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Seth Rogen has carved a niche by mining laughs from awkward material. In 50/50, cancer gets the treatment

Seth Rogen should really be on his honeymoon. Having recently tied the knot with long-time girlfriend, Lauren Miller, the curly-topped comedian could be forgiven if he decided against promoting his latest film 50/50 in favour
of romantic sunsets in a tropical location.

However, as a cackling Rogen arrives for his chat, it’s clear he’s more than happy putting his holiday on hold for the most personal movie he has ever made.

“Me and writer Will Reiser are spending my honeymoon together talking about 50/50,” Rogen says with a shrug. “But, you know, I have always been a vocal proponent of making the film because I really think it’s unlike anything else that’s out there.”

Part biopic, part cancer comedy, 50/50 is certainly unique. Inspired by Rogen’s and Reiser’s experiences after the latter was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2005, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who gets devastating news from his doctor.

Given a 50/50 chance of surviving a cancerous tumour in his back, he receives support and dubious advice from best friend, Kyle (Rogen). The friendship between Adam and Kyle mirrors that of Reiser and Rogen, who met working on Da Ali G Show.

“Will was always really sick – it was like in Raiders Of The Lost Ark when those people were melting,” Rogen recalls.

“We were obviously shocked and saddened when he told us he had cancer but in a way it was a huge relief to find out that there was a reason he looked so bad. We thought he was just living hard. Will told us he would live, which was good news, and we began a long process that we were all pretty ill-equipped to deal with.”

While Rogen was supportive as a friend, his instincts as a filmmaker made him realise that what Reiser was going through – and how awkwardly people around him behaved – would make for an interesting film.

“If you experience something, especially if you are a movie fan, you relate it to a movie that is similar to whatever that experience is,” Rogen says.

“For instance, if someone steals your identity, you think of Trading Places. For us, we couldn’t think of any movie that was like what we were going through, except for really sad, depressing movies about older people who die, so we thought this might be interesting. I’d never seen a movie about a young dude who has to deal with a potentially fatal disease.”

The first time Rogen and Reiser discussed the possibility of turning Reiser’s battle against cancer into a film, it turned into an evening neither of them would ever forget.

“We went out and it was an eventful night because Will also introduced me to my wife,” remembers Rogen. With 50/50 featuring scenes where Adam and Kyle use Adam’s illness to pick up sympathetic girls, you have to wonder if life imitated art when Rogen first met Lauren Miller.

“Is there such a thing as sympathy sex?” the comedian muses before letting fly with one of his trademark guffaws. “Is there any other kind? No, I didn’t really need to play on the fact that my friend had cancer when I met my wife. She was aware of it because she was friends with Will before. Although, it did illustrate how compassionate I was.”

While Rogen pokes fun at how uncomfortable many people are around those with cancer in 50/50, the comedian admits he makes the same mistakes in real life.

“We’ve done so many screenings at cancer organisations and afterwards people come up to us and say they’ve gone through the same experience,” he says. “And we do all the stuff that you shouldn’t. It’s almost like you are compelled to do the exact wrong thing. I think so long as you can take a step back and laugh at yourself, that’s what’s important.

"My character cares, but doesn’t know how to articulate it so he tries to make light of it and have fun in the situation. At its core, I guess that’s a good attitude. He’s trying to look on the bright side and see what good can come out of it, but Kyle is rather insensitive about it and I was too. I was telling Will to write a movie about it.”

To ensure 50/50 was not turned into a melodramatic blubfest, Rogen and Reiser kept the film below the radars
of big Hollywood studios.

“We made a very wise choice early on to approach it from a modest place financially,” Rogen says. “We knew a studio wouldn’t want to finance it or distribute it and if they did they would probably fuck it up. Once you decide to make
a film for $8m (£5.1m) it is not that hard to get it done. It was less than half the price of any other movie we’ve made.”

The new film is just the latest addition to Rogen’s CV, which mostly comprises low-fi comedies (Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), but also a superhero film (The Green Hornet) and a lot of superb vocal work (Monsters Vs Aliens, Paul).

Since his breakthrough performance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005, the comedian has starred in 10 movies that have grossed close to US$100m or more at the box office, with Forbes magazine recently crowning him ‘The Hardest-Working Man in Hollywood’.

Ask Rogen about his success and he stresses the importance of sticking to what you know.


“I’ve been doing stand-up since I was young and always felt the funniest jokes was based on things that happened to me,” he says. “I have always been a believer that even if the movie you are making is abstract, it is good basing it on something that you had gone through.”

Rogen is hopeful his latest film will find an audience but admits it is fighting an uphill battle against the trend of
CGI-laden blockbusters.

“All I know is that movies with robots always do well,” he says with a wry smile. “But, you know, comedies have done pretty well over the last year. Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses did well. I thought Midnight In Paris was great. There were a lot of comedies this year that people seemed to like.”

Whether 50/50 is a huge critical or commercial hit or not, it will always have special significance for Rogen. In making the film with Reiser the two have become even closer friends while his relationship with Lauren Miller is also intrinsically linked with the movie.

“I met her when we first started talking about the film and we got married on the weekend 50/50 opened in the United States so it came full circle,” he says, before adding with a chuckle.

“The moral of the story is that it takes the exact same time to develop a relationship and get married that it does to make a movie.” ❚


Words: PIERRE DE VILLIERS


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Interview: Seth Rogen on cancer, 50/50 and blockbusters
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