Seth Rogen's 'Interview': Inside the Film North Korea Really Doesn't Want You to See

How the stoner king of Hollywood sparked an international incident

Seth Rogen's new comedy 'The Interview' was supposed to be a raunchy holiday blockbuster. Now it's being blamed for everything from the Sony hack to terror threats. Credit: Mark Seliger

It's not every day you get to sit down with the guys who might be responsible for starting World War III. And it's definitely not every day that they're getting baked when you do.

"Hell-o!" booms Seth Rogen on a June afternoon as the door to his L.A. office swings open, revealing him and comedy partner/hetero lifemate Evan Goldberg preparing to take a mighty hit from a bong. The pair co-wrote and directed the new movie The Interview, in which a pair of bumbling entertainment journalists played by James Franco (a Ryan Seacrest-ish celebrity talk-show host) and Rogen (his faithful, somewhat put-upon producer) land an interview with Kim Jong-un and are enlisted by the CIA to assassinate him. It's a movie no one expected to be well-received in North Korea, where even taking a picture of a statue of the Supreme Leader could land you in a prison camp. But the trailer came out earlier that week, and it turns out North Korea is way more pissed than anyone saw coming.

A spokesman for North Korea's foreign ministry has declared the movie "a most wanton act of terrorism and war." The "gangster filmmaker" has incited "a gust of hatred and rage" among the North Korean people, and if the U.S. government allows the film to proceed, "merciless countermeasures" will be taken. The threats made headlines from Al Jazeera to the BBC; coincidentally or not, a few days later the real Kim Jong-un launched a few ballistic test missiles. "Our stuff is in the news sometimes," says a slightly dazed Goldberg, a rumpled 32-year-old in shorts and New Balances. "But this is different – this is real news."

Upon hearing all this, you may be struck by two simultaneous thoughts. The first is: classic North Korea. And the second is: Seth Rogen? That lovable man-child who makes dopey movies with his friends? The one who's probably too stoned to play a video game about a nuclear war, much less incite a real one? What's a nice guy like him doing in a diplomatic crisis like this?

"It's funny, because we've been in the world of North Korea for so long that when we heard it, we were like, 'Yeah, OK,' " Rogen, 32, says. "They say crazy shit about America all the time. Literally, the opening scene of our movie is a little girl singing pretty much the exact thing they said about us."

"At best, it will cause a country to be free, and at worst, it will cause a nuclear war. Big margin with this movie." — Seth Rogen

"We have a file in the building somewhere of all the insane shit they say," adds Goldberg. "They called Obama, like, 'an evil monkey' – you have to look up the exact wording, because whatever I say won't be as crazy as what it actually was." (It was actually "wicked black monkey.")

Rogen admits that they did get called in for a meeting with Sony's North American CEO ("Any time a movie causes a country to threaten nuclear retaliation, the higher-ups wanna get in a room with you"), but otherwise he's taking the bluster in stride. He says he might stay away from South Korea for a while, just in case (although Franco is attending an event at a Gucci store in Hong Kong, which is supposedly safe). "And in terms of getting the word out about the movie, it's not bad," Rogen points out. "If they actually make good on it, it would be bad for the world – but luckily that doesn't seem like their style.

"Although it did worry my mother," he says. "For a Jewish mother, having a country wage war on your son is the worst. No Jewish mother should have to deal with that." He pulls out his phone and reads the texts she sent him yesterday.

Rogen: Did you hear the news today? An act of war?
Seth: Don't worry. It's crazy rhetoric.
Rogen: But how can we be sure?!

Rogen laughs. "If Kim Jong-un only knew what he was doing to my mother! He would know he had exacted his revenge." 

The offices of Rogen and Goldberg's production company – a Spanish-style bungalow near the back of Sony Pictures Studios, right next door to Adam Sandler's – used to be Louis B. Mayer's private dining room, back when the lot belonged to MGM. Later on, it was a classroom for MGM's child stars like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor. ("This is where the kids all got hooked on drugs," Rogen jokes.) Now, there's a big whiteboard with a note about a "jerk-off challenge," and an exercise ball that doesn't seem to get much use. A dozen multicolored index cards are thumbtacked to a bulletin board – the outline for their next movie – and the sounds of NBA Jam fill the air.

