Interview: Jason Segel Discusses Before & After 'The End of the Tour'
by Alex Billington
October 23, 2015
"I'm not so sure you want to be me." It was an opportunity I couldn't pass - the chance to interview Jason Segel. He stars as the late author David Foster Wallace in one of my favorite films this year, The End of the Tour directed by James Ponsoldt. The film is about the actual end of his (book) tour, specifically the time David Foster Wallace spends with fellow writer/journalist David Lipsky, played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg. The two meet in winter and discuss all kinds of topics, and it's really a beautiful film about life and honesty, and still being real even though you may be brilliant, as with DFW. Segel gives a phenomenal, Oscar-worthy performance as David Foster Wallace - and I don't bat an eye saying that. I had to meet him.
I first saw The End of the Tour at its Sundance premiere this past January. Of course, I was already a big Jason Segel fan thanks to The Muppets movie and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (one of my favorites) not to mention everything else he's done. I have not, however, read Infinite Jest or much of David Foster Wallace's work even though after the film I felt like I need to get to work on that right away (still working…) because I connected with much of what he says in it. In my Sundance review, I raved about Segel saying his "career-changing performance… will be talked about for years. Honestly I felt like I wasn't watching Jason Segel, I was watching David Foster Wallace; Segel fully commits to the character and it's so mesmerizing to watch." It was a honor to talk with Jason about this, and it seemed he too felt this was a major moment in his career.
Our conversation began when Jason asked me if I knew the director of this film, James Ponsoldt, and I said yes I spoke with him a few years ago (this interview for The Spectacular Now). I told him that I really enjoy talking with James (and admire his films) because he hasn't gone into big budget Hollywood yet, he still makes these really smart, really strong, small indie movies. This is where the interview picks up…
Jason Segel: James and I have become really good friends. It's so inspiring to go sit and talk to someone who… he is just so artistically pure. And I run stuff by him and he'll be like, "Why would you want to do that, though?" It's an important friendship.
That shows in his work, where in any scene and with any line of dialogue, you can tell there was some thought that went into it.
Jason: Honestly, one of the reason I have not directed yet is because of people like James, where there are scenes in The End of the Tour where I'm delivering a long monologue and he just stays on Jesse's eyes. I'm like, "Oh my god. You're right. That's what the scene is about, this little change in Jesse." What I'm saying is sort of arbitrary. It's really… he's just a real artist.
I saw this originally at Sundance. That's why I've been following up with it for so long. I saw it again when it came out…
Jason: Oh, thanks, man.
The odd thing for me is that I wasn't intensely familiar with David Foster Wallace before, but thanks to your performance, I'm much more interested in him now, in his mind and all that he was talking about.
Jason: That's the goal. I mean, honestly, I think if the movie brings people to his writing, it's sort of mission accomplished.
What drives your creative choices? What makes you interested in roles you're interested in?
Jason: It's really changed. I had this moment where a lot of things kind of naturally came to an end. My TV show ["How I Met Your Mother"] was on for like a decade and that ended. I had done a string of comedies during the TV show. Those felt like they were coming to a natural end. Then I suddenly had… time… which I haven't had in a decade, honestly. I was sitting there and… I finally had this moment to reevaluate where I was at that point.
Because when you're working so consistently, you sort of are working on where you were when you started that process. [Forgetting] Sarah Marshall was really honest about where I was at the time. And you sort of ride that identity until you have a moment reevaluate.
When I read [the script for] The End of the Tour and there was that line where he says, "I'm 34 years old alone in a room with a piece of paper," it's like that's where I am right now, especially since I've written a lot of the stuff I did. I was at this moment where I felt like, "Fuck. I have to literally start from scratch now and write something that is reflective of where I am."
So there's almost a connection you have to the character…?
Jason: Yeah. I oddly felt like we were at very similar points in our lives.
The thought that comes to mind, and don't take this the wrong way, is you're not the first person I would think of casting him, but it works. Did you feel that when you were reading it?
Jason: I am very self-aware. And so, I knew I wasn't the obvious choice for the part, certainly. In talking to James, where James explained to me why he wanted me to do the part, I really felt like by the end of our conversations, like, "Maybe I'm really particularly suited to do this."
And then I shut off any of the voices that were telling me I shouldn't do it. That's sort of what you have to do, right? So I stopped looking at the internet. I grappled with my own other voice, saying like, "You're going to fall flat on your face," and just tried to then proceed unapologetically. Then I also tried to do everything that I possibly could so… [the] "leave it all on the court" kind of mentality. So that at the end of it I couldn't say, "Well, if I had just gotten that dialect coach…"
You went all out, in a sense?
