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Beautiful and brainy, Funny People star Leslie Mann manages to be one of the boys and still be every bit a lady

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WHEN LESLIE MANN FIRST HIT HOLLYWOOD NEARLY TWO DECADES AGO, Hollywood wasn’t quite sure how to hit back. Mann, after all, is an anomaly to the Hollywood cliché: She’s a drop-dead-gorgeous blonde who happens to be both whip smart and searingly funny. After suffering through one too many mindless girlfriend roles, however, Mann resolved to find her niche, and luckily for filmgoers, she has. The 37-year-old has become the go-to gal for biting, honest, scene-stealing female characters, thanks in part to the acumen of her husband, writer/producer/ director Judd Apatow, who has cast her in hits such as Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Mann has another busy summer this year, with two movies hitting the big screen back-to-back. In August, audiences can catch her in Shorts, a Robert Rodriguez–directed kid flick. But first, they’ll see her star in another of Apatow’s box-office toppers, Funny People, playing an unhappily married mom who gets a second chance with a lost love (Adam Sandler) after he is diagnosed with a fatal disease.

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Funny People stars Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and you, and it’s directed by Judd Apatow. Should people expect to be falling over themselves with laughter? The movie is funny, yeah, but it’s just, oh God, it’s just so good. It’s heartfelt. It’s about, what did you learn from a near-death experience? What do you take from that? Do you go back to being your old self, or do you learn something and change your ways? I just feel so lucky to be a part of it. Everybody’s performances are so good.

You always create these characters whom women really relate to in what are typically male films.
After I played a thankless girlfriend role in a movie that shall go nameless, I just thought, I can never do that again. It felt so empty and boring. So now, I try to take someone who’s flawed and have the audience understand what she’s going through. That’s why people like Knocked Up: [What actor Paul Rudd and I created] feels like a real relationship. I think it makes people feel bad when they have to watch movies with perfect people [in them]. It’s depressing, because it’s just not a reality.

I’m impressed that you and Judd can live and work together without going crazy.
Our work life takes up about eight percent of our lives. When we’re at home, we’re at home. We have our family and our mothers-in-law and grandparents and our school life … and that takes up the majority of it. But while we’re making the movie, it’s fun that we have this little thing in common and that we can sneak off away from the kids and talk about it.

Spoken like a true working mom who is grateful for those slivers of career life.
Well, here’s the other thing: The kids were on the set, because they’re in the movie too! I was all excited for my little break, to get to go to the set and relax, and then Judd’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to use the kids again.” [The children also starred in Knocked Up.] So that made it even harder, because they’re so good and easy, but still, you have to watch them while you’re working.

A lot of times you’re the lone female in the midst of a lot of testosterone on the sets. Do you feel like you’re part of the boys’ club? Yeah, I think so. It doesn’t seem like they change when I walk up. They’re probably too comfortable. [Laughs] The thing that I like about all of them is that, like in the movies, it feels very honest. Like what they’re saying [on-screen] and who they are [in real life] kind of match up.

You’ve known a lot of them since before they were famous.
It’s funny to watch what they’ve become. Like Seth [Rogen] -- he’s such a good guy and so smart and levelheaded, and he’s had this girlfriend for two or three years now, and he just loves her so much. It’s almost gross to be around them, because he’s always, like, stroking her hair.

Have you and Judd become quasi-parental figures to the gang?
Yeah, when Judd sees that they’re maybe headed in the wrong direction, he’ll call them and have a talk with them, because they’re kind of like his kids in a way. They look up to him.

Judd has previously said that he can’t believe he landed you. Tell us -- how did he?
At the time, we were both on our first big jobs, [the 1996 movie The Cable Guy]. I read with him [for the audition], and I don’t even remember it. When I walked out, he said to Ben Stiller, who directed the movie, “There goes the future Mrs. Apatow,” so I guess he knew. Then he stalked me for a couple of months, and then I went out with him. At first, I had a crush on Ben, which would have been a huge mistake. So, thank God.