Seth Rogen and James Franco enjoy working together so much, even the end of the world can't spoil their fun.
This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2013 issue.
There’s a problem on the set, and the photo shoot hasn’t even started. Seth Rogen might be late—something about a prior appointment, and a back waxing gone terribly wrong. James Franco is also running a few minutes behind. Of course.
Given all the date juggling and rearranging that went into this day it’s not all that surprising. Let the record show that getting Seth Rogen and James Franco together for a four-hour block of time was a little like scheduling a photo shoot using a lotto-ball machine.
But it’s hard to be mad at them—these are busy young men. This spring, Franco was in two of the most talked about movies in the country. One was a kid-friendly PG fantasy blockbuster (Oz: The Great and Powerful), the other a kid-unfriendly R-rated, art-house flick that’s basically an after-school special as written by Britney Spears–loving crack dealers (Spring Breakers). Franco filmed those in his downtime, when he wasn’t pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Yale, or delivering the occasional undergrad lecture. Or having a documentary made about him by acclaimed artist Marina Abramović. Or visiting a Berlin gallery to view his art installation, Gay Town. Or acting as Grand Marshall at the Daytona 500.
As for Rogen, in 2012, he starred opposite Barbra Streisand (The Guilt Trip), helped write a summer flick for Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn (The Watch), and played one of the most hysterically funny minor characters in television cult-comedy history (guerrilla pornographer Dirty Randy, on FX’s The League).
Rogen and Franco have been friends since starring on Freaks and Geeks together in 1999, but didn’t reunite on screen until the 2008 stoner action flick Pineapple Express. Their upcoming project, This Is the End, is Rogen’s directorial debut (he co-directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the movie with his Superbad collaborator, Evan Goldberg). “Making the movie with Franco was the most I saw him since we made the previous movie together,” Rogen says.
In this one, the longtime friends and cohorts play Seth Rogen and James Franco, trapped in Franco’s house during the end of the world. Their real-life friends and co-stars Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride are also playing themselves, along with Rihanna, Aziz Ansari, and a few other random walk-ons. This is what Hollywood types refer to as a “creative risk,” one Rogen and Franco almost didn’t get away with. Why?
Well, The End’s trailer lampoons Franco’s tabloid-fodder sexuality, Jonah Hill’s almost-Oscar, and Rogen’s weight. “We did the worst versions of ourselves,” Franco explains. And yet, This Is the End pre-screenings tested so well with audiences that two months before the movie was set to premiere, the studio green lit another Rogen-Franco-Goldberg collaboration, The Interview, about a “Ryan Seacrest type” who goes to North Korea. In other words, in spite of their wildly different schedules, careers, and lives, even the worst versions of themselves—and the chemistry between them—succeed. And succeed wildly at that.
I like hanging out with my friends, obviously. And the moments here and there when they do something that annoys you are vastly outweighed by the billion moments you’re enjoying them all day. But whenever you’re working with your friends, odd situations tend to arise. - Seth Rogen
Rogen strolls into the West L.A. photo studio just before 3 p.m. wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, no sign of the wax that was poured on him by Danny McBride for one of the film’s promotional videos. “It was a botched job,” he explains. “I blame myself.” He looks down, shakes his head, and laughs. When Seth Rogen laughs, it’s a husky chuckle that’s become one of modern comedy’s most unmistakable sounds, like a Wilhelm Scream of buddy flicks. Franco coolly strolls in a few minutes later, assistant in tow, in a black jacket, carrying a book for his comp class (Sister Carrie). After a cursory hello, both are all business.
“You realize how hard it is to spend time with your friends?” Rogen remarks between shots. “You’re like, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I could be doing this with people I like.’"
Sure enough, not an hour after he arrives, there’s Rogen, thrusting an oversized plastic swordfish from his pelvis, grunting at Franco, who has trouble keeping a straight face. And while it might be part of the job, the duo seems to be having a genuinely decent time goofing off at what they call work. We figured we’d get in on the fun, too.
If the world were ending and you could only teach one more class, and your only student was Seth….
James Franco: Seth?!
Yeah, this guy. What would you teach Seth Rogen about life?