Rogen is dressed in his typical work uniform of a worn T-shirt and flip-flops, accessorized with several days of scruff. In person, he's trimmer and more kempt than you're conditioned to expect, but with the same doofily expressive face and bowling-league physique that plays so well onscreen. (His friend and mentor Judd Apatow says Rogen is built for comedy the way LeBron is for basketball.) He laughs constantly, that trademark Beavis-meets-Butt-Head cough, like a motorcycle engine that won't turn over. (Goldberg says he would have made a great voice for a Muppet.) On his desk is a hot-pink prescription bottle filled with some of Southern California's finest medicinal cannabis, which he absent-mindedly rolls into a tight joint.

Rogen and Goldberg are on their way to a theater across the lot, where they're going over some special effects for the movie. The Interview features hundreds of visual effects – even more than their apocalyptic comedy This Is the End, which literally showed the Hollywood Hills being Raptured. "My respect for Michael Bay quintupled when we started doing this shit," says Goldberg, splitting the joint with Rogen as they walk. They arrive in a theater with leather armchairs and small bowls of pita and hummus, and each grabs a small laser-pointer and takes a seat.

"This is where we get to play with lasers," Rogen says excitedly.

"It's fun to put them in people's eyes," says Goldberg, aiming his at the face of Franco on the big screen. He moves it southward. "And on their dicks."

"Sometimes me and Evan team up," adds Rogen, their twin lasers dancing around Franco's balls.

The effects supervisor cues up the first shot, a big crowd scene at the Pyongyang airport. Goldberg says the crowd was digitally borrowed from 22 Jump Street; Rogen laughs, but they're not kidding. "Everyone else is Korean, I swear!" Rogen says. "That's the only exception we made!"

Next, there's an aerial shot of a North Korean forest, which they filmed outside Vancouver. "Seth and I were born in that forest," Goldberg deadpans.

Rogen: "We made the computer that we wrote Superbad on out of that wood."

"Are we gonna just make movies about trying to get laid over and over again or focus on something that's more relevant?" — Seth Rogen

They make tweaks for about an hour, adjusting everything from the brightness of a pair of grapefruits to a climactic chase scene involving a tank and a helicopter. "We wanted this movie to feel like it had a lot of scope to it," Rogen says. "It's set in all these different countries, you're flying all over the world. . . ." They found inspiration in action movies like Spy Game, as well as real-world thrillers like The Insider and Argo: "We kept saying we wanted it to feel like a real movie."

Rogen and Goldberg first started kicking around the idea for The Interview a few years ago, around the time despots like Saddam and Qaddafi were getting offed. They started joking about what might happen if a journalist got to interview one and was recruited to take him out. "I feel like it's a conversation a lot of people have," Rogen says. "Like, 'Oh, Barbara Walters could have killed Bin Laden,' or whatever." They knew relatively early on they wanted to make the target a real-life dictator, and Kim Jong-il was the natural choice – but when he died and his son Kim Jong-un took over, they put the script on hold, in case he turned out to be cool.

"There was a real moment where we were like, 'Maybe this guy's not bad!' " Rogen says. "And then we started reading about him killing his girlfriend and feeding his uncle to the dogs."

In fact, the change was a blessing in disguise. "Kim Jong-un is a lot closer in age to Franco and me, which is better comedically," Rogen says. "And he also just seems a lot funnier. You see him in pictures, he's, like, laughing hysterically, but he's an evil fuck! You'd probably like him, but you shouldn't like him." 

They wrote the script with Dan Sterling, a veteran of The Daily Show. ("We literally just hired a writer who's smarter than us," Rogen says.) They read tons of books. ("Well, we had them summarized for us.") And then when Dennis Rodman went, which hadn't happened when they wrote it, "We were like, 'Oh, my God, this lends even more credence to the fact that this could actually happen!' " Rogen says. "It was fucking weirder than anything we had thought of."

