Jason Segel On Breakups, Bromances And 'Freaks And Geeks'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After hearing an archived interview with David Foster Wallace, we thought you’d enjoy hearing an interview with Jason Segel, who portrays Wallace in the new film “The End Of The Tour.” Segel started his career alongside Seth Rogen and James Franco, portraying high school students in the TV series “Freaks And Geeks.” Segel went on to star in such films as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Bad Teacher” and “The Muppets,” and he’s starred in the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.” This interview with Jason Segel was recorded in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about a film that you wrote and star in, and that's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which I missed in the movies, but I watched it on DVD - it's out on DVD - and it's really good and it's really funny.
JASON SEGEL: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: Let's hear what I know is your most famous scene in the movie, and this is from the beginning of the film. And, like, you play a guy who writes music for a crime scene kind of TV show.
SEGEL: Exactly. It's basically a "CSI" spoof. I was a guest star on "CSI" for a while, and I just always found how serious it all is very funny, you know?
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
SEGEL: So I - yeah, I play a guy who composes the music and is sort of just dying inside because he wants to be a proper musician, and his girlfriend is the star of the show. And so one day, she comes over to the house, and I think she's there to have sex with me. So I'm waiting there naked for her, and she proceeds to dump me while I'm naked.
GROSS: Yeah, well, let me just explain it a little bit more. She told you that she's coming over, and you didn't expect her that quickly. So you jump into the shower, and you come out with a towel wrapped around you, surprised to find her there. And as she tells you the news, the towel drops.
GROSS: And we get to see you full top to bottom from front and behind (laughter).
GROSS: Fully naked.
SEGEL: You're welcome.
GROSS: Yes, right.
GROSS: So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL”)
KRISTEN BELL: (As Sarah Marshall) Peter, as you know, I love you very much.
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter) Are you breaking up with me?
BELL: (As Sarah Marshall) Pete, are you…
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter) I just need a minute.
BELL: (As Sarah Marshall) OK.
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter, crying). Please don't go.
BELL: (As Sarah Marshall) Why don't you just put on some clothes, and we can sit down and discuss this.
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter) No, I can't do anything right now.
BELL: (As Sarah Marshall) I'm so sorry, Pete.
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter) I'm in love with you.
BELL: (As Sarah Marshall) Why don't you just put some clothes on, OK?
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter) I'm not going to go put clothes on. I know what that means. If I put clothes on, it's over.
GROSS: OK, that's my guest, Jason Segel, with Kristen Bell, from his film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Now…
SEGEL: That was taken from the pages of real life. I once got dumped while I was naked, but she asked me to put clothes on during this real breakup, my real-life breakup, and as opposed to in the movie when I say no, I did go to put clothes on. So she waited for me while I went back into my room to get dressed. Let me just tell you, Terry.
SEGEL: Picking out an outfit for the second half of a breakup is like the hardest outfit you'll ever pick out in your life.
SEGEL: I came out - I came out in a blue button-up shirt and khaki pants, like I was going to private school.
GROSS: So did it seem funny to you at the time, or was it just in retrospect that - these things take on…
SEGEL: You know what? I think maybe this is the mind of a writer, I guess. But it was - while this breakup is happening, which was probably the most significant moment of my life to date, you know, when that happened, and I'm naked, and the whole time I'm thinking this is really, really funny. I'm going to use this in a movie someday. And slowly her voice became like the teacher from Charlie Brown, you know, just wha-wha-wha, wha-wha-wha (ph), while I was slowly constructing the scene in my mind.
GROSS: Oh, so what did she say? What did the real ex-girlfriend say when she saw the movie?
SEGEL: Amazingly, we don't speak anymore.
GROSS: Oh, shocking. Right, OK.
GROSS: I should've seen that coming.
GROSS: So like, you're 6'4", I think?
SEGEL: I am 6'4".
GROSS: So when you're naked, there's a lot of you to see, and it makes it even funnier because you have, like, such - there's such a big body there that's - it’s, like, dwarfing your girlfriend.
SEGEL: I know. Well, you know, part of what I thought could be great, and I think it did turn out really well, is, you know, I know it's a comedy, and so everything has to be funny, but I didn't want that breakup scene to be funny. I didn't want it to be played for laughs, you know? ‘Cause I think it was a really important part of the movie, this - that the breakup be as painful as possible. So I thought the backdrop of me being naked gave me the opportunity to play the scene totally seriously because every time you cut back to me naked, you're going to get a laugh, you know?
And the other thing I thought was, I wanted it to be a guy literally at his most vulnerable. And so, you know, I think naked is about as vulnerable as it gets. And the final thing is I hate romantic comedies for the reason that you always know how it's going to end. The guy's going to end up with the girl, like, hey, probably that girl who's been really nice to him the whole movie works at the cookie shop, you know?
