Actor Jason Segel made his name in the field of comedy. On “Freaks And Geeks” and as part of the funny Judd Apatow alumni, Segel cut his teeth with an amiable brand of vulnerability that manifested into sweet comedies he wrote and starred in like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him To The Greek” (which he doesn’t appear in, but is based on his characters) and “Five Year Engagement.”
The success of those films also allowed Segel to convince Disney to hand him the keys to “The Muppets” franchise and he wrote and starred in the earnest titular 2011 film which relaunched that dormant brand. Now 35 years old, Segel is at a different place in his life and wants to try and broaden his horizons.
As if right on cue, the opportunity to shift gears came to the actor at the exact opportune moment: director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) asked if Segel would be interested in playing David Foster Wallace in “The End Of The Tour,” an adaptation of author David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” about his brief, but memorable journalistic encounter with Wallace.
Segel leapt at the chance and turned in a remarkably subtle and mannered performance as the late Wallace that had pundits predicting an Oscar nomination after its Sundance premiere. “The End Of The Tour” co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as journalist Lipsky who shadows the famous and soon to be reclusive author for a Rolling Stone piece, during the final five days of the book tour for his seminal novel “Infinite Jest.” It’s a movie that maybe shouldn’t work on paper: two men, often in a car, discussing their ambitions, fears, dreams, grappling with insecurities and in the case of Wallace, trying to navigate the illusion of fame. It’s an insightful and intimate work and atypical of your standard biopic.
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“The End Of The Tour” is out on Blu-Ray and DVD now and we recently spoke with Jason Segel to reflect on diving into the complex mind of David Foster Wallace and what feels like a potential new chapter in his career path.
I was listening to a podcast with David Foster Wallace. An NPR one, from 1997, with—
Right from the era [in the movie]. Is it the bookworm one?
No, I do not think so. It was with Terry Gross and—
Oh yes, I know that one. I listened to as many as I can get my hands on. It is interesting when you listen to those interviews, because it is a guy who has the facility to answer any of the questions you ask [and give] a 25-minute answer. You feel this conflict in him, and sometimes he does do that and [go long]. There is immediate regret, where he is like, “Well, you probably were just asking how my day was.” You know? He would answer things within a fully constructed argument, a thesis, and supporting points and a conclusion. It is a little bit insane how articulate he was, in that way. Also, just how much information he could pack into one answer.
What was your entry point to the film? Which came first, his work or the project?
I had read some of the short-form non-fiction stuff, like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Things that come in like accessible chunks. I had never tried to tackle anything like “Infinite Jest.” I have to say, after reading it, it is a life-changing book to read.
It does help to have a reason to read it. Do you know what I mean? It is a tough book, it is a hard read. It took 2 and a half months of really dedicated reading, and there are some parts of the book that I think are intentionally reader antagonizing. You will be at the beginning of the book, and you will hit an footnote that is this massive tangent. Then you flip to the end, and you will read a 30-page end-note on tennis, the minutia of tennis.
Right, it’s footnote that’s incredibly discursive.
Yes. And you will get through it and you will feel some sense of accomplishment because physically you are at the end of the book now, but then you have to flip back to the beginning. Getting through the book was a really satisfying experience. Wallace sort of names these unnameable feelings that you have of dissatisfaction and loneliness, and sort of starts a conversation. I had not approached that until I started doing the movie, until I had signed on to do the movie.
You really sought this part, right?
Well, a really weird thing happened. It is really interesting, because in my experience so far, is this is sort of how things go. When they happen, they happen in a weird kismet sort of way. The script got sent to me right before I boarded an airplane. When I read it, it was just so parallel to where I was in my life at that point.
There is a line that best summarizes it, this line toward the end of the movie where he says, “I have to face the reality I’m 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper,” and my TV show [“How I Met Your Mother”] had just come to an end. A decades worth of comedies that I had done, that cycle of comedies coming to an end: it felt like I was looking forward at the next 50 years. Like, “fuck. I am 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper.”