Jason: Yeah. So you have no excuse, because then all you're facing is reality, like maybe you find out that you're not good enough. That's probably a good thing to know, too, as opposed to sitting around resentfully for the rest of your life thinking like, "If people only gave me these opportunities." [laughs]
What made you feel confident in the end? Or was it simply the fact that you said you brought everyone together and said like, "Let's do this. Let's actually pull it off."
Jason: I zeroed in on what the challenge was in a movie like this, is – your capacity for honesty onscreen. And that was in my control. Like, how honest am I willing to be between action and cut? And I felt capable of doing that. Once I zeroed in on that idea… because there's nothing flashy that happens in this movie. It's just, in these conversations, how honest are you willing to be?
The whole film is about, essentially, the honesty of… this is what it's like to actually meet a brilliant author and talk to him and hear from the genuine person.
Jason: Yeah. It's like this weird tennis match going on between Lipsky and David Foster Wallace where they need each other to maintain the volley, which is all David Foster Wallace wants. He just wants to volley a little bit. And David Lipsky wants to level the winning blow. I'm making the tennis analogy because he loved tennis so much. But David Foster Wallace is sitting there, thinking, "I'm a fucking better tennis player than you. You can hit the ball as hard as you want and I'll return it, but I'm tired. I just came out here to volley." That's sort of what you feel in the thing, of David Foster Wallace showing incredible self-restraint against a guy who says, "Let's go spar" and then is throwing his haymakers. [laughs]
One other thing I find very fascinating about David Foster Wallace is how different he is in person… There's an interesting dichotomy to the way he is incredibly smart in his writing, but he can't outwardly portray that, he's so different in person.
Jason: Yeah. In a speech called "This is Water"…
It's a great speech. [Listen here]
Jason: It's beautiful, right? He talks about this idea of: where do we place our value? If you place your value in being the smartest guy in the room, you are constantly going to be lording that on the people around you because you need it to feed the ego. I think it's a guy who was the smartest guy in the room but wanted to place his value on being a good guy. And so, that's that dichotomy. It's like, "Yes, I'm capable of this. When I'm alone in a room that's my job, is to be the big brain. But when I'm sitting here in a room with you, I'm trying to just be a good guy." And some of that involves showing some restraint, "because I can rip apart your argument that you're making right now, [laughs] but I'm not going to. I'm going to do the kind thing."
I really like that. Did you actually watch videos of him?
I also wanted to ask about - are you replicating him or are you trying to find your own…?
Jason: This balance, yeah. Yes - I had video. The most helpful one was the Charlie Rose interview right from that time. You get a real sense of something that I tried to carry through the movie. The guy is capable of giving you a 30-minute answer to any question you asked in a perfectly formed argument with a thesis, supporting points, and a conclusion. And then realizing, "Oh, that's not what this person was looking for."
It's like this phenomenon in life when someone says, "How is your day going?" And you really answer them. And then you realize they just wanted you to say, "Good." [laughs] I think he was dealing with that constantly, like, "Shit. This person asked me a question. What is it that they actually want from me?"
You play him so perfectly, in my opinion. I'm wondering how exactly you get to that.
Jason: The physicality of it?
Yeah. Basically: what is it that makes him tick? Was there one thing that was like, "This is it," to complete the mannerisms and everything?
Jason: There is some really particular physical stuff. He talked a little bit out of the side of his mouth. There's a Midwestern sort of wilt to his voice. There's a really rhythmic quality, like he lulls you into his point. There's that stuff. And that informs the way he talks and the way he moves his hands and stuff.
I think the more prevailing thing was – a guy who had an emotional twisted ankle. When you twist your ankle, you are always aware of it, even when you are sitting, because you know you are going to have to stand up and you are also kind of like, every once in a while, reminding yourself.
And so, there's a discomfort to him in every conversation of knowing that there is more going on than just the surface part of the conversation, and that when you get up and leave, I'm going to analyze everything that we just talked about and beat myself up about my word choice. And, "Is this person going to choose to make me look like an asshole?" [laughs]
What kind of conversations did you have with James about it? Were there scenes where you were doing too much and had to bring it back in?
Jason: In terms of getting reined in, it had more to do with the physicality, because I'm just physically a big dude and much bigger than Jesse. So there were some moments of making sure that it didn't look like I was going to physically kill him.