For the role of Kim, they cast Randall Park, a Korean-American actor best known for his work on Veep. "Randall was the first to audition, and when he walked out of the room, we were literally like, 'Cancel everyone else,' " Rogen says. "We had written him as more robotic and strict – what you would expect – but Randall played him as a lot more sheepish and shy, which was much funnier." Before filming, Park packed on 15 pounds and shaved his head into Kim's distinctive crew cut. "I remember the first time he walked on set," Rogen recalls. "The whole crew was like, 'Oh, shit – we're really doing this.' " 

After finishing the visual effects, Rogen and Goldberg grab some crackers from a kitchen and head to a different theater, where their audio team is doing sound effects. ("Later on, we'll taste things," Goldberg jokes.) They change a bunch of sounds and add some more; at one point, Rogen utters the words "You can just get rid of the 'balls deep' line." (They'd also previously asked for a "louder dick-flop sound.") During one scene, where a bunch of cellphones are going off, Rogen asks if they can use the actual iPhone alert. Someone points out that the movie is being released by Sony, a competitor of Apple. Rogen chuckles: "OK, then can we use that famous Xperia sound?"

Eventually they arrive at a scene where Rogen's character is, in the interest of international espionage, called upon to hide a small missile inside his rectum. (It's that kind of movie.) They play the moment back a few times, Rogen and Goldberg cracking up every time. Finally, Goldberg speaks up. "I'm wondering if it sounds too slimy . . . going into his butt?"

"Come on!" Rogen says.

"I'm not saying it's too gross! I'm just thinking about laughter."

"It's pretty funny," counters Rogen. "You want, like, a slurp? A scrape-y sound? A sandpaper-y, scrape-y sound?"

"Maybe just a slight suction-y sound," Goldberg says. The sound guy punches a few buttons, and a slight suction-y sound fills the theater. Rogen and Goldberg double over in laughter. "Ha!" says Rogen. "My butt is sucking the missile in!"

Goldberg turns to the sound guy. "What is that, actually?" The guy tells him it's chicken guts, and plays it again. "I'm gonna throw up," Goldberg says.

Hang around with Rogen and Goldberg long enough and they almost start to blur – one exceedingly funny dude named Sethandevan. They laugh at the same obscure references, their wives are friends, and they literally finish each other's sentences. Apatow describes them as soulmates. "I've never seen them fight," he says. "They have a connection that I don't know if I've seen anywhere else in my life."

"They're each other's support system," adds their friend Paul Rudd. "I mean, so are their wives – but it's different when it's guys, and it's different when you work together, and it's different when you've known each other since junior high. I've spent time with them together and apart, and they still love making each other laugh. You can see how creatively charged they get when they start to make the other crack up." 

As the sound guys fiddle with a few more things, Rogen flips through his e-mail. "What are you guys working on next?" he asks them.

"Dolphin Tale 2," a sound guy says. Rogen makes a dolphin sound. Then he starts in on a story he read about a female dolphin researcher whose dolphin fell in love with her. Basically, he says, she was trying to teach it English, but it kept getting distracted by its physical urges, so she would masturbate it to give it some release so they could get back to their work. The only problem was, the dolphin ended up getting emotionally attached.

"But why?" Goldberg asks.

"Because she was jacking it off all the time!" Rogen says. "Same reason I'm attached to you."

The first thing that appears onscreen in The Interview – before the machine-gun battle and the Siberian-tiger attack – is a title card bearing the name of Rogen and Goldberg's production company, Point Grey. The name comes from their Vancouver high school, where they famously started writing Superbad when they were just 13. Most of the characters in that movie – including Steven Glansberg, the kid who eats lunch alone every day, and Sammy Fogell, a.k.a. "McLovin" – were based on their actual friends.

Rogen wasn't the coolest kid in school, but he wasn't an outcast either. He liked East Coast hip-hop (Wu-Tang Clan, Beastie Boys) and Nineties nu metal (Korn, White Zombie, Marilyn Manson) and wore his hair in dreadlocks that he dyed green. He was a little bit jock-y, playing rugby and earning a brown belt in karate, until a foot injury prompted him to focus on comedy instead. He did stand-up about gym class and his grandparents and trying to touch boobs, until a local casting call got him in front of Apatow and scored him a role on Freaks and Geeks. The idea was to go to Hollywood and get his foot in the door, and Goldberg would join him after college and they'd make their own movies. Which is more or less how it went.

