Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen on playing ancestral homies
By Dave Itzkoff
We may try to live up to the ideals that our ancestors embodied and strive to lead lives that are less onerous than theirs. But how do they think we’re measuring up, and would we ever want to find this out from them? It’s a philosophical question that is put to an unusual test in “An American Pickle,” a new Seth Rogen comedy that HBO Max released Aug. 6.
In the film, Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, a struggling ditchdigger who flees his Eastern European shtetl in 1919 for a better life in America. At his new job in a Brooklyn, New York, pickle factory, he accidentally falls into a vat and is preserved for 100 years. When Herschel awakens a century later, he is perplexed by the present day and by a great-grandson, Ben (also played by Rogen), an aspiring internet entrepreneur who shares few of Herschel’s values.
“An American Pickle,” which is adapted by Simon Rich from his short story “Sell Out” and directed by Brandon Trost, may have an inherently absurd premise. But for the 38-year-old Rogen, its “Rip Van Winkle”-style story is an opportunity (after some initial reluctance to play both roles) to take on deeper ideas about resilience, fortitude, death and spirituality — ideas that he said he was already contemplating before the coronavirus pandemic invested them with new urgency.
As Rogen explained in a recent Zoom conversation, “Fortunately or unfortunately, not that much changes — everything’s always on the brink of disaster at all times, at least in my head. It’s always a good time to be reflective.”
Though he is best known for starring in comedies like “Knocked Up,” “Neighbors” and “This Is the End” (serving as producer on the latter two) — often about young men who aren’t ready to accept responsibility for their lives — Rogen said that he hoped “An American Pickle” would reflect a somewhat more mature sensibility while still delivering laughs.
“I implored everyone to try to make the movie as deep and emotional as possible,” he said, “and to really lean into what could be the harder-to-explore themes.”
Rogen spoke about the making of “An American Pickle” and how the movie plumbs the past to reflect on the present day. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: The most prominent theme in the movie is the idea that our ancestors would be deeply disappointed if they could see us now. Where did that come from?
A: That was one of the first conversations that Simon and I had, years ago, about the movie. He said he had this picture of his grandfather when he was, like, 28, and he was a grizzled, muscular man who had seen the horrors of the world. He’s like, if we knew each other at this time, he would hate me. On my desktop, I have a similar picture. My grandfather was a very tough man. He was in [World War II]; he was in the [Royal Canadian] Navy. He played professional football in Canada and was just the opposite of many of the things I have come to represent. We got along, but he was incredibly regressive in a lot of ways. He was offhandedly racist, all the time. We did not vibe on a lot of things. So that idea was really interesting to me. Your family can represent a lot of things that you yourself do not like. But, inherently, you love them, and you are them; it’s inescapable.
Q: Was it always your intention to play both Ben, the modern-day character, and Herschel, his great-grandfather?
A: That’s how Simon envisioned the movie, and it took me probably five years to wrap my head around the idea. We actually did a table read where we had another actor, Ike Barinholtz, read the Herschel role, and I was playing Ben. I thought it was funny. But there were still a lot of voices being like, it might be great if you played both.
Q: Why were you hesitant to do it?
A: There’s just so many bad examples of it, honestly. I was terrified of it, and I wanted to make the type of movie that was good and meaningful and deep. I didn’t want it to seem like my vanity or self-indulgence was subtracting from the emotion of the story. But as I became older, I understood that you cannot be removed from your own lineage. As I speak now, I just hear my father.
Q: Do you know how your own ancestors came here?
A: It’s a similar story. Rogen is an unchanged last name from Ukraine. My grandmother, who passed away in 2014, was literally born in a caravan fleeing the pogroms. She emigrated to Canada, and she got to pick her own birthday as a child. It was an interesting thing to wrap my head around as we were trying to dramatize it.
Q: The film’s prologue takes place in 1919 and introduces us to Herschel, the hardships that he endures in the old country, and his courtship of his wife, Sarah. Was it difficult to establish the right tone for this sequence?
A: There were sillier versions of it at one point. There was a version where I was fighting a giant for money. [Laughs] We cut that. It needed to feel like, oh, this was a hard life, and they didn’t pity themselves.
Q: Is that a trait you saw in your own grandparents?
A: The simplest of things had been unobtainable to them. I was literally a movie star in Hollywood, and that was unimpressive to them. But the fact that they could go to McDonald’s and steal the entire register’s worth of napkins was a real thing they were proud of. That’s something I saw firsthand.
Q: Even in the midst of a pandemic, do you find yourself feeling that our ancestors could have handled the challenges we face better than we are handling them?
