Seth Rogen Shows His Range as an Actor and a Producer in '50/50'

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Photo Source: Shiloh Strong
Tell Seth Rogen with all sincerity that he deserves an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn as the best friend of a cancer patient in "50/50," and it takes him a good five minutes to stop laughing. "That's very kind—thank you very much," he finally manages to say following that famous, booming chuckle. "I really appreciate that, but I truly don't think that's going to happen." Perhaps not, but it's not hyperbole to say Rogen is outstanding in the film, playing Kyle, an ordinary guy who does his best to stand by Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when Adam is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 27. With the best of intentions, Kyle tries to help his friend navigate a whole new world of chemotherapy, illness, and ever-changing relationships. Although Kyle is sometimes inappropriate and misguided, his good heart and genuine love for his friend always come through.

Rogen has had a test run playing the part; the screenplay is by his good friend Will Reiser, a fellow comedy writer who was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. At the time, Rogen's career was taking off. After an early start on the Judd Apatow–produced series "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared," Rogen parlayed his scene-stealing role in Apatow's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" into a star turn in "Knocked Up." He was also getting his feet wet as a writer-producer and would go on to co-write (with his partner Evan Goldberg) and produce "Superbad," "Pineapple Express," and "The Green Hornet." But as he watched Reiser struggle toward what would ultimately be a happy ending—Reiser is cancer-free—Rogen continued to encourage his friend to write about his experience.

The resulting film, produced by Rogen and directed by Jonathan Levine, is a pleasant surprise for anyone who winced on hearing Rogen was taking on a "cancer comedy." It's a fine line to walk and a path Rogen went down with "Funny People," in which he played the assistant of a famous comedian (Adam Sandler) dying of a rare disease. But the films could not be more different, and although Kyle might be a recognizable Rogen character—he's a loudmouthed stoner—the performance represents a huge leap forward for the actor. Part of Rogen's appeal has long been his naturalistic attitude—the fact that he doesn't look like he's making too much of an effort. But anyone who recognizes good acting can tell that a lot is going on beneath the surface. "I'll confess I work really hard. I just dress in crumbly clothes so it makes it look like I'm not trying," Rogen says. "But I am."

Back Stage: You were 16 when you went on an audition in Vancouver for "Freaks and Geeks." Was it your first audition ever? What did you do? Was improv involved?

Seth Rogen: I think it was my second or third. I had sides; I don't think there was improv. It was a funny scene and actually kind of ultimately inspired the movie "Pineapple Express." It's about wanting to grow weed in a giant underground storage facility. I remember thinking it was funny. And I definitely remember them laughing way more than I thought they would. I remember coming out thinking, "If I didn't get that, I don't know what they are doing in there, because they definitely seemed to like it." Then I got it. I don't think I realized how lucky I was at the time.

Back Stage: At that age, did you have a plan for your career? How did this fit in?

Rogen: I'd done standup comedy, and I had my version of a plan. Which I guess was that I would do standup and go to L.A. and have a sitcom built around me, which was what was happening a lot then.

Back Stage: When "Freaks and Geeks" was canceled, why did you choose to stay in L.A.?

Rogen: I had enough money to stick around a little bit. Money [bought] time I could go without working. I just planned on staying until I ran out of money. That's still kind of my plan.

Back Stage: Did you have an agent who was sending you out?

Rogen: I had an agent and manager off "Freaks and Geeks." I would go for auditions here and there—it was definitely touch-and-go. Then I did "Donnie Darko" it was a tiny part, but it gave me a little bit of money. And then we did "Undeclared," until it was canceled.

Back Stage: What were those early auditions like? Were you good at it?

Rogen: No, I was not very good at auditioning. They didn't really know what to do with me. At the time, this wasn't a commercially acceptable type, by any stretch of the imagination. And there wasn't a lot of stuff that was like the stuff we got known for doing—I didn't really have an arena in the auditions to be that funny, because they weren't the stuff I was good at. But Evan and I kept writing, and that's what kept it interesting. We were writing "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express" and trying to sell them and not really having much luck, but it always felt like we had this thing we were working towards. I think a lot of actors come out and audition and just don't get stuff and just feel like they're falling into this void. It didn't feel like that for us. But it definitely got scary at times because we went long stretches of time without working and almost ran out of money.