Rogen moved to L.A. with his parents in 1999, when he was 17. "He was a little less open, a little more reserved," recalls Franco, one of his fellow Freaks. "I don't remember him smiling as much." Their co-star Jason Segel had an apartment nearby, and Rogen and Franco would hang out there and watch Kubrick movies and rehearse. "At some point, Seth started writing these little scenarios for our characters," says Franco, "just little things that we were planning to shoot on our own. We never got it together enough to shoot them, but in hindsight, it feels like those were some of the seeds for the way we work now."

After Freaks and Geeks and another short-lived Apatow series, Undeclared, there were a few years where Rogen "did pretty much nothing." He and Segel wrote a pilot that HBO passed on. He scrounged money doing punch-up work on scripts like The Shaggy Dog and Big Momma's House 2. "I remember America invaded Iraq during that time, and I smoked a lot of weed and sat on my ass and watched the news for, like, five weeks straight," he says.

"For a Jewish mother, having a country wage war on your son is the worst. If Kim Jong-un only knew what he was doing to my mother!" — Seth Rogen

Rogen, incidentally, was thoroughly unprepared for America's marijuana laws. "I was genuinely shocked at how illegal it was here. I actually got arrested when I first moved to L.A. – I was smoking a joint at the beach, like I did my entire childhood, and all of a sudden, it was, like, whoop whoop whoop! Handcuffed in the back of a police car." He ended up going to court ("It was mostly people fishing without a license – like, a hundred Mexican dudes and me") and got off with a fine. "I don't think I have a record," he says. "It's never come up. . . ."

Most of Rogen's early roles were gruff dudes with names like Ron and Bob and Ken. ("He's one of those guys who looked 35 when he was 15," says Rudd.) He auditioned for Dwight on The Office and Elijah Wood's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he and Goldberg also had the script for Superbad and the idea for Pineapple Express, and they couldn't understand why no one wanted to make them. "We were pretty bitter about it at the time," says Rogen. "We'd written stuff we thought was really good, and it was really frustrating that it wasn't getting made. We were probably kind of assholes about it."

Now that people actually do return his calls, Rogen has thrived by making movies with these same buddies, the cast of regulars he has jokingly referred to as "the Jew-Tang Clan." His movies with Franco in particular – Pineapple Express, This Is the End and now The Interview – "almost feel like postmodern Abbott and Costello movies," says Apatow, "just different variations of these friends on wild adventures." One of the most striking things about the films is how democratic they are: Even though Rogen co-writes, produces and, increasingly, co-directs them, he's often the straight man, the rare comic superstar who's content to be the third- or fourth-funniest person in his own movie. 

"With some comic actors, they need to be the star, the funniest one – nobody can have better jokes," says Lizzy Caplan, who has known Rogen since Freaks and Geeks and co-stars in The Interview as a no-nonsense CIA agent (think Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, but funny). "You see that a lot, and it's a terrible way to work – their ego makes it impossible for other people to be funny. But Seth and Evan figured it out a long time ago: You populate your movie with funny people, and you let them be as funny as possible."

One thing people overlook about Rogen is that beneath the stoner laugh and Labrador-ish demeanor, he's a little bit of an operator. "He's a lot savvier than people might think," Rudd says. "He thinks things through." He and Goldberg usually have three or four projects in development at any given time – a supremely un-wake-and-bake-friendly workload that currently includes a comic-book adaptation for AMC (Preacher) and a Christmas movie co-starring Caplan and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. ("They're not the type of people who spend seven months crying about where they should put the comma," Apatow says.) Rogen has also accumulated enough juice to pull some power moves of his own: There aren't many people in Hollywood who could call Harvey Weinstein "a well-documented psychopath" and "a real motherfucker" and ever hope to work again. But Rogen did.

In hindsight, Rogen's two wisest career moves may have, paradoxically, been his biggest misfires: The Green Hornet, a $110 million comic-book movie no one really asked for, and The Guilt Trip, in which he drives cross-country with a post-menopausal Barbra Streisand. Neither movie is actually bad – just conventional and studio-driven in a way Rogen's best stuff is not. (He also likes to point out that they're also PG-13 instead of R, which, following Apatow's formulation, is like having LeBron on your team and not letting him shoot.) The silver lining was the realization that America didn't want him to be conventional – which in turn freed him and Goldberg to pursue more bananas ideas, like their upcoming movie Sausage Party.

