How I Met New Expectations
Jason Segel, Serious Actor? How the ‘HIMYM’ Star Nailed David Foster Wallace and Blew Our Minds
No one thought the ‘How I Met Your Mother’ star was qualified to play David Foster Wallace. How wrong we were. Segel talks ‘End of the Tour,’ his new career act, and more.
His Halloween-timed mini-promotional trip in support of his Nightmares! series, a collection of children’s books he co-writes with Kirsten Miller, is winding down, making the timing of our interview a bit…meta, to say the least.
In The End of the Tour, Segel, who is best known for playing Marshall for nearly a decade the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother and for doing full-frontal nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (and redefining the boundaries of both R-rated and romantic comedies), plays late author David Foster Wallace.
The film, which was released on DVD and VOD this Tuesday, chronicles the 12 years before Wallace’s suicide, just after the release of his galvanizing masterpiece Infinite Jest, when he is being interviewed by then-Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) at—you guessed it—the end of his book tour.
The pair has an intense connection, the kind that finds them grappling with their respective fears, insecurities, dreams, and opinions on everything from depression and loneliness to the brilliance and endless listenability of Alanis Morissete’s Jagged Little Pill.
Mostly, though, Lipsky and Wallace help each other understand and navigate the illusion of fame and its accompanying expectations and limitations. It’s something that Segel, who spent the past decade of his life being defined by the lovable Everyman “type”—HIMYM, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets—could empathize with.
When an actor you normally think of soaking in a laugh track or last watched duetting with Kermit the Frog is cast as one of the most influential, innovative, and introspective writers of his generation, eyebrows are raised—or, in the case of Wallace’s most devoted fans, are angrily furrowed.
When that actor stuns with a performance so nuanced and delicate and, ultimately, emotional that pundits are putting him on shortlists for Best Supporting Actor film awards nominations, critics bellow their surprise through megaphones: He’s great! Also, who knew?
And when you are that actor, one who is hoping to be seen in an entirely new light, the whole experience is at once life-affirming and life-changing, but most definitely overwhelming.
“It really has informed me about how I want to handle the rest of my career,” he says about the whole experience. “I think one of the things that is important and is easy to forget when you get caught up in the business side of Hollywood is that you started out because you had something that you wanted to express.”
Wrapping up How I Met Your Mother and, for a time, having that ambition lost amidst Slap Bets, faux interventions, and pints at Maclaren’s, meant that he was primed for the kind of creative awakening he would get when the script for The End of the Tour arrived.
“There was a line in the script that I thought was exhilarating: ‘I have to face the reality that I’m 34 years old alone in a room with a piece of paper,’” Segel says. “When I read that line I felt like, yes, that’s exactly where I am right now.”
When an actor is asked to be introspective and analytical about themselves and their career, they can come off as a tad insufferable. But there’s a careful thoughtfulness Segel has while discussing The End of the Tour, why he needed it, and what he hopes it will do for the next phase of his career. He’s earnest, but it’s relatable—the way we all hope we could be when we’re reflecting on ourselves.
The End of the Tour has been branded “a career U-turn” for Segel—by The New York Times, no less.
Wallace is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author the Times once hailed for writing work that was “prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenged,” who grappled with such demons that he hanged himself in 2008. The most successful movie that Segel wrote found him weeping about a breakup while completely naked and, in the film’s climax, performing a Dracula puppet musical.
There’s a reason, then, that the pitchfork-wielding reactionaries on the Internet condemned his casting as Wallace as a stunt. But Segel knew he was capable of more than aw-shucks goofiness and affability. He was ready to show it. And he was totally scared.
“A lot of things were coming to an end of their own and I felt really scared, if I’m going to be honest with you,” Segel says. How I Met Your Mother was ending. The crippling question was being asked: What next?
“I’ve been saying, ‘You should be doing all of this other kinds of material,’” he says. “And then that material, this script arrives at your doorstep. The big scary thing that nobody talks about is that you might find out you’re wrong, you know? And then what?”
