Why Seth Rogen is on a high
A year ago, he was a weed-smoking unknown. Today, he's the weed-smoking star of 'Pineapple Express'. Evan Fanning met him
SETH Rogen recently had the best day of his life. For an ordinary-looking 26-year-old Canadian who, in a phenomenally short time, has become the main man in the biggest comedy empire in cinema -- starring in, writing and producing some of the most successful comedies of the past 30 years -- this is really saying something.
The reason for Rogen's euphoria is that he has just finished recording an episode of The Simpsons, which he, and his childhood friend and writing partner Evan Goldberg, have written. They also provided voices for it. "We sat down for a read-through and three hours later I'm in a studio improv-ing with Homer Simpson," a still disbelieving Rogen states. "It was the single greatest day of my life."
In Rogen's eyes, The Simpsons represents the pinnacle of an impossibly packed CV which belies his years. His films now open at the top of the US box-office and happily tread toe-to-toe with behemoths like The Dark Knight. It's not bad for the son of two Canadian socialists who met on a kibbutz in Israel.
Growing up, he says, "Communism wasn't a terrible word." His holidays were spent at socialist summer camp. "They made you work. It wasn't fun at all." A bit like Kamp Krusty then, the boot camp Bart and Lisa attend in an early episode of Rogen's beloved Simpsons where, among other gruelling tasks, they are forced to make counterfeit wallets for export. "Yeah," he laughs when I put forward the comparison. "I didn't find that episode funny at all."
In person, Rogen has the same slightly larger-than-life persona that seemingly translates effortlessly into his on-screen characters. His most striking feature is the deep, gurgling laugh that many of his characters have, and at times he speaks in the same disjointed manner, which leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation and awkward moments. He wears dark-rimmed glasses and is neater and trimmer than you might expect.
The fact that Rogen has defined a certain type of character at all is the most remarkable thing, as only a year ago he was effectively unheard of. Knocked Up and Superbad changed that, becoming two of the most successful summer films of 2007, and the most profitable, too. Rogen became the slacker's hero. He got stoned, did very little, but had a big heart and together those things combined to shift the centre of comedy in his direction. It helps that he is backed by producer Judd Apatow, the current kingmaker in Hollywood. The two first teamed up when Rogen was just 16, when he successfully auditioned for Apatow's TV series Freaks and Geeks which was designed to be the antithesis to Beverly Hills 90210.
The show was cancelled after one series, but Apatow became a kind of mentor to a young man who seemed more in tune to the mechanics of comedy than his tender years would suggest, and it secured his place in what has come to be known as the "frat pack", the group of Apatow's charges which includes Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd.
Following Freaks and Geeks, Rogen went on the usual treadmill of work. He had a small role in Donnie Darko and even appeared in an episode of Dawson's Creek. Apatow gave him a minor role as a cameraman in Anchorman and when the former writer and producer of The Larry Sanders Show came to make his major directorial debut with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rogen was given one of the main supporting roles, as well as the task of co-producing the movie.
He played an ordinary guy who liked getting stoned, drinking beer, playing computer games and talking about girls. In essence, he was playing himself. Around the same time he helped write the Ali G in the USA series which, to Ali G aficionados, was the best of all of Sacha Baron Cohen's output.
He then took the lead in Knocked Up where he played an ordinary guy who likes getting stoned, drinking beer, yada, yada, yada and manages to impregnate a girl who is entirely out of his league. The film took over $150m in US cinemas alone, covering its outlay many times over.
While Knocked Up began the summer of 2007, Superbad finished it off. The story, of two high-school virgins out on the sort of chaotic night of their dreams, was first written by Rogen and Goldberg when they were just 13, and again it was an antidote to the highly polished but one-dimensional world of teenage years as portrayed by Beverly Hills 90210. It cost even less to make than Knocked Up and again took over $150m in the US alone, and ensured that Rogen could now effectively write his own cheques in Hollywood.
The cheque he did write was for $26m and was used to make Pineapple Express. Rogen wrote the screenplay, produced the movie and stars as a stoner who witnesses a drug deal and ends up on the run from mobsters with his dealer (played by James Franco). Such is Apatow's belief in Rogen that he received a version of the script and immediately entrusted his young cohort with making it a success. "Judd doesn't smoke weed at all, but he knew me and Evan did so he asked us to have a go at it," says Rogen. The duo's writing process involves "doing some work, maybe going to the comic book store, doing some more work, having something to eat, playing some computer games" and so on. "Superbad came out of seeing so many crappy high-school movies, and Pineapple Express came from seeing so many bad weed movies," he says.
Apatow was wise to let Rogen at his work. The film has taken over $100m in its first four weeks at the box-office in the US, which, for a movie that, although it contains a lot of action, remains essentially a stoner movie, is unheard of. Rogen claims that there was no interference from the studio despite the content, which glorifies drug use and has one scene where Rogen and Franco sell weed to 12-year-olds. "It's because it's so cheap that they didn't interfere," Rogen explains. His own philosophy is simple. "I can't think of any time I'd be watching a movie and think 'I wish I was less stoned'," he says.
I suggest that Saul, the character played by Franco, bears a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt's character Floyd in True Romance. The loveable stoner Floyd, it would seem, was the inspiration behind the movie. "Judd said if they had gone after Floyd in True Romance rather than Christian Slater then it would have been a much funnier movie, so that was basically our guideline when we started to write it," Rogen explains.
A self-confessed geek, Rogen's big passion is comic books. In his home in LA, which he shares with his long-term girlfriend Lauren Miller, he has a study devoted to his collection, as well as an unhealthy quota of action figures. It is fitting then that his next big project is a comic book adaptation of the Green Hornet. He has no worries however of upsetting fans of the masked hero, mainly because there aren't any. "Nobody knows who the Green Hornet is. That's why we feel we can take it on. If we were relying on Green Hornet fans to see this movie then it would make $6."
He claims that the success of Knocked Up and Superbad didn't change much in his life. It certainly wasn't a case where women were throwing themselves at Hollywood's most reluctant superstar. "I'm just so far from putting myself in situations where that could happen so I have no idea."
As our time comes to an end, I ask for a sneak preview of what his episode of The Simpsons will contain. "Let's just say the Comic Book Store Guy features heavily." And with that he gives one final big gurgling laugh for the road.
'Pineapple Express' is in cinemas nationwide
Film review, Page 13