People know Jason Segel in very different ways. Probably most know him as a television star. He began to get noticed after brief stints on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” but he became an outright television star thanks to more than 200 episodes of “How I Met Your Mother,” meaning that Segel has been on the small screen for the better part of 15 years. There’s no getting around that, clothed or unclothed, Segel is a naturally funny man. Never allowing himself to play someone mean spirited, he’s made a career of being the clueless, misguided, charming everyman with varying degrees of confidence, depending on the part. There’s an aw-shucks quality to him that never fails to have audiences rooting for his character, even when he’s being a bit of a rascal.
From the would-be seducer in KNOCKED UP (and again in THIS IS 40), the rebounding lover in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, the man in search of friendship in I LOVE YOU, MAN to the man that must make the sex with Cameron Diaz in both BAD TEACHER and SEX TAPE and with Emily Blunt in THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT, Segel has proven himself a worthy lead player, whatever the style of comedy may be.
And like many comedic actors, Segel was curious and somewhat fearful about transitioning into a more dramatic world. In 2011, two things happened for him that tested the water a bit. One involved a script he wrote with the intention of reviving THE MUPPETS, which was not only successful, but gave Segel the opportunity to try and different brand of humor. That same year, writers-directors Mark and Jay Duplass released JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME, featuring a darker turn in Segel acting abilities that he absolutely nailed, playing the emotionally stunted man living in his mother’s basement. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.
It’s not difficult to draw a more or less straight line from that film to his latest work, playing the late author David Foster Wallace in director James (THE SPECTACULAR NOW) Ponsoldt’s THE END OF THE TOUR, chronicling a few days in Wallace’s life when he’s being shadowed and interviewed by Rolling Stone writer James Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) at the end of his book tour for his turning-point novel “Infinite Jest.” It’s clear from his transformative and intelligent performance that Segel put in the time and thought to understand a bit of what Wallace was dealing with in terms of fame, success and exposure at that specific time in his life.
I’ve interviewed or otherwise spoken to Segel several times over the last 10 years or so, the last time being a conversation we had at a reception following the Sundance Film Festival premiere of THE END OF THE TOUR, which ended with a rousing standing ovation that tentatively confirmed for Segel that he hadn’t embarrassed himself with the work. I caught up with Segel recently in Chicago, where he was on his own new kind of press tour, one where he wasn’t required or expected to be a clown for a succession of journalists. He’s clearly thought a great deal about the film, Wallace and the work he put into shaping his performance. Please enjoy my talk with Jason Segel, with begins, as many of these interviews do, with a cordial handshake…
Jason Segel: Hey, good to see you again, man. How’s it going?
JS: I feel like we both wanted to hug there for a minute, but we didn’t do it.
Capone: Let’s do it.
[Bro hug commences]
JS: Good to see you. How’s everything going?
Capone: Great, since I last saw you at Sundance.
JS: Oh yes, that’s right.
Capone: I’m sure you remember it well, because you weren’t busy or thinking about anything.
JS: I got to say, that was an overwhelming experience, top to bottom.
Capone: Going into that day, waking up that morning, assuming you got any sleep at all, what was your state of mind right before that screening started?
JS: It’s a really interesting question, because I had a lot going on. My relationship to how I handle this stuff was in the process of changing, partly as a result of having done the movie, and a lot of the themes and subjects that were brought up in the movie were affecting how I related to outcomes. When we finished THE END OF THE TOUR shooting, and they said “That’s a wrap on Jason Segel,” it was the first time in my career—and I think it was as a result of just thinking about this stuff for so long to prep for the movie—I felt like, “Well, I have done everything I can possibly do,” and at that point, what I had to deal with is face reality, one way or another, and frankly I hadn’t been looking through the camera. The entire movie could have been out of focus. Do you know what I mean? There are a million things that can happen now.
I think I realized that I have to be good with the idea that I’ve done my best. That’s a big thing to wrap your head around in a really results-driven business. So one was that. Then there’s the part that’s the human scared part. I think that there had been enough friends and family screenings that I was no longer scared that I had done a shitty job.
Capone: You hadn’t embarrassed yourself.
JS: Right, that’s a better way to put it. I was no longer scared that I had embarrassed myself. A24 had bought the movie the night before, so I knew the movie had merit, or however you want to describe it. I guess it’s my job to describe it.
JS: I just knew that people liked the movie. What I was nervous about was the wild card that an audience of non-friends and -family would watch the movie, and no matter how well I had done, like the way a body can reject an organ, they would just say, “No. I don’t accept that. Sorry, Jason Segel is not David Foster Wallace.” And we got over that hurdle, and then I felt pretty good. The other thing to be scared of was that this is a movie about really subtle character tension. There aren’t big plot movements, so if you’re not interested 15-20 minutes in, it’s not like something’s going to happen to change your opinion on what the movie is about. So the other question is, will people care? And I think people walked away feeling the way that we hoped they would feel, asking these same questions that David Foster Wallace is asking. That’s a really long answer to your first question.
Capone: You actually touched on a few things I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned you were worried about the way people would react to you in this role. Is fear a motivating factor for you, in the sense that you say, “I’m not sure I can do that, therefore I have to try”?
JS: Yes. I’ve realized it’s the most important thing as I’ve hit the past few years, where I’ve had the opposite and was doing things I was very comfortable with. That’s the nature of a television show is that it’s repetitive, so you can check in whenever.
Capone: It’s like going home. It’s comfortable.
