Seth Rogen’s body of work is synonymous with Millennial culture. We know him best as a lowbrow stoner type in Judd Apatow films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, or as the writer of generation-defining movies like Superbad and Pineapple Express. More recently, he’s become an ambassador for justice on social media. Whatever he’s doing, people of a certain age are watching—because his stories are our stories, too.
That’s why his latest film, An American Pickle, is such a triumph—it shows another side of the actor (two sides, to be precise). In the movie, now available to stream on HBO Max, Rogen plays two roles: Herschel Greenbaum, a struggling Ashkenazi Jewish laborer who emigrate to America in 1920, and his great-grandson Ben, a Brooklynite computer programmer with a fridge full of kombucha. The two meet after Herschel is preserved in a vat of pickle brine and revived, fully conscious and alive, in the modern day.
The touching fish-out-of-water tale is as funny as it is heartwarming; a story about the reclamation of Jewish identity, grief, and self-acceptance that is personal to Rogen’s own family experience. Nerdist recently chatted with Rogen, who also produced An American Pickle, about adapting Simon Rich’s short story “Sell Out” for the screen, the decision to take it to a streaming platform, and how Ben is emblematic of so many young people today.
Nerdist: The film is based on Simon Rich’s New Yorker novella “Sell Out.” What about the story made you want to adapt it for the screen?
Seth Rogen: I just really couldn’t relate more to this idea of how much my grandfather specifically probably wouldn’t have liked me if we were the same age as one another. You know, Herschel’s history greatly resembles my own family’s history. It just tapped into a lot of things I had been thinking about and it [also] started making me think about things I hadn’t been thinking about. In general, this idea of, “Would the past generations be proud of future generations? Would their accomplishments resonate?” They wanted them to have a better life, but does our version of a better life match up with their version of what they hoped a better life would mean? All that I found incredibly relatable as a jumping-off point.
Rich also wrote the screenplay from this movie, which differs quite a bit from his source material. What was that like?
SR: He was great. Honestly, he’s one of the least precious with their own work writers that I’ve ever worked with, in a good way. I think, when adapting something, the only consistent thing I’ve [learned] is to try to serve the medium you’re adapting to. He really got that and he got, like, “Okay, we’re making a movie now so let’s try to make the best movie we can.” That means we’ll take some things heavily from the short story but it also means we’re gonna have to come up with new things and abandon other things. And he really embraced that which made the entire process much easier.
We’re obviously living in unprecedented times, especially for films, where there’s a big debate between pushing films out on digital platforms or holding them for a theatrical release. As a producer of An American Pickle, I have to imagine you were directly involved in the decision to put this on HBO Max. At what point did that conversation come about and how did you land on that particular service?
SR: Actually, pandemic aside, we were already looking for a way to transition it from Sony to somewhere else. [Sony executive] Tom Rothman—to his incredible credit—the first time he saw the movie he said, “I love this film, it made me cry, and. there’s no way Sony will release this movie properly.” And to that end he said, “But I will help you finish it and help you get it somewhere else.” It was something we did with Disaster Artist, so there was some precedent with it for us. It’s not something that works often and it’s not something that I would recommend somebody integrate into their strategy as producers, but we’ve done it twice now and I’m amazed that it’s worked. But yeah, we were already looking for another distribution partner and the idea of a streaming service was very much on the table already. So when HBO Max came around and we started talking with them, it really seemed like—honestly, if there was no pandemic, we would have wound up there as well. They were a perfect partner for us.
I know I‘m constantly looking for things to watch in quarantine and so many others are too, so I think there’s a real benefit to releasing that way—a real opportunity for a different sort of conversation to happen around the release when it’s more accessible to everyone at once.
SR: Definitely. And I do genuinely—as someone whose profession is that of an entertainer—know there’s not as much entertainment out there as people are used to getting. So whatever I can do to help take people’s minds off of how terrible things are for 90 minutes, that’s something I’m happy to try to do.
You play dual roles in the film, Herschel and his great-grandson Ben. It’s sort of a trope in comedy, this idea of playing opposite yourself. Were there any performances you went to for guidance on how to do that?
SR: Adaptation is one I would always think of. I did not go back and watch it—maybe I should have—but it’s one in my head where I was like, “Oh, I remember that being a good version of one actor being two characters.” They didn’t make it too shticky. They tried to do it in a very offhanded way, which was our approach as well. And then on the other end of the spectrum, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. And what’s amazing about that is you wouldn’t even know it’s the same actor. It was obviously something that always left an impression on me. Although I can’t say I specifically drew inspiration from either of them, those were the two where I was like, “Oh, I like those, so maybe it could work.”
Ben is a really funny character because he’s an emblem of such a specific type of person that we know nowadays. He’s kind of a hipster, but he’s also very trapped in his ennui. How did you settle on that characterization for him? I feel like it walks the line between him being insufferable and also endearing.
SR: A lot of people I know walk that very same line. [Laughs] It was exactly that. It’s a guy who’s just kind of stuck and can’t get out of his own way. Which is both relatable and annoying. [Laughs] I think we all know people like this or at times have been like that and that’s why it’s relatable and annoying. There are some people you want to just shake, like, “Do something!” It’s so prevalent, people just kind of being frozen, and it’s just something I see a lot in my life among so many people I know, where they’re more comfortable to not move in any direction and it is probably not serving them well.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about the director Brandon Trost. This is his first feature film, but you’ve worked with him a lot on past projects when he was a cinematographer. Can you talk about the process of watching him make that transition to a new role behind the camera?
SR: Honestly, it’s funny, because writers transition to directors, actors transition to directors, and no one really bats an eye. And weirdly, a cinematographer’s job is the closest to being a director out of any of these other jobs. They’re literally deciding where the camera is a lot of the time. I looked back at the movies that I had directed and produced with him, and could see how additive he was creatively to a process and how he really is a storyteller. Sometimes not until I was editing the movie would I appreciate how much he had done to help us tell the story. I knew he approached his job [that way] and in the conversations we’ve had, he always really understood all that. It was not a weird transition for me to see him take on. He had also directed what I think is the funniest episode of Future Man and that includes the episodes we directed. So I knew he could do a very good job.
Featured Image: HBO Max