When Seth Rogen found out that his friend Will Reiser had cancer, he coped the only way he knew how — by joking and brainstorming plots for a movie adaptation of Will’s life. It was all in jest at the time, but years later the movie has become a reality. In 50/50, Rogen plays the best friend of a cancer patient (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has a 50/50 chance of surviving. Vulture spoke with Rogen about dealing with tragedy through humor, fretting over a Patrick Swayze joke, and championing the art of pop-culture references.
When did you start encouraging Will to turn his experience into a screenplay?
It wasn’t until after he got better that we were able to really look at him and see that he literally went through a character arc. Before he got sick he was admittedly a somewhat annoying, neurotic guy who was probably too in his head and just not the happiest guy in the world. And when he was better, he was better. I mean, he was much more relaxed, he was much more confident, he was much less neurotic and generally easier to be around. And you could see he was happier and had worked out a lot of his problems. After that, we realized, Oh, he lived a movie. That’s exactly what happens in a satisfying movie. So at that point, we encouraged him to write about what happened: You started out one way and you ended up a better way because this horrible thing happened. If you’re able to express that in a movie, then that could be great. He was really into that idea, so he went for it.
Your character wants to throw up when he finds out his best friend has cancer. What was your reaction when Will told you about his cancer?
The real story of what he told me was literally too ridiculous to even put in the movie. What actually happened was Will is making the rounds calling people, and he called our friend David Krumholtz before me. And David called me right after Will called him and literally said — I was like, “Hello?” And he goes, “Will has cancer. Don’t tell him I told you. I’ll talk to you later.” I was like, “What?” And then I went to the bathroom and I sat down on the toilet to take a poo, and Will called while that was happening. I knew why he was calling so I had to answer, which I normally wouldn’t have done. So I had to pretend that Dave hadn’t already told me, but I also had to pretend that I was not in fact on the toilet the entire time. I remember it so vividly. It’s crazy.
We never see you cry in the movie. What about in real life? Were you stoic or were there some waterworks?
I don’t think I ever cried about it in real life. I just didn’t wanna acknowledge the reality of it. I kind of aggressively sought to view the positive side of things, probably to an insensitive point, you know? So there was no moment where I looked at Will and was like, “Let’s talk about it seriously.” That never happened. It was always just — we would make jokes about it. Literally one of the biggest jokes we had was we would think of what the funny cancer movie would be. That was what we would joke about at a bar. “Oh, maybe you meet a girl with leprosy, and it’s a comedy.”
What about your character trying to use his friend’s cancer to get girls in bed — did that really happen? It seems like something that only works in movies.
I mean, I don’t think it hurts. It was never as articulated as it was in the movie — again, I think that’s more representative of the guy who’s just aggressively trying to mine something positive out of the negative situation. But I do recall several times that me and Will were at bars talking to girls, and when we told them he had cancer, it did not make them less likely to sleep with him. I’ll tell you that much.
I heard that’s actually how you met your girlfriend.
It is, actually. The first night we ever joked about making a movie about it was the night I met my girlfriend.
Were the two incidents related?
She claims no, but just literally the other day I was like, "Really? Think about it. There I was with my friend who has cancer and we’re joking about it. We’re trying to be inspirational, we’re trying to be positive. That in no way made me look positive?" She’s like, “Yeah, it probably makes you look somewhat positive.” She’d like to think she liked me for other reasons.
Were there any jokes in the film that you were worried about?
The reference to Patrick Swayze, where my character doesn’t know that he’s died; we were not sure people would jive with it in any way, shape, or form. We were very open to that being too far. But people laughed at it, so we left it in. And it almost seemed cathartic for people.
I loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s impression of you in the movie. Did you guys practice that together?
No, that was just an improvised thing. I think most people after spending a few weeks on the set with me develop an impression of me. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting just a little bit.
You make a lot of pop-culture references in this movie, as you do in other movies. Do you just come up with them in the moment, or do you have a notebook where you write down ideas?
We just come up with those. I’ve worked with directors who specifically don’t like that, who literally tell you, “We don’t want it.” It’s funny how people approach it. They think, Oh, it’ll seem unrealistic in five years if you watch this movie and there’s a bunch of references to Dexter and stuff. But to me it seems unrealistic as a whole if there’s no pop-culture references. People constantly make pop-culture references. That’s why it’s called popular culture, because people are aware of it and reference it constantly. So I’m willing to sacrifice a few jokes that might not make as much sense in fifteen years for having what I perceive is authenticity in the moment.