Director Judd Apatow can pinpoint the exact moment he knew Seth Rogen
would become a star. It was in 2000, during a taping of Apatow's first
TV show, Freaks and Geeks. Rogen, just 18 years old at the
time, was playing a teenage pothead who had learned his girlfriend was
born with ambiguous genitals—or as he would later explain to his
friends, both "the gun and the holster."
"The episode could have been bad in so many ways," Apatow remembers. "It could have been too sweet or too insensitive and nasty. But Seth played it real. He acted exactly the way one would feel when given that information."
In just one short scene you can see the genesis of Rogen's comedy persona. He's sexually awkward and self-conscious in a weirdly charming way, making jokes to mask his panic. He's simultaneously the coolest person in the room and a scared little kid who doesn't know what he's supposed to do next.
"It was such a vulnerable, funny, very human performance," Apatow says. "I thought, I would love to watch an entire movie starring this guy."
Apatow got his wish, but it didn't happen overnight. After several years of relative obscurity in tiny roles in movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Donnie Darko, Rogen got his first taste of mainstream success in Apatow's comedy hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which he plays Steve Carell's sex-fiend buddy.
Rogen finally got his shot at stardom in 2007, in a role he seemed utterly unqualified for: the male lead in a romantic comedy. But Knocked Up—written and directed by Apatow—is a romantic comedy about unplanned pregnancy. It's a movie about growing up and accepting responsibility, but it never skimps on the crude humor.
Many of the jokes in Knocked Up would have had the teenage Rogen rolling in the aisles. Born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia in a Jewish family (his mother was a social worker, and his dad toiled for a nonprofit), Rogen was something of a comedic prodigy: He made his stand-up-comedy debut at just 13, and while his jokes were unpolished, there were glimmers of the profane wit that would soon conquer Hollywood. When hecklers tried to boo him off the stage, Rogen would fire back, "I'm 13. In 30 years I'll be 43. You'll be dead."
Around the same time, Rogen and his best friend, Evan Goldberg, wrote a screenplay called Superbad, an obscenity-laced romp about high school kids trying to get laid. It was 12 years before the movie was finally made, in no small part thanks to Rogen's celebrity clout. Last year he starred in Pineapple Express, an action comedy about stoners, and in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, in which a pair of platonic friends make an adult film to pay their bills.
Rogen, who just turned 27, may surprise fans with his latest movie, Observe and Report, a dark comedy about an egomaniacal mall security guard. He also provides one of the voices in the animated Monsters vs. Aliens and is working on a script for The Green Hornet, due out in 2010, in which Rogen will portray the titular—and, at least by Rogen standards, lean—crime fighter.
Writer Eric Spitznagel, who last interviewed Tina Fey and Steve Carell for Playboy, recently caught up with Rogen on the set of Funny People, his third movie with director and longtime collaborator Apatow. Spitznagel reports, "I expected Rogen to look like his portrait from the Knocked Up movie poster, with the pudgy cheeks and unkempt Jewfro. But when I met him his hair was neatly shorn, his skin had a healthy glow, and despite his constant self-deprecation—Rogen joked about his 'soft, gelatin-like physique'—he could be described as almost slender.
"He may no longer be a candidate for diabetes and heart disease, and his once tangled hair may look respectable now, but when you hear that laugh, like that of a lecherous uncle who has just told you the dirtiest joke he knows, it's clear Rogen hasn't changed much."
PLAYBOY: In Observe and Report you play against type.
ROGEN: Do I?
PLAYBOY: Well, sure. You're usually the cuddly schlub, but in this movie you're playing a mall cop named Ronnie who is a racist asshole.
ROGEN: [Laughs] Yeah, he's not the type of guy you would want to spend any time with. I think people look at the characters I've done in movies and think, I'd like to hang out with that guy. But not this time.
PLAYBOY: Was it a difficult adjustment to play somebody audiences will likely despise?
ROGEN: I think it's funny. Director Jody Hill is great at writing these oddly epic tales about horribly tragic people who just keep getting worse and worse. That's what I loved about his first movie, Foot Fist Way. He pitched it to me as a comedic Taxi Driver. It's about a guy who is kind of a vigilante on a mission. He's a little crazy and slowly becomes more and more unhinged, and he has these objects of obsession that he pines for.
PLAYBOY: When you describe it that way, it doesn't sound at all different from your other films.
ROGEN: Not really, no.
PLAYBOY: Other than the vigilante stuff.
ROGEN: I don't think it's all that different. Observe and Report is about a loser and an outsider, and that's what Superbad, Pineapple Express and Knocked Up are all about. It's about these guys who don't feel they belong in the world. It's really the same kind of story. Ronnie is a much more aggressively difficult person to be around, but the general feelings driving him—how do I find my place in all this?—are very relatable, I think.
PLAYBOY: He's probably the least similar to you of any of your movie characters. Do you two have anything in common?
ROGEN: We both have disrespect for the cops. Ronnie absolutely hates the police, and I feel sort of the same way. That's something I've realized is a common thread running through the movies I've done. We've always gone out of our way to disparage the police.
PLAYBOY: That's true. Even when you played a policeman in Superbad, he was a drunken moron.
ROGEN: In Pineapple Express I don't think any line gets a bigger response from audiences than when James Franco starts screaming "Fuck the police."
PLAYBOY: Have you had bad experiences with cops?
ROGEN: When I was younger, yeah. We would get caught with weed and beer all the time. When I first came to L.A. I got caught smoking weed on a beach in Malibu and had to go to court. It was the craziest thing ever. I was thinking, We're in Los Angeles. There are probably 400 people getting murdered at this second, and these two cops are taking an hour to write up my court summons for smoking a joint on the beach. That just seemed so fucking ridiculous to me.
PLAYBOY: Didn't you once get into trouble for hugging a cop?
ROGEN: Yeah. That happened when I was a kid. I was really messed up—too much alcohol at a young age. My tiny frame could not support it all. I guess I thought maybe I could appeal to the cop by hugging him. Apparently, they view that as assault.
PLAYBOY: There's no hugging in Observe and Report. It almost qualifies as an action film.
ROGEN: It's close. It gets pretty violent.
PLAYBOY: Did you do your own stunts?
ROGEN: I did, yeah. In fact, I accidentally broke a guy's nose. I punched a stuntman in the face and broke his nose. He got a little too close. He claimed it wasn't my fault, which was very noble of him.
PLAYBOY: Did you know instantly that it was broken?
ROGEN: Oh yeah. It made a really loud popping sound. You could hear it. Everybody on the set could hear it. It was kind of disgusting. But we used that shot in the final cut. There's a scene in the movie when you can see me breaking a guy's nose.
PLAYBOY: It's hard not to notice you've been losing weight. When did you realize it was time to slim down and get into shape?
ROGEN: It was on Observe and Report. We shot the movie in Albuquerque, which is at a very high altitude. I'm somebody who can barely breathe in Los Angeles, which is at sea level. I can't walk up a flight of stairs. Albuquerque is at an elevation of about two miles, and the air is very thin. There were some big action scenes. Every day it felt as if I were climbing Everest. So the stunts were really hard, much harder than they should've been. But they're nothing compared with what we're planning to do in Green Hornet.