Joseph Gordon-Levitt has given some great performances in the past, but I think it’s safe to say that 50/50 is the best thing he’s done yet. After seeing the movie, and seeing how much he kills it, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. So it’s interesting to know that there was, in fact, someone else attached to it at one time.
Yeah, it is interesting, and I think James is one of the greatest actors of his generation too, and he would have just had a very different, and I’m sure incredible, take on it as well. But, yeah, I’m like you, now that I’ve gone through the whole process with Joe and I’ve seen how well he does it—I can’t picture anyone else in the role.
How closely did he work with Will Reiser? Was he trying to play the character as closely as possible to how Will Reiser is in real life?
He wasn’t trying to do anything with Will’s mannerisms, or the way Will talks or anything like that—he was trying to make it his own, and he was very clear about that from the beginning. I think that was the right choice. Will was there as a resource; Will was on set every day, and he’d talk to Joe about his own experience, what it was like, and how things felt. Very specifically to the medical component of it, Will was an incredible resource for that. They became friends and hung out a lot, but it was never a thing where Joe was doing this kind of impression. Joe took it and made it completely his own.
It’s interesting how Seth Rogen basically plays himself in the movie, being that he lived through the experience with Will, his close friend. To capture that in the movie, did Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth hang out for a long period of time prior to shooting, in order to make that friendship feel authentic?
Yeah, we did rehearse very often. This was the kind of movie where everyone was around the same age, and everyone was doing it for the right reasons—no one was doing it for the money. So, consequently, more than any other movie I’ve ever worked on, everyone would just hang out. I think that was important. I would sit down with Joe and Seth before every shot, and we would rehearse for four hours each time. But their chemistry on screen is very much their chemistry, and it happened quickly and it felt great.
I don’t think they were “friends” prior to shooting, but they had definitely met. They’re friends now, but before this they’d definitely met and both had said that they wanted to work together on something. So they had that history, but I don’t think it was a lot. The first time I saw them on screen together, though, in the dailies, I thought, “Oh my god—this is really going to work. These guys really play incredibly well off of each other.” And it wasn’t because they had a lot of history together. It’s just because they’re that good.
Yeah, the first time I heard that they were starring in a movie together, it didn’t seem like an obvious pairing, since they come from such different acting styles. But once you see them together in the movie, it makes perfect sense.
Yeah, I think they play great off of each other, and, just as a movie fan, it’s cool for me to see the two of them. You’re right, they do feel good together, but it doesn’t feel obvious.
There are a few scenes in the film that pack a real emotional punch, specifically through how Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays them. The scene in the car, for example, where he finally melts down after bottling everything up and internalizing all of his fears and anger, is really strong. On your end, how do you approach a moment like that, where the actor really has to do some heavy dramatic lifting?
Joe is such a professional that he can just get himself there, whether I help him or not. At the beginning of that day, we would sort of talk about what the tone on set would be like—that, for me, is one of the biggest parts of my job, making sure that he has the space and the comfort level to go to those places. I also didn’t want him to do scenes like that one too many times, so, that way, he could go all out in every single take.
It was just a very serious, workmanlike tone on set that day. On a set like that, where you have Seth and Evan, and it’s just a bunch of really funny guys sitting behind the monitor, it can get crazy sometimes, loud and boisterous. That was one of those days where you have to step in and say, “No, we have to take this seriously today. We’re just gonna do our jobs and give Joe the space to do his,” and he just brought it on Take One.
And that scene leads rather quickly into the one that got me to those aforementioned near-tears, when he’s in the hospital with his parents and about to head into potentially fatal surgery. When you read the script, did that scene strike you as the film’s heaviest emotional moment?
No, actually. It’s interesting, because I always thought that the emotional climax of the movie was that car scene that you just talked about. But we got on set, and we were doing the scene. I’ve had a couple of family members deal with cancer, and I remember that moment where they’re going into surgery and you just have no idea what’s going to happen, and it’s really scary. On the page, it is an emotional scene, but it just doesn’t do justice to what those actors did on set that day. I remember watching from behind the monitor and tearing up, the whole choreography and rhythm of it, and how Joe played it, really took it to the next level. I knew it was a good scene, but I was totally unprepared for what they were going to do with it.
The film’s commercials seem to focus more on its comedy, which the movie definitely has plenty of, but people who go into it thinking it’s another Seth Rogen comedy are going to be surprised at just how dramatically poignant and emotionally strong 50/50 is. I see it as more of a drama than a comedy, actually. Do you see the marketing side’s focus on the film’s comedic aspects as a good thing?
That’s a conscious decision, actually, because we don’t want people to be afraid of the emotion of it, but we also want them to know that it’s a really funny movie. I do like the idea that people will go in…. People know what it’s about, so I don’t think they’ll be completely blindsided, but I do like the fact that it hits you in ways you don’t expect. That’s something that I was playing with in the tone of the movie, too, and I think that’s something Will played with in the script.
It almost mirrors the main character’s journey, as well. At the beginning, he doesn’t really know what’s going on beneath the surface; he has a life that, on the surface, seems good, and his friend is funny, and it’s all fun, but then all of the sudden he’s blindsided, and I think that’s an interesting dynamic to play with.
For us, the most important thing is, we made this movie to not be your parent’s kind of disease movie. We made this movie to be something that young people can go to and feel like it’s for them. We tried to make it as entertaining and accessible as possible, given the subject matter, and I think that it’s hard to do a TV commercial that does justice to that. The most important thing, though, for me, is getting people to come see the movie, and I think the marketing has been doing that pretty well, so I’m happy.
A big part of that preconception is, of course, Seth Rogen’s involvement in the film. It goes back to his movie Observe & Report, which confused a lot of people, his fans especially, with its super-dark tone. Do you think 50/50 is a similar kind of project for him?
Well, hopefully that will start to disappear as he continues to take these kinds of artistic chances. I think the great thing about Seth is that he’s not complacent; he’s not content just to do the same thing over and over. I think he challenges himself both as an actor and in the roles that he chooses. He’s always trying to push the boundaries of comedy, whether it’s Observe & Report, or whether it’s Pineapple Express, with that movie’s action-comedy feel, or whether it’s the unique kinds of emotion that he worked into Superbad.
This movie is another step in that direction; it’s really nice that he keeps pushing himself and challenging his audience. From what I’ve seen, they’re willing to go there with him. Even if they go in with the wrong notion for this particular movie, I think that it’s been winning people over, regardless of what they think it is going in—they go with it, luckily, and it’s a positive experience for them in the end.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)