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Taking Adam Sandler Seriously

One of Hollywood’s funniest actors is getting his best reviews yet in grownup dramas

Adam Sandler poses with a basketball in his hands
Emily Shur

Adam Sandler arrives at Toronto’s swankiest cocktail lounge with his own take on “smart casual.” Polyester shorts extending below the knees. A re­laxed-fit Hawaiian shirt. Chunky high-tops and tube socks. At 56, the actor and comedian looks more like someone heading to basketball camp than one of Hollywood’s most dependable and powerful stars. This is typically how Sandler rolls. Even after more than 30 years of fame that has included an iconic run on Saturday Night Live and more than 80 acting roles pretending to be other people, Sandler doesn’t seem comfortable being anything but himself.

I’m just thrilled he showed up. Sandler rarely gives interviews, and it took weeks to pin him down on a time and a place. It turns out that those details are still in flux.

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“Don’t you think it’s noisy in here?” he asks as we shake hands. There are traces of New England in his sandpapery voice. When he phoned me earlier, his cell number came up on caller ID as “Manchester, NH,” where he grew up, the youngest of four siblings in a middle-class home. “Maybe we should walk. Yeah, let’s walk,” he says.

Into the balmy evening we go, and down the rabbit hole into what it means to be the Sandman at midlife.

“Ada-a-a-m! The legend! I love you, bro,” a white-haired guy shouts from the back of an Uber.

“Love you too, buddy. Get home safe, OK?” Sandler says.

A sweaty woman in yoga pants does a fishhook turn into our path.

“No way! Can I get a picture? My boyfriend won’t even believe this!”

“Absolutely, let’s do it,” Sandler says, helping her with the selfie as an excited crowd starts gathering.

The actor is in Canada shooting a new comedy, You Are SO Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah!, based on the YA novel, with his entire family. Jackie Sandler, his wife of nearly 20 years, and their daughters, Sadie, 16, and Sunny, 13, almost always appear in his films, and his mother, Judy, 84, arrives for her scenes tomorrow. They’re core players in a tight-knit clique that shows up time and again in Sandler flicks. His former SNL castmate Rob Schneider has been in 18 of his movies. Steve Buscemi, 15. David Spade, 12. Sandler’s longtime friend and assistant Jonathan Loughran, 40-plus. If being a grownup means getting to do what you want, with whomever you want, and making a ton of money for you and yours along the way (Sandler has a nine-figure production deal with Netflix, where his feel-good basketball movie, Hustle, is garnering early Oscar buzz), then he has clearly excelled at adulthood.

“Just want to say you’re amazing!” a woman shouts from across the street as we get walking again. “I feel like I’ve known you my whole life.”

I feel that way too. Sandler and I are both Gen Xers born in late 1966, both Jewish, both raised on Mel Brooks movies, MTV and homemade mixtapes in that last spell of freedom before we all became internet zombies. As we walk, Sandler tells me that his earliest memory of getting laughs in public was at a movie theater at a suburban mall. “I’d be there with my 10 buddies, watching Star Wars or Young Frankenstein, and when the lights went off, I’d scream something, like, ‘I’m scared! Hold me!,’ and the whole place would just lose it.” I swear, I remember that kid.

Sandler was always the ultimate man-child, and an easy target for film critics with his goofy fake voices, squinched-up faces and tushy jokes. But something has shifted since his days of unapologetically juvenile comedies like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy. After 28 Raspberry Award nominations for cinematic underachievements (more than any actor except Sly Stallone), he has lately been turning out the best work of his career in such dramas as Uncut Gems. Next year, in the serious sci-fi drama Spaceman, he plays an astronaut reckoning with mortality. Like the aging NBA scout he plays in Hustle, these roles explore what it means to grow older and grapple, literally, with one’s place in the universe.

