In taking on the role of David Foster Wallace for The End Of The Tour, Jason Segel raised a lot of industry eyebrows. With his hefty resume packed with comedic gems (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Segel wasn’t an obvious choice to play an author struggling with depression and disillusionment. Fortunately, director James Ponsoldt thought otherwise and Segel went on to earn a Spirit Award nomination and rave reviews. But what led him to this genre about-face? “I was on a TV show for a decade that was coming to an end,” Segel says, “and just personally in my life, I was thinking about other kinds of things. Then that script came along, and there was a line that said, ‘I had to face the reality of being 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper.’ It really hit home to me that that’s exactly where I was at this moment in my life. I was alone with a blank page both literally and metaphorically in front of me that I had to decide how to fill.”
The role has been transformative personally too. “It’s made especially poignant because we know David Foster Wallace didn’t make it,” Segel says, “and so you’re aware of the consequences of not getting ahold of your feelings. One of the things he talks about in a beautiful speech called This Is Water is the only thing that’s going to make you sleep alright at night is placing your value in being a part of something, and in being a good guy. So at the end of the movie, when they said, ‘That’s a wrap,’ I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ve done everything that I possibly could, and that’s going to have to be enough.’ That was a very new thing for me, where I didn’t feel tied to the results of it all.”
Why were you initially drawn to comedy and how did that change?
When I was 17 getting started as an actor in high school, you sort of have the naivety of youth, and I thought I was capable of doing anything. One of the things about acting professionally is you sort of become defined, and you’re told what your value is, and you’re kind of encouraged to repeat what you’ve been successful doing. So I started to believe what I was being told, and I came to think that what I was good for was comedy. I was sitting watching Lincoln funny enough, and I had this thought in my mind that really scared me. I thought, the only way that I could ever play Lincoln was in a Saturday Night Live sketch. When that moment happened, something in me rebelled, and I thought, no, you did not used to think that way. When you were young, you thought you could do anything, and we need to change that. So, when the script came along, another thing happened where I realized, okay, this is your chance to find out not even for anybody else yet. I didn’t really feel a need to prove anything to anyone. I felt much more like I needed to break this box that I was putting myself in.
In the film, Foster Wallace accuses Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky of looking for a box to put him in–was that something that you personally enjoyed attacking? Have you felt the victim of that kind of journalism?
I think why the movie is dynamic and not just two guys saying smart things back and forth, is that it’s sort of a movie about a guy. I think for David Foster Wallace, when David Lipsky arrives, despite being hesitant and wary, he’s really excited to talk to somebody who might understand where he’s at at this moment. He’s having a very complicated, lonely moment–this moment where you get everything that you’ve dreamed of, and you realize you still feel the same. And you know, it’s a really scary moment, and I think he would love to discuss that with David Lipsky, but David Lipsky has already decided what the story is. So, you have David Lipsky, who has pre-decided what the story is about, and David Foster Wallace saying, “no, wait, there is something real and vital and human that I would be thrilled to talk to you about.” And it’s a non-starter. It really speaks to James Ponsoldt’s directing, and Donald Margulies’ writing, but that moment on the airplane, where they’ve been getting along, and then all of a sudden, David Lipsky, mid-conversation, brings up the mental hospital. It just feels like a betrayal. You know, it feels like he reached across the seat and punched him in the face.
You actually sound like Foster Wallace in the movie–how did you get the cadence of his voice so spot-on?
It was really important to me to get that right, because David Foster Wallace was also a professor, and there’s something about the way he communicates that was, I felt, character-wise really important to capture. There’s something musical about the way that he speaks. I also felt like it was really important to do that without getting anywhere close to impression, because that was the pitfall–to look like I’m doing an impression. It was trying to find the spirit of what he was doing with his rhythms, and then in listening to him, at some point I realized, this is a man who thinks in fully-formed arguments. If you watch him answer a question, he presents a thesis and supporting points and a conclusion. I don’t know really how best to describe it, but there was just something musical about it, like a man who was conducting information. You see the way he uses his hands when he speaks, and I tried to do the same thing. There’s a sort of twirl he does with his fingers as he’s talking, and he’s sort of guiding you through his arguments.
Did you talk to his friends and family ahead of the shoot?
I did. I talked to people who knew him specifically during those four days. It was an interesting thing, trying to figure out how to approach this, and what I thought was, in terms of the David Foster Wallace I was playing in the movie, I should only really focus on what he would have known up until then, about what had happened up until that moment. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, and so, in playing that part, I didn’t feel like I should be too aware of what came after. I think it would’ve been, like, inauthentic to the performance. And so, I talked to people who knew him before that 4 days and then during that 4 days. So, it was really helpful, and people were very generous in talking to me about him, because they wanted him to be presented as a man, versus as somebody who is deified, someone who’s made something other than he was. I think part of what’s really important about people’s relationship to David Foster Wallace is that he felt like one of us.
What’s your next move?
I’m writing right now, and then I’m trying to figure out what I want to make next year, which is a really exciting thing. You know, it was a big transition to, well, everyone keeps calling it a transition, I think that it’s a fair word to use, but to go into this kind of world. And so, I basically took time off to let End of Tour come out, to sort of do its job, and now I’m starting to look for more interesting material, stuff that scares me.