When I met Jason Segel at the posh Bowery Hotel in New York on Tuesday, he was impeccably dressed for a sweltering New York City summer day. (Having just braved the heat, I did not look impeccable.) “No one I know is going to be a harder critic on myself than I am,” Segel said at one point during our meeting. It’s noteworthy that Segel said this, as the most critical assessment of his performance as heralded writer David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour — written by one of Wallace’s former editors, Glenn Kenny — had just been published by the Guardian. I have no idea if he knew about the Guardian piece or, if he did, if he even cared. But I suspect he wouldn’t.
I mention Kenny’s piece because Segel has been battling this sort of thing since the moment The End of the Tour was announced. People are very passionate about David Foster Wallace (who took his own life in 2008) — especially the people who actually knew him — but a lot of the speculative criticism had subsided since The End of the Tour’s Sundance premiere (which we praised here). Under James Ponsoldt’s direction, Segel artfully portrays Wallace over a four-day period of his life during a promotional tour for his most famous work, Infinite Jest. The film is based on David Lipsky’s book, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about the four days he spent with Wallace for a Rolling Stone piece that never happened. (Lipsky is portrayed in the film by Jesse Eisenberg.)
As of this writing, the The End of the Tour has a 91 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Segel’s performance has been widely heralded. But Kenny, who has seen the movie twice, has basically written the dissenting opinion of record. Couple this with the fact that Wallace’s family has been fairly vocal with their disapproval towards the film’s existence, and it’s been quite the journey for an actor largely known for his work in fun, comedic roles.
Segel, for his part, doesn’t seem fazed by any of it.
When this project was first announced, you got some heat for this. Were you surprised by that?
No, because I wasn’t actually getting the heat. I wasn’t looking for it [laughs]. Do you know what I mean? It is an important distinction. I was really focused on my job at hand, which was to get ready to do the movie. I think, occasionally, I was aware because I would hear things here and there. James Ponsoldt would occasionally say, “We really need to nail this because of X, Y and Z,” and he would let something slip.
I’m under the impression he was looking.
Yeah, he’s a looker at that stuff. I have found awhile ago that the best thing for me, in general, is not to engage in Internet stuff.
That’s good advice.
Well, something changed. On the side panel of a legitimate news source, you’ll see the option to click on a story that’s like “15 Celebrities With Fat Spouses.” And like, all of a sudden, you realize it’s like the Wild West now, to some extent. And I just feel better not looking at it. I don’t know about you, but I have never had the time to write a negative comment of something I haven’t seen yet in the comment section of a message board.
I do have to write negative things about things I’ve actually seen.
But that’s your job, though. That’s why you have time to do that.
But there have been recent examples of outlets publishing “takes” on movies the author hasn’t scene.
There’s no version of a response that I can have to a hypothetical bad performance I haven’t given yet [laughs]. Right? There are better uses of my time, because I’m scared enough. And no one I know is going to be a harder critic on myself than I am.