Back Stage: And didn't Judd Apatow help you through those times, hiring you as an actor and as a writer?

Rogen: Judd would really be helpful. We'd be really low on money, and he was doing rewrites on movies, and he'd give us a few thousand bucks to kind of help him for a few days. This is like 2002, 2003, I guess. So little things would come up; we'd get a little job here, a little job there. We would rewrite a movie here or something like that. Or sometimes we'd get paid to attend a table read. I literally went to a table read for "Big Momma's House 2," and we did a writers' room on it afterwards and got paid like 500 bucks. That was the kind of stuff you would do as a writer; it was the equivalent of doing bit parts on soap operas or such. That went on pretty much until we got "Da Ali G Show" as writers, and that was really the first regular job that actually paid us money as writers. It was a wonderful learning experience. That's where we met Will.

Back Stage: As an actor, had you ever had any professional training before getting cast on "Freaks and Geeks"?

Rogen: When I was a kid, I went to acting classes, like artsy-nerdy kids do. Local community centers and stuff like that. In high school, I think I went to a slightly more adult acting class for a few months maybe, I can't even remember. But nothing formal or rigorous in any way, shape, or form.

Back Stage: So when they first put you and these other new actors in front of a camera, was there any sort of tutorial?

Rogen:
I think so. You know, I take for granted a lot of the movie bullshit you pick up over the years, and you forget how specific it is. And how if you didn't know, if no one told you what a mark is, it would be so foreign. Something they really went out of their way to do—and something we try to do now—was to teach us everything. Not just about the process, but how the writing and directing works, and how the camera and editing works. It was really amazing because they were really inclusive. When we were 17 years old, they would let me sit in the writers' room and watch them write. There's people who have been on TV shows for five seasons that don't get to sit in the writers' room. There was a definite attitude from Judd and the directors and the writers of "Let's teach these people. Let's go out of our way to explain everything." They really hoped we'd be able to contribute.

Back Stage: I ask because you seem so natural in those old episodes.

Rogen: That's funny; when I watch them, it looks terrible—like the worst acting in the entire world.But that was the mantra of the show: Act normal. Act natural. What would you do in this situation? What would you say? The writers would ask us what we would actually say in a situation. Not "What do you think will be funny?" I think that type of attitude went across the whole show, which is why I think the performances are so great. Except me. Although, I got better near the end, just in time to get canceled. We still say that every day when we're shooting: "Do what feels natural."

Back Stage: How do you handle it if something doesn't feel right or natural?


Rogen: You talk about it. It happens all the time. You have to adapt. It's largely up to the director; you have to be flexible. Sometimes the blocking isn't what you expected, and you have to adjust. You try things all kinds of different ways. Sometimes what's funny on set isn't going to be funny in an audience full of people. That's why we do so many takes—we just try to cover our asses, basically.

Back Stage: So you don't mind test screenings, then?

Rogen: No! We test screen a lot. We actually try to have more than most movies generally have. You learn a lot at them, especially when you're making a comedy. The more you show it to people, the more you find out what jokes work, what jokes don't work. And if you have extra jokes, which we do, you can make the movie play really well. Because any joke that doesn't work, you just rotate jokes in until one does work. We've done test screenings to literally test one or two jokes. It's important; it's actually hard to get the studio to agree to do it. I would test a movie 100 times, honestly. They usually want you to test it once or twice; I prefer five or six times, maybe even more.

Back Stage: Can you remember anything specific that you fought for or learned from a test screening?

Rogen: Tons of stuff. This movie, for example, I have a joke where I don't know that Patrick Swayze has died. That's the perfect example, because we did many options. As we were filming it, we were like, "We're going to have to test this joke!" People laughed at it and liked it, so we kept it in, but I was surprised, honestly. I thought people would say, "We love the movie, but you're a f**king asshole for having that joke in there!"

Back Stage: As a producer on "50/50," how involved were you in the casting?