Especially somebody who has generated their own material a lot of the time, that is what you feel like: “Jesus, I have got to start from scratch and write something again.” You have to ‘Sarah Marshall’ it all over again. Now, that thing needs to be reflective of where I am at 34. The stuff I am thinking of now, isn’t dancing around with puppets. I am at a different point in my life. When I read the script, it was like, “Oh, my God, this is it.” There is no way that they are ever going to let me play this part. It is almost cruel that they sent me this script. When I landed, I called my agent and told her how much I loved it, and she was like, “Good, James Ponsoldt wants to talk to you about it.”
It speaks to what makes a director like James a real artist — I am not the natural or obvious choice. He said, “Maybe not to other people, but I feel like what you have going on in your life lines up with what I want for the part.” A few conversations later we were doing the movie together. It was pretty crazy.
What other things could you find yourself relating to in this screenplay, or even in the book?
A couple of things. One, I quit drinking three years ago, and there was a whole element of recovery in the book, which I really locked into. That actually speaks to just a larger theme that he has struggled with in his writing, but personally as well.
There is a great speech called “This is Water,” where he talks about [attaching value and identity to one’s work]. I started at 17. Seventeen years in, at this point when I get this script, and what I was dealing with was this kind of: if I attach my identity and my value to work, it seems like I am going to be on this fucking roller coaster of successes and failures for the rest of my life. That is not a sustainable way to live.
Which was something he had keyed into.
Totally. It is one of the things that he talks about. If my self-worth is attached to the success of this book, I am going to have a huge high right now when the book comes out. Then I am going to take a huge drop when, if all of this goes away, I am left alone to write my next book.
It seems like Wallace was often examining those in-betweens in life. Like maybe those were more true to life in some ways, the parts in between the highs and lows.
Yes. Absolutely. I think it is the in-betweens are the lonely parts. Life is not — especially, you can look at today’s culture. It is like the culture of huge wins and massive fails. That is how everything is parsed. That is how everything is posed, poised, presented to us. The reality is, most things are fine. Life is kind of in the middle most of the time. I guess the real goal is getting comfortable with the middle. That is where a lot of the discomfort comes when you are riding this roller coaster.
In your collective research, how well did you feel like you knew him? How close do you think you got?
Here’s the thing. I have to make a lot of guesses, that is part of my job. I feel like the power of his writing is, yes, you as the reader feel like you know him. Whether or not that is true, that is sort of what the movie is about. Do I know you because of how personally I take your writing? That is the big question. As a reader, I felt like I knew him.
The other thing that I think is the premise that he is presenting, is that we are all the same. These are universal feelings. Once you zero in on what those feelings are, and build around those, you should, if that premise is true, get pretty close.
You put on quite a bit of weight for this, right?
40 pounds. That is a lot of weight for a 6’4″ guy. You’d think it is going to be fun, too. You went in, you were like, “Oh, man all the pizza and ice cream I can eat.” It is fun for all of two days. Then, all of a sudden, every night feels like Thanksgiving night. You know that thing of, I just need to go to sleep, you have no vital energy. It really worked for filming the movie because there is a sort of lumbar that comes with that.
You mean the physicality of it?
Yes. Also it is the end of a press tour, more than that it is the end of a much longer process of writing that book, which takes x-number of years. Then it comes out, press tour happens, and there are all these events and all this talking. When you listen to the tapes from the period, by the end he was just tired. You can hear that he’s done; mentally fatigued. He wants to leave. In a way, he needs [David Lipsky] to stay because as soon as he goes, it’s over.
Then he’s back in that loneliness which is kind of both his sanctuary from the world, but isolating.
I think so. Imagine you unload a thousand plus page book, which is so personal it goes as well as it can possibly go. You have done junkets, I’m sure. You know that every time you have done an interview, people said, “What’s next?” And he probably thinks, “Jesus Christ, I just unloaded a thousand plus page book, now you are asking me am I going to be able to do this again? I have no idea.”