Segel lets out a big laugh at that last hypothetical. For as much as we’re discussing his transition into Serious Jason Segel, Thespian, he’s still the joy-filled, breezy guy who dared to revive the dying Muppets franchise, and was sunny and smart enough to actually succeed at doing it.
He was 19 when he got his big break in the short-lived cult classic TV series Freaks and Geeks playing lovable stoner Nick Andopolis. He was just 24 when he wrote the first draft of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which, when released in 2008, would go on to make $105 million worldwide.
“Forgetting Sarah Marshall is really reflective of where I was at when I was 24, but you can’t be doing the same thing at 34,” he says. “You have to reevaluate where you are, and that happened really naturally at the end of the TV show.”
There’s something to be said for having a desire to try something new, and the lucky among us are actually given the opportunity to do it. But while that made The End of the Tour a blissful situation for Segel, the project itself carried with it outsized pressure.
It wasn’t just any indie that would give Segel a showcase for flexing his acting muscles. It’s a project that had been gestating for years. It’s a role that is a real person. It’s a real person that people are very protective of and passionate about. Extra pressure. Extra scrutiny.
“I think with this in particular I’m also very self-aware,” Segel says. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be people’s first choice for something like this. And I also know what that means in the Internet world. In a world where things are either a serious win or a major fail, I sort of had an idea of how people would react.”
“What I told myself was, really, what do I actually have control over?” he continues. “Doing the prep as hard as I can. I can’t have a response to the hypothetical bad performance I haven’t given yet.” Again, another deep laugh.
And he did prepare. He listed to recordings of Wallace speaking exhaustively. He formed a book club to dissect Infinite Jest in 100-page chunks. At one point, he retreated to a cabin to be alone with the book and digest it undistracted.
He wanted to understand it, he says, to feel it. “Because the danger of it was, I think, that the movie could’ve been just two guys saying smart things back and forth. And it would’ve been a disaster. Truly. Watch these guys recite smarter guys’ thoughts…”
Especially with the eyes of the skeptical world on him, he wanted to make sure none of it felt inorganic, like he was a silly actor in a costume over his head. So that when he put on David’s bandana it felt natural, or ordinary. “Because the other temptation of trying to do something outside your comfort zone is that it looks like, ‘Watch me try acting!’” he laughs. “That kind of vibe. I guess you call that a vanity project, you know?”
With so much focus on what The End of the Tour and this “career U-turn” will mean for Segel going for you, I ask him how it’s affecting him and what he wants to do. He uses that go-to favorite for “actor-y” actors, one of those soundbites you always read, but don’t ever really believe. He only wants to do things “that scare me” he says.
Short of groaning, I ask him why I should believe that the answer is more authentic for him than it is for the red carpet’s worth of fellow actors who always, frustratingly, say the same thing. That’s when we go back to the situation at hand: the end of his tour.
“The books I write for kids are called Nightmares,” he begins, his own version of story time. “I go around to these schools, libraries, and book stores and I have these talks with kids. One of the things we always zero in on once you get past vampires and zombies that kids are really afraid of is getting made fun of by their peers. It stops them from trying stuff sometimes because they’re afraid they won’t be good at it.”
He pauses for a bit of dramatic effect.
“But if you stop trying things you’re not good at you’re never going to get to do new things,” he continues. And for him, everything of value he’s ever accomplished were things that initially terrified him. New things.
“It was really scary to bring back the Muppets,” he says. “I had a whole different version of the same thing. I was coming of Forgetting Sarah Marshall at the time, an R-rated comedy. There was an element of, ‘Who does Jason Segel think he is to bring back the Muppets?’ But I had some faith in what I was doing and I went after it and am very proud of it. But that was really scary.”
That’s not all.
“It was scary to say in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, ‘I’m going to end a R-rated romantic comedy with a lavish Dracula puppet musical. Believe me, it makes sense now because it’s happened already. But in the pitching, there was, ‘This guy is out of his mind.’ So I think for me that’s what it means. The best stuff I’ve done have come out of doing things I’m afraid of.”
Which, if this journalist can editorialize a bit, is exactly why you should watch The End of the Tour.