As we head into a quiet park to talk about life and work, it’s hard to separate those thoughtful characters from the man himself. In The Meyerowitz Stories, a drama that earned Sandler praise for his affecting performance, he played a sad dad with a limp that he refuses to get checked out. Sandler is limping now, too, and he admits he’s been avoiding treatment. “I’m kind of in agony every minute, and I’ll probably need a hip replacement,” he says with a crooked grin. “But don’t worry. You’re my age. You’ll need hip surgery soon too. You’ll see.”

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Adam Sandler, photographed for   AARP on August 3 in the gym at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto
Adam Sandler, photographed for AARP in the gym at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto.
Emily Shur

Q: You are getting to the age that young Adam Sandler loved to poke fun at. How does it feel being on the cover of AARP?

It feels great. It makes sense. I’m getting older. That doesn’t mean I feel old. I mean, I do when I’m on the basketball court and an 18-year-old kid hears I’m 56 and says, “Wow! I thought you were younger than that!” But I like my age, and it’s fun to play my age. It’s freeing. I don’t have to be true to anything other than what I look like and what I think and what I do in life. I’m nonstop commitment to my projects, though I don’t have the same discipline to keep my body in shape. There hasn’t been one movie where I’ve stayed the same weight throughout a three-month shoot. I used to worry about it. Now I’m OK. Let’s have a prime rib, man!

Q: At this stage of life, which are more satisfying — dramatic parts or comedies?

I’ve done both for a long time. When I went to NYU, I did a lot of scenes that were just dramatic, not funny. Punch-Drunk Love was 20 years ago. That was different and exciting. I like giving myself over to a new challenge. Sometimes I feel like I’m tapped out with new thoughts, and then all of a sudden, something new comes up and I go, “OK, how can I make this happen?” It was cool as hell pushing myself in new ways like I did on Uncut Gems. Running around the Diamond District in New York, the intensity of that amazing character, or in Hustle, being around the greatest NBA players and not worrying about laughs as much as what each character is going through and pulling for. But I do love comedy more than anything.

Q: How are you different in your mid-50s than when you were in your 20s on SNL?

I’m calmer than I used to be. I used to go nuts. I had a quick temper, quick reactions. I made a lot of dumb mistakes and said a lot of stupid things. Looking back on relationships, I could be an ass. I was selfish. I was competitive with other comedians and stuff. My father would say, “That guy’s funny,” and I would say, “Hey, I’m funny, blah, blah,” and he’d be, like, “Why can’t you both be funny?”

Because I was hungry, I didn’t always see clearly then. I wanted to be a big comedian like Eddie Murphy, like Rodney Dangerfield. I’m still a nut. I still get anxious. If things are taking too long, if I’m waiting downstairs for my wife to get dressed, I’m, like, “What the hell’s going on up there?”

You see me and go, “Jeez, how many moods is this guy going to have today?” But in general, I’ve gotten much better at life as I’ve gotten older.

Q: What turned things around?

Well, I talk to a shrink sometimes. He’s given me a plan. Sometimes just holding in a sentence, taking a beat for a minute before saying something stupid. When I do that, I realize it wasn’t that important to say it in the first place, and I don’t spend two hours making everyone around me feel weirdness for no reason. I’m also better at appreciation. I appreciate other people’s talent now rather than competing with it — in every field, in every sport, every part of showbiz. A lot of young comedians, a lot of the new cast on SNL, they just make me laugh now. I’ll watch somebody and say, “Man, they’re great. I never would have thought of that joke or that approach.” Or my kids will throw on some fresh song or podcast and I’ll go, “That’s so cool.”

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Q: Your daughters are nearly as old as you were when you got into show business. Does that freak you out?

It brings up emotions, definitely. My wife and I go to sleep talking about the girls. They have so much ahead, and I feel nervous for them, excited for them. As a parent, you just want to make sure your kids are OK when it’s time for them to take off. But teenagers are complicated. They’d rather spend time with friends than sitting at home with us all the time. They make fun of me if I do something idiotic with my phone. They’ll say, “Here, gimme the phone. You do it like this.” Usually, I’ll just ignore it and keep doing it wrong, because it gives them a reason to talk to me.

