So, yes, on the surface, doing an interview with Jason Segel and Lakeith Stanfield at the same time is a bit of an odd paring, because I hadn’t really thought about them as a pair of any kind before. And they are both in the Sundance film Come Sunday together, but even in that movie they don’t really share many scenes. But there are some interesting parallels: Both had or have critically acclaimed television shows (Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother for Segel; Atlanta for Stanfield) while also making breakout films Forgetting Sarah Marshall; Short Term 12, Get Out). Segel is now at a reflective point in his career, taking an almost step back from the pure fame of his past and searching for more meaningful projects. While Stanfield is where Segel was a few years ago, about to become a household name, if he isn’t already.
They co-star in Joshua Maston’s Come Sunday, the true story of Tulsa minister Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who defied the conventional teaching and dared to suggest that maybe it’s possible a loving God doesn’t send people to Hell – which caused a huge uproar in the late ‘90s. Segel plays Henry, Carlton’s partner who is opposed to this new way of thinking, while Stanfield plays Reggie, the church organist who struggles with the church’s teaching and the fact he’s a gay man.
I met Segel and Stanfield early on Monday morning in a condo off Park City’s Main Street. It may seem like you haven’t heard a lot from Segel lately but, as he explains ahead, that’s by design. And we will all be hearing a lot more from Stanfield soon, who I dubbed the King of Sundance (Stanfield prefers “Prince of Sundance”) between this film and the breakout hit Sorry to Bother You. Also, he has quite the story about watching Get Out with Snoop Dogg (whom Stanfield played in Straight Outta Compton). As you can probably guess, marijuana was involved.
Lakeith is like the King of Sundance.
Jason Segel: I know. How cool is that?
How does that feel?
Lakeith Stanfield: More like “The Prince.”
The Prince of Sundance, got it. Sorry to Bother You is something else…
Stanfield: Yeah, it’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything quite like it either. It’s crazy.
This role isn’t the Jason Segel people are used to. What did you like about this? Are you looking for mostly serious roles?
Segel: Well, I think that it’s almost even less about picking serious roles, but I wanted to pick parts that make me interested and are sort of in line with the stuff that I’m thinking about these days.
So they just happen to be “serious”? Last year’s The Discovery was more serious, too.
Segel: Yeah. And End of the Tour is as well. You know, Chiwetel said something really interesting to me, because I started asking people who I work with who I really respect how they choose parts. And one of the things that he said to me was, “Well, you only get so many of these, and never forget this is your life. And so what do you want to devote months or a year of your life to when you only get so many of them?” And I think that that’s a really good way to think when you’re choosing a part. You know, when I was in my 20s – I started really young; I started, you know, 17, 18 years old – and I think that when you’re in your 20s you’re just so excited that someone has let you in the gates and you’re so grateful for everything that you get. And that is a good attitude to have. But when I reached my early 30s I realized, okay, now I need to start exercising some choice. And I’m really grateful for my life. I’m really grateful that I get to make art, but I also now can take ownership a little bit where I am in my life and start picking things a little bit more deliberately. And that’s a luxury. I acknowledge that’s a real luxury of having worked a lot in my 20s.
When you asked Chiwetel a question like that, obviously he’s had a tremendous amount of success, but he’s also got to be thinking, “You’re Jason Segel, why are you asking me this?”
Segel: Well, I read this really interesting interview with Kobe Bryant where Kobe Bryant went to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Did you ever read this interview?
I did not.
Segel: One of the most interesting interviews I ever read. And Michael Jackson basically invited Kobe Bryant really early in his Lakers career to come to Neverland Ranch because he wanted to talk to him about what success is going to be like and how to be prepared for it. And one of the things he said to him was that when you get around somebody you respect, don’t be a fan, be an interviewer and ask them every question that you could possibly want to know, because those are going to be tools for your decision-making as you go forward. And that really stuck with me. And so when I work with somebody like Chiwetel or Mr. Robert Redford or any of these people who I look and think, Oh, they’re doing it right, I want what they have, I ask.
What did you ask Robert Redford?
Segel: How you choose what you’re supposed to do. And his philanthropy is really interesting to me. So what are you supposed to do with this weird tool of fame? Because you get to wield it however you want…
You seem like someone who has been really analyzing fame a lot.
Segel: Well, you’re given this thing and you work really hard for it, but then you’re given the sort of ancillary thing of fame. That has nothing to do with art, because you can become famous in all sorts of ways. But what do you do with it? What do you do with this weird side-effect tool? And you look at somebody like Leonardo DiCaprio or Sean Penn, who are going around the world using that tool to change the world for the positive. Or Robert Redford does the same thing for environmental causes. And that’s just really interesting to me, because it turns out the thing that you think you’re chasing, or, at least, I can only speak for myself: I thought I was chasing some version of success where everyone really knows who you are and all that sort of stuff. And when you’re young you’re sort of told that’s how you know. That didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t feel the way that I thought I was going to feel. When I watch Come Sunday, which is a little movie, I feel the way that I wanted to feel. That’s what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older. I feel much better about Come Sunday than I did about a billboard for a movie that I don’t feel is representative of who I am.
Because you two are sitting here, but I can’t help but think there’s some parallels, because you both have or had the hit TV show, you’ve got all these breakout films, How much do you think about this?
