Interview: Jason Segel On His Career-Defining Role and the "Real Beauty" of David Foster Wallace

From by Mila Pantovich
Interview: Jason Segel On His Career-Defining Role and the "Real Beauty" of David Foster Wallace

When it was announced that a movie about author David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) was on the way, the literary world nearly imploded. Opinions were fierce, loud and on occasion, vicious. From the author’s estate publicly denouncing the project to diehard fans questioning whether a film about the figure should even be made, The End of the Tour was surrounded by skepticism. Against all odds, what ended up being made may actually be the closest we will ever get to meeting David Foster Wallace again; as a living, breathing person who has the agency to communicate those dark self-doubts that run through all of our minds. And at the bruised beating heart of it all is Jason Segel, delivering an astonishing performance that will no doubt mark a new chapter in his career.

There’s polite conversation, there’s soul-bearing conversation, and then there’s David Lipsky on the road with David Foster Wallace for five days.

Posted by The End of the Tour on Friday, 10 July 2015

Wallace is an author that fans hold incredibly tight to their chests. Not only is he heralded as a genius, he was an incredibly tender man who—instead of using his intelligence to make others feeling inferior—used it as a lit candle in the darkness, calling out to those who may have felt as he did. Considered one of the most influential and important American authors to have ever lived, Wallace is almost revered as a deity nowadays, so it’s not hard to imagine why a publically-perceived “biopic” would be tough to swallow for some. But rest assured, The End of the Tour is definitely not a biopic. Because it stays within the confines of conversations had between two people over the course of a few days, the movie isn’t exactly something a huge studio would back.

david foster wallacePhoto Credit: Steve Rhodes/Wikimedia Commons

Based on David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the movie takes place during the last five days of the Infinite Jest book tour. At the time, Lipsky was on assignment from Rolling Stone and though he recorded countless audio tapes, the article was never published. It wasn’t until Lipsky learned of Wallace’s suicide in 2008 that he decided to compile the book. The film quite brilliantly uses the source material as a touchstone and manages to eloquently reflect what Wallace stood for, even while using a medium he was wary of. 

Unsurprisingly, the six-foot-four Segel is almost exactly the person he appears to be in his films: a genial giant of a man who uses his frame as a source of warmth. I say “almost” because still waters run deep with this one—I only spent 18 minutes in a room with him and now I desperately want to follow him around for five days. His natural presence is already a dead ringer for Wallace—who was the type to manipulate his physicality in a way as to appear nonthreatening and approachable—so once he trained with a vocal couch and got Wallace’s specific mannerisms down, the physical part of the role was a breeze.

To get a better understanding of the film and Segel’s process, we recently talked with the actor while he was in San Diego for a press tour. In a very David Foster Wallace-like way, he spoke passionately about what it feels like to be the author, cultural messages, being self-aware, and what he hopes people take from the film.

Press: When you got the role, what was the first thing you did? Research wise?

Jason Segel: Honestly, the first thing you do is you deal with all of the voices. […] You deal with the fear telling you you’re not going to be capable of doing this, because it’s a big undertaking and it’s different than anything I had done before. Then somehow you arrive at a point where you feel like, “Okay, I need to now proceed unapologetically and do the best I can.” So, I started reading. I just read and read, and I tackled Infinite Jest, because I felt like that was the most pertinent thing. The movie is the last four days of the book tour so having done a lot of press tours for movies, it is all-consuming. It’s what you’re thinking about and talking about all day, every day, and so I wanted to make sure it was what I was thinking about [...]; I started a book club with some local dudes [...]. 

jason segel, the end of the tour, david foster wallacePhoto Credit: A24 Films

Press: I watched a couple videos of him to compare and you have his cadence down; he kind of talks out of the side of his mouth a little bit and you had that down perfectly too. Did it take a while to get into that?

JS: There’s a really fine line, because especially coming from comedy, […] you’re dealing with a lot of expectations—both positive and negative—and I’m self-aware enough to know that people will take [them] into the performance. One of the pitfalls is you don’t want it to look a sketch, that you’re doing an impression, so I tried to zero in on things that I thought were important hooks, because this is a real man who people are familiar with and care about deeply, and you need to honor that. But I tried to really focus on, thematically, what I felt like was the important stuff.

I had the videos to watch, I had the actual audio tapes from [the Lipsky] interview, which was incredibly helpful, and I got a great dialect coach named Liz Himmelstein who helped me. I zeroed in on early that there’s a rhythm and a music to the way he talks. I’ve never seen somebody who was able to speak off the cuff in a fully-formed argument, with a thesis, supporting points and a conclusion. And there’s something about the way he moves his hands that reminded me a lot of that movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise is moving information around on that screen, You can sort of see somebody who has all of that information at his disposal and as he’s talking, he’s sort of moving stuff around in a very teacherly—or almost like a conductor—sort of way […]. 

jason segel, the end of the tour, david foster wallacePhoto Credit: A24 Films

Press: Did you pursue the role or did you have to audition?

JS: You know, they say you don’t want to see sausage and legislation be made, so I don’t know what happened [laughs]. My experience was the script got sent to me and it said, “Do you respond to this?” And I wrote them and I said, “Yes, of course! This is exactly the kind of thing I want to do some day.” [...] They said, “Well, James [Ponsoldt] thinks that you might be the right guy for this. Why don’t you guys hop on the phone?” And we had a few phone calls that really, for me, were like, “Is this a date or are we just friends?” I couldn’t tell if he wanted me to do the movie or not. And finally I think we realized that we both saw the movie the same way […].

