Judd Apatow's feature directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, propelled Steve Carell to movie stardom. His follow-up, this year's smash hit Knocked Up, accomplished the same feat for Virgin scene-stealer Seth Rogen. Now the Apatow-produced, Rogen-co-written (with partner Evan Goldberg) teen comedy Superbad looks like it's ready to do the same for stars Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
Cera is already known to discriminating comedy fans as the charmingly guileless, lovelorn son of Jason Bateman on Arrested Development, while Hill was a major component of Knocked Up's crackerjack supporting cast, as one of Rogen's hard-partying roommates. Mintz-Plasse is more of an unknown quantity, but his star-making turn as an über-geek with a fake I.D. reading "McLovin" looks primed to make him an instant cult icon on college campuses. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Superbad's stars to discuss alienating Peter Bogdanovich, the sad demise of Arrested Development, working with Apatow and Rogen, Superbad's killer buzz, and getting upstaged by a newcomer.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to be on the precipice of movie stardom?
Jonah Hill: I don't know, man, I think we'll just have to wait to see if people go to see the movie.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse: Yeah, we'll see what happens when it comes out.
Michael Cera: We could be on the precipice of failure. [Laughs.] Unspeakable failure.
JH: I think it's kind of strange when people talk about how hyped-up the movie is. It almost sets you up for a bigger fall.
MC: Totally, it's a big jinxing.
JH: I assume everything I do in life is gonna be a failure, and then if it turns up roses, then I'm psyched. [Laughs.]
MC: Or you can tell everyone, "See, I was right."
JH: If I start dating a girl, I go, "Oh, she's just gonna break up with me tomorrow." And when she doesn't, I'm like, "Fuck, what a great day I'm having today, I'm still in a relationship."
AVC: You don't think it's a sure thing at this point?
JH: No, I think nothing is a sure thing.
MC: But the tracking numbers are up, through the roof! Have you seen these numbers?
JH: Have you seen this? It's the number five, it's a 6.4! [Laughs.] The one thing I could say about it is that we completely made this movie on our own. Us, and Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], and [director] Greg [Mottola] and Judd [Apatow]. Judd's success from Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin allowed us to completely go off and make our own movie the way we wanted to do it. And if we fail, we fail on our own terms, 'cause we made a movie that we love. You can't control if people go see it. We try and do these things to get people to go see it, but we love it, so we're proud of it. And that's all that counts.
MC: You gotta make stuff that you enjoy doing.
JH: This is, like, the first time me and Mike, our faces are up on billboards everywhere. Imagine if the movie sucked. I would be so pissed-off, I would just be so embarrassed, but I'm willing to say that I think it's awesome.
AVC: Have you watched it with audiences?
AVC: It's just nonstop laughter. It's hard to see how something like that could go wrong.
JH: Office Space. [Laughs.] Seth and I always say—
MC: Every time I watch Office Space—
JH: Yeah, I go, "Office Space, hilarious movie—wasn't a big hit." But you know, we just really hope people go see it.
MC: And like it.
AVC: It kind of seems like Judd Apatow can do no wrong at this point.
AVC: Has he gone mad with power?
MC: Drunk with power. [Laughs.]
JH: He's gone completely awesome with power. 'Cause it allows for people like me to write movies and act in movies. Talk about a loyal guy, what does he have to gain from putting us in movies? He just thinks we're talented and is just nice enough to keep giving us opportunities.
MC: Yeah, he doesn't need us to be in movies, he's done fine without us. It's not for his sake. We know that much.
JH: You know, he gave us every opportunity in the world to succeed, and I'll always thank him for that.
CMP: Yeah, he's given me my only opportunity, so I definitely have to thank him for that. [Laughs.]
JH: Every time Chris has sex, he has to send Judd a check.
MC: "Thank you, Judd."
AVC: So he's not like Peter Bogdanovich, directing on horseback at the height of his power?
JH: Dude, I have the funniest picture from the Knocked Up première. My friend who does music supervision for Wes Anderson, he's a great guy, he knows Peter Bogdanovich, and at the Knocked Up première, I'm really drunk. It's a picture of me talking to Peter Bogdanovich, and my friend was lucky enough to snap it. I'm drunk and talking his head off, and he's so deeply uninterested, and wants to leave the conversation. I remember saying to him, "What was up with the mesh water-bottle sleeve from The Sopranos?" That's what I kept asking him.
MC: What does that even mean?
JH: Cause he's one of the psychiatrists on The Sopranos, and on one of the last episodes, there was this big mesh holster for his water bottle. I remember thinking "What a strange, interesting choice he's made."
MC: What did he say?
JH: He said "I brought it from home." But this picture is so great, because obviously all my friends got drunk that night after the Knocked Up première, and you see me so obviously being annoying talking to him, and taking the boundaries of being nice way too far, and him really wanting to get out of there. He was wearing that thing, you know. When you see the ascot, you know you're in for a party.
AVC: How involved was Judd Apatow in the making of the film?
JH: Judd spent so much time working on the script and casting, he's like super-producer, and he's also making a bunch of movies at the same time. I don't know how he multitasks the way he does. He was there often, not every day, but he's so involved in casting and the script. It was Greg Mottola and Seth and Evan, they really had a grasp on how they were gonna do things. They also involved us so much. I think we all got the opportunity to really make this movie awesome, and all because of Judd's success. The reason why it wasn't made earlier was because no one was gonna make it the way it had to be made for it to be good. They probably wanted to tone it down, or create more of a bullshit story that wasn't there. I just feel psyched. It felt like a dream or something—we were off, we stole a bunch of movie cameras and a crew and everything, and how the hell are we making this movie right now? [Laughs.] It felt like a renegade kind of thing, and everyone got along so well, it was sick.
AVC: You're playing characters named Seth and Evan, and the movie was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. On what level are you playing versions of them?
JH: Seth and I talked about it and we made a conscious decision—the movie is not autobiographical about them. Maybe certain conversations, or their points of view on certain things, were in their writing, I imagine, but I'm definitely not doing a version of Seth, and I don't think you're really doing—
MC: If anything, it was conversations they've had, the dynamic—it wasn't specific incidents from their high schools, maybe the way they interacted with girls might have been based on it, or how they remembered high school and wanted to portray it. But it didn't matter if we were doing impressions of them, because no one was going to watch the movie and say, "That's not a real Evan or Seth."
JH: "That's not a fucking Evan Goldberg impression!"
MC: Or Seth Rogen. No one knows how Seth is in real life.
JH: Also, when we came along, they really tailored it to what they thought our strong suits are, to make it more like how we would do it.
AVC: They tailored the parts to all of you?
JH: Right, and we were involved a lot with the writing of that, to help make it the way—
MC: It makes it feel like it's your character, too.
JH: And also, Seth and I talked about how Knocked Up and this were coming out close to each other. Like, we made this right after Knocked Up stopped shooting. Seth was starring in that movie, and I was gonna be the lead, one of the leads. And we had to make sure—we are different—we weren't doing the same thing. It was like this one day before we started shooting the movie, "You're not gonna do me, right?" And I was like, "Nah, dude." [Laughs.] And he was like, "All right." And then we figured out how to, 'cause he knows me so well and I know him so well, what my voice is that's different from his.
AVC: He originally wrote this role for himself—
JH: Yeah, he was gonna play it.
AVC: He's only like a year or two older than you—
JH: Yeah, he's aged poorly.
AVC: But he was far too old. So why do you think you're able to play a 17-year-old at this stage in your life, and he isn't?
JH: Seth is weathered, he's a weathered man.
MC: Yeah, Seth has these funny stories of when they were test-screening Knocked Up, a major problem with the movie was that the audience was like, "It doesn't make sense that this young girl ends up with this older guy—that would never happen. She winds up with this 40-year-old guy, why would she waste her time?" And then Seth was like, behind the room, "What the fuck? What are they talking about?" [Laugh.]
AVC: I remember watching 40-Year-Old Virgin and thinking, "Wow, who is this character actor? How can this guy be approaching 40 and he's great and I've never seen him before?"
MC: Yeah, and he must have been 23.
CMP: It's his voice, it's grisly.
MC: I think it's his voice, too, and he's tall.
JH: When I see him, I think of him as 25. It's so funny, I don't see it—
MC: He's very mature, too. Very mellow, he's just a mellow guy. He looks like he's very wise.
JH: It's confidence, also. Everything he says is delivered with supreme confidence in mind. He's like, [Deep voice.] "Well, this is how I feel about this," and I think that what comes with age a lot of times is being able to speak that confidently about things and making a valid, interesting point.
AVC: So he wasn't a hobo for years, which aged him prematurely?
JH: Maybe the Vancouver area ages you poorly, I don't know. Evan doesn't—
MC: Evan doesn't look a day over 24.
JH: Our friend Nick Stoller had one of the funniest jokes I've ever heard, we always say, "Evan looks like he should be in the original cast photo of Saturday Night Live." [Laughs.] Kind of sweaty, with one of those almost all-the-way unbuttoned '70s shirts. [Laughs.] If you ever meet Evan, it's one of my favorite jokes ever on the planet, it's so accurate to me.
AVC: So Michael, what's your perspective on the cancellation of Arrested Development?
MC: What's my perspective on it? I don't know, I feel like people—it's kind of having a new life on DVD. A lot of people come up to me and say that they never saw it when it was on TV, and they have it on DVD. And then they ask why it got canceled. 'Cause you never heard of it, you never watched it! When we were doing this pilot, it was like, "This show is going to struggle." Even the network was like, "No one's really watching." The fact is, they kept bringing it back with not many people watching it. I think Fox had a lot of confidence in it—and the people who did watch it were very enthusiastic about it, and very devoted to it, and the critics, too, kind of kept us alive. The critics always really liked it, and I don't think without their acclaim, Fox would have had any reason to bring it back. And then we won Emmys the first year, so it was like they would have been stupid to cancel it, and they were kind of obligated to bring it back. And the way it got canceled was kind of weird, too—they didn't cancel it, they just didn't pick it up, so they don't look as bad.
AVC: It seemed like with Arrested Development, there were no casual fans. It was like they'd never heard of it, or it was the core of their existence.
MC: Either you were watching from day one, or you had really never heard of it, and how could you follow it?
JH: I remember seeing it and not believing it was real. I was like, "This can't be on television."
MC: Evan told me that he watched the show once, and that he specifically didn't like the show because of me.
JH: [Laughs.] He specifically stopped watching because of Michael.
MC: He told me that very frankly.
AVC: What did he find so objectionable about you?
MC: He didn't go into that. He just said, "I saw Arrested Development, and I specifically didn't like it because of you." [Laughs.] Yeah, that's what he said. It wasn't right after I got the part, but it was the day we were reading for the girls, like in the kitchen of Judd's office. "I have to tell you, I specifically didn't like you." He never explained it. I thought it was very nice of him to say so.
AVC: How close did it come to getting picked up by another network?
MC: Oh, it was ready. Showtime had all the money that it needed, and then it came down to Mitch Hurwitz not wanting to make any more. He created the show. They were ready to go, Showtime, it was just, Mitch decided he didn't want to do it.
AVC: They wouldn't have changed the show?
MC: No, I think they would have been cool with it.
JH: If they had just done one season on Showtime—
MC: To be honest, I like how it ended. I don't mind it dying early.
AVC: It's nice that it never jumped the shark.
MC: It was kind of sad. It didn't really resonate with me until we weren't able to make the show any more. [Laughs.] We came back and weren't making it, it was kind of weird. It was like everyone knew—it was like it was imminent, it was terminally ill the whole run of the show, and people knew it wasn't going to last long.
JH: It just made me lose my faith that something so great could exist on network television. But it's so strange. How did Seinfeld exist? How did The Simpsons exist?
MC: But Seinfeld struggled the first three seasons, nobody watched it until season four.
JH: But that's what I'm saying, is imagine what maybe could have happened with that show, or Freaks And Geeks, or whatever, a chance to run and really glow.
MC: Seinfeld is a good comparison, but that's much more accessible. All you have to do is watch one episode and kind of figure out the characters, and then you can watch any episode and enjoy it.
CMP: Yeah, Arrested, you kind of had to know what was going on.
MC: Half the jokes in Arrested were self-referential, and the plotlines and everything, it was kind of made for the people that had been watching from the beginning.
AVC: Like Judd Apatow's shows Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared, it's like these shows are too good to last.
MC: Yeah, Freaks And Geeks is like one of the best shows ever.
CMP: It really is.
JH: That, to me, has been one of the biggest creative inspirations ever. The Larry Sanders Show lasted, that's a brilliant show.
MC: That was HBO, though.
JH: How many years?
MC: Six seasons, I think.
AVC: Christopher, how did you end up in this film?
CMP: It's pretty boring, actually.
JH: [Bad British accent.] "I was a waiter…" [Laughs.]
MC: "I was working at Musso & Frank's and…"
CMP: I guess they were looking for somebody to play the part of Fogel for like three months, that's what Evan told me. They had open casting calls, and my two friends were going to audition for it, and they told me that I fit the description of the part, so I should go audition with them. So I said, "All right, why not? It'll be fun." And I went and auditioned and got called back twice, and they liked me. And that was that, and I got in Superbad. [Laughs.] Really lucky story.
AVC: Do you think Christopher steals the film?
MC: Yeah. [Laughs.]
JH: I'd say yeah. Also, Michael and I have to carry the emotional weight of the movie, you know what I mean? What was so different for me was, I've never been the lead of a movie before. I've always been in movies where, like, I come in, say a couple of funny things, and leave. Rip a few scenes, or whatever. The hardest thing for me to do, and the best thing I've done and learned as an actor so far, is to sacrifice being funny in certain circumstances in order to do something that makes sense for the story or the character, or emotionally. There were scenes that I watched that don't kill, because the rest of the movie is so funny.
While doing the scene where I cry, Greg and I were talking a lot about how I have to cry every take. That's hard for me, because when you come from a comedy background, your natural inclination is to make them laugh at all costs, and that's usually what I do in other movies. What I'm learning now is to play these different kind of parts, more leading parts, and how you have to sacrifice laughs for other things that help the movie out. But Chris, when he's on, you're smiling the whole time. I mean, McLovin, it's like an iconic name—people are gonna get, like, McLovin tattoos. And then in 10 years, the movie will be not-loved anymore and there will be faded tattoos on college guys turning into fat old men with saggy, gross tattoos.
MC: People go crazy when they see Chris onscreen. People have been showing up to the screenings wearing McLovin T-shirts and, like, the movie hasn't even come out yet.
CMP: I'm just an icon. [Laughs.]
AVC: Chris, are you prepared for years and years of people knowing you as McLovin?
CMP: I mean, I don't know what I'm gonna think in the future, but right now—
MC: That's a common question, I'm finding out, a lot of people are asking that.
CMP: Right now, I'm loving the McLovin thing, but who knows? I find that as a compliment, when people come up to me and say, "Hey, it's McLovin," cause that means they loved me in the movie.
JH: You brought up a great point today, though, that made me laugh so hard. It's a difference between McLovin and Screech, because Screech, you almost say with disdain, like mocking him—
MC: "Fuck you, Screech!"
JH: Yeah, like you're angry with him or something.
MC: But McLovin's the hero.
JH: It's like you love him, like you love McLovin.
MC: You go through such a transformation in the movie.
JH: I feel like they say it with such love, like it makes them so happy to say it.
MC: Whenever Bill [Hader] says "McLovin," especially when he's driving, doing donuts in the car, he's like, "McLovin!" He screams it like that. Ah, it's great.
JH: And when they're like, "Fuck that, we're calling you McLovin," the whole crowd goes crazy. It's just great, man, and I remember specific conversations, like way before we shot the movie, with Seth and Evan, like, "Does McLovin work? Is the name too cheesy?" You conceptualize this stuff a lot, like, "Will this work, will people get sick of this joke?"
MC: Especially since you audition so many times. So we said it, heard it, so many times, you get sick of it. There's one joke that's in the movie—
JH: The Irish R&B singer one?
MC: It was in the original script, like, "McLovin? What are you, an Irish R&B singer?" I said that line a million times in the audition, and every time I had to say it, nobody laughed. And it's in the movie still, and when people hear it for the first time and haven't heard it a million times, it's different, you have to get past that, get past how sick of the thing you are.
JH: I think that's part of the reason why we improvise so much, is because otherwise, the job would be so monotonous. Imagine saying the same thing over and over for a whole day, not bad in the sense that I'm bitching about the job, whatever, it's, like, amazing, but there's such an excitement to hearing Michael say something new, or him hearing me saying something we haven't heard before that makes us laugh, that makes the day exciting. And it also gives Greg and Judd a ton of options to choose from. Cause we test-screen it so much that if this joke doesn't work, let's put in this joke, let's test this. The audience can decide whether they like something, you can tell, if you listen to the audiotapes. That joke was so unfunny to us by the time we shot the movie, the Irish R&B singer bit. I was just like, "I can't even—" But then when you hear the crowd, you're like, "Holy shit, man!"
MC: "These people haven't heard this a million times!"
JH: [Laughs.] Yeah. "These people are only going to see this once, maybe twice. Or not at all."
MC: "They'll never get sick of it!" [Laughs.]