You can tell what's about to happen, and so I've always been reticent to go. And I thought as a viewer, if in the very first scene of the movie your lead actor is suddenly full-frontal, you know, naked, you're forced to sort of throw out your expectations and sit back and say I don't know what's going to happen in this movie, you know? So I think it sort of set the stage to lose any preconceptions about what the movie might be like.
GROSS: What did your mother say about the scene?
SEGEL: Oh, man. I still regret this moment. I thought it would be a funny joke not to tell my mother I had done it and have her find out at the first showing of the movie. So I walked…
GROSS: You didn't tell her? Is that what you're saying, you did not tell her?
SEGEL: Yes, I did not tell her that I had done it. And I walk her into the first screening and all of the sudden I walk out and I drop my towel and I'm naked. And I look over at my father, and my father's laughing hysterically. I think my little sister is laughing hysterically, and then I turn and I looked at my mom, and she was staring at me with a tear streaming down her face.
SEGEL: And she said, why didn't you tell me? And I said, I thought it would be a funny joke not to tell you. And then she said, this is not a funny joke.
SEGEL: That was the last we spoke of it.
GROSS: We’re listening back to my 2009 interview with Jason Segel. He plays David Foster Wallace in the new film “The End Of The Tour.” We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my 2009 interview with Jason Segel, who stars in the new film “The End Of The Tour” as writer David Foster Wallace.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, this is another thing from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The character that you play in it, the main character, is working on a rock opera with puppets about Dracula and eternal love.
GROSS: And I've read that you were actually or are actually working on a similar musical, yes?
SEGEL: I am, yeah. Well, the way that - that wasn't written for the movie, that Dracula musical. Sadly, I had a really bad out-of-work period from like 21 to 25. I couldn't figure out what I was going to do with my life because I didn't have a college education. And I thought I was going to have to, like, live with my parents for the rest of my life. Looking back, I was such an arrogant kid. I thought the two options for me were either movie star or live with my parents. Get a real job, like, never entered my mind.
But - so I thought the way that I could jump-start my career was to write a Dracula musical to be done with puppets, but I was writing it without a sense of irony. It wasn't a comedy. It was going to be like a slow, labored drama. So anyway, I finally finished a few of the songs, and I took it to Judd Apatow to play for him. He was the first person I played it for. And the first song starts and about halfway through he pushes stop on the CD player, and he looks at me, and he goes, Jase (ph), just take my advice. You can't ever play this for anyone, ever.
SEGEL: And thank God I didn't because I would have looked like a crazy person, and I got to save it for the movie.
GROSS: Well, you know, in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," your character doesn't realize that the Dracula musical he's writing is really a comedy.
SEGEL: Yep, straight from the pages of real life.
GROSS: Right, OK. How did you realize it, because of Judd Apatow?
SEGEL: Yeah, yeah, basically, you know…
GROSS: But he didn't say it was funny. He just said never let anybody hear this.
SEGEL: No, he said never let anyone hear it. And I'll tell you how it ended up happening. Judd has the same feelings about romantic comedy as I do, specifically how hard it is to come up with an original ending, you know? And so we were sitting around brainstorming, like, what could be an original ending for a romantic comedy? And I looked at him half-joking, and I said, well, we could always use my Dracula musical.
And he looked at me, and it was, like - you know, Judd Apatow is a comedy genius, and you just saw like, ding. You saw this look in his eyes like, oh, my God, that's weird enough that it might work. So I just rewrote it that night, that my character's been secretly working on a Dracula opera, and that's how that happened.
GROSS: Well, I want to play a scene that relates to this, and this is a scene where you're at a bar with a girl who you hope is becoming your new girlfriend.
GROSS: And she’s asked the band - she knows you're working on this Dracula rock opera. So she's asked the band to call you onstage and invite you to perform an excerpt of the Dracula musical. And you go very reluctantly to the stage and with great discomfort start to play one of the songs. And at this point, you still think it's a serious musical, and it's not until she laughs…
GROSS: …That you realize, oh, it's a comedy. So here's that scene in which you're playing an excerpt of your Dracula rock opera.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL”)
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter, singing) It's getting kind of hard to believe things are going to get better. I've been drowning too long to believe that the tide's going to turn. And I've been living too hard to believe things are going to get easier now. I'm still trying to shake off the pain from the lessons I've learned. And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord, I will slay him (laughter). He’d take you from me, but I swear I won't let it be so (laughter). Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated.
SEGEL: (As Peter Bretter, singing) His head on my mantle is how I will let this one go. How much I love you. Die, die, die - I can’t.
SEGEL: I'm such a weirdo.
