Seth Rogen happily admits he has “an affinity for Australians”.
The Canadian actor-writer-producer, best known for his roles in hit comedies including Knocked Up, This Is the End and Pineapple Express, has called Los Angeles home for more than 20 years but says he still finds himself drawn to the land down under as well as our fellow “Commonwealthers”, both professionally and personally.
He starred opposite a hilariously foul-mouthed Rose Byrne in Bad Neighbours and its sequel, endured an AFL-obsessed Eric Bana in Funny People and now Succession’s Sarah Snook — with whom he bonded while making a Steve Jobs biopic — plays his wife in the comedy-drama An American Pickle. In addition, his love interest in last year’s underrated rom-com Long Shot was South African-born Charlize Theron, and as a producer on Amazon’s hit superhero series The Boys, Rogen helped cast Kiwis Karl Urban and Antony Starr in leading roles.
“I have noticed that throughout my life,” he says. “And that’s evidenced by the huge amount of British, Australian and New Zealander friends and people I work with in my day to day life. I think we’re from primarily English speaking countries and we grew up with primarily American culture but we don’t view it as our culture. I think that bonds us all in a very unique way and gives us a similar sensibility.”
Growing up in Vancouver, in between juggling the path in stand-up comedy he began at the age of 12, he was even introduced to Australian rules football during the three years he spent as a prop on his high school rugby team, thanks to an Aussie teacher. His form? Not great, he admits.
“I could not get the f—ing bounce down,” he says, followed by a burst of his trademark braying laugh. “That s— is impossible.”
An American Pickle tells the story of an impoverished Jewish ditch-digger, Herschel Greenbaum, who flees persecution in Poland for a new life in America with his new bride. While working as a rat catcher in a Brooklyn pickle factor, he falls into a vat of brine and is perfectly preserved for a century, emerging in 2019 New York to find his family entirely gone except for his great-grandson.
Rogen, after some hesitation, agreed to play both parts in what is something of a departure for him. Not only did the technical demands of the dual roles require a discipline that was the polar opposite of his usual freewheeling, improvisational style, but the themes of family, grief and unrest also loaned themselves to a more restrained, less sweary approach than usual.
And while An American Pickle is based on a short story, Rogen says he saw some startling parallels with his own family history. His Jewish grandparents had also fled pogroms in Poland and Russia to settle in the US and Canada, and just the tough-as-nails Herschel in the film finds it hard to hide his disdain for his app developer ancestor. Rogen’s grandfather (a war veteran and professional footballer) “was kind of a tough man who didn’t necessarily have time for my soft bulls—”.
Rogen says while his grandparents lived long enough to see him become one of the most successful and in-demand writers and actors of his generation, as well as founder of a burgeoning production company, they weren’t especially impressed by his celebrity or his output.
“I think it was kind of amusing to them,” he says with a chuckle. “I think they more liked the cachet it got them among their friends – I don’t think they were particularly impressed by it, necessarily. My grandparents would always say ‘you think you’re a big shot now?’. That was the sort of environment I was in.”
Rogen certainly admits he has life much easier than his forebears – and despite the fires raging around his adopted state, the ongoing pandemic, unrest on the streets, and the “terrifying” prospect of the coming presidential election (don’t get him started on the current occupant of the White House), 2020 is a pretty good time to be alive, even if it’s human nature to find something to complain about.
“In general, it seems like things are better than they were in the Dark Ages,” he says with a laugh. “There have been much worse times I guess. I even think back to the ’60s when civil rights leaders were being assassinated left and right, the president was killed — that was probably a scarier time in some ways. But I also think in general people also like to think their pain is the worst pain — so I think it goes both ways.”
While Rogen says he’s not particularly observant or religious, the older he gets, the more he realises his Jewish heritage has shaped him in “ways that I can’t even wrap my head around”. But just as his forebears were run out of Eastern Europe a century ago, he’s ever vigilant and aware of anti-Semitism, which he worries is on the rise again.
“I think I have gotten as much anti-Semitic vitriol over the last few years as I’d had for the last two decades combined,” he says. “So, there is for sure a rise. In fact, we started filming this movie in Pittsburgh the week of the Tree of Life shooting (a massacre at a synagogue that killed 11 people), so that was a very prevalent reminder of how little distance we have come in many ways from the time when the Jews were being driven out of their countries for being Jewish.”
An American Pickle opens nationally on Thursday (excluding Victoria).