Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Jason Segel

You may know Jason Segel the actor from a series of characters—Nick in Freaks and Geeks, Marshall in How I Met Your Mother, Peter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall—who could be described as well, awkwardly adorable. Onscreen he gets the laughs as the really nice guy who's a winning combination of smart and not so smart, and who finds himself somewhat surprised to have ended up with the girl before the credits roll. In his latest role, however, Segel's not getting many laughs, Instead, he's getting Oscar buzz. In The End of the Tour, Segel plays David Foster Wallace, the now-iconic, prize-winning writer (he received an NEA Literature Fellowship, among other awards) best known for his nearly thousand-paged, heavily end-noted postmodern masterpiece Infinite Jest. The spare movie is, for the most part, a two-hander with Segel as Wallace in a sometimes tense, sometimes tender days-long conversation with Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, a reporter who covered the closing days of Wallace's Infinite Jest book tour for Rolling Stone. Segel's Wallace is intense, provocative, and discursive. He is so completely immersed in the character that it's possible to forget completely that you are watching an actor at work and believe, instead, that you are somehow eavesdropping on conversations long over. What's interesting about Segel's performance in this film is not just what he brings out about Wallace, but what the part brings out about Segel—particularly his intelligence and thoughtful approach to how he approaches his work. Both of these assets were on full display when we spoke to him by telephone about what playing David Foster Wallace taught him as a writer, the decision that changed his life, and what gets him to "yes."

quote against yellow background with large red spots and one blue spot. Quote says The arts matter because they give words to what would otherwise be lonely feelings. Jason Segel

NEA: I’d like to start by asking you to think back and talk about a moment in your life that you feel was key to having the career that you have now.

JASON SEGEL: There’s one in particular that's really defining. I was a high school athlete. I come from a fairly academic family, and when I was seventeen years old, in high school, I got seen in a high school play, The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. And there was a woman in the crowd who happened to be a casting director, and a week later, my parents sat me down and said they'd been in touch with this lady and she felt like, if I wanted to, I might have a chance at a career in acting. But I had to make a choice at that point if I wanted to stop playing basketball and start pursuing this. And that was one of the tougher decisions I've had because it led me to put off college and start auditioning. And within the year I met Judd Apatow, and started doing Freaks and Geeks. And that definitely changed the course of my entire life.

NEA: I’m glad you brought up basketball. What did you learn from playing basketball that has carried over into your work as an actor?

SEGEL: That's a great question. There are two things that immediately come to mind. One is an understanding of teamwork. Making a movie is a real team effort, and there have to be moments where you are willing to turn things over to people who are more talented than you in different capacities, you know? I think being part of a team in high school, that came very naturally to me. I never felt too precious about material or the work I was doing that I felt uncomfortable to turn it over. And that's been a great thing cause collaboration is one of the great joys of this job. There are so many talented people around you. To be honest, it's why I haven't directed at this point. Because I'm around people whose talent is directing, and if I were to direct right now, it would just be out of pride, to say that I've directed something. I would much rather have something be great than just be able to say that I directed it. So there's that.

I think there was something else when I did The End of the Tour, in my preparation, where I felt like I'm not going to leave anything on the court. I'm going to do everything I possibly can. So that when they say "That's a wrap!" I don't have that little voice that says, "Well, if you'd just gotten that dialect coach..." Or "If you'd just read that extra essay." Instead, I just made sure that I did literally everything I could in prep so that I was ready when we shot that.

NEA: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that when you were shooting Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow talked to you about writing. And I know he's been a mentor to you. Can you talk about some of the ways that he's left his fingerprints on the work you do as an actor and a writer?

SEGEL: I think that it's really interesting doing press tours for The End of the Tour because people have a tendency to want to draw some distinction between dramatic and comedic work. The thing that Judd always was very, very particular about was making sure that you wrote a drama underneath the comedy. That that is what people are going to lock in to. If it's just about laughs, you're not going to hold people's attention. It's why a sitcom is about 25 minutes. That's about how long just jokes can last. But making sure that there's a real human drama underneath all the comedy was the best lesson Judd had given me. By the time I got to The End of the Tour, it didn't feel like unfamiliar territory.

NEA: How do you choose what you say “yes'” to as an actor?