My biggest challenge is trying not to steer them in certain directions to believe the things I believe and like the things I like. There are so many bands I love, starting with the Beatles but also Zeppelin, the Who, the Kinks. I’ll try to sneak something on the radio, like Van Halen, and when they’re singing along in the car go, “You like this?” Then I’ll play a deeper track and another one, when I probably should have quit at that first one. My wife — and the shrinks — say I should just let stuff happen instead of getting so involved. Let them come up with those equations themselves.

Q: You and your wife seem to have a good thing going. How do you do it?

Nobody wants to hear about Adam Sandler’s secret to marriage, but I guess here’s the secret: Jackie and I like spending time with each other. We try to make each other laugh, try to listen, try to include each other, try to support each other. We try our best — that’s all. And we don’t ever think of not being together. We always talk about our future together.

Q: Fans adore you, but your critics can be harsh. Does that sting?

Sometimes. Mostly because I invite all these amazing people I care about to make movies with me, and I wish they didn’t have to read s--- about whatever we’ve made. But I don’t get too shook up. I always remember something my father said. He was a tough bastard. He went through ups and downs in his life, like not having work for a year or two and not telling us. I recall one time that something didn’t go right for me. I bombed onstage or didn’t get an audition. I was upset and probably embarrassed. And he said, “Adam, you can’t always be happy. People aren’t always going to like you. You’re going to fail.” I said, “But I just want to be happy, man. I don’t want all that other crap.” He said, “You won’t actually know you’re happy if you don’t feel that other stuff.”

Q: You’ve accomplished so much. What’s left to do? Are you a bucket list maker?

Well, I haven’t been to Israel and I’m the Zohan, for God’s sake. I’m excited to get there. And I wish I was better at guitar. I have moments of really concentrating for a month to learn a song note for note. But then three days later if somebody says, “Play it,” I’ll be, like, “Oh, s---. My fingers forgot everything.” I suck at golf compared to the really good golfers I play with, and I wish I could get to that next level. I wish I could speak another language, like fluent Hebrew. I wish I could cook, but that’s probably not going to happen. When I was making Spanglish, I worked with the great chef Thomas Keller to learn to make a BLT. For three months I made the same sandwich over and over. If you told me to make it now, I’d say, “I don’t f------ know how!” As far as material things, I have everything I need. If my father saw the bill for heating my pool, he’d give me the beating of a lifetime: “What the hell are you wasting all that money for?” But I like being at home with the family so much. I don’t need too many other things.

Q: Forgive me if this is too earnest a question for a comedian, but do you think about how you would like to be remembered 100 years from now?

I can’t believe my life has gone as well as it’s gone. I didn’t have a lot of the pain that some comedians talk about, like problems with drugs and stuff like that. Everybody always had my back growing up. When we had company, my mother would take peanuts out and put toothpicks in little meatballs and say, “Adam, play them a song.” They all loved me. They all laughed, even if some of the guests were probably thinking, We have to watch this f------ kid play guitar right now?

I want people to continue to enjoy what I’m doing. I hope they’ve had a good time with my movies, with what we’ve given them and, whether you’ve liked me or not, appreciate that I’ve tried my best. A hundred years is a long time, so I can’t think about that. I’m just amazed people have trusted me as long as they have in this business, and given me shot after shot. Because it would suck to do something else. When I gave an NYU commencement speech recently, I told them I couldn’t be an investment banker. I can’t even find my wallet three times a week. Heart surgeon? I can’t watch my dog throw up without throwing up. Lawyer? I can’t even win an argument with my 13-year-old. Maybe at some point I’ll figure out how to do something else, or maybe nothing else. Until then, you’re just gonna have to deal with me.