Hollywood isn't supposed to be a meritocracy. It's for the good-looking and the born-to-famous-parents and those brave enough to make out sloppily on reality shows. At the very least, the merely talented are supposed to spend years struggling until they're discovered. But Seth Rogen--a fat, awkwardly old-man-ish 16-year-old kid in Vancouver--went to his first local audition and got hired on NBC's Freaks and Geeks. And now, having just turned 25, he is the lead in one of this summer's biggest romantic movies. By the end of next year, he will have a Will Ferrell--size grip on comedy films, having appeared in or written five of them. If things go well for him at the box office, Los Angeles restaurants may have to deal with an infestation of waiters who are dumpy Canadians with Jewfros.
The first time you'll see Rogen will be as the angelic, dopey face on the posters for next month's Knocked Up, a movie written and directed by Judd Apatow, the guy who cast him for Freaks and Geeks. It's the same strategy Apatow used to sell his movie The 40 Year-Old Virgin: Put a huge unknown face in the middle of a billboard and hope people get curious. But at least Virgin's Steve Carell looked vaguely like a handsome leading man. Rogen doesn't. So the arc of his career makes little sense to anyone, including Rogen, who is walking around the set of his next starring vehicle--The Pineapple Express--agog at the surrealism of the Rogen-look-alike stuntmen walking by. "I never thought I could do any of the things I'm doing. It seemed impossible. I knew there weren't a lot of guys like me in movies. And I accepted that. Then, when we did 40 Year-Old Virgin, I thought, at best, Oh, I can be the guy who comes in every seven scenes and makes a few jokes," says Rogen.
That Rogen is starring in movies isn't the really weird part. The really weird part is that in August, Sony is putting out Superbad, a profanity-drenched movie about high school kids that Rogen wrote 12 years ago. When he was 13. "We were watching some movie, and we said, 'This sucks. We can write a better one right now.' And we went upstairs and started writing," says his writing partner, Evan Goldberg. The script has had considerable punching up since then, but there's still one joke in the film that they wrote that day. "Superbad for me was the funniest and tightest script I had ever read. Those guys are like baby geniuses," says Jonah Hill, who plays the high school senior based on Rogen in the movie, since the real Rogen, even after double-shaving, could no longer play the part he wrote for himself.
Studio heads are so sure of Rogen's appeal that in addition to financing The Pineapple Express, which Rogen and Goldberg wrote, they've already made the kids' movie he wrote, Drillbit Taylor. And he's so excited that the studio is making Pineapple, his violent stoner action comedy, that he forces people on the set to touch the bloody prosthetic ear he's wearing. He is giddy about his on-set injuries (including a sprained finger and bruised ribs), and the explosive Butt-head-like giggle that punctuates everything he says betrays his excited nervousness. "After every single take, I laugh. It's my own awkwardness and discomfort about being an actor," he says. In fact, the crew of Knocked Up made an entire reel of Rogen's nervous giggles.
Rogen's characters don't veer far from his real personality. In Knocked Up, he plays a stoner who scores a woman way out of his league on a one-night stand and gets her pregnant, and they decide to keep the baby. He's a self-conscious, cerebral John Belushi, constantly apologizing for his oafishness, desperate to be moral and liked. He is what optimists hoped Jim Belushi would be.
It's the crudeness mixed with sweetness that makes his comedy interesting. Apatow puts the credit for the boundary-pushing raunch of The 40 Year-Old Virgin on Rogen. "Seth kept saying, 'This is what my friends would like,'" Apatow says.
"Life, as I see it, is R-rated," Rogen says. Then he giggles. It's so R-rated that Knocked Up--despite scenes depicting childbirth from health-class angles--is a muted version of Rogen's shtick. "We said, 'The dude gets married? That's kind of lame,'" says writing partner Goldberg. "We write stuff where the universe ends and Martians land." But Rogen says he has learned from Apatow to focus on story and emotional honesty over aliens and punch lines. "Apatow kept saying, 'Less semen. More emotion,'" says Rogen.
More than anyone else in comedy since vaudeville died, Rogen is a protégé. Sure, he had been writing scripts with Goldberg after school, and his mom drove him to stand-up gigs at Yuk Yuk's (his retort to hecklers: "I'm 13. In 30 years, I'll be 43. You'll be dead"). He had even been paid by a mohel to write jokes. But ever since he dropped out of high school, Rogen has studied exclusively under Apatow.
After casting him in a small role in Freaks, Apatow started to think about keeping Rogen around when he improvised a sweet, funny scene in which his character wonders if he's gay after finding out his girlfriend was born a hermaphrodite. When Freaks ended after one season, Apatow tried to cast Rogen as the lead of Undeclared, a sitcom about college kids. The network, however, didn't think Rogen looked like a leading actor. "He was already approved to be in the cast, and they literally got angry at me for suggesting it," Apatow says. "And I said, 'Let's not do the show then if we're not going to do it right.' And people threatened to sue me." So he hired Rogen for a small role in the show and also made him a writer. Which, according to other Undeclared writers, went surprisingly well. "It's uncomfortable for other people when this 18-year-old is ripping out scripts that are among the best," says Apatow.
The creepy thing about all of this apprenticing is that a full-grown man is spending a lot of time with a teenage boy. "I'm such a comedy fan that even though he's 16, I know I'm hanging out with one of the guys who's going to be one of the great comics," says Apatow. Rogen's co-stars felt the same way. "It didn't occur to me that when he was doing Freaks and Geeks he was a teenager. I figured he was actually 40," says Paul Rudd, the handsome guy who has played Rogen's goofy sidekick in the past two Apatow films. "It makes me laugh to think the first time Seth and Judd worked together, Seth's mom had to be on-set. And it wasn't even that long ago."