When screenwriter Will Reiser was 24 and diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer, he coped by thinking up ideas for cancer comedies with his best friend, actor Seth Rogen.
"We wanted to do a parody of The Bucket List where you do really absurd and ridiculous things," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Like skydiving with hookers and things that were completely outlandish. But it was a joke, and it was sort of a coping mechanism for me at the time."
Six years after his diagnosis, Reiser is now cancer-free. He's also now a screenwriter, for a comedic film loosely based on his experiences throughout his cancer diagnosis and treatment. The movie, called 50/50 after Reiser's initial survival odds, stars Rogen alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a kind of Reiser stand-in.
Gordon-Levitt, a veteran actor who has been in films like Inception, Hesher, and (500) Days of Summer, says he was drawn to the part of Adam because Reiser's script was one of the rare comedic scripts he's received that doesn't have cliched plot points or stereotypes.
"I read the script, and I quite liked it. I was laughing. I was concerned. I didn't know what was going to happen next," Gordon-Levitt says. "These are all what makes me want to get involved with a project. So I flew up to meet [the cast and crew] and accepted the role the next day."
And over the next few weeks, Gordon-Levitt repeatedly interviewed Reiser about his physical and emotional transformation over the course of his cancer treatments.
"I'd ask him, 'What hurt? Where? When? For how long? How badly?' " says Gordon-Levitt. "That was always really useful. ... But the more interesting stuff that we would talk about was not medical at all. It was, 'How do you feel? What were you thinking about?' And that's really what the movie is about, to me."
The movie does have its funny moments. Reiser says the film doesn't make fun of cancer itself, but instead finds humor in how people close to cancer patients react to their diagnosis. Adam's on-screen mother, played by Anjelica Huston, tries to smother her son — which is exactly what Reiser's mom did in real life.
"She got on a plane and flew to L.A. We went to one doctor's appointment, and I just could not handle being babied. I was 25, and I was just at the age where I was really kind of finding my own independence," Reiser says. "The idea of having my mother take care of me just seemed so unbearable. So I put her on a plane and made her go back to New York. ... It's hard at 25 to know how to ask for help from your mother, because it's the person you're trying to break away from."
His best friend Rogen, meanwhile, tried to be helpful by making Reiser laugh — and by changing his bandages despite having an aversion to bodily fluids.
"Seth was incredibly squeamish," says Reiser. "Despite what you might think about Seth, he is an incredibly fragile human being who does not like the sight of blood or cuts or scrapes or anything like that. For him, changing the dressing and seeing my giant wound was a traumatic experience for him. But he did it — he just complained about it the whole time, much as he does in the movie."
Rogen also suggested to Reiser that he use his cancer diagnosis as a sympathetic pick-up line. But that didn't work out so well.
"People would give me a lot of sympathy, but really, it was the kind of sympathy that you'd give a sick dog," he says. "It wasn't like women found me really attractive because I had cancer. It's because they felt bad for me. It was pity-sympathy. It wasn't sex-sympathy."
Reiser says he looks back on his illness differently now.
"I did feel like I was a victim right after I went through the entire ordeal, but now I've really kind of processed that and moved on from that period," he says. "But there was a time when it was really difficult, and I felt like who I was was entangled in being 'a sick person.' ... It's pretty incredible for me to take what was the most painful experience in my life and turn it into something that I'm really proud of and that I've made with my friends. I think it's pretty great."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt Additional Interview Highlights
On 3rd Rock From The Sun
"By the time I did 3rd Rock, I had been acting for seven years. I had just crossed the majority-of-my-life threshold. It was always a bit of a joke on set with Kristen [Johnston] and French [Stewart], who had two of the other regular roles on 3rd Rock — they were from the theater before, but hadn't done much TV or movies. That was the joke ... because the character I played on that show was supposed to be the old one."
On life after 3rd Rock
"After 3rd Rock, it was very difficult to convince anybody that I could do anything other than be in a funny TV show or romantic comedy. I don't blame folks for not wanting to put me in their movies or whatever. I understand if their audiences had an association with me. [But] it was definitely hard for me to get jobs for me for a while."
"A lot of the motivation for doing the "Make 'Em Laugh" [opening monologue] on SNL was because I had just finished shooting Inception, where there were zero-gravity scenes and I got into really good shape and was training and did all these stunts. Coming off of that, that instilled me with the confidence to do "Make 'Em Laugh."
On his older brother Dan, who died last year
"He did everything first. ... He was an extreme optimist. And so encouraging. His whole thing was getting people to bring to the forefront 'the superhero inside of them,' is one of the ways he would put it. So to have somebody so encouraging as a big brother, I definitely think that it was huge for me."
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