Rogen: I sat in for almost all the auditions; I was very involved in all that stuff. It was great, actually. Bryce Dallas Howard's role as the unlikable girlfriend was very hard to cast. We had to read people, which is always tough to do, especially when you want really high-caliber actors, because a lot of them don't want to read. But we had to; it's a very tough role, and if it's too much in any direction, it can kill the whole movie. It needs to be someone who you get why he's with her, but at the same time you don't like her, even though you understand where she's coming from. I've known Bryce for a while; she auditioned for "Knocked Up," and then I'd see her at the grocery store and around town. I've always thought she was amazing, and she came in and was so impressive. And she does so much in the movie without you even realizing it.

Back Stage: Do you remember the last time you auditioned for a role?

Rogen: Sure, I auditioned for a movie just a year and a half ago. I didn't get it. And it didn't do that well. [Laughs.] People think I don't have to audition anymore, and that's not true at all. And I would be hypocritical to say no; as long as I'm asking people like Bryce to audition, I would be a f**king asshole if I wasn't willing to audition for stuff. I almost prefer it in a way, honestly, because it can be weird just being offered a role and showing up and no one knows what you're going to do and how you're going to do it. So it doesn't bother me.

Back Stage: Obviously you didn't have to audition for "50/50," but to what degree are you playing yourself?

Rogen: I'm only playing me as much as Joseph is playing Will; it's kind of broad strokes. I represent in the movie something that was happening at the time, which was a general inability for both Will and his friends to truly communicate about what was happening. What we did instead was joke about it and say really f**ked-up things about it all the time. There was a sense of "Let's try to make something funny about it." We would literally joke, "Let's make a movie out of this. Let's use this to your advantage in some way, shape, or form." When he was sick, we would tell Will all the time to write a screenplay about it. When he got better we were like "No, seriously, do it!" And while he was sick, we didn't have a real context for what the story would be. When he got better, you could see it was a movie. He started off as this neurotic, miserable, somewhat obnoxious guy. He got sick, he went through all these changes, all these relationships changed, and he got better and was a much happier, calm, well-rounded, centered person. The story now had a beginning, middle, and end. After that we were like, "Oh, we don't have to do anything. We can show almost exactly what really happened."

Back Stage: We've seen the film about the person battling cancer before, and while this film handles that really well, it also tells a story we don't often see: being the friend who doesn't know how to handle the situation. One of the best moments of the film is when Adam finds a book Kyle has been reading about helping a friend cope with cancer.

Rogen: We were talking about that when it happened: This is the greatest thing as an actor you could ever ask for. I have an amazing moment of redemption, my character comes full circle, and I'm literally lying on a couch, doing nothing. I'm just going to go to sleep, and when I wake up, my acting will be praised.

Back Stage: This film is obviously very personal to you. Would it have hurt you if the reviews had been unkind?

Rogen: Yeah, it would have. It's the type of movie that needs to be good. It's not like "Transformers." I could give a shit if "Green Hornet" got good reviews because audiences liked it, and that's who we made it for. But this movie needs to function intellectually as well as entertainment-wise, because it's about something so delicate. But what's more important than reviews is that people who have had direct experiences with something similar like the film. Like, when we made "Funny People," all I cared about was that standup comics didn't think I was a phony. For this movie, all I care about is that people within the cancer community appreciate it. I want them, more than critics, to think the movie is representative of what they went through. And so far, they have, and that means everything to me. You can fool critics, honestly—movies do it all the time. I read good reviews for movies that are idiotic to me. So it's not the best barometer. But you can't deny people's own experiences. When people tell me they like it and it represents what they went through, that means everything.

Outtakes

- Is also an aspiring photographer

- Recently finished shooting "My Mother's Curse," in which his character goes on a road trip with his mother, played by Barbra Streisand. Also stars in Sarah Polley's film "Take This Waltz," which recently played the Toronto International Film Festival

- Set to co-direct "The Apocalypse," from a script he wrote with Goldberg

- Says his most difficult project to date was "The Green Hornet," largely because it was rated PG-13 and "I had to come up with funny shit all day where I couldn't swear."

- Voiced characters in "Monsters vs. Aliens," the "Kung Fu Panda" films, and "Horton Hears a Who!" and the title character in "Paul." Says he's not surprised by this career: "I always thought I should have a career in voiceover, honestly. I knew I could have no discernable talent or abilities, but I knew I had a somewhat unique voice. I generally do not think I deserve my success, but I was shocked I was not getting more voiceover work!"