SEGEL: It's actually really changed over the past couple years. I think in your twenties, especially if you've had any long period of unemployment, which I did, you're just so excited to be working and to have opportunities. So you get on this hamster wheel and you start running and you're afraid to step off of it. And when my TV show, How I Met Your Mother, came to an end, I had this moment to reflect on where I was and what I had done and what I wanted to do going forward. And I hadn't really had that luxury for a long time. And I reevaluated what it was I was thinking about now, and I just want to do things that are reflective of that. That's what's going to resonate most with the audience—if you're doing things that are indicative of what you're thinking about. So I started making lists of the kinds of movies I enjoy. What do I put on at night? Those are the kinds of movies you should make. That's a really good reason to make a movie—if you would watch it.

NEA: How does The End of the Tour reflect or work with what you're thinking about now. What was that “yes” about?

SEGEL: For The End of the Tour, there was one particular line when I read the script where David Foster Wallace says, "I have to face the reality that right now, I'm 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper." As somebody who made their way writing their own material, reaching this crossroads, that's exactly how I felt. Like, "Oh, man. I’ve got to do this all over again." It's just me, alone in a room, with a piece of paper.

NEA: It’s been widely reported that you immersed yourself in a great deal of, if not all of, David Foster Wallace’s work to prepare for the role. How has that informed your own work as a writer?

SEGEL: Well, if I'm to be totally honest, when you read somebody as great as David Foster Wallace, it puts in perspective your own limitations. I write a series of children's books, and I think that I'm well-suited to that area. Infinite Jest is truly a masterwork, and the thing I learned from reading it was to dig as deep as you can, and to challenge your capacity for honesty and bravery in what you're writing. I try to do that in the kids’ books [I write] actually, but I don't think I would ever be capable of writing something like Infinite Jest.

NEA: You have a lot of fans for your book series Nightmares! How did that project happen?

SEGEL: Nightmares! is the first script that I ever wrote—when I was 21 years old. And I sold it, and it sat on a shelf. A script goes into something called "turn-around" after seven years, where you can buy it back. Basically, the story just kept nagging at me, in the back of my head. I knew that there was something there that I really cared about. I was really inspired by Roald Dahl books growing up. So after my experience with The Muppets and working with kids [I saw] how you can really—like in the movie Inception—at that age [how] you can implant an idea in a kid's brain that they take with them their whole life. These ideas of if you just pass a test of character that you can find buried treasure or get a golden ticket. I mean I chose a job that was impossible, probably because those ideas were implanted in me. And I wanted to give back my version of that.

NEA: I think as writers, when we're writing we’re usually figuring out something. What did you learn about yourself writing those books?

SEGEL: There’s an expression in scriptwriting, cause you take notes from executives, and you're supposed to ask yourself, "What is the note behind the note?" I think in writing about nightmares, what we started to really talk about is, "What is the fear behind the fear?" Charlie, our main character, is having nightmares about witches when his stepmother arrives. But what is he really afraid of? And we found that what he's really afraid of is forgetting his mother, who's passed away. Challenging yourself to find the note behind the note, the nightmare behind the nightmare, that was a really exciting process.

NEA: If you had to write a mission statement for the work that you would like to do going forward as an actor and writer, what would that be?

SEGEL: Wow. Well, I guess I have a couple. One would be to do things that are constantly challenging your capacity for honesty on screen or on paper. And then the second one, really simply, I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and, I might get it phrased wrong, but they had wallpaper in one of the rooms, an installation, that was just handwriting. It said, over and over, like a kid who'd been punished and has to write something a hundred times on the blackboard, it just said, "No more dumb art." I thought that was a pretty good mission statement.

NEA: I’m always interested in hearing artists talk about their relationship to failure and how they think about it in terms of the work they do. What does that mean for you?

SEGEL: This has really evolved as I've gotten older and produced more stuff. To me, looking back, the things that have been failures are things where I didn't challenge myself, where I tried to just get by on old tricks, or repeated myself because someone liked it the first time [so] they're sure to like it again. I think those I would consider to be my failures. In terms of any connections to results, I've grown to have great respect just for the people who are trying. When I see a movie that's flawed, but they really went for it, I view that as a total success.

NEA: The next question is a fill in the blank. The arts matter because...

SEGEL: ... they give words to what would otherwise be lonely feelings.

NEA: Is there anything you wish I'd asked? Something where you're thinking, "Why won't someone just ask me this? Cause I really have a great answer."

SEGEL: [laughs] Well, I never preplan any answers. I try to be present in all of the interviews. If you asked where I really place my value, I think I would like to say that what I've learned is being good to the people around you is king.

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