Jason Segel was strolling down the street in Austin, Texas, when he rang up The Huffington Post to chat about "The End of the Tour" on the eve of the movie's DVD release. His most cerebral role yet, Segel plays David Foster Wallace during the author's promotion of the 1996 magnum opus Infinite Jest in the film. But don't assume that means "Billion Brick Race" -- the "Lego Movie" spinoff he's co-writing -- is a cinch. Segel is familiar with the "funny guy does drama" narrative, as he starred in the Duplass brothers' 2012 indie "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," and because almost every comedian is subjected to it eventually. But now the 35-year-old multihyphenate must turn his attention to Oscar chatter and all the other mixed blessings that come with giving one of the year's most acclaimed performances. We gabbed with Segel about playing Wallace, navigating awards buzz and why he no longer consumes entertainment news.
I've been hoping to catch you since I saw the movie at Sundance in January. Does it feel like you lived in the world of "The End of the Tour" a long time ago?
You know, it’s funny -- this has been a really unique experience for me in the way that it’s unfolded because we shot it in February of last year and then we waited for Sundance, so that was pretty close to a year wait. And then after Sundance we waited until August for it to come out, and now it’s getting ready for the DVD release, which, for a movie this size, is a little bit like the wide release. People are going to get a chance to see it who didn’t otherwise. It’s been a really slow and interesting unfolding for me.
Have you been writing “Billion Brick Race” throughout the whole thing?
Yeah, I’m writing a few things, actually. I’m writing that, and then I also write this series of books for middle-grade kids called Nightmares. I’ve been writing the second and third in those series, and I’ve been writing a couple of screenplays, as well.
Is it weird to vacillate between writing kid-centric projects and fielding heavy questions about playing David Foster Wallace?
It’s interesting, the headspace you get into with something like “End of the Tour,” I think, is best in low doses. So it was actually kind of nice to go from “End of the Tour” to working on “Lego.” It wiped the slate clean a little bit because, as you can imagine, that was a pretty intense experience.
There's always a certain novelty to seeing funny performers do dramatic work. Did you see yourself existing in a comedic realm before people informed you that you had just done a dramatic performance?
Oh, I was fully aware of what the tone of the movie was -- it’s part of what made it so terrifying to do. You have these beliefs about yourself. I definitely felt like I was capable, but the reality is that once you’re given the opportunity, you’re faced with this possibility that you’re going to prove yourself wrong. That’s a scary thing, but I’ve been of the mind lately that you walk toward the things you’re scared of.
The second extension of this is Oscar chatter, which seems noisy and intrusive in its own right. It’s only November, so we have a ways to go before it ends in late February. I heard you on Vanity Fair’s Oscar podcast recently, so you must be willing to play the game, at least to some degree.
Well, the way I view it is that I’m very proud of what we achieved with the movie. My real feeling now is anything that encourages people to see the movie and to pick up David Foster Wallace’s writing is stuff I’m really excited to be a part of. It’s very flattering that people have responded to the performance the way they did. I think it would be untruthful to say that wasn’t a very exciting thing.
Absolutely. Do you read that sort of stuff? Are you familiar with all the prognosticating?
No, it’s funny you ask. I made a decision quite a few years ago to sort of remove myself from entertainment news. Not that I’m above it, but more that I would over-focus on it. I found the best thing for me is to just focus on what’s actually going on in my life and in my immediate surroundings.
Was there a moment you can recall where you said, "I’m not doing this anymore"?
I think there’s probably a frustration that can happen. It goes back to our earlier conversation. You’re you, and in terms of just where you are work-wise, you’re ahead of what other people know. I just always have found it a frustrating thing to read uninformed opinions. It’s sort of distracting from living your actual life and doing what’s right in front of you.
It's tough when other people create a narrative for you. Did you feel you weren't given adequate opportunity to respond to what was being said about you?
No, I actually found that when I disengaged from entertainment news, everything was just fine [laughs]. Does that make sense? I think as a reader of the stuff or as the subject of the stuff, you can be drawn into the idea that something is actually happening. Magically, if you don’t pay attention to it, nothing is actually happening. Your life just continues.
And even when things are happening, seeing two dozen news outlets say the same thing can make it seem so much noisier than it actually is.
Yeah. I’m lucky to have people in my life who I really trust and who know me well who, over the course of the “End of the Tour” process, have told me little snippets of lovely things that were written. That sort of stuff is perfect and wonderful and flattering in the right dosage.