JF: Seth! Seth doesn’t need learning. [Grins.] Seth doesn’t need a lecture from anybody.
Seth Rogen: Honestly, I’d like to hear it. [Laughs.]
JF: Seth and I would do what we do best together: make movies.
SR: We would make a movie together. A really sad movie. [Laughs.]
Seth, you’ve been working with James and everyone in this movie for a while now. How was it directing them?
SR: It was great. For the most part....
For the most part?
SR: It’s awesome. I like hanging out with my friends, obviously. And the moments here and there when they do something that annoys you are vastly outweighed by the billion moments you’re enjoying them all day. But whenever you’re working with your friends, odd situations tend to arise.1 Sometimes business and personal shit doesn’t mix in the best way. But what’s good is that a lot of us became friends through work, so we knew each other’s work habits.
James, you’ve been directed by Sam Raimi and Harmony Korine. What’s different about taking orders from one of your friends?
JF: Umm.... [Rogen starts to choke on his water.] It was like working with Kubrick.
SR: [Laughs.] I tortured Franco, actually. Like Shelley Duvall.2
JF: Thankfully, it was not like working with Kubrick. This film felt like the natural development of everything that we’ve done before. We worked together on Freaks and Geeks. When we were on our own time, Seth wrote stuff for us. Then we did Pineapple Express. He wrote and produced that with Evan, and was a part of every creative decision. When he finally was the director, we already had a way of working together. There was nothing about it that felt foreign.
James, you once said that you use your public persona as a way to express art. Your This Is the End character seems like the weirdest, most meta way to do it.
JF: With a comedic slant being key here.
SR: Like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or The Larry Sanders Show.
I had to keep explaining: Yes, you are stupid in this movie. If we did what was reasonable, it would just be us sitting in the house, slowly conserving our food and water. It would not be very funny. - Seth Rogen
Unlike Larry David or Garry Shandling, though, you guys are big movie stars.
JF: In some ways it takes pressure off of the real personas, and it allows us to mess with them, because something else is going on. If the apocalyptic side of the movie wasn’t there, it would just be about spoofing our personas, and that can only go so far. It would become this insidery, self-indulgent thing.
But they say there’s truth in every joke.
JF: Well, that’s one belief.
SR: God, I hope not. [Laughs.]
Do you think this movie has the potential to alter the public perception of you?
SR: Microscopically, it lets people see that we at least understand how we’re perceived, which most people don’t think we do.
How did everyone take the jokes about themselves?
SR: I think everyone had their own little sensitive area, honestly, except Franco. [Turns to Franco.] I can confidently look at you and say every single person in the movie at one point came up to me and Evan and said: “Can we not do that? I don’t like it.”
JF: Are you serious?
SR: You never did, and I obviously never did, either. But everyone else—literally every single other person—came up to me at some point.
JF: That’s hilarious.3
SR: It was really funny. If anything, though, I was surprised at how far everyone would push it. It’s a weird thing to do at first, and you have to get comfortable with doing it.
So, what got cut?
SR: What got cut? [Laughs.] It was religious stuff. Or things about other actors. People would get uncomfortable about that kind of stuff, ’cause you’re dragging other people into a fight they didn’t sign up for.
If you guys were actually trapped in a house during the end of the world, how different would the reality be from the movie?
JF: Hopefully we would be a little more—
SR: We’re all a lot smarter in real life. On set, the thing that the guys would come to us the most with wasn’t “I’m coming across like an asshole” or “I would never do this.” It was always: “What we’re doing is so stupid.” Evan and I had to keep explaining: Yes, you are stupid in this movie. If we did what was reasonable, it would just be us sitting in the house, slowly conserving our food and water. It would not be very funny.
JF: I’d like to think that if I was in this kind of circumstance, I would behave more like my character in 127 Hours.4
SR: Exactly. That’s a much more realistic look at how this would go down.
If the world were ending, and you had all the necessities, where would you go to loot the first non-necessity? A record store? A bookstore? The museum?
SR: Probably the library.
JF: And what would we loot first?
