In a back booth at Canter’s, Seth Rogen is digging into his matzah ball soup with gusto as his close friend, screenwriter Will Reiser, sips a glass of club soda. In person, Rogen — who has emerged as one of the leading comic actors, writers and producers of his generation — offers up the same rumbling laugh (think a Jewish Santa Claus) and humorous banter as the stoner-slacker characters he plays in such films as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.”
Reiser, part of Rogen’s “Jew Tang Clan” entertainment posse since the two met on “Da Ali G Show” eight years ago, is quieter and thoughtful, even as he and Rogen seamlessly finish one another’s sentences on this late afternoon.
The same dynamic appears in the best friends who make up the heart of their new movie, “50/50,” which is loosely based on how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.
In “50/50,” which is by turns poignant and hilarious, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 20-something writer for public radio who has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a pothead-jokester best friend, Kyle (Rogen). But early on, it’s clear all isn’t well with Adam, when he fatigues while jogging and complains of worsening back pain. When Adam finally visits a doctor, the news is shocking: A tumor is snaking alongside his spine, with the almost unpronounceable name of neurofibrosarcoma, or malignant schwannoma. And his MRI — actually based on Reiser’s own MRI — indicates he has only a 50 percent chance of survival. A life-threatening surgery is his only option.
Adam is by nature emotionally repressed and stoic, and as he struggles to come to terms with his cancer, his friends and relatives respond in disparate ways: His girlfriend is unable to deal with the illness and cannot even bring herself to drive Adam to his chemotherapy sessions. Kyle, after an initial freakout, wants to use Adam’s sympathy card to score chicks. Friends say exactly the wrong things, and Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is supportive but smothering.
As Adam’s health deteriorates, help arrives in the form of a novice oncology psychotherapist (Anna Kendrick) assigned to him by the hospital. “She is young and unable to face what she is dealing with — just like Adam — which creates a strong connection between them,” said the film’s director, Jonathan Levine (whose credits include “The Wackness”).
There is levity amid the drama, much of it akin to the raunch-fests-with-heart for which Rogen, and his comedy mentor, Judd Apatow, are known. In the scene where Adam shaves his hair before it can fall out due to chemotherapy, Kyle reveals that his razor has been used on hairs other than from his head. “It’s inevitable, it’s just where my head goes,” Rogen said of the joke.
Online, some individuals have critiqued Rogen for even attempting to make a comedy about cancer, stating that their experience with dying loved ones was anything but funny — some even went so far as to write, “F—- you, Seth Rogen.”
“I’m used to people hating all my s—- before they watch it,” Rogen said. “But I think we did the movie honestly and respectfully and based it on our own experiences.”
Levine, who has helped care for relatives braving cancer, agreed: “It’s not just because I’m Jewish and I own a bong that I relate to this,” he told the producers while lobbying to direct the movie.
“What this film does with character and pushing the boundaries of comedy is incredibly resonant and important. The salient theme is: What does it mean to be young and facing this disease? What does it mean to be facing the end of your life before you’ve really lived it?”
Rogen, 29, and Reiser, 31, met when they were the two youngest staff members on the American version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.” “I remember feeling threatened that there was another young dude working on the show,” said Rogen, who was recently named by Forbes as “the hardest-working man in Hollywood.”
At the time, Rogen shared an office with his current writing and producing partner, Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”), a friend since being in the same bar mitzvah class at their Reform synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Reiser, who had his bar mitzvah at a Jewish community center in White Plains, N.Y., remembers being envious of Rogen and Goldberg, who were staff writers while he was an associate producer. “Our office was divided by just a window, so we could see each other all day long,” Reiser said. “In their office, they’d be joking, imitating Sacha’s accents, shouting in Kazakhi [a reference to Baron Cohen’s character of “Borat”] and running back and forth, and I would be on the phone, really stressed out, on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, trying to book guests.”
Rogen and Reiser quickly bonded, however, in part because of their similar ages; they were the only staff members who smoked (both have since quit). Since they couldn’t light up in the show’s skyscraper offices, they’d have to trek down to the parking garage, which provided a nice break from the office intensity. “You needed a reason to leave, and the only reason to leave was to smoke, so we would go smoke cigarettes all the time,” Rogen said.
Reiser, who at 24 was already a workaholic and always the first person in the office at 7:30 a.m., initially dismissed his early cancer symptoms as stress-related. “I had no energy and my knee kept swelling up with fluid,” he recalled. “[Eventually], I could not stay awake, and I was having these horrible night sweats, where I would wake up and my shirt would be drenched, like I had just gone swimming.”
