Jason Segel, who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his portrayal of David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, is trying to navigate the murky waters of awards season — specifically, how to be proud of his performance but not let his self-esteem get caught up in whether he wins anything. Coming off the movie, the actor finds himself at a career crossroads, one where he’s challenging Hollywood’s perception that he’s best at raunchy comedies. The End of the Tour showcased his capacity for subtlety, honesty, and range; the question, then, is where he goes from here.
In short, it’s a big moment for him. Asked, during a recent conversation with Vulture, how he’s handling the awards-season crush, he paraphrased DFW: “I’m using all the mental gymnastics at my disposal!”
What is it like at the end of your own tour? Have you hit a wall of mental fatigue? Or does it invigorate you to be a part of the awards conversation?
It’s kind of neat, because the film has taken on an even fuller life. There’s the DVD release. There’s a whole new crop of people getting to see it now. Compared to David Foster Wallace, writing and promoting Infinite Jest, that’s X amount of years sitting alone in a room, holding on to the belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile. Then you release it, and find out if you were right or wrong. We had a similar experience. We believed in this film, and we made it for very little money but a lot of love, and then we took it to Sundance. We didn’t know if anybody would care. And I think it was at the first screening at Sundance where the word Oscar was mentioned. That is a very seductive and exciting and flattering thing to hear. Anybody would be disingenuous if they said that wasn’t everything that they hoped of hearing, on some level! But as we get deeper into this awards season, it’s become really important to me to make sure whatever I focus on next is as scary for me as The End of the Tour was.
Do you even pay attention to the awards talk?
When I focus too much on the awards talk, I find myself stifled, creatively. To be nominated for an Oscar would be the most wonderful thing in the world, but if you hinge your self-esteem on that, you’re really setting yourself up to feel bad about something you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Ramin Bahrani, who directed 99 Homes, said that you can’t pay attention to any of the industry news. You’re told what your value is, how you are valuable in terms of making these movies. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it’s important to not turn that into your own self-value. If I had been thinking like that in my 20s, there would never have been a lavish puppet musical at the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. [Laughs.] That is not a sellable thing, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my entire career.
All you can do is put your head down and try to make your thing. There’s something wonderful swirling around this performance, but the thing that’s most important to me is to focus on doing good work. I know it sounds cliché, but I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve been trying to find a model that’s sustainable, and at some point I realized that, the ups and downs of success in the business, if that’s your source of self-esteem, that’s not going to be a sustainable model in the long term. What you can do is just try to continue to do good work and challenge yourself.
I’ve had movies I did not like do very well, and that doesn’t leave you feeling satisfied. So when a movie comes out that you’re proud of and it does modestly well, I feel like that is a huge success. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is one I’m incredibly proud of. That movie is really special and small and about really significant things. I loved Muppets. It was a dream come true. You know, with Forgetting Sarah Marshall I had this naïveté — I didn’t know how hard it is to make a movie. The fact that it’s a studio romantic comedy that ends with a puppet musical, I was like, There you go, kid. That is unique to you. The films I’m most proud of are the ones where it could only have been me playing the part, not the ones where my part could have been interchangeable with any number of other actors.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall required you to put more of you in a film than ever before …
The full-frontal nudity? I thought that was hilarious. I was actually not very uncomfortable doing it. I really felt free. You have to put it in the context that this was 2006, 2007, and this hadn’t been done before, in my recollection, where the main guy was going to be naked in the first five minutes of the movie. There was a creative idea behind it, it wasn’t just for shock value. I wanted it to be the most humiliating breakup of all time. When I was writing it, I thought to myself, The problem with romantic comedies is, you know what’s going to happen. The guy on the poster is going to end up with the girl on the poster. But if I open this movie with something you cannot believe you’re seeing, you’re sort of forced to go into a different attitude. You don’t know what’s going to happen in this movie. We tried to carry that all the way through to the puppet musical. We wanted it to have the feeling of a romantic comedy, but to be completely unexpected. It’s pretty fearless.
David Foster Wallace was deeply ambivalent about the nature of fame, the process of doing an interview, even deciding which part of himself to present. How much were you able to relate to it? Forgetting Sarah Marshall seemed to explore those themes, as well.
I definitely feel like Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a reflection of who I was at the time. And honestly, I feel like The End of the Tour is an honest reflection of one part of myself. Before we shot the film, there was a lot of talk, Why would Jason Segel be right for this part? But there are ways I am really, really uniquely suited to play David Foster Wallace, and to bring my experience to that. That’s what people are responding to.
I think what he felt was the opposite of ambivalence. He had such complicated feelings, he was almost paralyzed. He had a lot of angles, and one of them was the understanding that the only way he would feel okay was if he were a regular guy, and any feeling of being extraordinary took away from that. The way I see it, it’s about this distress signal. “Hey, I seem to be the one with the vocabulary here, so let me express how I’m feeling, and if anyone else feels this way, can we have a discussion about it?”
