Seth Rogen and Knocked Up

There’s an extraordinary noise echoing through the elaborately over-designed halls of the Haymarket Hotel in London, a booming laugh – Hur Hur Hur – emanating from the curly-headed, barrel-chested Seth Rogen as he appears in the doorway and saunters across the room to shake my hand, nod politely and slouch down in a bulky, lime-green armchair. The 25 year old Rogen has emerged from the crowd to lead a new generation of comedic actors, writers and producers. Starting out as a thirteen year old stand-up comedian in his native Vancouver, “delivering one-liners about how there’s nothing to do in Canada, basically”, Rogen moved to Los Angeles when he was sixteen. He soon landed roles in Knocked Up director Judd Apatow’s two critically acclaimed television sit-coms, Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, on which he was also hired as a staff writer at the tender age of 18. In 2005, “after serving my apprenticeship” Rogen graduated to a supporting role in Apatow’s smash hit comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin, while also writing the first series of the US version of Da Ali G Show for Sacha Baron Cohen.

Having settled in his chair, I ask the supernaturally relaxed-looking actor about his steady progression, from the sarcastic background character to leading man. “As far as being a leading man goes, I know I’m no Jude Law, right. It’s more about my own level of comfort in front of the camera. At the start, on Freaks & Geeks, I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I really wasn’t an actor at that point. As the series went on, I was telling Judd that I wanted to do more, and he took me at my word and gave me the opportunities. When it came around to The 40 Year Old Virgin, initially my role was just to be one of the guys who occasionally comes out with a wise-crack. I went to Judd and said that I was ready for something a little more, to be a real character that becomes friends with Steve and gives him advice and encouragement and he said, ‘OK, cool’. It’s as if he was waiting for me to come to him and express that desire, you know”. I ask him if now, after working for a couple of years, he’s finally comfortable in calling himself an actor. “Almost, dude. I wrote ‘actor’ on that customs form when I arrived in the UK, so once it’s on a government document, it’s official, right?”

Shortly after the cherry-popping sex-comedy opened in 2005, to rave reviews and phenomenal box-office, Apatow came to Rogen with the idea for Knocked Up. “His notion initially was, ‘Seth Gets A Girl Pregnant’, which he found to be absolutely hilarious. I didn’t take it personally, so we started from there and went backwards. We asked ourselves, ‘what’s the worst kind of girl that this could happen to?’ Somebody who is very together, beautiful and ambitious. What kind of job could she have that would be completely ruined by such an event – a glamorous entertainment television presenter. So that was enough to get started.”

In the movie Rogen plays Ben Stone, a clueless, marijuana-smoking twenty-something who lives with his friends in a run-down house in an Los Angeles suburb. One night, while out at a club, he meets the beautiful Alison (brilliantly played by Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl). They go back to her place, where one unlikely thing leads to another. A couple of weeks later, soon after getting a promotion at work, Alison discovers she’s pregnant and after contacting Ben, decides against her better judgement to keep the baby and see if they can make it as a family. “What we like to do is cast the roles as early as possible, and try to create the characters around specific actors. It was really hard to cast the role of Alison because a lot of actresses are physically small and you would fear for their safety when it came to doing an energetic sex scene with a man of my size. Added to that, I can be very loud and very aggressive and rambunctious, you know, so some 95 pound actress would find it a challenge to stay upright. Literally, my voice would knock them over. When Katherine came in, she is around my height, she’s very statuesque and strong and beautiful to the point of being intimidating. When she yells, and she has to do a lot of that with my character, you feel your hair move, you know? We thought she was perfect.”

Knocked Up opens with a montage of a gang of immature guys sitting around the house, smoking bongs and dancing spasmodically to hip-hop. Rogan unleashes his booming laugh again, Hur Hur Hur. “That’s directly lifted from the real, absolutely wasted lives of all those people you see, including my good self. Those guys are my actual best friends and I’ve lived with all of them at one point or another. I hate to admit it, but that’s how it was. We all have girlfriends now and have grown up a bit, but if you were to visit my apartment two or three years ago, that’s exactly the scene you would have faced, down to the tiniest detail.”