His complexities are fascinating because it seemed he lived with a hum of anxiety of terror and anxiety that could grow in frequency. So that was always there. But he was also an athlete, and a ladies man. There are all these things that would build natural confidence, and yet you have that low-level hum which we all probably have to some degree.
Absolutely. But I don’t think those things are in opposition, I think they are more compartmentalized, where there are certain things you have confidence in. He can sit there and know that he’s probably the smartest guy in the room, but also knows his secret which is when everyone leaves this room and I have nobody else to compare myself to, and its just me alone with the other voice: I am miserable.
And it seems like a weird movie at first. It’s two dudes in a car a lot which most directors say they hate — conversations in cars. I do not know what it is about it, but just they hate it.
Did you worry over that on the page? There’s definitely a level of risk there because if that doesn’t connect to an audience, you could be doomed.
Yes. It was scary going into Sundance because you know you care about it, and the question going in was, “Geez, there’s no big plot movements in this movie.” If people are not interested in the first 30 minutes, it is going to be a really uncomfortable screening. Nothing was going to happen to keep you awake.
What seems to have happened when people see it, is they lock into these themes because they are — again, that is why David Foster Wallace’s writing resonates. In a way you’re given permission to feel ways, you may not have allowed yourself to, or not been able to articulate. David Foster Wallace does for you. He says, “Hey, lets talk about this,” and in a way that can be comforting. It’s like, “I seem to be the one with the vocabulary, so let me do the talking. Then, if you guys want to join in.” That is what his writing feels like to me.
Michael Fassbender, he always says when he prepares he reads the script like 300 times or something like that. What’s your process?
I also read a script over and over, and then I would write out the script over and over, because you really need to be word perfect. Some of that stuff is verbatim from David Foster Wallace’s mouth, and he is really specific about his language. He worked for the Oxford English Dictionary at the end of his life. He chose his words really particularly.
But the real challenge, and I think why it was so important, is you really have to understand what you are saying, or else it is just going to sound like two guys reciting smart things to each other. Which would be a nightmare.
An understandable fear.
Totally. The other fear is that the whole thing feels extremely pretentious, and that it is like “Oh my gosh, look at Jason Segel try acting.” You know, like a vanity project. Which it is sort of the opposite. There is something very humble about David Foster Wallace, in this movie. A guy at the apex of his career, admitting that he doesn’t feel good; a pretty humble moment.
Jesse Eisenberg is a big part of this too; you guys are volleying at each other the whole time. There is a competitiveness there. Did you guys talk about that at all?
We would go over our lines together every morning, and then we would act with/against each other all day. I think your observation about the volley is a really good one, because that’s what all the scenes are like. It is like a “friendly” game of tennis. You need the other person, to maintain the volley, and you are there to get a little exercise so you want to maintain the volley for awhile, but the whole time, both of you are thinking, “When do I level the winning blow?” And both as actors and characters which is an extra layer.
That is the game of the movie: I want to engage in this conversation with you, but I also want to win. The other layer is that sometimes I do not want to engage. When it becomes uncomfortable, or something. It is what I also find fascinating about it, he loves [Lipsky] being there. There’s a part when he was like, “I really enjoy this where you sit and I really enjoy this and you seem like you really mean it.” At the same time, he is having regrets and doubts about even having agreed to the interview.
Think of it like boxing or like tennis, it is like David Foster Wallace is the superior athlete. He agrees, “Okay, let’s go out and spar.” Then, the other guy is going for it. David Foster Wallace is capable of defending himself and probably of knocking him out, but he is out there to spar. He was not there for the full-out fight. David Lipsky’s really out there to prove himself.
Right. He is also really ambivalent of fame, which I’m assuming in your position, it’s not as easy to feel that way towards it.
