When Seth Rogen first surfaces as famed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in “Steve Jobs,” there are a lot of reasons to be caught off-guard. It’s a sophisticated Danny Boyle movie written by Aaron Sorkin, not a stoner comedy about bumbling man-children getting their lives together. And while Woz — as he’s affectionally called to this day — certainly maintains a certain goofy charm in contrast to Jobs’ stern, competitive mythology, he’s a far cry from the klutzy types Rogen is known to play.
But one of the more surprising ingredients of “Steve Jobs” is that Rogen’s performance gels with the movie throughout, as Woz crops up periodically throughout Jobs’ career to bicker about getting credit for his work even as the two men maintain an oddly touching friendship. Just as Jobs reinvented the way we use technology, Rogen reinvents the way we see him onscreen, and it might not be the last time. Calling from the set of an upcoming sequel to last year’s hit “Neighbors,” Rogen explained why he hasn’t explored more diverse roles, as well as his evolving sensibilities — an an actor, filmmaker, and human being.
The general perception when someone like you takes on a role like this is that a funny person is doing something unfunny. How did you see it?
I guess part of me was very aware that the downsides could potentially outweigh the upsides of doing something like this.
In what sense?
I feel pretty good that I’m not terrible in the movie. But I was worried that if I was terrible, it would just be the exact type of thing that — if I wasn’t me — I would really make fun of. As someone who mocks others, I was aware of that. But after I auditioned, I really felt like they wouldn’t cast me. Danny’s a smart guy and he’s powerful enough that he can do whatever he wants, really, and I just felt that he wouldn’t cast me unless he thought that I could do it.
What was the audition like?
I think I might have read every scene I have in the whole movie with Aaron Sorkin.
He was in the room?
He read the Steve Jobs part. It was pretty bizarre, but I can appreciate how cool it was.
How did you settle into playing a role so different from what you usually do?
A lot of it was on the page, I think. So merely by performing it as it was intended to be performed, it organically separated itself from things I’d done because the part was written so differently from the things that I generally do. I was playing an intelligent person — that right there is something I don’t generally do.
How did it feel different to you?
It was just superficial things: I look different. I’m wearing shit that I’d never wear in real life. Generally, I’ve been playing someone who’s much closer, demographically speaking, to who I am in real life. I think things like that help, but I’m not really doing a Woz thing. Not really. Maybe like a tiny bit, like 10%, at most. I told Danny that I’d picked up tiny, little things that Woz does and if he wanted me to do some of them, then I could; if he didn’t, I was more than happy not to do them. That was something that he favored. If anything, I erred on the side of not doing it, and he would bring it out of me as he wanted.
Michael Fassbender is an actor who’s known for tackling ambitious roles. Is it intimidating to share screen time with him?
I’ve met him a few times and I knew that he was a relatively normal, nice, easy-going, friendly guy, so I really wasn’t. I’m a huge fan of his — and yes, I get intimidated when I work with any actor who I think is amazing. Kate Winslet was very intimidating to me, but I’m intimidated working with Danny McBride. I generally feel some sense of intimidation working with any actor when I’m just a big fan of their work.
Does working with these kind of actors rub off on you at all? Might you want to do more “serious” roles along these lines?
I was getting the more straight roles for a few years. I actually realized that playing smaller parts in movies allows you to do things that you don’t get to do as much as the straight man or the center of the movie. That was something that I’ve very aware of and I’m very happy to do. I think that in “The Night Before,” I’m not really the main guy, Joe [Gordon-Levitt] is more the main guy in a lot of ways, as far as the emotional core of the movie. In “Steve Jobs,” I’m not the main guy at all and that allows me to do more of a thing that I normally would not do because, again, I don’t have to be in every scene of the movie. People are just organically getting sick of me as time goes on, so we probably need less and less of me. [laughs]
Of course, this isn’t your first attempt at drama. You were also in Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz.” So why do you think you haven’t done more outside of the comedy arena — or, for that matter, more outside the Hollywood arena?
Honestly, I just don’t get asked to do a lot of those movies. [laughs] And pretty much every time I have been asked, I’ve done it — if it’s someone that I think is talented and that I’d be excited to work with. I would never turn down a role for financial reasons if I was excited about it, or because I didn’t think the movie would get the type of exposure that I’m used to getting from my bigger movies. I don’t really think about that side of it when I’m choosing what to do. I mostly go off of what I find creatively exciting at any given moment.
So was “Steve Jobs” a surprise in that sense?
It totally was. I was not calling my agent [Blair Kohan at UTA] being like, “Put me in a fancy movie.” One day, they just said, “Would you go in and audition for this?” I read the script and I thought it was amazing and I was like “Yeah, I would love to.” It just came up and I found it very exciting, so I was excited about the opportunity to do it.
So what kind of conversations do you have with your agent?
They kind of just send me everything that I get offered. [laughs]
And you go through it all?
I mean, yeah. There are some scripts that have just been read by my agents or managers or other people that I work with and they’ll just say, “You’ve never heard of this guy and he’s never done anything, but it’s an amazing script and you should check it out.” Or sometimes it’ll be a director that is known. But again, I very rarely get offered any types of roles in these movies or even get asked to come and audition for these types of roles and these types of movies. I remember when Sarah Polley approached me for “Take This Waltz,” I was so excited, because it was the exact type of thing that you hope is going to happen as an actor: a filmmaker that you really like wants you to be part of their film. I think that that time and this time are the only times it’s ever happened [laughs]. Pretty much every other movie I’ve done has in some way been self-generated.
So filmmakers should know that you’re open to more varied projects.