"It's fucking filthy – probably the most R-rated thing we've ever done," Rogen says. "Which is fun, because it will look like Toy Story 3." A Pixar-style animated movie directed by one of the guys who co-directed Shrek 2, it's a religious allegory about a ragtag crew of food items on a late-night adventure through a grocery store, which ends in the realization that, basically, there is no God. (Also, there's an orgy.) "Every time we watch it, we're like, 'I can't believe this is a real movie,' " says Rogen. When he saw a rough cut recently, their old boss Sacha Baron Cohen (for whom Rogen and Goldberg used to write on Da Ali G Show) congratulated them by saying, "Just know, if nothing else, you've gotten successful enough to make the craziest thing I've ever seen in my life."

Which may be the most admirable thing about Rogen: that he uses his pull to make movies that, as he puts it, "are fucking weird." "The fact that they let us make this movie is the coolest thing," Rogen says of The Interview. "They're giving us insane amounts of money to do whatever the fuck we want. Jonah Hill was at the table read, and afterward he went up to Amy" – that's Amy Pascal, the head of their studio – "and was like, 'I can't believe you're letting them make this fucking movie.' And she was like, 'I can't either!' "

One thing you hear a lot talking to people who know Rogen well is how little of a filter he has. "Seth is probably the least-affected famous person I've ever met, in terms of his candor and his lack of bullshit," says Rudd. "He's just shockingly honest," agrees Apatow. "If you listen to him on The Howard Stern Show, even Howard is shocked at his confidence and his willingness to say, 'This is exactly who I am, and I don't care what anybody thinks.' " Recently, Rogen has been especially outspoken on Twitter, where in the past six months he's tweeted disparagingly about the Washington Redskins, Hobby Lobby, Sean Hannity, Burger King, cable companies, Republicans, Roger Goodell and the cop in Ferguson – not difficult targets, but worthy ones.

It's hard to pinpoint the beginning of this heightened moral streak. Maybe it came in May, when he defended himself against a Washington Post critic who blamed movies like his for indirectly inspiring the UC Santa Barbara shooting. Or maybe it was in February, when he went to Capitol Hill to address a Senate subcommittee about Alzheimer's funding – a cause that's heartbreakingly close to home, since his mother-in-law was diagnosed with the disease. ("The situation is so dire that it caused me – a lazy, self-involved, generally self-medicating man-child – to start an entire charity," he told the two senators who bothered to show up.) Or maybe it was in January, when he got 200,000 retweets by calling Justin Bieber a piece of shit. ("All jokes aside, Justin Bieber is a piece of shit.") 

One of the meta-jokes in The Interview is about the utter inanity of most celebrity journalism. "I do a lot of press with entertainment journalists, and a lot of them are the stupidest motherfuckers on the entire planet," Rogen says. "Like, 'Literally, you're the best person to have this job? That seems insane.' " (He laughs. "No offense.") In the movie, part of the reason they go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un is that Rogen's character, Aaron Rapoport – a Columbia journalism-school grad who aspires to work at 60 Minutes – wants to do more with his life than just produce pre-packaged segments about Matthew McConaughey getting caught having sex with a goat. (This actually happens.) In some ways – just as Superbad was the story of a teenage Rogen and Goldberg trying to get laid, and Pineapple Express was the story of them being 25 and directionless and stoned, and This Is the End was the story of them coming to grips with the terror and awesomeness of Hollywood – this movie is the story of them in their early thirties, grappling with the question of what they want to contribute to society.

"Yeah, we talked about that a lot," Rogen says. "The movie itself is kind of our attempt to do what Aaron is doing in the movie. And it was born out of a very similar thought: Are we gonna just make movies about guys trying to get laid over and over again? Or, now that we have people's attention, maybe we can focus it on something slightly more relevant – while still doing shit we think is funny. Which, for better or for worse, is sticking missiles up people's asses."

Rogen's mother was a social worker and his sister still is one, and this has no doubt inspired some latent sense of responsibility. It was actually a conversation with his dad that got him thinking about this stuff. "They're always so supportive, my parents," he says, "but after one interview I did with Letterman, my dad was like, 'Do you have to talk about marijuana so much?' I was like, 'Wow, even my dad's getting sick of this shit.' " In The Interview, Rogen notes proudly, he doesn't smoke weed once. (He does get drunk and take Ecstasy, but that's another story.)