I am really aware of the complicated feelings about it. You want people to like your work, and you want people to respond to it, and at the same time…[trails off] There is a great documentary called “Beauty Is Embarrassing.” It’s about an artist called Wayne White. He talks about this thing that I think I relate to from being an athlete and I know David was an athlete… There is a hesitancy to really call what I do, art. Something that feels too precious about it, especially as I started in sports as a kid. Only as I’ve gotten [older] have I grown more comfortable with that. It is actually an important way to view what you are doing, and informs your choices and your dedication, and all that stuff. I think there is something slightly embarrassing about doing something moving. Do you know what I mean?
Sure. One could think of being asked questions like this could be slightly embarrassing.
Yes. I go and I do the best I can at my job, and there is some element of where sitting here and analyzing it, and discussing it, feels like — you get uncomfortable with the emotion of “Yeah, I did a great job”. You know? Maybe that is a good thing because to me, I always feel like work harder, and really, really push yourself.
The “you did a great job” moment sometimes are oddly uncomfortable. Wallace talks about that too; the same thing that gets you there, to success, can be the thing that never allows you to enjoy it.
You have to be sensitive and very aware about that though cause some just enjoy it. My very distant observation, is it seems like someone who really defined those things and felt them in a way that’s just too much a really thoughtful person.
Yes. I think it really comes down to this thing that he zeros in on in that speech, “This is Water,” of realigning where you place your value, it all feels, so personal when you put it on work. All the work talk, and all this moment, this book. If your self-worth is there, it is just so personal.
You were talking about choices and I wonder if this movie is opening up doors for you. It seems like you and all of the Apatow alum are all experiencing that too, Seth Rogen doing “Steve Jobs,” Jonah Hill working with Martin Scorsese.
The movies and parts I am thinking about are definitely different. I think when you become comfortable with what you are doing, it can be dangerous. Theoretically, you should really be doing the stuff that is reflective of where you are at a given time. You are trying to express something personal.
So what you’re drawn to is changing?
It has been an interesting process because I have not acted since “The End Of The Tour.” I felt like I needed to let this come out and have it’s life so that the things that I would have the opportunity to do would be reflective of having done this. It is only just now that [interesting offers are] starting to come in.
I assuming where you’re at now impacts your writing and the material you’re creating.
Totally. I’ve been really paying attention to what it is that I watch. I thought that that was a good place to start. It is really easy when you are on the hamster wheel of the business, to get too strategic. Having had this time to step away, I have been paying much more attention to what it is I actually like, which seems [obvious], but you forget to.
I think I love movies like “Frank,” “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — these beautiful little, kind of standalone music boxes. I hope “The End of Tour” is like that. It exists on it’s own, and you put it on a shelf and you take it off and experience it when you want to.
David Foster Wallace talks about “institutionalized hip irony,” which he rallies against because he cherishes sincerity. And then I thought about your earnestness and how you approached “The Muppets” with zero irony. And then I think of this new Muppets TV show which is seems antithetical to your approach.
Yeah, it’s interesting, right? I have not seen the show, yet. But I have heard and read stuff. My goal was to realign The Muppet tone to those first three movies. I am a Muppet purist. That will always be the tone of The Muppets, to me. I hope that everything that they do works out. I love The Muppets, and I love those guys. To me, that tone established by Jim Henson, that is what the Muppet are, to me. I could talk at length about The Muppets, in a probably overly serious way [laughs].
So the question that Wallace hated: Next for you, you’re writing a Lego Movie?
Yeah, ours is a Lego race movie. I am writing with a guy called Drew Pearce [you can read about that more here, but Segel is not co-directing it as originally reported].
OK, so you’re not co-directing that, but do you have those aspirations? As a writer you are an author in that sense.
I feel like if there was something where I felt like I am the only person who could direct this, then I would direct it. However, I already personally know a bunch of people who could direct it better than me. That is how I have felt so far. So if I were to direct something it would be out of pride to say I directed it. When I work with someone like James Ponsoldt, I am reminded, “oh this is the proper talent and skill and it should be left to people who have that passion.” I would rather something be great, than say I directed it.
“The End Of The Tour” is now out on Blu-Ray/DVD and on digital platforms.