“Your skin just got bad,” Rogen said of the “Ali G” days. “It was like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when those people were melting. … Will began looking worse and worse, but of course we had no idea how sick he was; we just thought he was working too hard. We’d always joke, ‘The hours are killing him.’ Sacha would say, ‘Should we tell him to go home?’ ”
As Reiser’s health continued to spiral downhill, he took to the Internet and diagnosed himself with diabetes, he recalled now with a laugh. That’s when he finally went to the doctor for tests, in February 2005: “I was first diagnosed with low-grade lymphoma, which is terminal,” he said. “So there was a 10-day period when I thought I was definitely going to die.”
Even as other friends shied away, Rogen stuck around when the correct identification of Reiser’s spinal tumor meant a dangerous surgery was his only chance of survival. “The doctor told me I would be in the hospital for a week,” Reiser said. “I didn’t realize it would be the most excruciating pain of my life.”
“Will was in much worse shape than Joe’s character in the film,” Rogen said. Like the fictional Kyle, Rogen was the one who helped Reiser curb his pain by procuring medical marijuana: “I think I had a prescription, and Will didn’t,” Rogen said with his signature, rumbling laugh.
“It got very confusing, just how people would talk to me,” Reiser recalled of other friends and acquaintances. “A lot of people had this warped idea of what I should do — like ‘Go travel the world.’ They’d want to hug and coddle you, when you felt like sh—.
“While you look unhealthy on the outside, on the inside, there’s all this anxiety — you have this tumor growing inside you — and you feel completely disconnected from yourself, and then you have all these people who want to touch you; it’s weird,” he added.
Rogen admits he felt ill equipped to deal with his friend’s cancer. He said his character is based on the “dumbest” version of himself when Reiser was sick; while Kyle cares, he doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, so he tries to make light of the situation and have fun with it. “But Kyle is rather insensitive about it,” Rogen said. “I was telling Will to write a movie about his experience, which was probably my insensitive version of telling Will to travel the world or get laid.”
In reality, Rogen said, Reiser’s cancer helped Rogen get lucky — in more ways than one. As they began discussions about what would become “50/50,” Reiser introduced Rogen to his fiancée, Lauren Miller, and Reiser will be honored at their upcoming Jewish wedding, where, Rogen said, “We’ll have a rabbi, the chuppah, the broken glass.”
Rogen’s caring attitude toward his friend impressed Miller: “So, in a way, I probably did use his cancer to get laid,” he quipped.
When Rogen and Reiser first envisioned the characters of Adam and Kyle, “We were talking about a buddy comedy,” Rogen said.
“We made up ... like … a dirty version of ‘The Bucket List,’ ” Reiser said. “We called it, ‘The F—-it List.’ But as Seth always says, the best ideas come from jokes.”
While the friends had never before discussed how Reiser’s illness had affected their relationship, working on the film necessitated such conversations. In early drafts, Reiser wrote his character more as a victim. But then Rogen opined that, in real life, “Will had actually done some things that were messed up.”
“Seth pointed out how I obsessed over unnecessary things instead of dealing with my illness,” Reiser said. “I would become preoccupied with work or a girlfriend and complain and harp on things, and I would just ignore the cancer. I would just sort of disassociate and compartmentalize.”
“It was stuff that would contextualize his view,” Rogen explained. “Adam’s character really didn’t do that much wrong, and that’s where the conversations started as we explained, ‘Well, you put a lot of pressure on people that maybe you shouldn’t have, and you could have dealt with things differently, and you didn’t express what you needed from us in many ways,’ and that was something we obviously didn’t talk about at all at the time, but did for the purpose of making the character not just a squeaky-clean angel.”
“Those discussions were good for me,” Reiser said. “I had come out of the experience feeling very angry, and I turned everything into a joke. It’s very easy to turn yourself into a victim. … I used to be kind of curmudgeonly,” he said of his personality before the cancer.
“You’re a lot more relaxed now,” Rogen said.
When asked about his prognosis, Reiser paused for a second before replying, simply, “Knock wood.” He is in remission, he has become a vegan, he takes good care of his body and he can even jog again, despite extensive nerve damage and having had bone shaved from one hip and multiple vertebrae.
Now he and Rogen are collaborating on another movie, “Jamaica,” based on a trip Reiser took to the Caribbean with his grandmother when he was 14.
Unlike some who come away from illness with a renewed spiritual life, Reiser says he did not find religion as a result of his cancer ordeal; in fact, he and Rogen never discussed God as part of the equation.
“People may find religion in foxholes, but cynical comedy writers don’t,” Rogen said. The filmmakers even nixed a scene in which Adam visits a rabbi: “It just felt like a scene from a Woody Allen movie, specifically ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ where the guy thinks he’s dying and tries to find religion,’ “ Rogen said. “But honestly, that didn’t play a big role with us.”
Yet the experience seems to have turned Reiser into something of an optimist. “I have felt pain every day since the surgery,” he said. “But every day it gets better.”
“50/50” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening in theaters on Sept. 30.