A: I think from a physical peril standpoint, our ancestors dealt with things better. My own grandparents, their lives were physically dangerous. There were people trying to kill them, and simple amenities were not available to them. Compared to people today, who are being asked to stay at home and wear a mask, and society is teetering on the edge of collapse because of their inability to do that, I think that would probably seem a little silly to a generation who fought Nazis. My grandfather was in the engine room of a ship around the Horn of Africa getting shot at by U-boats when he was in his late teens. So I didn’t have to deal with that.
Q: What do you think is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
A: Nothing. [Laughs] I would never give myself that credit. As a creative person, I understand the challenges of making good work. When I undertake something that I know is going to be hard, I view that as something that takes courage, but I don’t expect anyone else to. At times I will speak on social issues in a way that, maybe, somewhere in my head, I’m thinking, oh, this could cause some sort of backlash. Maybe when I was younger, I felt like I was brave by saying that stuff. But no, now I would never describe myself as brave in any way.
Q: In the film, we see how Ben is reluctant to address his grief for losses in his life and hesitant around other people who are religious and comfortable expressing their own spirituality. Are those qualities you share with him?
A: Mortality and sadness are things I deal with very poorly in general. My wife, Lauren, watched her mother die slowly of Alzheimer’s over the course of a decade. I would not have been able to function as a person.
Growing up, I went to Jewish schools. I went to Jewish summer camps. Do I believe in any aspect of Judaism specifically? Not really. But one of the things that Judaism does is it forces you to confront death and grief in a very tangible way, in a way that is shocking sometimes to non-Jewish people who go to Jewish funerals and find themselves physically helping to bury the person. There’s a lot of things that happen when a death occurs, and that religious infrastructure puts you to work. It’s very helpful in moving on. That’s something that Ben did not have. And was rejecting and was running from — how religion really forces you to delve into those things.
Q: A few days ago, you said on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast that you were “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” and that you weren’t taught “there were people there,” meaning Palestinians, at its founding. But then it was reported that you had apologized for these remarks to Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency. What happened here?
A: That is not how I viewed the conversation [with Herzog] nor how I would recount it. I thought it was just a personal conversation I was having with that guy. I had no idea who he was. But I talked to him for 20 minutes because he had somehow reached out to my mother and said he wanted to talk to me. But I would not say that I apologized for what I said. I think I offered more clarity on what I said.
Q: So the conversation you had with Maron accurately represents your feelings?
A: I think Maron was a comedically driven conversation. I agree more nuance could have been offered. My wife put it very well. She said, “I don’t think anything you said was bad, but I think with a conversation this nuanced, it’s what you don’t say that people focus on.”
Q: Are you still in good standing with your mother?
A: [Laughs] Very much. That’s what’s so funny. My mom, honestly, she was OK with everything I said. That’s a conversation I had with her this week, in regards to, like, were we given a complete education as to the complexities of the formation of Israel? Do you feel we were? And she said, No, we had an incomplete vision of the story. Nothing could make this whole story more Jewish than my mom being brought into it.
Q: You’ve been criticized, as both an actor and a producer, for making movies that are immature and aren’t concerned with real feelings. Was that something you were trying to address in this movie?
A: It feels like a note we play from time to time. When we’re writing and developing our films, it becomes a modulation: How deep into this are we getting and how much are we pulling back and letting the comedy prevail? With this one, weirdly, the thing that I was referencing in my head the most was Pixar films. Because they take premises that often are not based in reality, in any way, shape or form, and they dive so deep into their saddest elements. “Up” is completely insane as a plot for a film. But it makes you cry hysterically several times. Why did we think a movie about a guy falling in a pickle vat for 100 years might be able to pack a real, emotional punch? It was because of Pixar films. They do it.
Q: Does it feel like a risk to release “An American Pickle” on HBO Max and not a more established streaming service like Netflix?
A: My deepest fear with Netflix is that I am one of 800,000 squares on your screen. When you’re a movie on Netflix, what you’re mostly competing with is other Netflix movies. There are no other HBO Max movies. [Laughs] HBO Max has just launched, and we are the first [original] film they are releasing. We’re not competing for their attention. We’re not competing for their resources. They seem very intent on people being aware of our film. Beyond that, no one knows how many people watched anything anyway.
Q: How do you gauge whether “An American Pickle” is a success?
A: Honestly, all I care about is our movies being liked and viewed as generally good. Because that’s the only thing I’ve seen over the years that has led to us working consistently. We’ve made successful movies. We’ve made giant failures. I think the reason we keep being allowed to make films is we make more good ones than bad ones. There are things you can blame on the studio, and that’s something I’m always more than happy to do. But what’s harder to blame on the studio is when we just made a bad movie. Sometimes we make movies, and it’s like, yeesh, no one liked this. And then five years later, you’re like, oh, no, people liked that movie. Time is a good test.