Family is a tricky thing. Most people rest assured knowing that their family loves them….but does that mean their family likes them too?
Such is the conflict at the center of HBO Max’s Seth Rogen-starring comedy An American Pickle. Rogen stars as both Herschel Greenbaum and his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel is a salt-of-the-earth old world Jewish man who becomes quite literally salty when he falls into a vat of pickles and is perfectly preserved for a century. He wakes up to a world of a gentrified Brooklyn, ubiquitous cell phones, and a disappointingly unmasculine descendent.
The concept comes from novelist, short story crafter, and TV writer Simon Rich, who couldn’t help but wonder what his great grandfather would think of his privileged, comfortable position in life. That hypothetical became the New Yorker-published short story “Sell Out”, which in turn became the script for An American Pickle. After a long brining…er, production process, the film finally made its way to audiences via streaming on HBO Max on Aug. 6. And that’s in no small part to Rogen taking on his most ambitious acting challenge yet.
Rogen, who has increasingly publicly discussed his heritage as of late, shines in both roles of the intergenerational story. Den of Geek caught up with the comedy star to discuss what drew him to the role and what he believes his ancestors would really think of him.
Den of Geek: The film has a lot of interesting themes of family, generations, and pickles. What aspects drew you to this role to begin with?
Seth Rogen: I really related to a conversation I had with Simon (Rich), the writer. He said, in conceiving of the film and the short story that it’s based on, that he had a picture on his desk of his great grandfather when he was in his twenties. He would look at it and think “if we were both in our twenties, he would hate me.” That’s something that I could not have related to more with my own grandfather and grandparents. We got along pretty well, but they led very different lives than I did and the things they considered big accomplishments and the things I considered big accomplishments were very different. Our sensibilities were very different. And even though I am born of them and they love me and I love them, if we were the same age, we probably would not have got along very well.
I actually did have a chance to speak with both Simon and (director) Brandon (Trost). I asked them had they done an Ancestry.com or 23andMe type deal? Have you?
My family has looked into our ancestry and it’s pretty straight forward. I mean, my grandmother was an immigrant – came to Canada from Poland. So my roots back to the old folk country are not that far. I am an Ashkenazi Jewish person.
Yeah. Simon said he was 99.6% Ashkenazi and 0.4% Neanderthal.
Exactly, yeah. Every part of him that is homo sapien is Jewish. Honestly, one of the reasons I thought playing both roles actually served the story is that a unique element of the Jewish experience is that we are Jewish by DNA. Most religions cannot make that claim. That inseparability from our Judaism and our past and who we are, I think is a major theme in the lives of a lot of Jewish people I know.
What do you think your actual great-grandpa “Herschel Rogen” would make of Seth Rogen?
I knew my great-grandfather, actually, one of them. Joe Rogen was his name – no relation to the podcaster. Joseph Rogen was a mailman in New York. He was a nice guy and a funny guy and a blue collar guy. But I think he would’ve appreciated what I do. My actual grandfather was in the war, played football, and was a plumber. He did like my work, but did not really care that much about it, honestly.
How did you develop your Herschel accent for the film?
It’s a combination of, I would say, Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish accents. It was developed by listening to old tapes of Jewish people from the old country. I also wanted to make sure that I developed an accent that allowed me to keep comedic rhythms and be funny. Because I’ve at times seen comedians paint themselves into a corner accent-wise where they aren’t allowed to be funny in the way they normally are because of the accent they have given themselves.
Your director Brandon Trost said that you guys filmed this in an interesting way where you basically just shot the movie twice, once with you as Ben and once as Hershel due to that massive, impressive Herschel beard you had. Did that help you develop each character in a more distinct way?
Yeah. It was ultimately helpful from a character standpoint. It was more helpful from a performance standpoint, honestly Because I just know what a pain in the ass it is to act with a fake beard on, and I knew it would affect my performance if I had to wear a fake beard. That was a real concern for me. You’re wearing it on your face and you’re self conscious of whether it’s popping up. And it just seemed like something that would have been a nightmare for a million reasons.
Given how pickle focused the movie is, I’m curious, do you like pickles?
I like them. I’m not a pickle fanatic. They’re fine. I don’t eat any pickles in the movie at any point actually. So, for me, it wasn’t that pickle heavy an experience. I handled the pickle jars a lot, and I was in the pickle vat, but yeah, I didn’t eat any pickles.
You interact with yourself for essentially 90% of the movie. What was it like on the rare occasions when you get to interact with actual other real human individuals like Sarah Snook?
It was great! It’s funny because I had been filming the movie a while when Sarah came in. It was such a relief honestly to share scenes with another performer who was ultimately going to be on camera. And I remember thinking, “Oh man, these scenes are going to be so much better because she’s in them. The audience is going to be so thrilled that I am not literally the only person I’m interacting with throughout this film.”
If his social media presence were not an issue, how far do you think Herschel could make it in the political realm?
All the way, all the way! If we’ve learned anything lately, it’s that you can know nothing and become the President of the United States. So I think all bets are off.
Your mother is very active on Twitter. Given that family is such a big theme of the film, has she shared her thoughts with you? And do you think that she will tweet out her thoughts to us?
I hope she does. And I hope that she likes it. Because she’s brutally honest with her opinion on films. I think she’s already tweeted that she liked it. So, I should be in good shape.