Seth Rogen on Calling Out Trump: ‘It’s Very Important to Normalize Dissent’
The comedian sat down at SXSW for a wide-ranging discussion on ‘Preacher’ Season 2, life in the Trump era, and why there won’t be sequels to ‘Sausage Party’ or ‘This Is the End.’
AUSTIN, Texas – Seth Rogen is only 34 years old. It is a jarring reality—one that makes even the most industrious of artists seem wildly unproductive by comparison. Rogen is a comedy wunderkind: performing stand-up at 13, finishing the script to Superbad at 16, and starring on the critically acclaimed television series Freaks and Geeks at 17. As a teenager, he wrote five episodes of the sitcom Undeclared, and by the age of 21, was serving as a staff writer for The Ali G Show. He has starred in 30 movies, produced 15, and co-written 9.
On top of all that, he co-created the excellent AMC series Preacher, a pulpy, blood-spattered saga centering on a small-town preacher with a special gift who teams with a boozy Irish vampire and his armed-and-dangerous ex on a mission to find God. The second season will drop on June 19th.
“We’re still shooting it,” Rogen says. “Me and Evan [Goldberg] directed the first two episodes, and we just finished those two weeks ago.”
In addition to Preacher, the tireless multi-hyphenate is here at SXSW to debut The Disaster Artist, a film about the making of the “best-worst movie ever” The Room. The hilarious film-within-a-film, which received a spirited standing ovation following its unveiling, is directed by his longtime pal James Franco; Rogen co-produced and co-stars.
The Daily Beast sat down with Rogen at SXSW and discussed his career, politics, and much more over coffee. Your Preacher star Ruth Negga has a lot more juice now after that Oscar nod. Ruth got more famous, which can’t hurt! It’s great. It’s nice that she’s gotten a lot of attention because she’s an amazing actor, and she deserves every bit of it. And I’m hoping we can monopolize on that somehow [laughs].
What fresh madness is in store for Season 2? I remember being at Preacher’s premiere screening at last year’s SXSW and the airplane sequence drew rowdy applause. People were pretty blown away.
It’s interesting doing a TV show, which we’ve never done, and one of the best parts about it is you can make it, look at it, see what you liked and didn’t like, and then make changes as you move forward. I don’t think we’re making dramatic changes to the show, but we look back on moments like that and feel like we were really creating our own tone and style. So it was a lot easier for us to identify the moments that were very unique to this show, and really couldn’t exist on any other show on television.
As someone who’s written quite a bit about Scientology, I’m no stranger to receiving threatening notes from the church. Did you receive any for that scene where you blew up Tom Cruise in the Preacher premiere?
We got a note! This was not a crazy note, because we’re technically legitimizing Scientology, if anything—we’re putting it in the same category as Christianity and Satanism. We got a note, I think from Tom Cruise’s publicist or someone working for Tom Cruise, sort of feeling out if it was going to be a theme in our work, assaulting Tom Cruise. [laughs] The truth of it was it was done in a playful way. It wasn’t the most condemnation we could’ve offered Scientology, or Tom Cruise. I was shocked they let us do that though, honestly. That’s one of those things I look back on and think, “How did they let us do that?” But we want to do more of that kind of thing.
It must feel like night and day, being at the helm of a show that’s performing well like Preacher versus your first acting gig on Freaks and Geeks, where every day you kids were going to work and didn’t know if the show would be canceled.
It is. I actually just did an interview for some Freaks and Geeks retrospective two days ago, and I hadn’t talked about it in depth for a long time. One of the interesting things was, at that time, there was no way to see your aggregate reviews. I remember they literally gave us a physically printed-out binder that had clippings of all our reviews from various cities. So there was no stigma of canceling a show that was incredibly well-reviewed, but had low ratings. You basically can’t do that now; you look like the failure as a network if you have a show that everyone thinks is good, but you haven’t been able to find it an audience. At the time of Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew that the show was universally well-received, so if you didn’t get enough viewers that night, you were basically done. Preacher isn’t the highest-rated show on television by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s impossible to tell if your show’s successful for years almost because of how people watch TV now. It has gone from, in some ways, one of the most stressful jobs you can have in the entertainment business to one of the less stressful, because it is a long game.