SR: If it were an I Am Legend–type situation? I’d go steal a Ferrari or something.
JF: You’d want to do all those things.
SR: Would you want to go loot the LACMA?5
JF: Yeah. It’s funny how all those things—when you’re in an apocalyptic situation—suddenly lose value.
SR: It’s like that thing in Children of Men where he has Michelangelo’s “David”—
JF: —Picasso’s “Guernica.”
SR: Exactly. But all you’re thinking is: We’re all going to be dead soon, so what’s the fuckin’ difference where all this shit is? [Laughs.]
JF: If it’s the end? It seems like you’d just want to have—
JF: As many great experiences as you can have rather than—
In which case, stealing a Ferrari would be a pretty great last experience.
SR: I’d steal a 747 and fly it around. That’d probably end poorly, but I would try.
JF: You’d probably just want to say everything you’ve ever felt about everyone.
In a roundabout way, Seth, This Is the End is your third film about the apocalypse. There was Donnie Darko, and then, as Dirty Randy on The League....
SR: Yeah, exactly! The Mayan Acockalypse. [Laughs.]
By the way, the Dirty Randy movie needs to happen.
SR: It does! [The League’s Jason] Mantzoukas and I were actually just talking about it.
I saw him on Saturday night. We were like, “We should just do something that focuses on our two characters.” [Laughs.]6
What’s the obsession with the end of the world that drives people so crazy? It even compels Dirty Randy.
SR: People think the fucking world is going to end!
Do you guys think the world is going to end? Or do you think it’s ending at a faster or slower rate today than ever before?
JF: This is getting so dark, man.
It’s a fair question!
SR: I remember when I was a kid, I asked my dad, “Do you think the world is going to end?” My dad looked at me and said, “Well, I think it’s already ended.” [Laughs.] I remember that fucking fucked me up for a while.
Do you find yourselves fearing different things as you get older?
JF: Hmmm.... That’s a good question.
Physical things, like killer bees, or more spiritual and cosmic things, like irrelevancy, or leaving your mark?
SR: I was angstier when I was younger. I probably fear less as I get older, because you realize the things that you thought had big stakes don’t anymore. “Oh, I have a new movie coming out and it’s not doing well” used to be the end of the fucking world. Now, it’s like, “Well, let’s do it again!”
JF: I get concerned about all the big things, but I’ve had a really good life. I know I’m very fortunate. So I have less of a need to hold on to things, or need more, more, more. If I’m honest about how good things have been, I think, “If it went away, don’t be greedy.”
I was really late getting hair under my arms I was really late getting hair under my arms, and I don't know how I got it into my head, but I thought it was 'cause I jerked off too much. - James Franco
Speaking of greedy: Franco, you’re the face of Gucci, and you’ve been in a movie with Gucci Mane.7 If the world was ending, and you could only save one....
JF: Do I save all of Gucci? The clothes? All of the suits?
Sure. Do you loot all the suits and bucket hats your heart desires, or do you save Gucci Mane?
SR: How can you not save Gucci Mane?!
Ask Gucci, when they end Franco’s endorsement.
JF: I gotta save Gucci Mane. Bros over suits, duh.
SR: Bros before clothes. [Both laugh.]
So now you’ve saved Gucci Mane, but you’re out of bucket hats and food. If you had to cannibalize one part of each other—one limb or appendage—what would it be?
JF: Are we still alive or dead?
The world’s ending and you have to cannibalize each other.
JF: So, kill each other?
SR: Oh, man. That’s so tough. I could eat his face alone, but I’ve seen it in a bunch of movies. It wouldn’t look right. I could eat the arm from 127 Hours.
JF: [Looks over at Rogen’s legs.] You’ve got some nice thighs—
SR: You’ve already seen what it’s like to be without an arm, cinematically.
JF: —could sustain me for a while.
If the world were ending, and you could interview one last person, who would it be?
SR: Woody Allen.
Woody Allen would be freaking out.
SR: Yeah, he would not be able to talk to me if the world was ending. He’d probably be pretty upset about it. Or he’d feel validated.
JF: Um, Cormac McCarthy.8
Jesus. That’s terrifying.
