ASK Seth Rogen what he would have done if Barbra Streisand had refused to play his mother in his new film, and he doesn’t miss a beat. “Actually,” he says, “I was kinda holding out for Shirley MacLaine.”
Lately, road trip movies have been dominated by teenagers on risqué adventures or Hangover journeys of self-discovery, but Rogen and his screen mother Streisand drive the genre in a different direction with The Guilt Trip, where Rogen plays an inventor who takes his doting mother across America in a tiny car with the secret aim of reuniting her with her first love. Written by Dan Fogelman, who penned Crazy, Stupid, Love, most of the comedy is so gentle you could take your own mum to The Guilt Trip, but Rogen makes no apologies for this early Mother’s Day present.
“Everyone in the world has a mother, so that makes this the most relatable film in the world,” he says. “And I’d never seen a comedy about a son and mother before, and that seemed such a quintessential relationship.”
I don’t know, does Sylvester Stallone’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot with Estelle Getty count as a comedy? Probably not. In any case, The Guilt Trip has some perceptive things to say about the way responsible adults can revert back to being prickly children when confronted with the klieg light of a parent’s intense, misguided attention.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the film,” agrees Rogen. “When I see my parents, I revert back to being a teenager. I always want to spend time with my parents and want to be nice but find myself being argumentative for no reason. And the weird thing is that I’m super aware while I’m doing it.” The road trip aspect also struck a chord with him: “When I was 17, I went on a road trip across Israel with my mother,” he recalls. “We had a good time, but one night we had to sleep in the car, and every time we checked into a hotel, people thought we were a couple; which was disgusting. And which also happens in the movie.”
Barbra Streisand is famously picky about her projects. She agreed to play Ben Stiller’s mother, and Dustin Hoffman’s wife, in Meet The Fockers (2006) and Little Fockers (2010), but she hasn’t committed to a leading role since directing herself in The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996.
Reluctant to leave husband James Brolin and the comfort of her Malibu estate, she set out numerous conditions, including 8.30am starts so she didn’t have to rise too early, and requested a film set no more than 45 minutes away from her home. Even when the studio agreed to shoot their cross-country road movie almost entirely on a sound stage, Streisand still hesitated. “I made two movies while she made up her mind,” says Rogen affectionately.
In the past, Streisand has struck sparks with her co-stars that sometimes resulted in fiery exchanges. On Hello Dolly, she so infuriated comic actor Walter Matthau that he told her she had no more talent “than a butterfly’s fart”. So Rogen did his homework, phoning friends like Ben Stiller and director Jay Roach, who reassured him that their experience of working with the singer had been far sweeter. Meanwhile, Streisand had also staked out Rogen by watching films like Knocked Up and Superbad, and admitted she had been a little shocked. “My movies are not her cup of tea,” he says, unoffended. “She’s told me that, many times.”
At first glance, pairing an Oscar-winning actress-singer-director-producer and the star of edgy comedies like Knocked Up and Superbad seems a curious cross-pollination of styles. There’s also a 40-year age gap between the two actors; yet when they met, there was an immediate rapport that became a smartly affectionate chemistry on screen, perhaps because Rogen seems so relaxed. At 30, he is big, bespectacled and teddy-bearish, with an easy, frequent, hairball laugh.
“She reminded me of my own mother,” adds Rogen, “although my mother is more like the hippy Barbra played in Meet The Fockers. My mom’s inappropriate at times and talks about sex way too much. She will post far too much information on her Facebook. But a whole generation of mothers model themselves on Barbra. She is the patient zero of Jewish mothers. And when we spend time together, we talked about movies, food and the stuff I usually talk about. She’s not very pretentious.”
They spent most of their time on a sound stage, where Rogen and Streisand squeezed into the front of a compact car with a green screen in the background so landmarks such as the Grand Canyon could be added later on. It sounds maddeningly claustrophobic, but Rogen says this was one of his favourite shoots because “you get to sit, which is great. I just hate running around.” He also found Streisand a quick wit and an able improviser; a riff about hitchhikers from one of their bantering sessions ended up on screen.
Occasionally they did go on location too; “We went to Vegas,” he recalls. “Barbra got us all bagels.” Above all, he says there was no sign of diva strops. “She could go bonkers,” he confirms, “but she doesn’t do anything. If anything, Barbra showed me there’s no excuse to be crazy because she acts very reasonably.”
Making The Guilt Trip has bought Rogen bonus points at home. His wife, screenwriter Lauren Miller, is a long-time Streisand fan. “Over the years, she’s dragged me to several of Barbra’s concerts,” Rogen says. “She’s not my kind of music. I listen to rap.”
Meanwhile, Sandy Rogen now gets to show off at coffee mornings. “In the past, people like Harold Ramis and other cool guys have played my dad but no-one ever played my mom before,” says Rogen. “By getting Barbra, she’s kind of trumped him.”
Rogen grew up in Canada as a precocious comic. One of his early memories is of his mother trying to push him into entertaining family gatherings by telling jokes, but his first real gig was performing stand-up at the age of 13 in a lesbian bar (“I thought it was Ladies Night; I didn’t really get what was happening.”)
Three years later he landed a co-starring role on an American TV series called Freaks And Geeks, and moved his parents out to LA. The show was cancelled after one series but Rogen moved on to write for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show and other shows. However Freaks And Geeks’ creator Judd Apatow never forgot him, and after a scene-stealing role in Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rogen was given top billing in Knocked Up, opposite Katherine Heigl.
Despite frequently being cast as a boorish stoner, Rogen has a ferocious work ethic. “I work really hard,” he says, “but I dress in crummy clothes so it looks as if I’m not trying.” Lately he’s been broadening out his screen persona with less transgressive material; as well as The Guilt Trip, he was one of the best surprises in Sarah Polley’s romantic drama Take This Waltz last year, playing a chef whose wife is drifting towards an affair.
Rogen’s next film is a return to discomfiting comedy with This Is The End, set for release this summer. Expanding a short film he made some years back called Jay And Seth vs The Apocalypse, Rogen and Goldberg have written, directed and appear in an ensemble comedy that imagines how a bunch of celebrities would cope with a party at James Franco’s house that coincides with the apocalypse.
Appearing alongside them are Franco, Jonah Hill and Rihanna, along with Emma Watson, replacing Daniel Radcliffe who, Rogen says, “wasn’t willing to push things as far as we were”. And what message does his A-list cast bring with his movie? Rogen says it’s important to choose your Armageddon companions with care. “And I would say Jonah Hill is the worst-equipped person for the end the world.”
• The Guilt Trip is in cinemas now. This Is The End is out on 26 June