When I interviewed you here at SXSW a year ago for Preacher, the America it was being released into was very different. Quite a lot’s happened since then. Do you think about the social and political atmosphere you release your art into, and how that will shape people’s perception of it?
I don’t know if we draw that direct a line. We think about our audience a lot: how they’re thinking at any given moment, what we’d like them to be thinking. We speak about the audience a lot as we’re working, and as a part of that, we are aware of what the audience is ingesting, what climate the audience is in, what the audience might be sensitive to at various moments, what subject matter might be discomforting to audiences at a certain time. At the same time it’s hard, because you do want the stuff to have a timeless feel to a certain degree.
So we won’t be seeing any Make America Great Again hats in Preacher Season 2? No. There are probably some subtle references to it, but I think, if anything, we’ve been inspired to take bigger swings creatively. When you have a sense that the world just might end at any second, if there’s an idea in the back of your head of should we do that, now we’re just like, let’s do that.
Bigger swings than The Interview? That was a pretty big swing.
That was a big swing. The older we get, honestly, the less fear we have of our stuff going sideways. And we know it because The Interview was the most sideways something could ever go, and we survived that. One of the lessons from that experience was: take a big swing. It probably made me think about where it could go should it land, but it does feel like a time when people are creatively going to go for it in a way that maybe they would have been putting a little more restraint into it in previous years.
Do you guys still give Franco shit because the president called him “James Flacco?” [Laughs] Yeah. All the time. How do you not? Speaking of Franco, you have The Disaster Artist here too, and when it was first announced I thought it would be similar to one of Franco’s smaller films, but it’s being distributed by Warner Bros. and has a huge cast.
It’s not a big movie by any means, but it was our attempt at making a middle-ground Franco movie. We thought about the audience. We put a lot of thought into making that movie so if you’ve never heard of The Room, we still wanted to make a movie that was incredibly entertaining and interesting. That was the biggest challenge, and one of the biggest conversations we had while making it: how do we take this idea that is incredibly weird and niche and make it as accessible as possible to a wider audience? Honestly, Franco is a very great director but there’s a point where it’s like, do you always want to make things that very few people see, or do you maybe want to take something your passionate about and do it in a way where a lot of people see it? And he was very much onboard for that, which is why we produced the movie with him and decided to champion it.
He’s put in his 10,000 hours at this point.
He really has. And I think he really invested himself in this movie in a way that he does not always invest himself in the movies that he’s making. Sometimes they are kind of flights of fancy for him a little bit, and this was not. This is a real movie he worked on for a year and a half and was in sound mixing every day for hours. It was funny to see him do it: Oh, this is what it’s like to make a real flick.
Was it weird for you to be Franco’s producer, since you two are good friends? Did you ever have to crack the whip?
Not at all, honestly. When we were making This Is the End, there was a moment a couple of days into filming where we thought, “Oh, he’s directed more movies than we have by a long-shot,” and we have an incredibly open, creative dialogue where we have immense trust and honesty with one another. It really was great. It was fun to produce a James Franco movie!
You mentioned This Is the End, which I really enjoyed. Are you ever going to do a sequel?
No, I don’t think so. Sequels just aren’t… we don’t do that. We did our sequel experiment last year [Neighbors 2], and it didn’t go as well as anyone would have hoped. So I don’t think sequels are our thing.
Right. There was also going to be a Pineapple Express 2, but it came out in the Sony hack that Sony basically gave it the kibosh.
Yeah, Sony destroyed that. Honestly, I think the thing that people like about our work is its originality, and as soon as you’re in a sequel-land it instantly makes the thing we’re trying to do a lot harder, and our brains just aren’t geared towards that. In television, it makes you see that when the story is designed to continue, how easy it is to keep thinking of stories for these characters. But movies are self-contained, and in movie-land, we design them to be self-contained. It’s not like some Marvel thing where they’re designed to be part of a hundred movies. If we ended our movie with a cliffhanger ending people would be like, “What the fuck? Where’s the ending? I paid for this!” That being said, I might need money one day and just do it. [laughs]
So no Sausage Party 2? I remember when we first discussed it you’d talked about it being a potential franchise.