When people say David Foster Wallace had a massive vocabulary, that is true of the literal words, but what is even more poignant is that he had an emotional vocabulary. We talk about this in the movie, like how you feel when you read Catcher in the Rye at 13, where all of a sudden, someone has put words to those really uncomfortable teenage feelings. David Foster Wallace was a man who was incredibly self-aware, and very obviously brilliant, who is actively trying to manage these feelings. So it is especially tragic when it is someone who knows what is happening, you know what I mean? If anything, being intelligent can make things heightened.
My growing understanding of these feelings is that you have a mind that wants to create the horror movie out of every circumstance. If you are a very intelligent person, your capacity to create intricate horror stories is increased. When you can think of a hundred reasons of why life is terrible, that’s rough! But I think getting inside David Foster Wallace’s head, to the extent that I was able to, was the same thing he did with his writing, and it served the same function as a support group — you all of a sudden realize that you’re not alone. There are other people who have these complicated feelings.
You’ve done drama before, and comedy that incorporated drama. Do you feel a need to change the perception that you’re a comedic actor?
Well, it’s interesting, because the framing of your question is similar to the framing I’m trying to get rid of in my own mind, which is, How is this going to look? What is the perception going to be, by me doing this? But if I took that to the performance, then the effort wouldn’t be authentic to what we were actually trying to achieve. It would be like a vanity project — Look at me, trying to do serious acting! The way I wanted to approach it was just to remove any labels I had put on myself, let alone take out what other people might be putting on it. I remember when I saw Lincoln, and I thought to myself, There was a time, in my late teens, when I would have felt like that was possible. Now I can only envision myself playing Lincoln in a Saturday Night Live sketch! [Laughs.] When this role came along, I thought, Here is my chance to break that self-image.
I had an experience at a high-school play, The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, where I found that I did not feel embarrassed to display uncomfortable feelings. The Zoo Story is a drama, with humor, and it’s a two-hander, very similar to End of the Tour, actually, in that it is two guys talking. The play is about a man who is going to commit suicide that day. It’s basically the last conversation he has before he asks this man on the bench with him, a total stranger, to murder him, and then coaxes him into it. Uncomfortable feelings galore! Especially ones probably beyond my understanding at 17 years old. David Foster Wallace writes about it really beautifully. He said, when people jump out of a burning building, it’s not because they’re not afraid of falling — the fear of falling remains a constant — but it’s because the alternative is so awful, that it’s a terror way beyond falling. The real question, as an actor doing that play, is what is your capacity for honesty?
Given what happened during David Foster Wallace’s interview, would you let a reporter follow you for four days? How has the film changed the interview process for you?
Well, because the news cycle has become so much faster I can’t even imagine a four-day profile being done in that way anymore! I can’t imagine someone waiting for the four days to be over, and viewing the complete picture, without feeling the need to, as in the case of the movie, report that heroin conversation the minute it happened, you know? That’s a little bit of what was frustrating David Foster Wallace in the movie. He’s trying to articulate a bunch of larger issues to David Lipsky, and Lipsky keeps getting caught up on the equivalent of the click-bait headline, you know?
Plus, it was probably complicated by the fact that his interviewer just wanted to be him.
And I think there’s this other thing, not being accustomed to somebody who is speaking honestly. There’s a big question as to how much is David Foster Wallace actually revealing? but Lipsky keeps saying, in subtle ways, Come on. Tell me the real truth. I know you’re saying that this thing doesn’t matter to you, but tell me the real truth. And David Foster Wallace is saying, Man, I’m not trying to trick you. I’m trying to trick myself. So back off a little bit! I’m using whatever mental gymnastics I can so that I can feel okay. When you’re talking to someone who is exactly where you hope to be, them telling you, It’s really complicated over here is not what you want to hear. [Laughs.] To some extent, I felt like David Foster Wallace was trying to explain to him, This “there” you’re hoping to get to? It doesn’t exist. I’ve just gotten “there,” and I’m realizing this road goes on forever. It’s exhausting.
I’ve talked to friends about this for my career — when does the feeling arrive that you’ve made it? And it doesn’t. There may be some people who are built differently, but I’ve never felt like, Well, I’ve made it! It’s easiest to see in someone else. When you are yourself, you’re surrounded by people who are moving alongside you. Some drop by the wayside. You can think of it like a high-school athlete. You can be the best in your high school, but then you move to college, and you’re surrounded by people who were also the best in their high school, and so where are you in that ranking system? And if you’re close to the top, then you’re going to move to the pros, where you have the best of the college players, and where are you going to fit in that ranking system? It’s a very rare person who is Michael Jordan. When your criteria for success is locked into, How am I doing compared to X, Y, and Z? then you’re constantly going to fail, because there are always going to be other people doing really interesting stuff, and we by nature are sort of envious people. But if you try to attach your pride to doing good work, then you have a chance to feel good at night.
This interview has been edited and condensed.