Hearing the energetic, cheerful laugh of Seth Rogen ring through the phone is as delightful of an experience as one would expect. Rogen hopped on the line with us this week to discuss how he’s currently starring in dual (and dueling) lead roles in HBO Max’s first original feature film, An American Pickle. You’ve probably heard that he portrays a 1920s Jewish immigrant (Herschel Greenbaum), who falls into a pickle vat and wakes up a century later (perfectly “brined” and preserved) to meet his great-grandson (Ben). The film’ is farcical and fantastical, and the seltzer scene probably isn’t the only thing that will remind you of a certain 1990s movie where the lead characters “wheezed the juice.”
An American Pickle is both a joyful and a soulful ride, and it’s also ultimately a meditation on what it means to be a Jew. While some of his promotion for the movie (a certain Marc Maron interview) raised eyebrows regarding Israel, Rogen has already set the record straight there, but beyond interviews, it’s clear that Rogen isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers with his work (remember The Interview?). Yet thoughtfully looking at his films in the rearview mirror is simply something that Rogen’s grown accustomed to doing. He realizes that The Interview could have used more oversight. He has also admitted to regretting one joke in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and in the years since Knocked Up, he’s addressed Katherine Heigl’s concerns that the film is a little bit sexist.
That’s the danger of comedy, you know. Sometimes jokes don’t age all that well, and times change, so one had best not fall into a pickle vat for a century, or there’s a rude awakening coming. Yet a certain Seth Rogen movie, Pineapple Express, still stands unvarnished. That little stoner flick that turned into a blockbuster can seemingly do no wrong, so I couldn’t resist asking about it a lot. And in the process, we (of course) talked about the making of An American Pickle and how (surprisingly enough) Rogen still feels “slightly traumatized” about film reviews after all these years.
I always like to start out a little bit awkward.
So I’m going to offer you congratulations on the twelfth anniversary of Pineapple Express.
Is today really the anniversary? I guess it is! Well, it came out on August 8, actually.
Close enough! Work with me, or this is gonna be all Pineapple Express questions.
You know, that movie’s still perfectly preserved with no controversy or regrets surrounding it at all. Do you think maybe it’s a good thing that it hasn’t been “ruined” by a sequel?
Yeah, probably. But it is like an action movie. I would say that action movies have a good, well, let’s just say this: as bad of a track record as comedies have for making sequels, action comedies actually don’t have a terrible track record for making sequels. That is the one thing that makes me say that maybe there’s a possibility for getting a good sequel to that film. But it’s still not something that we’re actively working on or planning on actively working on anytime soon.
You do have a habit of tweeting movie trivia for your tenth anniversaries, like with that movie and Superbad. What trivia do you think you’ll be tweeting about ten years after An American Pickle?
Oh man, who knows! I’ll be like, “This is all before we all lived in underground bunkers, and we’re trying to send Bruce Willis back to crack the code of Twelve Monkeys.” That’s what I think I’ll be saying, ten years from now.
When you’re producing projects (and you produce a lot these days), what makes you decide that you want to take a lead role, let alone two of them?
I think if it just seems like I would be additive to the process and people want me to be part of the process and it’s something that people would respond to, those types of things. I have no agenda there, and if anything, I like producing things that I’m not in because it’s good for our production company to be able to maintain the precedent that we can do that. But yeah, mostly it’s the same way I make every other decision, where if it’s a movie that if I saw in theaters, I’d be like, “Fuck, why wasn’t I in that movie?” Then I wanna be in that movie.
Have you ever doubled back after the fact with some regret? Like, “Man, I should have played Homelander in The Boys!”
Ummmmmm, no. I’m trying to think… no, nothing specifically. There are things that we’ve made that are great, and the very petty part of me wishes that I was in them to share that glory, but I’m ultimately okay with how it all turned out.
In American Pickle, did you film all of one part and then the rest?
Yeah. I didn’t want to wear the fake beard too long, that was the major thing. That one simple decision dictated it. I just think they look bad, and it’s restrictive for the actor, and there’s so much suspension of disbelief required to watch this movie anyway that I thought, like, visually, whatever we could do to make the audience just not even think about the fact that I was playing both roles and playing two different characters, well, we should do that. And I just know that a fake beard, subconsciously, makes people, well, you can just tell it’s there.
