Is this the Face of Hollywood’s Next A-Lister?

The Globe and Mail, June 1, 2007

Even if you’ve never heard of Seth Rogen, you’ve probably seen his face. For weeks, his round, scruffy mug has been everywhere: billboards, bus stops and in movie theatres as promotion for Knocked Up, which opens today, hits a fever pitch. For Rogen, who gained minor recognition after playing Cal, Steve Carell’s foul-mouthed co-worker in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, seeing his own face on billboards is, in his words, “Very weird. I don’t really know how to process it. My head is on a billboard.”

Rogen, a 25-year-old Vancouver native, is having a very big summer: He stars in Knocked Up, his first leading role in a film; he does a voice in Shrek the Third; and Superbad, a feature he wrote and executive-produced with childhood friend Evan Goldberg, hits theatres in August. If Knocked Up is as big as critics predict, it will do for Rogen’s career what Virgin did for Carell, not only asserting him as a viable leading man, but also launching him into Hollywood’s A-list. But celebrity, for Rogen, is more like an unpleasant side effect than a career objective. “I have no desire, on a personal level, to be recognizable or known,” he says. “If it sells the movie, good.”

Resistance to fame aside, Rogen has big hopes riding on Knocked Up, specifically written by Virgin writer and director Judd Apatow as a starring vehicle for Rogen. “After Virgin, Judd said he wanted to do his next movie with me more in the forefront,” says Rogen. “Judd would say, it needs to be something simple, like, you get a girl pregnant.” And so, Apatow penned the script, in which a drunken night of clubbing leads Rogen, playing unemployed pothead Ben Stone, to knock up Alison Scott, an ambitious entertainment reporter played by Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl. The film also features Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, and includes hilarious cameos from Steve Carell and Ryan Seacrest, among others.

Knocked Up marks a milestone for Rogen and Apatow, who have worked together since Rogen’s 1999 acting debut on Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived television series Apatow created. Rogen does not withhold his gratitude. “I credit Judd enormously for my career,” he says. “Judd made a movie where the poster is my head. It’s pretty hard not to give someone credit for that.” Then Rogen emits his trademark guttural laugh: Huh-huh-huh-huh. “He tells me to say funnier things than I would think of saying.”

Though Rogen’s acting career started when he was 16, he’d chosen his path much earlier. “As soon as I became aware that people need jobs,” at 10 or 11, “I thought comedy would be a great way to make a living.” At 13, his mother enrolled him in a stand-up class, and within weeks, he was performing at bars.

Around that time, Rogen and Goldberg began writing together. (Superbad, the feature to be released this summer, was their first script.) After performing improv and stand-up through high school, Rogen left for L.A. He’s lived there since. “I like it,” he says. “I have a girlfriend, I have a house, I have fish. It’s kinda home.” Rogen has a Hollywood home that he shares with Lauren Miller, his girlfriend of two years, and he visits Vancouver a couple of times a year, remaining close to his parents and older sister.

After working together on Freaks and Geeks, Apatow hired Rogen to write for, and act in, Undeclared, another critically acclaimed TV series that lasted only one season. When the show was cancelled, Rogen realized that his dirty, offbeat humour was a better fit for the big screen. “With TV, you make a good show, you think it’s funny, but then you’re put on Saturday nights at 8 and it’s like, oh well, that’s over,” he says. So, he moved into film, landing minor roles in Donnie Darko and Anchorman, followed by supporting roles in Virgin and You, Me and Dupree.

Now, Universal is wagering $33-million (U.S.) that Rogen’s potty mouth will fill theatres. And though box-office numbers are unpredictable, industry bible Variety calls Knocked Up “more explosively funny, more frequently, than nearly any other major studio release in recent memory.” But the film is dramatic, too, and Rogen’s synopsis – “We start with a simple emotional story and sprinkle filth and profanity all over it” – is apt. GQ magazine called Knocked Up an “emo-comedy,” and, like all great comedies, the film would work as a drama if you removed the jokes; the laughs are gravy atop a compelling story.

Rogen and Heigl have terrific onscreen chemistry; the beautiful, uptight Alison is a great foil to Ben’s clueless oafishness. (Of their sex scenes, Rogen says, “It’s the exact opposite of real sex: Instead of trying to maintain your erection, you’re trying not to get one.”) The film’s funniest scenes involve Rogen’s roommates, who are his real-life friends: Jonah Hill (who plays “Seth” in Superbad), among other Apatow TV alum Jay Baruchel, Jason Segel and Martin Starr.

As in Virgin, Knocked Up relies heavily on improvisation; most of what audiences see is unscripted. (Both films achieved a rare feat, shooting more than one million feet of film.) “When you improv as much as we do, it’s hard to differentiate between what you would be saying and what your character might be saying,” says Rogen.

Of his role in Knocked Up, Rogen admits that he didn’t really step outside himself. “Behaviorally speaking, it’s pretty much exactly me,” he says. Like many of the characters he has played, Rogen is an easygoing, pot-smoking wisecracker; listening to him complain that playing Nintendo Wii is “too active,” you almost believe that, if not for his talents, he would be working on something like, a website chronicling the moments of female nudity in films that his character’s crew conceives in Knocked Up.

The similarity of Seth Rogen and Ben Stone is a testament to Rogen’s confidence and natural ability. “I’m not the type of actor who feels like they need to put on some odd affectation, like an Irish accent,” he says. “How the characters carry themselves is secondary to how they feel.” He’s auditioned for a handful of dramatic films – including the adaptation of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a predictable choice given Rogen’s comic-book obsession – but hasn’t yet landed one. After Knocked Up, all that may change.

“It would be great if suddenly I was seen as a marketable person to build a movie around,” he says. And, really, this is all Rogen wants: professional success, and the ability to do more creatively. The celebrity and glamour are far less interesting to him, and even the money is unexciting. “I have very cheap tastes,” he says. “I buy comic books. I could afford those before doing any movies.”

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