In the movie, Rogan and his slacker friends have formed an internet company that provides a catalogue of female nudity in Hollywood movies, not the actor’s first experience with web-based celebrity skin. “No, not at all. Far from it, in fact. I’m online nearly every day, and that stuff is unavoidable. But more than that, the idea for the internet company came from us thinking what a great job it would be to watch movies and pick out the naked bits, We were thinking, ‘what’s the worst thing you could tell a girl that you do for a living’, and that seemed funny to us. But hey, I could go on all day about nude scenes in movies. It’s what I know best.” We pass a giggly couple of minutes discussing our most memorable moments. Rogan doesn’t have to think for long in selecting his. “Fast Times At Ridgemount High. Number one of all time. Oh, man. I remember thinking when I saw Phoebe Cates taking her bikini top off that I had made it happen with my brain. I wanted to see her breasts so badly that I had willed it to occur.”

One of the funniest films of this year, or any year, Knocked Up is far more than just a succession of easy dope jokes and sex talk. The uproarious comedy is generously cut with genuine, sweet emotion, which pours from the generously drawn, likeable characters. I ask Rogen if the underlying theme is that any guy – even a smut-peddling, pot-addled slacker like Ben – can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. “Well, that’s part of it”, he replies. “I do think that any guy can be redeemed but I think the real message is that, like Spike Lee said, ‘just do the right thing’. That’s all you need. What we start out with is the real emotional stuff and we assume that the comedy will follow after. It’s a weird thing to say, but the comedy really is the easy part of making a movie like this. The hard part is finding the right flow of events and finding the right moments that the audience can relate to and believe in. Jokes come later, when Judd gets his cast together and gives them the freedom to be funny. He’s better at that than anyone, I think. He trusts us to be funny and that’s a powerful thing.”

I tell Rogen that I read somewhere that Apatow had shot about 1.5 million feet of film on Knocked Up, more than enough for four or five movies. “That does sound like a lot”, he explains, “but that comes from the way that we work, which has a lot to do with improvising in character.” I tell him that I had always had the impression that comedy was difficult, that being truly funny was something that required a lot of hard work and long nights at the keyboard and he answers with a shrug. “It depends on what you’re doing. When I wrote for Ali G, it was like that, because we had to try and predict what people’s reactions would be to this character. That was tough, planning five steps ahead of where you were at any given moment. But when you’re going for something naturalistic like we are in Knocked Up, and you have a lot of very funny people around, the hard thing becomes keeping track of the story and making it emotionally resonant.”

He describes the approach, which to an outsider, sounds more like playtime than work. “In rehearsals, we don’t just read the script, over and over again, but we sit around and talk about things that we’ve done in relationships and the hopes and fears that we have. Just talking, really. A lot of that stuff works its way into the script and even if it doesn’t, we write it down in a book and keep it there to remember. There’s a part in the finished movie where we have this long talk about a time-machine. That was something that came out of a conversation we had throughout the rehearsals that somebody wrote down and we kept coming back to. So when Judd is shooting the scene, we’ll hear this voice coming from behind the camera – “talk about the time-machine”, so we riff for a couple of minutes. It becomes very difficult to distinguish between something we improvise and something we’ve written in the script, because the whole process leads itself to a lot of talking and laughing at the jokes that come out.”

Belying his sleepy, slacker attitude, Rogan is also the executive producer on Knocked Up (more than just a vanity credit, he assures me), and has written and produced the marijuana-themed high-school comedy Superbad and the action-comedy adventure The Pineapple Express, which recently wrapped production with director David Gordon Green. It’s difficult to believe that Rogen is still just 25 years of age. “Believe it, baby”, he replies. I ask him what part of the work he likes best, writing, producing or acting. “My favourite part of the entire movie-making process is just being on set and being part of it all. The way we work, it’s difficult to distinguish between the parts that we play in making it all happen. I can find myself acting, writing and producing simultaneously, or at least that’s what it feels like. But, those are just titles. The point is that we are all trying to make a movie and trying to make it funny. That’s all it is, really. Me being called a producer simply means that people have to listen when I talk and in case you haven’t realised, I’m a guy with a lot of opinions”. He says something else, laughing as he does so, but when I played it back later all I could distinguish was that deep sonic-boom, distorting his words into a charming babble of crackle and hiss.

1 comment:

Esther Kustanowitz said...

I thought that was really beautifully written, especially the last part. He seems like a really great guy, which we ladies already suspected...