JS: Yeah. And it has its own merit, and it’s a very important thing for people who want comfort at the end of the day. I’ve really come to appreciate that. But it was a really comfortable situation for me, as well. When you have some success doing a certain kind of movie, you’re encouraged in a lot of ways to continue to do that type of movie, and it becomes less and less scary. And as a result, I felt unchallenged. I felt a little lazy, if I’m going to be perfectly honest. And finally, when the TV show came to its end, and I had a chance to take a deep breath and observe myself and think about what I wanted to do, one of the things I realized was that I hadn’t been scared in a long time.
I also wrote a book called “Nightmares!” for 10 year olds, and the message of this book, honestly, is that nightmares are the gatekeepers to your dreams, and unless you face your fears, you’ll never accomplish your dreams. And I had the thought, “I cannot tell this to 10 year olds and not take my own advice. It’s sitting right in front of you.” And so I just tried to do something that really scared me, and that’s all I want to do now. I don’t feel limited by genre or anything like that. What I feel is the only imperative is that I’m exploring my boundaries.
Capone: You’ve made a pretty comfortable living being funny and charming. And this version of David Foster Wallace is those things, but in completely different way than your go-to persona. That must have been one of the toughest things of all, not to fall back into old habits.
JS: Yeah, not to fall back. “I’m going to do old number 24.”
Capone: Waiting for the laugh track to kick in.
JS: Yeah. I’ll tell you, this is a movie that, as an actor, is a test of your capacity for honesty. By nature, a movie like this is about how honest both Jesse and I are willing to be on screen. That’s the only way it’s going to be interesting. Otherwise, you run the risk of it being two guys being smart back and forth, which is nothing that interests me.
Capone: I’ve been lucky I got to meet a few heroes of mine in the past, and there is nothing scarier in this movie than the moment you realize that a) the other Lipsky idolizes this guy, even though he won’t admit it out loud, and b) David Foster Wallace is basically saying, “You don’t want to be me. Don’t envy me because of what is going though your head right now.”
JS: It’s a really interesting dynamic, and I think what cuts to the heart of it is that David Foster Wallace also did profiles on people, so he knew exactly what Lipsky was doing at any given moment. I really zeroed in on this idea that it’s a guy talking to his younger self, that David Foster Wallace is on one end of the tunnel.
Capone: Just a couple of years younger, though. This isn’t old guy/young guy.
JS: No, that’s right. He’s able to look at basically himself, so ambitious four years earlier, thinking “If I only get there, I’m going to feel this way,” and having to look at your younger self and saying, “Hey, I really hate to spoil the party, but it turns out there’s no there. It keeps moving equidistant.” You never even get any closer, is my experience. It’s human nature. I think about this a lot. Especially in our business, it’s what got you here, you’re encouraged to narrow the criteria of success, so you’re always outside of it. So you’re always losing. At least for me, where I never would feel satisfied. I would have this accomplishment, and prior to the accomplishment, I would think “Once I accomplish that, I’m set.”
Capone: “Once I get that MUPPETS movie made…”
JS: Right! THE MUPPETS movie gets made, and the thing gets smaller. What next?
Capone: As someone who interviews people, I could not take my eyes off what Jesse was doing. People who aren’t paying attention might just think he’s just sitting back and letting you go, feeding you questions, but he is probing and pushing—a little too much sometimes. Sometimes just way too much. I’ve never seen anybody get it quite that right on film before.
JS: Oh, good. Well, he talked to Lipsky about it and really picked Lipsky’s brain. That’s so interesting for me to hear, because it was less my focus. That is my skill to develop, isn’t it?
Capone: It is. I don’t do it consciously, but when I watch him I realize, he picked up on something that I do subconsciously, and he turned it into a performance. Before you started shooting, did you guys stay apart so that you didn’t know each other very well going into this?
JS: It wasn’t intentional, but that was the circumstance of it. It worked out great. Literally, we met once before we found out we were going to do the movie, and the next time we really interacted was when he shows up on David Foster Wallace’s doorstep. And I think you can feel us sniffing each other out in that scene.
Capone: It’s a great first date.
JS: It’s a meet cute [laughs].
Capone: That’s what it is. Talk about James Ponsoldt a little bit. What did he do to convince you this would be something cinematic and not just, like you said, two smart guys talking to each other?
JS: I caught James at a very early moment in what’s going to be a really brilliant career. It’s so interesting. All of the reasons that have kept me from directing, because I didn’t feel I had the natural skill for it, were confirmed by working with James.
JS: The simplest way to put it is, when I saw the movie for the first time with James, I did not realize that the moment where Lipsky is left alone in my house is the climax, until I saw the movie, and that is James understanding something that I didn’t even see on paper. What he is genius at doing—and he’s done it in all of his movies—is creating tension and a character arc and narrative through glances. There are scenes where, if James hadn’t stayed on Jesse’s eyes when I was talking, nothing would have happened in the scene, but you see something registering in Jesse’s eyes, and that scene all of a sudden has meaning. He’s a genius.
Capone: He captured active listening.
JS: Yes! Oh my god! That’s exactly the way to put it. I’m saying that in the rest of my interviews.
Capone: Take it, it’s yours. One of the other films that made a big splash at Sundance was ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, and now it sounds like you’ll be working with [director] Alfonso Gomez-Rejon [in COLLATERAL BEAUTY].
JS: I’m not sure yet. I’m not sure.
Capone: Okay. I just wondered how you ended up getting a part that Hugh Jackman had before. Is this going to be the new thing now? “Jackman had to drop out; let’s get Jason Segel”?
JS: [laughs] Yeah. There are so many moving parts in that story that it’s tough to address.
Capone: But that’s a pure dramatic film. If you do it, that would be exciting as hell. Thanks for talking, Jason.
JS: Dude, this was the best. It’s always great to see you.