I mean, we talk about it, but at the same time it took us a long time. The reception was good. My instinct, again, would just be if I were going to spend five years working on another animated movie, I’d probably want it to be something different. We inherently did think about where else that movie could go, but I think the thing most people liked was the originality of it, and that you felt like you were watching something you’d never seen before. By the nature of doing a sequel to it, it will lose that. When we’re making movies and TV shows, if there’s a dragon we’re chasing it’s that. We used to just want to make audiences laugh really hard, and now more than that, I like it when I feel like an audience is seeing something that they can’t believe they’re seeing; where they’re literally looking at the people beside them in the theater and are checking to see that everyone is seeing the same thing they are.
How are you taking the Trump era? I see your tweets have gotten more political.
I mean, I’ll be fine. I guess. I got a whole other country I can go to. Those are jokes, obviously. I will not be leaving America. And I do just heavily acknowledge that, as a white dude, I’m not the one who’s in real trouble right now. But I don’t know. It’s interesting. It reminds me of when I first moved to America a little bit in 1999. It’s definitely a time now where there’s more outward conflict politically, but it’s hard to gauge. I find it comedically uninspiring because it takes no special ability to pinpoint the inherent absurdity or contradictory nature of [Trump]. So to me, there’s something about it that’s very uninspiring. It doesn’t take a genius or a particularly creative mind to point out how blatantly idiotic and contradictory things are.
But at the same time, I don’t want to look back in ten years and think, “I just didn’t say anything during that time,” because it seems like a time where it’s very important to normalize dissent; to not make it seem like a fringe countercultural position to not be thrilled with where the government is heading at this point. People like to paint it as that. So if anything, that’s something I’ve thought about. I don’t want to insult people. I’ve been very conscious not to insult people who voted for Donald Trump, but the way I think of it is just normalizing the idea that a lot of people do not think that he is a good president, and do not think that he is bringing the country in a good direction, and not making it seem like some fringe, out-there thing that only really aggressive people who have whipped themselves into some sort of frenzy are expressing.
Your father’s American, but you grew up in Canada. So now you’ve spent exactly half your life in Canada and the other half in America, which is pretty interesting.
It’s always strange coming from one country to another country. I find myself not even aligned with the left wing of American politics often, because in Canada, even that is pretty far right in many lines of thinking. I’m not used to being thrilled with American politics in general. But I do think it’s a lot better than most places; better than a lot of other places I’ve been. I’m allowed to say and do things here that I couldn’t in other places.
You probably couldn’t have made The Interview in any other country.
In most other countries. In Canada you could make The Interview and the government would subsidize it [laughs]. But again, it’s a tricky time. I agree with the people who are very angry, and I also agree with the people who are like, “We have to look for ways to not create more division, and to come together,” and I sympathize with the people who are like, “Fuck that! This is ridiculous,” and I sympathize with the people who are like, “Fuck that! That’s never going to solve anything.” Again, as someone who I think mostly just tries to observe a little bit and comment when it seems so blatantly commentable that it’s hard not to, it’s a weird time. Shit’s happening. Can’t deny that.
Did your experience on the Hill make you more cynical about politics? Because, while it was a good speech on Alzheimer’s, the congressional attendance for it was not very good.
Thank you. That was my first real interaction with the ground floor of the government, I guess you would say, and it was disappointing to a large degree. It’s like when you go to a company’s headquarters and you realize it’s poorly run—that’s what it felt like. And that was even at a time when I would argue that America was being run incredibly well. I remember coming away from it thinking, “Oh. This is why people don’t like the government—as a whole.” It’s like, oh, you’re paying these people’s salaries and it’s expected that they don’t show up to the thing they’re being paid to? And you’re the weird one for getting angry that they’re not there? If anything, it was enlightening, but I’ve tried not to get too worked up about it. I’m sure there were a lot of times in our history, like in the ‘60s, where it just seemed like every few years a major civil rights’ icon was being murdered publicly. That was probably worse.
Nixon getting impeached was pretty crazy as well. Although you never know, it could happen again. And this could also all end with us watching a pee-pee tape.
That was what I was saying to my wife: If one day we’re sitting at home watching a tape of Donald Trump jerking off while women piss on each other, if that’s where all this ends, then that’s just fantastic. But I don’t know how this will end.