GROSS: That's Jason Segel in an excerpt of his film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which is on DVD. You know, in that die, die, die, I can't, you just kind of capture very succinctly there the downside of immortality (laughter)…
GROSS: …That vampires face.
SEGEL: Yeah. I think I understand why women never want to stay with me. Imagine…
SEGEL: …I'm out of work, and I'm sitting there writing that song till all hours of the morning.
GROSS: So what are some of the, like, musicals or rock operas that have influenced you and made you want to write one of your own?
SEGEL: Oh, man. Well, I used to see "Les Miserables" with my family every year when I was young, and I just loved it. I loved it, loved it so much to the point where when I was about 7 years old or so, I was finally old enough to go to my brother's sleepaway camp. And I was so excited ‘cause, you know, I really looked up to my brother. And my brother really didn't like me that much at this age. Like, I would embarrass him a lot. I wore a Superman cape under my clothes, for example.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you really?
SEGEL: I did, until I was way too old, until I was like 10 years old. But so anyway, I was going to finally get to go to camp with him. And he said, Jason, let me tell you something. This is my camp. I love it. You're not going to embarrass me, OK? And I was petulant. I said, of - I'm not going to embarrass you, Adam, geez.
So first day at camp we're sitting there and the counselor gets up and he says, all right, we would like to welcome everybody back, and we'd also like to welcome the new campers. As a matter of fact, would anybody like to do an impromptu talent show? And I see my brother look at me like you'd better not, kid. And little Jason Segel raises his hand, slowly makes his way up to the stage - in a Superman cape - and I get to the front. And he says, all right, what would you like to do? And I said, I'd like to sing. And I started singing…
(Singing) There is a castle on a cloud.
I sang the little girl's song from "Les Miserables" from beginning to end.
SEGEL: My brother was mortified.
GROSS: Now, I read that you went to Catholic school, although you're Jewish, is that true?
SEGEL: Yeah, I was the only Jewish kid at this all-Christian school, and that was a little weird. I remember this one moment where I sent out my bar mitzvah invitations to everybody. And the principal came up and said, listen, Jason, everyone's really excited, but I don't think that the kids know what a bar mitzvah is. I was wondering if maybe you wanted to explain at communion what a bar mitzvah is.
SEGEL: Now keep in mind, these kids are already jumping on my back and saying ride the oaf. So 12-year-old Jason Segel walks to the front of communion and has to stand in front of these kids and go, on Saturday, I become a man.
SEGEL: Nothing gets you beat up faster than the line, on Saturday, I become a man.
GROSS: Oh, that's so great. So when - how old were you when you knew you wanted to be an actor, and how did you know? Well, it sounds like you knew all along, actually, with the Superman outfit and singing at your brother's summer camp.
SEGEL: Well, I think the seeds were there. My parents had put me into an acting class when I was about 9 or 10 or so because I was having such a hard time at that school making friends, that they wanted to send me some place that was not religiously affiliated at all, you know? So they sent me to this acting class, but it was more about not being shy than it was about acting. I got started in a really weird way. I had just won a state championship playing basketball in California. And my brother was a great basketball player and I sort of wanted to play college ball, that's what I figured I would do. But I had this art history class that I found very boring and so - it was right next to the drama department and every day on the way to art history class. I would reach in real quick to the drama department and grab a play. And I would read it during class.
And I read one called "The Zoo Story" by Edward Albee. And there's a 40-minute monologue in it, and I thought, I'd like to try this just to see if I could do it, you know? It's a two-man play. So I found a guy to do the play with me. And I asked the head of the drama department if he minded if I put on this play. And he said, no, no problem. So I did it. And he came up to me after and he said, look, I think you're really good at this and you might want to consider becoming an actor. And I said, no, I'm going to play college basketball. And I was kind of a jock at this point. And he said, well, do me a favor. I'm teaching a mock audition class on Saturday. Will you come and just see if you like it? So I said, sure.
So I show up at this mock audition class. And I go in, and it's him and this lady and they have me do like half an hour of reading, like, sides blind. And I did them and I left and they said, thank you very much. A week later, my parents sat me down and said, we've been talking to Paramount Pictures all week. He didn't want to tell you, but that was the president of casting at Paramount and he had set up a fake audition for me.
GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.
SEGEL: And he didn't want me to be nervous. So he just told me it was a mock audition class. And Paramount was in touch with my parents all week. And the next thing I knew, I had a agent and manager, and I was - I started working my senior of high school. So it was crazy. It sort of found me, you know?
GROSS: Jason Segel, it's been so much fun talking with you. Thank you so much.
SEGEL: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: Jason Segel, recorded in 2009. He plays writer David Foster Wallace in the new movie “The End Of The Tour.” Coming up, David Bianculli reviews a new HBO miniseries from David Simon, who created “The Wire” and “Treme.” That’s after a break. This is FRESH AIR.