I think it’s nice to show people that I won’t ruin your fancy drama. [laughs] If you’re considering putting me in one and you thought maybe I’d ruin it, maybe I won’t [laughs].
Are there young filmmakers whose work you’ve enjoyed recently?
Yeah, there’s tons of people. All the kids. Any one of the kids: Put me in your movie. Is this the part of the interview where I say the people I want to work with and I somehow get a job out of this? [laughs] Who should I want to work with? I try to watch a lot of movies at home. I don’t leave my house much, but I watch a lot of movies in my home. I really like horror movies. “It Follows” and “The Babadook” — those kinds of movies are amazing.
Where do you fall on Ti West?
Oh, yeah, he’s great. I was actually just talking about “You’re Next.” I don’t think he directed that, but he’s in it, right?
He gets an arrow through the head.
Yeah, I love that movie.
Joe Swanberg gets killed, too.
Yeah, he gets killed brutally — as do a lot of people who are wonderfully talented.
You push more boundaries as a filmmaker than as an actor. “This is the End” was a savvy comment on celebrity, and everyone knows what “The Interview” was about. But it’s obviously not easy to work within that system. How long will you keep it up?
As long as they let us. [laughs] We don’t feel as though movies have to be limited art-house releases in order to be creatively exciting to us and valid to us. To varying degrees of success, we’ve pushed ourselves very hard to try to do things that we think are really innovative or just exciting — and in some way something you’ve never seen, coupled with something to which we passionately relate in some capacity. Again, as long as they’ll give us studio budgets and releases to do that, then we’re more than happy to do that. If they won’t, then we’ll try to find some other way of doing it. And we’ve done that.
With “Sausage Party” [the animated movie Rogen co-wrote with Evan Goldberg], for example, it was really hard — it took years and years and years; it took Megan Ellison eventually co-financing the movie with Sony to get it made. We really explored every option to get our movies financed and we’re not above anyone. We’ll take what we can get, basically.
Which movies is Megan Ellison not saving these days?
Exactly [laughs]. She’s the best.
How have things changed for you since you first got into this business?
We’re constantly trying to challenge ourselves and I think that’s demonstrated probably by many people’s perceptions that we’re not succeeding all the time. [laughs] And our own perception that we’re not succeeding all the time. We really try to push ourselves to do things that are very different. Going along with that territory comes things that don’t always go exactly how you expected them to go — both in terms of repercussion and creatively.
But is it easier now?
In some ways, it’s definitely easier to get movies made than before we had ever made a movie, but that being said, it’s not like it’s easy for us to get all our movies made. It’s consistently pretty difficult for us to get our movies made. We see that again as kind of a badge of honor signifying to some degree that we’re making something that is still scary as shit to the studios. Even though we’ve provided them with a lot of money over the years, there’s still something about the movies that their instincts are telling them not to make — which is probably a good thing. [laughs]
Were you surprised after the whole “The Interview” controversy that you were able to go back within less than a year and keep at it?
I really wasn’t surprised. Honestly. You just work through it. There was just not a moment I stopped working. “The Interview” came out December 25th, I was in San Francisco rehearsing the “Steve Jobs” movie around January 7 or something like that. I just worked through it. And meanwhile, “Preacher,” the pilot, had been greenlit right in the midst of all that — and we shot that right after. We just never stopped working. I think that was the only remedy for all of it — to just work through it, basically.
What caught you off-guard about the way “Steve Jobs” turned out?
I’m surprised they put me in it and I’m thrilled they did. I’m still surprised I’m in that movie. When I look at myself on the panels with the people I’m on these Q&A panels with, it’s shocking to me — and the fact that I’m not viewed as the person who ruined it is even more shocking to me. It’s so far really nice. Again, we’ll see what happens as far as people — maybe every review that comes out from now on will say I suck in the movie — but thus far people have generally been pretty nice to me and I’m very appreciative because I know that it really could have gone the other way.
Are you sensitive about reactions to your work?
For me, part of being a comedian is being self-aware. I think that the more self-aware you are, the more able you are to comment on yourself and make a comedy out of it. I think part of being self-aware is being aware of how you are perceived by people. For better or worse, it’s something that I think helps me comedically if I am aware of how I’m being perceived in the world, basically.
But your impact has deepened as well. You testified before Congress about the need for funding research about Alzheimer’s disease, and of course “The Interview” ultimately did raise awareness about the North Korean regime. How much do you think about that?
Man, I don’t know. I don’t. Not necessarily.
But you must care more than you did a few years back.
Yeah, I think that as you get older, you start to care about different things. You start to feel that different things could use some attention or some satirizing. For us, we thought what was happening in North Korea was incredibly fucked up and that not many people were paying that close attention. At the same time, we thought we could make an entertaining movie that kind of addressed both those things. And what happened definitely hasn’t discouraged us from doing that kind of thing. If anything, it showed us how effective it can be and how if you go after a certain target, you can really hit that target to a degree that maybe you never thought imaginable.
What motivates you to take action?
Again, I think it has to be organic for us. I think some people who are more politically inclined in general can be like, “You know what, I’m gonna go after this target.” For us, it just happened. It was something we were fascinated by and we were reading a lot about, so it became the thing we made a movie about. That’s how it is for us.
It’s a very natural process, or it was with “The Interview” — and with Alzheimer’s. That was something that I was experiencing in my family. It wasn’t like I need a cause; it just became something that I was experiencing in my life, and something I found myself being able to talk about very naturally without doing any research or having to memorize anything statistics. I could just talk about my experience and people found it helpful. I think as you get a little bit older, that is something you should do more and more.