SR: Is he still alive?
JF: Yeah, I’ve actually talked to him. But he doesn’t do interviews.
Not at all.
SR: If he senses your conversation turning toward questions, he just ends it. “What did you have for breakfast?” “Well, that’s dangerous territory.” [Laughs.]
JF: He just sits on the other end of the line, in silence.
Speaking of awkward: This would be a good time to revisit the eternal question of a Freaks and Geeks movie. Especially with the Veronica Mars movie happening now.
JF: They’re doing a movie now? Really? How many years later?
SR: Yeah! They funded it through Kickstarter.
JF: But it’s the same actors?
Yep. All of ’em.
JF: Oh, wow. [Turns to Rogen.] Let’s do it, man.
Wait, come on, seriously—would you guys ever do the Freaks and Geeks movie?
JF: I guess. Like, we’ve discussed it periodically.
SR: Yeah! Why the fuck not?
Did you imagine that show having this kind of legacy and life span?
SR: No one liked it!
JF: It got canceled. Nobody wanted to see it.
Does seeing it get a cult audience feel vindicating?
JF: Now is when it feels vindicating. It hadn’t felt that way until six months ago when it got on Netflix....
It jumped to the top of the most watched list.
SR: And now Undeclared has, too. I never thought this would happen. Hands down, I get recognized more for Freaks and Geeks now than when it was on the air. A thousand times more.
You said earlier that you would act like rational human beings if the end of the world were approaching. But, let’s get real here. Who would start masturbating furiously after six weeks in lockup?
SR: That’s a good question. [Considers this for a moment.] It might be me.
JF: I’m sure everyone would. When I was going through puberty I was the oldest kid, so I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I thought it was somehow bad, like it would stunt my growth—so I really tried to stop.9 [Laughs.] I was really late getting hair under my arms, and I thought it was ’cause—
SR: —you jerked off too much? It was the friction of your arm.
JF: I don’t know how I got it into my head, but I thought it was because I jerked off too much. There was no Google or anything where I could look it up, so I really tried to stop, and I couldn’t. I was like, [Makes jerking off motion.] No! You can’t.
SR: [Holding back laughter.] That’s so sad!
JF: I’d start slow and be like: Don’t finish.
SR: Evan and I lived together for a while, and we wrote together at the time. We realized it actually became more convenient for us to schedule our jacking off sessions.
JF: This was in high school?!
SR: No, this was in our 20s. And then we found—and this was just a time-saver—we would jerk off at the same time, in our own rooms. It made no sense. Like, “First you jerk off, then I jerk off? We should just both do it at the same time."10
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Matthew Henson. (SET DESIGNER) David Ross. (GROOMING) Franco: Jamal Hammadi / Rogen: Catherine Furniss. (MAKEUP) Antonella Renyer. (CLOTHING) On Franco: Tank top by American Apparel / Shorts by Topman. On Rogen: Shirt by Stüssy Deluxe / Shorts by Gant by Michael Bastian
1. As we would learn before this interview ended. [BACK]
2. Shelley Duvall was traumatized on the set of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, who made her do 127 takes of hitting Jack Nicholson with a bat. [BACK]
3. When this interview started, it was just us and Rogen—no Franco, who wouldn’t walk in for another five minutes. In those five minutes, Rogen explained that “Franco’s character was much worse in the original draft” of the script, which portrayed him as (in Rogen’s words) a “full-on asshole.” Franco suggested that there be at least one valid, real relationship in the script, which got changed, and toned down Franco’s assholery. [BACK]
4. Who amputated his own arm. [BACK]
5. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [BACK]
6. This is funny to Rogen because he understands that they’re two of the most vile, perverted, and utterly fucked up characters on television. And that their movie will never, ever happen. [BACK]
7. That movie being Spring Breakers. [BACK]
8. Who, a) is famously reclusive and press-shy and, b) wrote the most depressing book ever about the end of the world, The Road. [BACK]
9. Remember, we warned you. [BACK]
10. At this point, Gina, our photo editor, walks into the room. And James and Seth stand up, walk out laughing, and continue to go about their work. [BACK]