"I think in some ways I relate to this character more than any other character I've ever played," Rogen continues. "Because he has a real job! It's not until you get your shit together that you can step back and say, 'I have a career; what am I going to do with it? Are you the kind of person that's happy just being a famous person, or are you the kind of person that thinks maybe I should try to contribute?' I think the answer for us right now is somewhere in the middle. We'll make a movie that maybe for two seconds will make some 18-year-old think about North Korea in a way he never would have otherwise.

"Or who knows?" he says. "We were told one of the reasons they're so against the movie is that they're afraid it'll actually get into North Korea. They do have bootlegs and stuff. Maybe the tapes will make their way to North Korea and cause a fucking revolution." Which would of course be the biggest joke of all: if the guys who made Pineapple Express actually end up inspiring a regime change.

"At best, it will cause a country to be free," Rogen says, "and at worst, it will cause a nuclear war." He laughs his motorcycle laugh. "Big margin with this movie."

At the beginning of November, Rogen is in New York, enjoying a cup of chicken-vegetable soup at a cafe downtown. He and his wife are going to a wedding on Long Island – a friend of hers from kindergarten – so they decided to make a week out of it and do some preview screenings of The Interview. The studio got him a private plane to take to D.C. for another screening tonight, and they're staying at a fancy hotel where Kanye West likes to hang out. Rogen actually bumped into Kanye the last time he was here, doing press for Neighbors this past summer. It was right after the "Bound 3" video came out – a shot-for-shot remake of Kanye's "Bound 2," starring Franco as Kanye and Rogen as a topless Kim Kardashian – and he worried Kanye might be upset. But it turned out Kanye just wanted to hang.

"Me and my wife had gotten some dessert and were in the lobby getting plates to bring back to our room," Rogen says. "And Kanye was like, 'What are you guys doing? Want to hear my new album?' So he takes us to this limo van and starts playing his album – except there's no lyrics, only beats. So he raps the whole album, and after each song, he stops it, like, 'So what do you think?' We were in the van for two hours!

"Now I realize the next person he sees that he knows is getting pulled into that van," Rogen says, laughing. "But I learned a lesson from it – which is that even Kanye is seeking input at all times. Processwise, it showed an openness and a fearlessness. We started screening our movies more and in rougher versions for our friends because of that."

Rogen and his wife, the writer and actress Lauren Miller Rogen, met at a mutual friend's birthday party in 2005. On their first date, they played mini-golf and were en route to get a brownie-waffle sundae in Hollywood when they were hit by a joy-riding teenager and spun across four lanes of traffic, totaling Rogen's car – an extreme first-date experience that partially inspired Knocked Up. "It was superintense," Rogen says. "I think it was a bonding experience between us." Previously, his longest relationship had lasted just a few months, but he and Lauren "hit a peak pretty early and stayed there." They were married in Sonoma in 2011, and now live in "a totally normal neighborhood in West Hollywood" with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Zelda. "It's hard to crack her up sometimes," Rogen says of his wife. "Bathroom humor works for both of us."

Neighbors, released earlier this year, was a first for him, in that it portrayed a relationship where his partner – in this case played by Rose Byrne – was truly a partner, as funny and irresponsible and important to the plot as Rogen was. "It was very gratifying," he says. "There were so many discussions with the studio where they were like, 'Can't you, like, sneak out, and then she gets mad?' And it's like, 'No! That's the whole fucking point! It can't be that.' "

After lunch, we take a meandering walk through downtown. It's a nice autumn day, and Rogen is in no hurry to be anywhere. ("He's so sincerely easygoing," says Gordon-Levitt. "And it's not just because of the weed." At home in L.A., he likes to garden and trim bonsai trees. He smokes brisket in his backyard every now and then, he drives a $24,000 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. As his character in Neighbors puts it: "I think I like old-people shit better than young-people shit now."

We walk around for an hour or so, and no one so much as asks him for a picture. A few people do double takes, but otherwise he's just a guy out for a stroll. We're almost back to the hotel when a tourist-looking girl, maybe 17 or so, spots him coming down the sidewalk and breaks into a grin. She doesn't say anything – just reaches her hand out. Rogen reaches his out, and they exchange a wordless high-five and keep on walking. "Fame at its best," Rogen says.