Warning: This post contains big spoilers for the Netflix movie Mute.
With a friendship that spans nearly two decades and multiple movies, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux have come to share a number of things in common. For example, both actors are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Theroux co-writing Iron Man 2 while Rudd fights alongside the Avengers as the pint-sized Ant-Man. (See him grinning like the Cheshire Cat in a recent MCU class photo.) They’re also both tight with the veterans of the beloved ’90s comedy group The State, having appeared separately and together in movies helmed by Michael Showalter and David Wain. And then there’s the fact that they rarely get the opportunity to die in major motion pictures; to date, Rudd has perished three times in movies (including Year One and Sausage Party), while Theroux’s big-screen body count stands at four (courtesy of films like Your Highness and The Girl on the Train).
The Grim Reaper comes calling for both actors in Mute, the new Duncan Jones-directed sci-fi drama that premiered to mixed reviews on Netflix last week. Set in Berlin some four decades in the future, Mute is a Blade Runner-influenced noir about a silent bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) searching for a lover who has gone missing. His quest brings him into contact with a pair of American surgeons, Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Theroux), whose tastes in fashion, facial hair and nicknames are heavily, and deliberately, indebted to MASH. Not the TV series — Robert Altman’s 1970 film, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Korean War surgeons and pranksters, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre respectively. “When we first got these parts, one of the first things that Duncan told us to do was watch MASH again,” Rudd confirms. “That dynamic is what he was going for. We’re not those characters, but they loosely inspired us.”
Jones was also inspired by the way that Altman’s film repeatedly calls the characters’ likability into question. While MASH is often remembered as a riotous comedy — thanks in part of the TV series — the film ventures to dark places, and neither Hawkeye nor Trapper John emerge as admirable. “They’re kind of dicks,” Rudd points out. “Some of the things they do, you’re like, ‘That’s not a prank — that’s kind of mean.'” Cactus Bill and Duck follow a similar trajectory as the movie unfolds; while they initially seem inclined to aid Leo in his quest, more sinister personality traits steadily emerge.
“Duncan was very explicit that we were going to lull people into liking these guys and then play with the notion of who they are,” explains Theroux. Duck’s initially charming rapport with young girls, for instance, turns out to not be so innocent, while a murderous rage lurks behind Cactus Bill’s goofy mustache. By the end of the film, both men meet violent ends for their respective crimes: Cactus Bill is stabbed through the throat and dies gurgling in a pool of his own blood, while Leo drags Duck to an underwater grave.
Because death scenes are still exotic territory for Rudd, he remembers actually being excited to spend hours on the floor with a prop knife poking him in his (prosthetic) throat. “I still have the pictures of it on my phone,” the actor says, laughing. “It was a bit uncomfortable, because once the blood was set and running everywhere, you couldn’t really get up. But I loved the idea that it was going to get so gruesome and that it wouldn’t happen off-screen; it’s fun to be in a scene that’s so gory and graphic. Everyone’s grossed out by the knife sliced through the center of my windpipe.” The specific circumstances of Cactus Bill’s demise didn’t make Rudd the best scene partner, though. Duck witnesses his friend’s final moments and bids him a not-especially-sad goodbye, but Rudd’s constant gurgling kept drowning out Theroux’s dialogue on set. “I was like, ‘Paul, can you stop gurgling? Oh right… you can’t!'”
Theroux admits that he didn’t have as much fun dying onscreen as his co-star did. “Drowning is a very alarming feeling,” he remembers. “We did the scene in this enormous water tank at the Babelsberg studio in Germany; I’m already wearing an enormous amount of wool, which gets very heavy when it’s wet, and they put a weight vest on me, too. You can’t wear goggles, so you can’t see, and Alex is also supposed to be choking me.” Fortunately for Theroux, a squad of scuba divers were on hand to lift him back up to the surface the second Jones called “cut.” “They told me, ‘You won’t be able to see us, you’ll just feel something go into your mouth and that’ll be the oxygen. But man — it felt like an eternity for them to get there. I couldn’t swim up, so if they hadn’t shown up, I probably would have died for real.” Hearing this dramatic account of Theroux’s near (fake) death experience, Rudd can’t help but tease his pal. “I think I got the better end of the bargain.”
Mute is currently streaming on Netflix.
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