It was a really terrifying thing, as you can imagine. There is a risk with coming from my previous work, playing a guy who his known and loved [Marshall on How I Met Your Mother], that no matter how good a job I did—the way that a body can reject a perfectly good organ—you might watch the movie and just say, “No. I don’t accept that. I do not accept Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace.” And going into Sundance, that was a big fear that no matter how well I had done, it just wasn’t going to fly. I can’t tell you how relieving it was that at Sundance, people seemed to have the experience […] where they were able to watch the movie sort of unencumbered by anything I had done before. 

jason segel, the end of the tour, david foster wallacePhoto Credit: A24 Films

Mila Pantovich: You aren't always the "funny man" though—for example, your character in Freaks and Geeks was the raw bleeding heart of that show. This didn’t seem like a big diversion.

JS: That’s what James Ponsoldt said when he sat down with me. He said, “Even when you’re trying to be funny, I see something really sad behind your eyes.” And I thought, “Oh no, people can see?!” [laughs]

MP: Your performance is so natural and it almost threw me off in the sense that I forgot you were playing David Foster Wallace, and I nearly forgot he was a specific person, because he seemed like this larger entity in which I saw myself and my friends. 

JS: I think that speaks to David Foster Wallace’s writing, because […] very much like Salinger and Catcher in the Rye—which most people read when they’re young—the similarity is it’s someone who’s saying, “For the next x-number of pages, I am you.” It’s not wish fulfillment and it’s not an omniscient narrator telling a story. It’s you. I feel like there’s a tendency for people to deify somebody like David Foster Wallace, because he’s so talented and speaks to them in such a personal way. But the real beauty to me of David Foster Wallace is that he was—warts and all—“I am you, this is how I’m feeling. Does anyone else feel this way? I’m lucky, because I have a vocabulary; that’s my gift. I have a vocabulary to express some things that I think we’re all feeling. Anyone want to join me?”

jason segel, the end of the tour, david foster wallacePhoto Credit: A24 Films

MP: I have yet to tackle Infinite Jest, because it has this intimidating presence, but after viewing this film I feel like I can. There will definitely be a wave of people being introduced to David Foster Wallace through you and who feel like they can now read the book and relate because of your performance. You’re like the gateway into this man’s mind now.

JS: I think an amazing effect of the movie would be that people pick up David Foster Wallace. That would be an amazing end to this journey. But I think that’s most people’s experience with Infinite Jest. When I bought the book, there was a girl at the counter who was a real Ghost World kinda girl and I put the book down and she literally rolled her eyes at me and said, “Infinite Jest. Every guy I’ve ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf” [laughs]. I think that that is a lot of people’s experience with it.

But what’s really neat when you finish that book is you’re reminded that you are capable and you’re reminded that you are smart. Because culturally you’re given a different message very subtly. The message you’re given culturally is that what you’re good at and what you’re capable of and what you should strive for is working your ass off during the day, coming home and cracking a beer and watching a marathon of Real Housewives. That is the message that you’re receiving and David Foster Wallace points out, that’s to sell you stuff. That is to get you into that chair with your feet up and show you commercials. When you read a book like this, it is hard and you put it down and you feel like, “Damn. I did something.” It’s not a surprise with that other model—that reality show model—that people feel like something’s missing. 

jason segel, the end of the tour, david foster wallacePhoto Credit: A24 Films

MP: To expand on that, I feel the most heartbreaking part of David Foster Wallace is that while he knew what the problem was and could verbalize it so beautifully, was that he didn’t know how to fix that within himself or where to go from there.

JS: If you listen to this amazing speech called This Is Water that he gave, it’s a Kenyon [College] commencement speech, […] what breaks my heart about it is it’s a guy who knows what the problem is, like you said, and has some idea that potentially it’s about changing how we place our value. And to know that he had the tools, but didn’t make it ultimately, is a very sad thing.

Press: What sense of responsibility or sensitivity did you feel going into the film, knowing you’re playing a real person whose family is still very much around and who had such a tragic end?

JS: I think that what really struck me about the script that Donald [Margulies] did so beautifully, is that it really does feel like an extension of Infinite Jest and This is Water. It’s not a biopic. It’s a very particular four days in a man’s life where he is exploring issues that he wrote very passionately about. So, I actually felt very comfortable going into the movie with those words at my disposal, because a lot of them are verbatim David Foster Wallace from the interview. Donald did a really beautiful job shaping them into a narrative that held true to what I think he wrote about. 

jason segel, the end of the tour, david foster wallacePhoto Credit: A24 Films

Press: Did the studio heads ever put pressure on the film to add more biopic material so they could show dramatized interpretations of random moments from his life?

JS: I don’t know that you could make this movie in the studio system. This is a movie that’s made for love. Everyone hopes it does well, don’t get me wrong, but the goal going into a movie like this is that you make something that moves people; which is refreshing to me. Something is happening in the movie business where studio films are moving much more towards these tent-pole movies and they’re great, but they’re escapism by definition, that’s what they’re for, and the middle area of movies seems to have moved to television. So now what’s left on the other side, the reaction to the tent-pole movies, are movies like this, where you go with the expectation and hope that you’re going to leave and have had some sort of communal artistic experience that you can talk about with the people you saw the movie with. 

Press: To end things on a light note, what was the worst audition you’ve ever had?

JS: There’s one in particular where I was 17 years old and I was a high school athlete, and so I was going out on auditions for the first time. I went into an office of a very old-timey producer and he got up from behind his desk and came over and sort of started massaging my back, and he said, “You, my boy, are groovy like a Hollywood movie” [laughs]. I will never say the name, but I think that was the most uncomfortable I’ve been on an audition.

Press: So you got the part?

JS: I did not get the part! And I did not get the part to boot [laughs]!

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