NEW YORK — For the past few years, something's been slowly gnawing at Paul Rudd — the lure of live theater.
The 43-year-old star, who has been on a goofy comedic tear lately with "Our Idiot Brother," ''Dinner for Schmucks," ''Wanderlust" and TV's "Parks and Recreation," was itching to get back to his roots.
"I was kind of antsy," he says. "I was, I think, kind of finally hitting a place where I thought, 'I just want to try something a little different.' And not just with the genre but even the medium."
He's more than gotten his wish. In the play "Grace," which opens on Broadway on Oct. 4, Rudd slips into a pitch-dark role — an evangelical Christian who basically unravels onstage.
"I was drawn to this character because it's a different character for me and certainly different than anything I've played in the last several years," says the boyish-looking actor. "I thought it was bold and fresh and something I hadn't seen before."
"Grace" also stars seven-time Emmy Award winner Edward Asner, "Boardwalk Empire" regular Michael Shannon and Kate Arrington, a veteran of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Rudd and Arrington play a couple who arrive in Florida with big plans to open a chain of gospel-themed motels until they meet an agitated rocket scientist neighbor, played by Shannon, and a caustic exterminator, played by Asner. Chaos ensues. Rudd says he loved the play when he first read it.
"I've always tried to do things that were meaningful in some ways to me that hopefully wouldn't suck," he says. "I haven't always avoided that but, for the most part, I try to do things on my own terms as much as possible."
Rudd, who was last on Broadway with Julia Roberts in "Three Days of Rain" in 2006, is usually considered a movie guy, thanks to films like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," ''I Love You, Man" and "Knocked Up," but he's also a stage creature.
Rudd graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles and studied drama at Oxford University. He followed his breakout movie performance in "Clueless" with his first Broadway play, Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo."
His other theater credits include "Twelfth Night" for Lincoln Center Theater, a London production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Jessica Lange, and Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" and "Bash." So he doesn't understand when people look puzzled about returning to Broadway.
"Two people today have asked me that same question. 'Why come back' 'Why are you back?' As if theater is something you do UNTIL you're able to get a job in movies and television. I've never felt that," he says. "I mean, I live in this city and the reason I moved here 17 years ago was to do plays."
Rudd's movie career really exploded after he was cast in Judd Apatow's "Anchorman" and he became part of the writer-director's orbit even though he insists he's not a comedian. Of working on several Apatow films: "I think there's something valuable to explore here and these happen to be comedies."
Dexter Bullard, who directs "Grace," says Rudd has tackled some of the toughest works for stage — including a gay-bashing college student in "Bash" — and yet Rudd's boyish, sweet charm shines through.
"I think that Paul has an undeniable charisma about him and a lovability that America loves in the movies and on TV that he can bring as a layer to whatever he's doing. It draws people in, in a different way," Bullard says.
In an interview during rehearsals, Rudd gushes about his co-stars — he has been a friend and admirer of Shannon for years and is stunned he gets to work alongside Asner — and about the New York theater world.
"One of the things I love about doing plays in New York is to feel a part of the city and part of a community that's really vital and tight-knit. I wanted to be back in that," he says.
"I wanted to go get a drink after the show and run into the cast of 'The Book of Mormon.' And just see other people who do shows and say, 'Hey, how was your show tonight?' There's a feeling that I think is very grounding and makes me feel sane and included and it's fun."
Rudd will next star in Apatow's "This Is 40" opposite Leslie Mann, a film that spins off the characters they played in "Knocked Up." He also has on tap "Anchorman 2" opposite Will Ferrell, "Admission" with Tina Fey and Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
"Grace" is a dark play but Rudd hopes he's gotten better at separating his roles from his life. He remembers being in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in London in 2000. It was winter and he suffered.
"While I was very happy that I did it, and it was an enriching, profound experience, 'fun' is not a word I would use to describe it. I was just bummed out all the time," he says. "This play is an hour-and-a-half and it's a thrill ride. So hopefully I won't be a wreck walking around when we're not doing the show."