In the late ‘90s, actress Lizzy Caplan met a couple of up-and-coming teenage actors named Seth Rogen and James Franco on the set of a cult, soon-to-be-canceled NBC series called “Freaks and Geeks.” Just 15 herself, Caplan had never acted professionally before and spent much of her time on the show feeling nervous and confused.
“Seth didn’t make much of an impression on me,” Caplan recalled. “I remember James because he was the handsomest. But I was just trying to figure out what a mark was the whole time.”
Cut to today and Seth Rogen has become a major comedy star, James Franco has become James Franco, and Caplan, 32, is busy juggling turns in movies with a starring role as sex researcher Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s series “Masters of Sex,” for which she earned an Emmy nomination this year.
Now, 14 years after “Freaks and Geeks” ended its all-too-brief run, the three are reuniting in the R-rated comedy “The Interview,” opening Dec. 25, which Rogen co-directed with his longtime collaborator, Evan Goldberg. In the film, Caplan plays a no-nonsense CIA agent who recruits a vapid talk show host (Franco) and his producer (Rogen) to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Randall Park), a mission that soon goes absurdly awry.
Among comedy fans, “The Interview” is one of the most anticipated films of the holiday season. For the North Korean regime, though, not so much; in June, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the film was tantamount to an “act of war” and promised “a decisive and merciless countermeasure” if the U.S. government didn’t ban its release.
For Caplan — who calls the film “a broad, ridiculous comedy, not a political statement” — the movie represents a welcome departure from her often emotionally and physically draining dramatic work on “Masters of Sex.” Since early in her career, she said, she’s felt comfortable in the type of crude-dude comedy “The Interview” revels in.
“It’s very in line with my own sense of humor,” she said. “I think the more girls getting to do that kind of thing, the better.”
As far as her preparation for her role, she said dryly, “I watched ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ for the second time — that was pretty much it.”
On-screen and off, Caplan, who grew up in Los Angeles, excels at delivering those kinds of wry one-liners, an ability that for years led to her being typecast as the sarcastic friend in movies like “Mean Girls” and “Bachelorette” and various TV series.
Spend time with her, though, and it’s clear that underneath that air of cool detachment, which she says she adopted as a kind of emotional armor after her mother’s death when she was 13, lies a well of vulnerability. Despite the acclaim she’s received for “Masters of Sex,” for example, she has a hard time even watching herself in it. “What I’m seeing,” she said, deadpan, “is a bloodbath.”
Rogen, who recently reteamed with Caplan on another, as-yet-untitled, comedy due next year, says it’s that dichotomy of self-possession and self-doubt that makes her intriguing. “She’s the coolest, but she’s also really awkward and goofy and gets flustered and embarrassed — which makes her even cooler,” he said. He laughed. “If she was a guy, I’d hate her. I’d be way too threatened to be friends with her.”
After so many years of hustling from one snarky-sidekick role to the next, Caplan is gratified if a bit bewildered by all her recent success.
“I’m used to things not going well,” she said. “To be on a show like this and doing comedy movies in my hiatuses is truly what I’ve been wanting. I keep waiting for someone to come and take it all away.”
Odds are that not even Kim Jong Un could manage that.