misshapen heart?” she asks before landing on what the coffee art actually resembles. “They just gave me a butt! What does that mean? Shit!”
Then, both positivity and punchline: “I choose to see the heart.”
photography by FREDERIC AUERBACH