Stanfield: Yeah, you know, quite a bit, man, as far as all that stuff. I mean, it’s really new for me, so I’m kind of thinking about ways in the future to explore that, using that. I think that’s a really good point and a nice thing, that you can effect that kind of change and get people to think. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons. What I want to do is, at some point, create some things that will have people maybe look at things a little bit different and maybe question things and not somehow always taking things for granted maybe. But I don’t know. It’s really fresh for me and new and strange and weird and crazy and moving quickly. I try to just keep my head down and focus on the task at hand and not worry too much about it.
I think that’s why people like you. You’re just doing it.
Stanfield: Yeah, man, and it’s a really cool gift. It’s a nice thing to be a part of and I wield it like a double-edged sword and I try to be careful with it. So I’m interested to see how that reveals itself to me and what we can do with that. The internet’s an interesting thing. I’m able to play with perception. I put out a thing about the release date of Atlanta, and immediately all these articles come up and it’s just an interesting thing to see.
Well, people love that show.
Stanfield: But just like with news and media, like what do you trust? Where are you getting your information from?
One of the stars of the show seems like a good source, right?
Stanfield: Maybe. But is it? [Laughs.] You know what I mean? And that’s what I’m saying, because someone has a blue check by their name, you know what I mean? And so, it’s interesting to play around. And also I did a show here. I did a show here at the Music Café and I invited everybody to come out and we’d talk about meditation. And then I invited everybody out for a hot dog contest, on the same day at the same time. And then I invited everybody out for a dry T-shirt contest, at the same place at the same time. So everybody shows up like, what’s going on? And then I play a song from Come Sunday. And I’m just orchestrating the crowd.
Stanfield: And then I go into this like spoken word thing. But it’s an interesting thing because you can play with perception in that way.
Segel: Yeah. This question of what is real these days is becoming more and more hard to decipher.
And obviously for very politically dangerous reasons too.
Stanfield: But you know what, that’s even a big part of religion and things. As I was growing up in a Christian household, perception is everything. Which, in its essence, in the beginning, caused me to start to ask different questions about things. Because, you know, my auntie would put her wig on, put all that other stuff on, be smelling good and come in – and then right after church we’d be talking about the family. It didn’t match up to me, this little thing we put on and then how we actually feel and think about that. And so, you know, that was an interesting thing and that was part of the thing that drew me into this identity, and who am I, and is that okay to be who I am and feel the things I feel. Is my sexuality okay? And within the confines of this religion, is it okay to talk about these things? Is it okay to confront these things? Is it okay to just live this way? And those are important things that we all ask for different reasons, so I was really happy to jump into this.
Segel: It’s a really special thing, I think, and a rare thing when, as an actor, you get to look at something and say unabashedly, like, “I’m proud of that and I hope everybody sees it.” That’s how I felt when I saw the movie last night.
After Sorry to Bother You, when you were in front of the crowd at the library, you mentioned you were a weird kid. What did you mean by that?
Stanfield: I don’t even know why I said that because honestly, in my mind, I was never the weird kid. You know what I mean? The way that I perceived it. That was more my internalizing. That was my young self coming out through me, you know what I mean? But really, I didn’t think I was weird at all. I thought I was just doing whatever I want. You know who I thought was weird? The kids, the ones that were, you know, the cool. Like the guys walking around with the thing on. I was at public school. It was a fashion show. So the kids would come up with all the little sparkly stuff and be walking around. And the guys I thought looked kind of funny like bloated chickens running around. You know what I mean? But I was in the niche; I was like in the drama thing and I was acting. But that was me. But it’s easy in an environment like that to feel that way. And that’s what I’m saying, like, identity. Actually, both films deal with that: identity and who you are and coming to understand yourself and is it okay to be that. Is it okay to just exist as who you are? And I guess that’s kind of like a cool through-line through this Sundance experience for me.
Get Out premiered here at Sundance a year ago.
Stanfield: Yeah, man, this is crazy. It’s crazy.
Did you know when you were making that it was, all right, this is going to be something?
Stanfield: No. I thought it was strange, actually. I thought it would maybe come across a bit strange and I didn’t really understand it at all, not in the way that it actually would reveal itself to me over time. I thought it was much more, you know, it is a very simple thing, but it turns out there are a lot of different under-things that I definitely wasn’t aware of when I was reading it. I was just like, oh, cool, this would be fun. You know what I mean? It would be something cool to talk about. But also I was like, damn, this is actually pretty damn deep.
So when it came out and people reacted the way they did, you were a little surprised?
Stanfield: Yeah. I mean, I was surprised myself for the whole thing! You know, I watched it the first time with Snoop and we had a little private screening in a theater where you could smoke, and so he was smoking, you know, everything There’s smoke in the air. So I got a contact high.
What did he think of your portrayal of him, by the way?
Stanfield: He said, “Good job.”
Oh, that’s good.
Stanfield: But anyway, I was in that space and I got high, you know, a contact high when we were watching Get Out. And after we’re supposed to do a Q&A with Snoop. I’m up on the stage kind of high, you know. He’s passing me the blunt and I’m just like, I didn’t even see him passing it. And people were asking me questions about the movie, but I’m a sensitive person so it doesn’t take much for me to be gone. So I’m gone, you know what I mean? This whole thing, we’re talking about this crazy movie, and I just felt like I was in like a Twilight Zone episode. I was like, what am I fucking a part of? So I had to watch it four or five times to really get it.
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