Besides that, what we really talked about was - James really viewed this as an unrequited plutonic love story where there's a… "meet cute" in essence. It really is like a first date out at that pizza parlor and getting to know each other. And then there's a betrayal and sort of a breakup and a final goodbye. We talked about that a bit. I viewed the movie a little bit differently. But that was important, because I'm sure Jesse viewed it… I viewed it one way. Jesse viewed it one way. And James sort of viewed it from above. I viewed the movie as a guy having the opportunity to talk to his younger self.
That's intriguing. Now I want to go back and rewatch it with that mindset…
Jason: To me, as soon as I started acting against Jesse, I was like, "Oh, it's a guy on one end of the tunnel talking to a guy on the other end of the tunnel."
These are great. These are perfect metaphors to what's happening.
Jason: Yeah. Because Lipsky is looking up at his idol saying, "Oh, man. I can't want to be there." And David Foster Wallace is looking back and like, "I've just gotten there and I've found out that it's a myth. Like, this tunnel goes on forever. And, by the way, you are going to regret being such an asshole." [laughs]
It's always interesting in this part of the story where someone is like, "I've been through this shit" will tell you, "This is what you do." But then of course no one ever takes that advice and does that, they have to go through and learn on their own.
In this film, he says in a way "Don't go through this," and then it's just kinda like, well, but you're going to learn that the hard way anyway. That's the younger self learning.
Jason: Yeah. It comes down to separating… I think David Foster Wallace's real conclusion for himself and what he's trying to communicate is it's fine to be ambitious, but you need to separate where you place your value from that. You need to figure out a way to place your value on being a good guy and yet maintain your ambition. Is that possible? I don't know.
You said earlier you didn't want to direct yet. But do you ever feel like you want to have control in a film? Have you been in the editing room saying, "I want to be a part of making sure that the final work is how I want it"?
Jason: I would rather turn that over to people more talented than I am and just act my ass off. That's where I am right now. I enjoy writing, but I think what I really love is being in the hands of somebody really talented and letting them direct me. That was the experience I had with Ponsoldt. There's a great freedom in being singularly focused. My job on this was really… it was difficult, but it was very simple, like: "Do that as best you can."
What are the greatest lessons you learned? What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome on The End of the Tour where you learned a lot?
Jason: Yeah. I learned so much. I really did. I think the biggest lesson for me personally was you do everything that you possibly can do in prep. You show up every day ready so that when they say that's a wrap, you can say, "I've done everything I possibly could." And then you get to remove yourself from the results.
Yeah, and you've committed yourself to what you had to commit to.
Jason: That's right. It's crazy, but… It wasn't, but that entire movie could have been out of focus. [laughs] There's just so much than can happen. There can be a hurricane the weekend that the movie opens. All of these things can happen. I used to attach myself so much to things that weren't in my control. All I can do is just do my job the best I can.
Has David Foster Wallace, in the story of you playing him, has he changed you?
Jason: Completely. Yeah, because I was grappling with exactly the issues that we talk about in the movie. I worked through them.
I admit one of the reasons I love the film is it actually has that potential. Whereas some films are just entertainment, this one has the potential to reach and connect with people.
Jason: That's the best thing. Movies have become really polarized where there is a big tent pole movie, just kind of escapism. And then the middle area of movies I think has moved to television. And then I think there is this other version of movies which is almost like what going to the theater used to be, where you go with a few friends to see the movie and then you go out for coffee and talk about it after. I think there needs to be something substantive there, or else this whole area of movies will go away, too.
What wisdom can you impart upon newcomers into the film industry? What advice have you learned over your career?
Jason: I think it's finding things to do that you don't need permission for, like writing.
Creative expression, in a way?
Jason: Yes. Because if you just put it on, "I'm willing to sit and wait for somebody to give me permission to act," you are just going to be doing a ton of waiting. And your creative mojo is going to atrophy. You need to be working in ways that you are not waiting for somebody to tell you it's okay to do it.
Writing and playing piano, those things have been really good friends to me in the lean years.
Great advice. That it makes me want to play piano. I learned as a kid, but never followed up…
Jason: Yea it's funny. You only need to be good enough to be able to sing the songs you like. It's really true. That's the whole point of it. You're alone in your house. You just want to sing a Cat Stevens song…
Thank you to Jason Segel to taking the time to talk with me, and to Strategy PR for arranging.
James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour already opened in select theaters earlier this year, on July 31st, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. A24 just released The End of the Tour on VOD, and it'll be out on Blu-ray/DVD soon. Here's hoping that Jason Segel gets some kind of recognition this year's awards season.