“I get a lot of acclaim in everything I do except for movies,” actor, writer and director Seth Rogen told me over the phone from Los Angeles. On Monday December 2 in New York, Rogen will earn another accolade: The Workmen’s Circle’s Generation to Generation Activism Award, which he’ll receive with his father, Mark.
Mark Rogen was a career worker in the nonprofit sector, but it took the family’s move to LA in support of a career-making role for Seth (“Freaks and Geeks”) to land him at the Workmen’s Circle, his first Jewish nonprofit where he worked as director. True to the award’s name, the younger Rogen kept the mitzvahs coming, establishing Hilarity for Charity, an outfit that performs comedy shows to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease, with his wife, Lauren Miller Rogen.
I spoke with Rogen about how his father shaped his views on giving back and comedy. We also touched on anti-Semitism and how it felt to dispatch Hitler in a particularly bloody fashion on his AMC series, “Preacher.” The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ GRISAR: You’re accepting this award for activism with your father. How has he influenced your idea of charity?
SETH ROGEN: My father never had a traditional career as I would call it. He always worked at nonprofit organizations throughout my entire childhood. He never was someone who pretended that he liked working particularly that much, so his attitude was “if you got to spend all day to do something you don’t want to do, you might as well do it for the benefit of other people.” Cause he thought he’s not benefiting from it anyway!
My parents met on a kibbutz. I think my father would have liked to stay there his whole life. He very much likes that kind of simple social interaction I think. That’s something that really spoke to him and that’s something that he really expounded upon us when we were children. “Fair and equal are not the same” was his favorite expression.
Did he impact your love of movies?
ROGEN: For sure, my love of movies comes from both my parents. He really loved movies, and comedies especially and we would watch movies all the time. We had a movie collection. I think if he didn’t like “Ghostbusters” so much, we would have never made “This is the End.” There’s a very easy road to follow from the movies that he loved, and therefore I loved, and the movies we went on to make
And then Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) played your father in “Knocked Up!”
ROGEN: Exactly! It was perfect. It came full circle. They’re pretty similar honestly in a lot of ways. Harold was a Buddhist and was very zen and very loving. And we improvised that scene. I remember doing that and I thought ‘This is a lot like this would be like if I was actually having a conversation with my father.’
So “Ghostbusters” was big - what else was in the rotation?
ROGEN: He just loved Bill Murray — and still loves Bill Murray. So I watched a lot of Murray movies. Billy Crystal he was a big fan of, so a lot of those types of movies. It’s funny. My mother loves action movies and my dad loves comedies — and I largely make action-comedies
And you recently killed Hitler on the finale of your show “Preacher.”
In fact, you had Jesus kill Hitler.
ROGEN: A lot to unpack there
Well, let’s unpack. You’ve been outspoken on Twitter about having white nationalists on the platform. Of course, with Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech at the ADL this is something in the conversation now.
ROGEN: I think anti-Semitism was and always has been rampant. When I was very young I remember my father explaining to me that people hate Jewish people and it’s the only reason we’re in America — because people tried to annihilate us in Europe.
It’s confusing why anyone hates anyone that is different from them, but I think Jews are especially confounded by it, because there is no outwardly simple, even though it’s wrong, logic to it. People are afraid of and hate people who are different from them. They hate people who look different, and that’s why racism is such a problem. But people who believe something different than you are even scarier to a lot of people. And when they kind of look like you too, it’s even scarier for a lot of people cause we could be anywhere. Like we are trying to pass as “regular people,” but secretly we have this self-serving set of beliefs. It’s strange and it’s fascinating and it’s terrible, but I do think it’s something that Jews themselves are uncomfortable talking about at times, because outwardly, other marginalized groups have it much worse.
You don’t want to absorb too much of the cultural conversation when there are groups of people who, if you’re triaging this thing, need help first. I’m glad that people smarter than me like Sacha are doing a better job of talking about it. As you can tell over my long rambling answer, it’s not something I’m incredibly good at talking about.
Something I think you are very good at — and something your collaborators put forward too — is bringing a Jewish sensibility to your films. Is that something that you find important to include?
ROGEN: It’s important for us to reflect ourselves in our work, and whether we like it or not, we’re Jewish people. I think to ignore that is to ignore who we are. And it’s also one of the fascinating things about being Jewish. You just are Jewish. It’s different than being Christian.
The second you stop believing in Jesus you’re not a Christian anymore. You don’t have to believe in anything in the Bible, the Old Testament — I hate to break it to you: You’re still a Jewish person. It’s inescapable. You could get a blood test and tell if someone is Jewish or not. That’s not like other religions. There’s something about that that is scary to people and alienating to people — and confusing. People don’t like things that are confusing to them. And Jews are confusing to Jews! I can only imagine what we’re like to other people.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.