How do you temper that praise? Surely those people you love aren’t feeding you the negative stuff, as well.
It's helpful not to overindulge in the positive either. I’ve found in my life it’s nice just to stay right in the center. Don’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low, and just put one foot in front of the other.
It's interesting that the studio is going to promote your performance as a supporting role for the Oscars. Even though it isn't a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic, you and Jesse Eisenberg are co-leads, so it feels like a bit of category fraud to me. How do you see it?
I feel very comfortable with it. I always viewed it as a supporting part, if that’s helpful to the discussion. Jesse’s in the movie for 20 or so minutes longer than I am. David Foster Wallace is the subject of the movie, so it feels that way, but it really is David Lipsky’s story, I think. I think “Whiplash” is a good example of a similar dynamic.
Another debate that’s crept up is whether David Foster Wallace would have wanted a movie made about him at all. Some people who feel they knew him have essentially called this blasphemous. What do you make of that?
I think you want to make movies that don’t have 100 percent level of agreement. I think something like “Toy Story” should have 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think a movie about complicated subjects should spark a discussion from people on both sides.
What do you think of the idea that a literary critic or a film critic can feel he or she has enough ownership over DFW’s legacy to say whether or not this film is worthy?
First of all, and this is after a lot of thought, I have great empathy and respect and love, frankly, for the fact that David Foster Wallace has people who love him in varying capacities. I understand that is a very complicated situation. I personally think the movie is less about the life of David Foster Wallace and more an exploration of the themes that he wrote about, so I felt very comfortable. I read Infinite Jest, and I read it hard and thoroughly before we started, and to me, the movie is an extension of those themes.
This movie cements how much your career has spanned the whole gamut. You’ve done a beloved show that didn’t survive and a show that was very mainstream for a long time. You’ve done movies that generate $100 or $200 million at the box office, and with this, a movie that, on paper, doesn’t appear to have grossed much. It’s “niche,” as people say. Despite the great résumé that gives you, as a producer, is it a bummer there isn’t more of a happy medium in terms of what makes a dent culturally?
I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, amazingly. I’m 35 years old and one of the things I’ve learned is about adjusting the criteria for success. If you do a big-budget studio comedy, part of the expectation is that it’s going to make a lot of money at the box office. When you do a movie like “End of the Tour” for so little -- the budget of the movie is $3 million or something like that -- I think the criteria for success is that people see it and it moves them. In that regard, I think it’s been a mission accomplished. You take “Freaks and Geeks” versus “How I Met Your Mother” -- both of those feel like huge successes to me.
The goal is always to tell good stories, but do you think there is a steep difference in making those two types of projects -- in getting an “End of the Tour” off the ground versus getting a “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” off the ground?
It’s an interesting question. I’m pausing so I can give you a good answer. I look back at “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and it actually felt pretty similar in that I was scared. I was really scared going into both of them, and I think that’s a really good place to start because it drives you to make sure everything is as good as it can possibly be. I think the landscape of movies is changing. It’s become very polarized. There are the big tentpole movies that you hope make $100 million or more, and then there’s this art-house, independent kind of film, which is where interesting, smaller movies can be made. I think the middle area of movies has moved to television. So I think there is a changing landscape, but there’s room to do interesting stuff in both places.
You mentioned working on different scripts lately, so when you decide to tackle something, do you feel like you have to figure out what piece of the pie it will fit into? In other words, do you have to begin with a sense of whether it's studio movie and how it will be marketed and what audience it serves?
That’s really interesting you ask. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that over the past couple of years. When "How I Met Your Mother" ended and I started to think about how I wanted to proceed for this next phase of my career, I think the more strategic I’ve gotten the less creative I feel. So, for me, I am focusing on, “What do I watch at night?” And then when I think of an idea, "Would I want to watch this?" And that’s really all I can focus on.
So what do you watch at night?
Oh man, the last few things that I watched that I loved were “Frank" and I loved “Room.” It’s so good. I loved “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I just saw that and it is gorgeous.
Final Oscar question: If you were to get that supporting nomination, there’s a good chance you could be up against your pal Seth Rogen. So what kind of rivalry are you guys in store for in these upcoming months?
Oh, I would just think that would be the most amazing journey ever. I wouldn’t view that as a rivalry one bit. I would be really proud of the both of us.
A friendly rivalry, of course.
Of course, but I think, for me, I would just feel tremendous pride in the both of us. We met when we were teenagers!
"The End of the Tour" is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and digitally. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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