From Le Mars to Netflix: Paul Rust takes on Hollywood

Paul Rust on the set of “Love.”

You know what friends, family and co-stars say about Paul Rust?

That he’s the happiest he has ever been.

That finally, after years of following his passions and chasing his Hollywood dreams, the Le Mars native is enjoying a spate of success.

You know what else they say?

That any success he’s found is due to the plethora of talent that oozes from the 34-year-old’s pores.

A hyphenate in the truest sense, he’s a writer, actor, producer, director, musician, editor, improv guru and showrunner. Before this recent string of successes, he was his own publicist and agent, seeking out opportunities to get his work seen whenever he could, including by writing, filming and uploading one self-produced humor video a week.

Within the last couple months, the movie he wrote, “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” which follows the antics of man-child Pee-Wee Herman, premiered on Netflix to critical acclaim as did, “Love,” the romantic sitcom he both created and starred in.

But Rust has been involved with a TV show or movie every year since graduating from the University of Iowa in 2004. His IMDB profile, which is five printed pages long, features a wide range of roles, including a series of voices on “Bob’s Burgers,” the starring role in the young adult comedy “I Love You Beth Cooper” and a dramatic turn in “Inglourious Basterds.”

And “Love” — produced by comedic kingmaker and Rust’s mentor Judd Apatow — was so hotly anticipated that Netflix secured the rights by giving the series two full seasons off the bat. The deal marked the streaming’s company “biggest upfront commitment to an original series” since the juggernaut “House of Cards,” according to Variety.

Ask Rust’s mentors and friends in Le Mars — where he is still a beloved son of Gehlen Catholic High — and they’ll tell you he never does anything halfway. His teachers Karen Schroeder and Richard Sievert throw around words like bold, creative and provocative when describing the young comedian.

“I think I have been giving Judd (Apatow) too much credit for a long time, because really, Paul made it thanks to Paul,” said Schroeder. “He had an awesome amount of talent. And a kid like that doesn’t come around all that often.”

Paul Rust on the set of “Love.” (Photo: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix)

You know what else people say about Paul Rust?

He’s passionate.

During a recent phone interview, memories of his favorite movies and fondly remembered stage roles burst out like an overflowing cornucopia. He said he wore out the video cassettes of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Back to the Future Part II,” watching them over and over, trying to glean exactly what made the stories so magical.

In high school, he treasured performing a monologue from Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” in which he played a gay man mourning the death of his lover. He was tickled to go to the state speech competition for his rendition of Woody Allen’s “My Speech to Graduates.”

But the exact moment he fell in love with performing was in fourth grade, he said. His class was holding mock interviews, which he, a nascent thespian, took very seriously.

“I remember doing this little physical gesture of holding up my foot and having my foot wave around while I held my ankle,” he said. “It got a big laugh, and when people started laughing, it dumped some chemicals on my brain. It just felt so good.”

Paul Rust at home as a kid.

As a child, Rust was known for precocious proclivities, said his parents, who still live in his childhood home in Le Mars. He’d make them stop and watch a skit he created or funny dance move, and he’d jump at every opportunity to be in front of others.

“Looking back, I can see that performing was all he ever wanted to do,” said his mother, Jeannie Rust, a longtime local teacher. “When he was no more than 2, I found him with Raggedy Andy’s clothes on. He’d taken them off the doll and was just sitting there pretending to be Raggedy Andy.”

As a teen, Rust stayed up late writing and rewriting countless scripts. He’d enlist his neighbors and friends to bring the words to life on stage or on screen. And, for the most part, everyone in his small rural, somewhat conservative town not only played along, but nurtured him.

“It would be easy for someone to think growing up in a small town would be like ‘Footloose’ or something,” he said. “That it would be, ‘No dancing allowed!’, all the time, but it was quite the opposite. People always got excited for me and my successes and supported me even though I was a little weirdo goofball.”

Paul Rust and his friend goof around.

You know what else people say about Paul Rust?

He’s nice.

But it’s a sincere caring that goes beyond the Iowa nice trope: It’s Paul Rust nice, said fellow actor and Iowa graduate Neil Campbell.

“He’s the nicest guy I ever met,” Campbell said. “He’s caring and compassionate, and he’s the person you want to go to when you have a problem.”

At Gehlen, Rust, his teacher Sievert and a friend started a secret club with a simple mission: Do nice things for people.

“I would go up to Paul and say these two kids got picked on,” Sievert said. “He’d go talk to them and build them up. He’d do anything for anybody.”

Rust is the type of guy who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. He strongly believes people are mostly good and want to do the right thing, he said.

That innate positivity pervades his comedy. Don’t get him wrong, though. His comedy includes enough double entendre and overt sexual themes to make blue-hairs gasp, but the jokes are never mean-spirited.

“Which is actually really rare in comedy,” Rust said. “If you watch most of the stuff on TV and in movies, it’s usually put-down humor. It’s like somebody being mean or cynical or thoughtless to another person. I never wanted to be that type of comedian.”

Paul Rust as homecoming king.

You know what else people say about Paul Rust?

He’s smart.

Not only was he valedictorian of his senior class, but he was always “one step ahead,” Sievert said.

“Just when you thought you knew something more than Paul, he was way ahead of you,” he said.

Rust’s progressive thinking came in handy when he started his career, too. When he moved to L.A. in 2004, humor websites like “Funny or Die” were just getting off the ground, and Rust latched on. He could perform for audiences at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater all week long, but the internet offered an endless audience.

“He wanted to put comedy out, and he had a goal to upload a new video every week,” Campbell remembered. “He was really dedicated and smart about knowing these videos didn’t need to be polished, they just needed to be out there.”

So when Netflix bought both “Love” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” Rust was already a welcome adopter of streaming culture. Premiering on Netflix offered a global reach, which he liked, he said.

And the low cost of Netflix makes it a kind of entertainment equalizer, he said. Whether you’re a banker or a college student or the president, everybody has to click on the same red and white icon to watch.

But, he admitted, whispering into the phone, it was really those college kids he was after.

“When I was at Iowa, someone had hung up a poster for this cartoon, ‘Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,’ in his dorm room,” Rust said. “I remember thinking, man, college students are so passionate about their likes and dislikes. I want to create something that a college kid enjoys enough that he hangs a picture of it on his wall because he wants people to know I like this; this is part of my identity.

“Netflix offers the chance to do that.”

Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust on the set of “Love.” (Photo: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix)

You know what else people say about Paul Rust?

He’s the first to admit staying positive hasn’t always been easy.

In fact, it was a grind, and when he first moved to L.A., he was terrified.

“Even though I knew this is the place I wanted to be, I would go to bed at night and to make myself fall asleep I would go through the list of all the opportunities I could possibly have in L.A.,” he said. “I would literally say, ‘Well, don’t give up hope. You’ve got this and this and this. Don’t give up hope.’”

Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust on the set of “Love.” (Photo: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix)

You know what else people say about Paul Rust?

He wants to know how you feel.

Really. And he doesn’t want you to give up hope on your dreams, either.

He said he got into show business to find people who felt like him. To find people who expressed themselves the way he did. To find people who were weirdo goofballs, too.

“With so much of what I write, I’m just constantly wondering out loud, ‘Do other people feel this way?’ “ he said. “ ‘Love’ is the first time I’ve made something where the response is people saying, ‘I’ve felt this, too, and to see it in a TV show makes me feel less alone in the world.’”

He let out a big sigh: “I think that’s probably what gets me up in the morning, the hope that the work I’m doing will make people feel more connected.”

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Originally published at www.desmoinesregister.com on April 27, 2016.

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