With the movie gestating so long (because you and Simon Rich started thinking about it back in 2007), when it came time to make the movie, were you overly concerned about updating things?
To some degree, but I think with this movie more than our other movies, we wanted it to feel kind of timeless. With Long Shot, it was political, so we felt like it really exist in a world that acknowledged today’s political climate, like, heavily. But with this, it’s a little bit more of a fairy tale, and while we wanted nods to certain elements of today, we also didn’t want to anchor it too firmly in any time other than modern time.
Well, you lucked out with that super-timely Kanye reference.
Yeah, luckily, I think that will be a long-lasting reference! [Laughs]
In any given year, you could probably throw that into a movie, and it would work.
We made that joke two years ago, and I think that’s honestly when that came up.
So, if Herschel had arrived right now in the middle of what we’re going through, with all the knowledge that he gains, what do you think he would say?
What’s funny is that the flu pandemic was in 1919, which is when the movie started, so he actually might be comforted by how little has changed over the years!
Now, I refreshed myself on your Marc Maron podcast interview. Oh god, I always mispronounce his name, and I just did it again.
Mar-oan. [Laughs] You Steven Sea-gal-ed him!
Look at me, sounding like John Travolta. This is marvelous.
Steven Sea-gal, Marc Mar-oan!
Everyone’s talking about that podcast, and you know why. Otherwise, here’s the line that stuck out for me: “I worry about people writing mean things about me.” Does that ever get easier to deal with over time?
Not really. Reviews are always stressful, mostly because I want our movies to be viewed as good! And that is the thing that worries me almost more than anything: “Will this movie be viewed as a good movie or a bad movie?” And that doesn’t always mean that it has to have 100% great reviews. Like Pineapple Express I think is in the mid-60s, and I think it’s one of the best movies we’ve made, so I don’t look at that and think, “Well, that movie is like 30% worse than The Disaster Artist!”
For sure, but Pineapple Express is still clearly beloved for many reasons.
So, I don’t have like a 1-to-1 relationship with it like that. And often what’s interesting is that you can’t even tell for five years if a movie actually is good and has stood the test of time. That’s really when you know is if people are still watching it and talking about it and enjoying it, but in general, no, honestly, I am still slightly traumatized by some experiences that I’ve had with my movies just being trashed. And that has nothing to do with the Marc Maron stuff. Like that, I’m okay with. If I say something, and everyone loses their minds because of it, then that’s par for the course for me and something that I never complain about. Not that I’m complaining about this, but that doesn’t weigh on me as much as my work being viewed as good or bad.
Does it freak you out a little bit to upset certain heads of state like with North Korea, or to ruffle feathers in Israel?
Again, to me, I understand what true controversy is, and this is not true controversy.
Your words got sliced-and-diced and moved around and cut-and-pasted.
Yeah, and after the interview, as long as the U.N. isn’t getting involved, and like, the president isn’t dedicating entire press conferences to it, I don’t consider it to be that huge of a controversy.
An American Pickle itself isn’t controversial. It’s wrapped up as a comedy but also with a lot of deep themes like grief and trauma. That’s a lot to balance.
I mean, I hope it went well. It was a modulation and a topic of constant conversation, and you just have to be very aware of the experience that you hope the viewer is having, and put yourself in the shoes of the audience member and just try to be highly aware of what they would be experiencing. But in general, I find that people — I’m amazed at how quickly people, if it’s done well, people can change gears very quickly. They can be in the middle of a very sad scene and laugh at a joke, or they can be in the middle of a funny scene and quickly shift to being sad if something happens. And again, there’s a skill required in making those sharp turns, but audiences will go along with them if you do them right.
Things ultimately went well for Herschel. If you could move him into another movie, what would it be?
Whoa, one movie for Herschel. That’s a good… I mean, he would probably do well and fit seamlessly fit into Fiddler on the Roof. Or Yentl. We watched Yentl at the end of the movie, so I would like to see Herschel in that. Is Mandy Patinkin in Yentl?
Yep, he sure is.
Yes, and I do feel like I’m going to age into a very Mandy Patinkin-esque figure, so that also works well.
HBO Max’s ‘An American Pickle’ is streaming now.