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.
There’s also the people who believe David Foster Wallace didn’t want a movie about him made, so there shouldn’t be one. A lot of people don’t want movies made about them, but I’m not sure that should be a reason not to do it.
I also think trying to guess someone else’s mind, I have learned that is a real mistake. Because what someone is thinking is so much more nuanced than what I am imagining they’re thinking. You try to imagine what somebody is thinking and it’s a world away.
Sometimes when actors known more for comedy take on a dramatic role, we get a “look how dark I am” performance.
“Watch me do acting.”
And that’s not what you did.
Well, it was really important to me. Nailing the material was really important to me. [Pauses] This is a job that I love and that I work really hard at. So, it was also important to me to do my job well. I have a pride in this. It’s what I do professionally, and I proclaimed I’m an actor [laughs].
I know people who have seen this movie who haven’t read David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest can be intimidating, so I have forwarded people Consider the Lobster.
That’s a great one. It’s accessible.
What was your introduction?
I think the first thing I remember reading was an excerpt from Infinite Jest that was printed autonomously, the rise and fall of video chat, which was so funny. Then I was introduced to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which has the essay “Shipping Out,” the cruise ship essay.
Why do you think there is so much angst from people who think this movie shouldn’t exist?
I think people feel very personally toward David Foster Wallace. I think people feel some ownership because you read him at a time you needed him. And he feels like one of us. He feels like a guy saying, “I’m in the trenches with you.”
Except he’s a genius.
It’s, “I’m you with an emotional vocabulary to point out things that you might not have the words to articulate.” You know, some of the way he speaks about suicide in Infinite Jest, or the way he speaks about depression in other work, you think to yourself, “Oh man, yes, that’s a good way to put it. That’s so much better than ‘get out of my room.'” [Laughs] You know what I mean?
If a movie had to exist about David Foster Wallace, do you think he’d like this one?
I would never assume to guess somebody’s mind. Well, here’s what I feel comfortable with: This movie is not a cradle to grave biopic. It’s very focused on four days of a book tour – of a publicity tour. I’ve done a lot of publicity tours.
We are in the middle of one right now.
Yeah. So, one of the things that I know is, when I’m on a publicity tour, what you are thinking and talking about are the themes of the thing that you are promoting. For example, I’m a different person on this tour then I am on The Muppets. Neither of which are a lie.
Both seem nice.
[Laughs] Yeah, they are both nice! But they’re both what I’m talking and thinking about all day long. And so, I knew over these four days – part of my preparation was thinking about this idea – is over these four days, what’s at the front of his brain are the themes of Infinite Jest. And so, as a result, the movie is a real refection of those themes. I’m really comfortable with that idea because we’re really just expressing themes he was trying really hard to express in Infinite Jest.
I’ve now seen people who have seen The End of the Tour be disappointed that you’re working on the animated LEGO movie, Billion Brick Race, because they want to see you do more roles like this one.
It sounds like a very particular type of person you’re talking about.
Film writers, and it is a very particular type of person. You shouldn’t try to please them and or us.
And I’m not. I think the person I’m trying to satisfy is myself. Like I said, I learned awhile ago that no one is going to be harder on myself than me. And nobody’s compass as to what I’m going to be good at is going to be better than mine, unless I meet somebody like James Ponsoldt who sees something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. But, I would say there are better uses of your time than to worry about this stuff.
We get paid to worry about this stuff.
No, I know, but everything will be fine. The LEGO movie comes out in like 2018, [laughing] there will be plenty of time to worry about it.
Where did the idea for The Billion Brick Race come from? Was it after seeing Lord and Miller’s The LEGO Movie?
My friend, Drew Pearce, had an idea and he came to my house to run it by me, because I had written The Muppets and these kinds books are kind of in my wheelhouse. And we talked for like an hour and at the end of that hour, he was like, “Do you think you might want to write this together? We are working really well on this idea.” I said, “Sure!” I feel really luck he brought me into the process, it’s a really amazing group of people. But, that’s how it happened.
You’re forging an interesting road. If the next thing I heard was, this is a dumb example, but, “Jason Segel is going to give us an updated take on Citizen Kane…”
[Laughs] Yeah, right.
Or, “he’s going to do a Star Wars,” I wouldn’t be surprised at this point. No one knows what to expect from you.
Well, I don’t feel any need to define what I might want to do in a year or two. I don’t where I’ll be tomorrow. If you showed The End of the Tour to 24-year-old Jason Segel after Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he’d be shocked and surprised.
In what way?
I think what I’ve been best at is doing things that are really reflective of where I am at that time. So, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is really an accurate depiction of who I was at 24 – where a breakup is like the end of the world and it’s just all-important. And I don’t think I could have anticipated the way I feel now. At one point, when the TV show ended, and the cycle of comedies kind of came to an end, I reached this point where I felt like, “Alright, if I’m lucky, I have 50 years left and I should figure out what to do in a sustainable way. And the simplest way to put it is just what David Foster Wallace said, “I have to face reality. I’m 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper.”
Does it go the other way? When you now watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall, can you feel shocked and surprised at what you produced then?
I look at Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I was reminded about how important it is to be brave. This is a very different version of it, but I had the naivety of youth at that age. And I thought, “You just go for it.” And then I think sometimes you can lose sight of the thing that worked is actually being brave. That’s the secret brew.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.