Seth Rogen on pot, politics, and the making of his new movie An American Pickle
Seth Rogen is a man of many occupations: actor, writer, director, freelance ceramicist.
But he's never been his own costar, until now; his latest, An American Pickle (premiering Thursday on HBO Max), which he also produced, finds the actor playing both a (literally) pickled Old World immigrant named Herschel Greenbaum and his own millennial great grandson, a soft-handed app developer called Ben.
Via phone from his home in Los Angeles, Rogen, 38, spoke to EW about the film — as well as his thoughts on fake beards, fermentation, and the enduring genius of Nora Ephron, among other things.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Most of your movies tend to come from original screenplays, but Pickle is based on a 2013 short story by Simon Rich, "Sell Out." What grabbed you about it?
SETH ROGEN: I knew Simon from Saturday Night Live, that was how I first met him. But a lot of the motivation for the writing of the novella and the movie itself came from something he said which was, "I saw a picture of my grandfather when he was my age, and all I could think was that this guy would hate me."
And I could not relate to that more. My grandfather was in World War II, he was a professional football player. When I was a kid I had a hangnail on my toe, and he literally ripped my entire toenail off and I had to go to the hospital to get it fixed, you know? He was a tough guy.
If he had met me when we were both in our mid-30s, he probably would have beaten the s--- out of me, and I think that that is something that I really thought a lot about with these characters. One of them lives a very hard life, carries himself in such a way where at any moment he might have to fight someone to the death. So I thought of my own grandfather, and how he was just ready to go — like, he could tear an apple in half with his bare hands.
Did you picture yourself in both parts from the beginning?
It took me a long time to decide whether I wanted to play both. We actually did a table read many years ago where another actor played the other role.
I was worried about it honestly, because if it goes bad it just seems silly and self-indulgent, and I just didn’t want to fall into those traps. I very much may have, but it was something I desperately tried to at least think myself out of, you know?
You know there’s great versions of it, there’s terrible versions and everything in between, like most things in movies, I guess. But it for sure was something that I put a lot of thought into and talked to a lot of people about, and it was not a decision I made lightly because when it goes bad it can go very bad — which is the headline they’re gonna use if this movie is regarded as the worst thing I’ve ever done. [Laughs]
Are you a fan of movies where actors play against themselves? For some reason watching this, I kept thinking of Big Business.
Oh I love that movie! Fred Ward gives such a great performance, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, yeah that’s one that I grew up watching. Honestly though, Adaptation is probably one of the more successful versions of that in my head.
When it comes to separating Ben and Herschel as characters, I have to say, your hair is very expressive.
One of my few tools as an actor, yes. [Laughs]
How did you work that out, shooting-wise?
Boringly and logistically. [Laughs] I would say the only drastic decision that was made early on was that I refused to wear a fake beard or a wig at any point in the movie, because I watch the most expensive movies on earth and they still have terrible beards, and I just knew that there would be no way to reconcile it, they simply look bad.
Like, the world thinks they’ve figured out good fake beards and I hate to say I don’t think it’s true, you know? It’s just something I can always tell is happening, and it restricts the actors movements and face and expressions and their performance at times becomes largely around navigating the apparatus that is on their face and it just — I didn’t want that.
You also deal with Herschel's 100-year time jump pretty efficiently early on. Like it gets explained at a press conference, and a couple reporters just go, "Yep, cool, that checks out." Was that a deliberate way to address the sort of pickled elephant in the room?
It was always one of those things of, you know, you can basically do one magical thing in a movie. Like Ghostbusters is real but there’s ghosts, or Being John Malkovich is pretty real, except they work in this weird apartment and there’s a portal to John Malkovich’s head. Otherwise it plays by rules that we understand, you know? And that was something we talked a lot about, to not devalue reality to the point that you are uninvested in it but clearly understand that this is, like, a magical thing that has occurred.
That’s a balance to strike, and probably one of the reasons it took so many years to develop the script and work on the movie. There are much easier films we’ve made than this one, because as soon as you’re adding some sort of fantastic element you know you have to be careful to keep doing things that keep the audience invested and not let them think, "Well none of this is real, why do I care about this?"
So you pretty much just have to establish the rules, and then stick to your own eternal logic.
Exactly. And in this world you can be pickled. [Laughs]
One thing I love is that Herschel doesn't really care about app developing — why would he? — but he's blown away that Ben has 25 pairs of socks.
Yeah, there’s a lot about what would be impressive, and honestly that comes a lot from my own grandparents as well, my grandmother especially who was born — she doesn’t know where or when she was born, because she was in a caravan fleeing eastern Europe from the Cossacks around 1920, 1919 maybe.
So it’s a very similar thing. Like, the fact that I had a lot of napkins was impressive to her, and the fact that I was in movies was not as impressive. 'Oh, you have a whole drawer full of napkins, wow! That’s what I like to see!" [Laughs]
It’s just something that I always think is so interesting, when you’re from a time that is so much harder and worse than how things are in so many ways, what is an accomplishment and what isn’t becomes very skewed.
And that I think is something we also wanted to show — that the things that Ben is proud of, Herschel doesn’t care about. And the the things that are Herschel is proud of are very easy for Ben, because in this time the basic needs of survival for someone like Ben are not hard, and for Herschel the greatest accomplishment is "Oh, you have socks and you have an apartment and you have water with bubbles in it!"
Herschel eventually starts expressing some old-timey opinions about social issues that don't exactly float in 2020. But even movies from 10 or 15 years ago can sometimes come off that way now. Do you feel that way about any of your earlier films?
