Funny face: How Paul Rudd leapt from Clueless to Anchorman after years of being 'that guy' from Friends

Paul Rudd used to be that guy from that thing, but these days he's instantly recognisable. He tells Kaleem Aftab how it happened

There are some things you never expect to happen in life – like being on a dancefloor at 3am with Paul Rudd as Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" blares out of the speakers in a Berlin club. The odd thing is that it's the only song that Rudd dances to all night. Dressed in a suit, he spent the evening eschewing his place in the roped-off VIP section and chatted amiably to his large number of fans. It seemed like dancing wasn't on the agenda until George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley started singing.

The next day in the more comfortable and sedate surroundings of a hotel room, I ask the actor about his seeming predilection for Eighties pop music; “I don't think I've danced to a Wham song since Wham was still together,” he guffaws. “Actually, in all honesty I couldn't wait for the song to end, so I could sit down again. I felt very weirdly self-conscious which I don't normally feel, but I was self-conscious out there dancing to 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go'”.

As demonstrated by his willingness to interact with his fans at the party for Prince Avalanche, the 44-year-old star is all too aware of the workings of fame and recognition. “I'm very much aware, in the last few years, how the stuff I've done has been more visible than the stuff I ever did. I remember feeling that with Friends. I'd been a working actor for some 10 odd years, and I just knew that doing just one episode of Friends, more people were going to see that than everything that I'd ever done, combined, times a billion.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than at parties: “I do notice a difference. It's just that people know my name. It used to be, 'hold up wait a minute, don't I know you? You're that guy!' I was a 'that guy' actor. Then all of a sudden they knew my name.”

The “that guy” period included his breakout turn playing the awkward love interest Josh in Clueless. What's remarkable looking back on the 1995 movie is how little the New Jersey-born actor seems to have aged. Yet it was his lack of fame and ability to morph that were his advantages when he starred on stage and later in the movie adaptation of Neil LaBute's cutting satire on celebrity The Shape of Things, that premiered at the Almeida Theatre in 2001. He also played Paris in Baz Luhrmann's pop-opera reworking of Romeo + Juliet, although the CV is also blotted with titles such as The Size of Watermelons and Wet Hot American Summer. Then came what would eventually be 18 episodes playing Phoebe's love interest Mike Hannigan in Friends.

In keeping with his relaxed, sanguine air, he sees both the pros and cons of the change in public perception. “Personally, I prefer being 'that guy'. Professionally, it's nice not being 'that guy' just because I've got more options. And it's nice to know that I'm not spitting in the wind, that people are actually seeing these things. But as I've gotten older I've become more, I think, reclusive.”

It also means that when he does smaller films such as Prince Avalanche people take notice. A good thing too as he delivers one of his best performances in David Gordon Green's reinterpretation of the 2011 Icelandic festival hit Either Way. The story about two highway workers who don't get along has been transplanted to 1988 in Texas in the aftermath of fictional forest fires (the action was shot in Bastrop State Park, near Austin, eight months after a devastating forest fire) and Rudd and his co-star Emile Hirsch are attired somewhat in the style of 1980s computer-game heroes the Super Mario Bros.

Rudd says he feels his age when 1988 can be seen as a period piece: “That's how I know I'm not a kid any more, I remember 1988 very well. It was my first year in college and I went to the University of Kansas and our team won the National Championship in basketball that year, and it was the most exciting thing I'd ever experienced. That is literally all I think of 1988 – it's the year the Jayhawks won.”

He says he was an awkward child of the Eighties who used to order Depeche Mode tapes from Europe as he enthusiastically, perhaps too enthusiastically, embraced the music and the fashion of the time. “The first part of the 80s, up to the mid-80s, was kind of Hall and Oates, my hair was curly and I was really into my mullet. The second part of the 80s I was just such an INXS fan and I thought I'm going to so do what Michael Hutchence has done: grow my hair as long as I possibly can. In my mind I looked like Michael Hutchence, but if you look at the pictures I look nothing like him.”

Hair is also important as Rudd reprises one of his most famous roles, the moustachioed Brian Fantana from Anchorman. He was excited to reprise the role, especially as it was the first job he did after appearing in the Broadway production of Grace last summer.

A measure of Rudd's change in star status is demonstrated by his roles in Judd Apatow films. In 2005 he won plaudits playing one of the co-workers who get Steve Carell to come out of his shell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. By the time Knocked Up came out in 2007 he was the second lead role to Seth Rogen, playing Pete, a music talent scout suspected of having an affair by his wife Debbie. The role proved so popular the character was spun off and given the lead role in Apatow's most recent comedy This is 40.

He lampooned the ageing process in the latter film. But it was a return to the stage that really started him thinking he had aged. “I hadn't done a play in about five years and I really wanted to do it again. But it's exhausting. I missed doing a play. But now I have two kids [a son Jack and daughter Darby with former publicist Julie Yaeger whom he met when promoting Clueless] with eight shows a week I was like 'Oh my God, that's right, this is kind of hard.' I'd kind of forgotten that part.”

'Prince Avalanche' and 'Anchorman: the Legend Continues' are out later this year

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine