— by Larry Carroll
NORTHRIDGE, California — Sometimes, the most talented people in Hollywood have to struggle for years before they can finally become an "overnight success."
Most fans didn't realize — until they rented the flicks years later — that Jack Black was the name of "that funny guy in 'The Jackal' " or Kevin Spacey was "that boss guy in 'Glengarry Glen Ross.' " But there was a time when both stars had stolen scenes in more than a dozen projects, yet still couldn't expect anyone — with the possible exception of immediate family members — to know their names.
Last summer, long-suffering comedy writer/director Judd Apatow finally broke through with one of the most surprising movie hits in recent memory. It was called "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and, appropriately enough, starred an actor known primarily as "that news-anchor guy from 'Bruce Almighty.' "
This summer, with Hollywood begging to greenlight virtually anything from the red-hot filmmaker, Apatow chose to roll cameras on something that isn't a sequel or a remake, and doesn't star anyone named Ferrell, Carrey or Stiller. Instead, he hopes a low-wattage comedy will make another Steve Carell out of "that goofy friend guy from '40-Year-Old Virgin.' "
"It's really flattering to me," grinned the funnyman otherwise known as Seth Rogen, his characteristic curly hair aglow on the sunny set of the comedy "Knocked Up." "He really could have done anything. I think he was offered 'Spider-Man 3,' but he turned it down to do this with me for some reason, so I'm not going to ask any questions."
"After '40-Year-Old Virgin,' I was looking to do something with Seth Rogen, and he pitched me a lot of ideas that were big and science fiction-y," remembered Apatow, the so-called overnight sensation who spent more than a decade on unappreciated projects like TV's "Undeclared" and "Freaks and Geeks," both of which employed Rogen. "I said [to Rogen], 'You don't need all that stuff — you just need to, like, get a girl pregnant or something.' And he said, 'Oh, that sounds like a good idea,' and we were off."
From that simple conversation came the quasi-script for the accidental-pregnancy flick, which co-stars Paul Rudd ("Virgin"), B.J. Novak ("The Office"), Jonah Hill ("Accepted") and one more suddenly red-hot overnight star: "Grey's Anatomy" actress Katherine Heigl. Due in theaters next August (on the exact same weekend, incidentally, that treated "Virgin" so well), the flick's set felt like a laid-back fraternity house when the cast gave MTV News a tour a few weeks before their recent wrap.
"I play Ben, who is kind of an idiot-stoner guy who really doesn't have much going for him," explained Rogen, standing in the backyard of a dilapidated house and sizing up a swimming pool filled with gallons of iced tea. "He goes to a bar one night, meets Katherine Heigl's character, who works for E!, and we get really drunk and have a one-night stand. And it's immediately clear we don't really hit it off with one another. Then I get a call a few months later, and I think I'm going to get laid again, but instead she tells me that she's pregnant.
"I react very poorly," laughed Rogen, who has also stolen scenes in "Anchorman" and "You, Me and Dupree." "I re-ingratiate myself to her, I guess you would say, and we kind of try to see if we can forge a relationship by the time that the baby comes."
Normally, you could ask an actor about favorite lines, scenes or cameos — but with an Apatow film, not even the director knows what's going to happen on any given day. "It is written down, and we work hard on the script and we rehearse it and table-read it — but then when we get to the set, we do it once or twice and then the craziness starts," grinned the bearded comedy vet, who encouraged a similar style recently for "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (on which he served as producer) and has had four projects greenlighted since his "Virgin" breakthrough. "[My sets are] kind of a free-for-all, and it's a lot of film. A normal film shoots about 400,000 feet of film; we've shot a million feet of film on this. I like to let the actors beat any jokes that I wrote in the script, and most of the time, they do."
In "Virgin," the inspired moments that came from Steve Carell, Rudd, Rogen and others amounted to just over a million feet of film. For "Knocked Up," Apatow was exited to report that they had broken that record with over a week left to go. On the day MTV News visited, the group's improvisational stylings were set in the "Brady Bunch"-on-welfare house that Rogen's Ben calls home with his similarly underachieving buds.
"It's a frightening time to realize, 'Hey, I'm not a kid anymore, and I can't hang out all day, and we have to give up our porn Web site, FleshOfTheStars.com,' " said Jonah Hill, pointing to a wall containing ads promising naked pictures of Hollywood actresses. Despite his desire to prove a paternal worthiness to Heigl's character, Ben and his friends find it hard abandoning their "Jackass" lifestyles.
"Today we're shooting what is to be the opening-credits sequence of the movie, which is me and my knucklehead roommates basically beating the living hell out of each other with various apparatuses," Rogen said, before pausing. "Apparati? I don't know. But we did boxing, and we've had a plank over the pool and been fighting with giant 'American Gladiator'-style Q-tip devices. I didn't go into the drink, luckily, but I've knocked [co-stars] Jason Segel and Jay Baruchel's asses in there, so that was sweet.
"We've also done freestyle rapping," said Hollywood's newest leading man, punctuating the statement with a staccato laugh. Soon enough, Rogen was called to set and squared off against Hill on a thick board that created a quasi-bridge above the "filthy" swimming-pool water. As cameras rolled, the scene escalated from a bathing suit-clad boxing match to a sparring session between two idiots who decide to up the stakes by setting their gloves on fire.
"Come on bitch, bring it!" shouted Rogen.
"I'll set your b---s on fire!" threatened Hill.
Toppling into a nasty mix of iced tea, spent cigarettes and the occasional loogie, Hill floated up and started improvising a riff on how he's being attacked by the "Lady in the Water." Seth Rogen, meanwhile, let loose with another staccato laugh while raising his flaming fists in victory.
With some help from the hottest comedy director in Hollywood, "that guy" might finally be ready to take on the heavyweights.