Oh definitely. All of it. Evan [Goldberg, his longtime creative partner] and I are always talking about in 10 years, sooner than we think, all of our work will be used as examples of what shouldn’t be done anymore — like for reasons that we don’t even understand yet. Some for reasons we do, and some we don’t. [Laughs]
There are things in our films that I look back on and I’m like, "Well that ranges from debatable to outright objectionable!" I know our heart was in the right place and we were always trying honestly to be on the progressive side of things but we failed spectacularly at times.
[But] I don’t look back and think, "Do I wish we could re-edit our movies?" I mean if anything, we should have to live with the fact that we did it and let people point out that it was terrible and we’ll just have to deal with it, you know?
Obviously this is something many filmmakers are dealing with now, but how did you feel initially about Pickle moving from a more expected movie-theater situation straight to HBO?
It’s definitely a bit of a bummer, because obviously when we make movies we generally are gearing them toward a theatrical release. But honestly pretty early on in the process, we realized that a traditional Sony release — which is how we initially made it — was not going to be the best route for it. So then as soon as coronavirus stuff happened, it was pretty easy to reconcile that maybe I would miss out on getting to watch this with theaters full of people.
Did you still get to see some audience reactions early on before the lockdown?
Yeah. There’s an incredibly silly version of this movie, and then there’s the much more I would say grief-driven one, and I think that was surprising to some people that were in our test screenings because they had not seen or heard anything about the movie other than knowing it’s about me being pickled for a 100 years, so they were expecting a much sillier version of that type of movie. But I could see that people very much understood the direction it was going.
They got that it’s maybe not your Encino Man.
Yes, exactly. [Laughs] Not to say I don’t one day hope to make an Encino Man. I wish!
If someone was judging you from your Instagram, they might think your life is approximately 8o percent ceramics... I just picture you and Brad Pitt sharing a kiln, I know he’s big on pottery too.
Love ceramics! Yes. Me and my wife actually named our kiln Brad Pitt.
Lauren, that’s my wife, had done it when she was younger, and she just thought I’d enjoy it. I’ve always had a lot of hobbies, and I am always on the lookout for a new one, so she scheduled a lesson for us one day and I just loved it, I found it really therapeutic. I just enjoy producing tangible work. And since then, we’ve been able to spend quite a bit of time doing it, because we have no children so we can have hobbies. [Laughs]
You’ve also been outspoken about weed legalization for a long time. Are you glad that that fight is effectively over?
I’m happy, but it’s not over at all. If anything right now it’s in a worse place, because it’s completely legal for some people and completely illegal in other places for other people, and it’s almost at the most hypocritical point it’s ever been in in America right now.
Like when the full-on war on drugs was happening, at least they were fully entrenched in their own bulls---, you know? But now there’s this acknowledgment that it’s not bad and it’s good business and that it reduces crime when it’s legal, but they still are putting a lot of not-white people in jail for it in a lot of states.
So on one hand [the government] acknowledges that it’s fine, and on the other hand people are having their lives ruined. It’s nice in general to see the acknowledgement that it’s not some horrible drug, though my attitude toward it has been the same. Nor did I ever feel any shame about it or any of the stigma associated with it, so I personally don’t feel that different.
You're famously Canadian, though your dad grew up in the U.S. I wonder how it is as a sort of outsider, to be witnessing the social and political upheaval of the last few months.
For a long time I think I was alleviating myself from some of the responsibility that one who is making a living off the American system should be feeling, you know? Like “I’m Canadian! I just come here to work and make comedies!”
Now it’s been too long, I’m an adult, I’m fully a part of American culture and a contributor to it. I can’t pretend that this is not my culture as well, and that this is not my problem as well. I am an American citizen and this is America and I make money in America. So I no longer feel that way.
One of the biggest conversations of the last couple years, at least in Hollywood, has been around inclusion riders and the general efforts to bring more diversity to the movies we see, both behind and in front of the camera. As a famous white guy in the industry, what do you feel like your role in that can be?
I mean personally, I think I am just actively trying to make less things starring white people. And if I’m succeeding or I’m not, I’m very much looking to have a far more diverse group of writers and directors and actors that we generally work with, because that group is not incredibly diverse, you know?
So that’s how I’ve been trying to deal with it, is just to actively take as they would say, anti-racist measures to assure that some work is doing done to acknowledge that Black people are very marginalized in American society.
Has quarantine given you a chance to get much done? For some people it seems to kind of push their creative buttons, and other people not at all.
In general I don’t have enough time to do my job, but now that I don’t have to drive around the city a thousand times a day, I have a little more time to do what I’m supposed to do. I’ve been able to write much more over the last few months than I generally am able to and that has been very nice, personally.
One thing that seems inevitable in the next couple years is that we'll be getting a whole lot of pandemic-themed movies and shows. Are you ready for that wave, and is it something you might even contribute to?
It’s interesting, I wonder. Weirdly, when I think of 9/11 in movies, I actually think the most interesting and best way it was dealt with is in the movie Julie & Julia. And I say that as like a complete lifelong Nora Ephron fanatic, but I watched it recently and it was amazing how they dealt with that, where Amy Adams’s character is working at an insurance company or whatever and dealing with people in the wake of 9/11.
It was so interesting how it played out, I thought, and also really funny and really sad, all of that — it was just perfect in the way that Nora Ephron was great at being.
You have to acknowledge these things that happen if you live in the world that it exists in, that the audience exists in, you know? I think this will be a similar thing, so for some people it’s as small as, you know, not having what used to be the World Trade Center in a shot, and for some people it’s making United 93.
That answer really went in an unexpected direction.
It all comes back to Julie & Julia. [Laughs]