Jason Segel on His Role as David Foster Wallace in ‘The End of the Tour’, Research and One Uncomfortable Audition
“Well, you just deal with all the fear that’s telling you that you’re not going to be capable of doing this.” – Jason Segel on The End of the Tour
Jason Segel, the star of How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and one of my personal favorites, Freaks and Geeks, tackles the role of novelist David Foster Wallace in director James Ponsoldt’s new film, The End of the Tour.
Based on David Lipsky’s novel, Although Of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, the film is the story of a four-day interview between a Rolling Stone reporter (Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and the acclaimed novelist Wallace that took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest.
Segel is like you’ve never seen him before, almost channeling Wallace in his mannerisms, cadence and tone of voice. It’s a terrific performance in a wonderful movie.
I talked to him recently about how he got the role, the research he did and the beauty of David Foster Wallace. He also told me about an incredibly uncomfortable (and I mean uncomfortable!) audition he had when he was first starting out as an actor.
‘The End of the Tour’ opens this weekend!
When you got this role, what was the first thing you do, research-wise?
Jason Segel: Honestly, the first thing you do is that you deal with all of the voices, both your own and… well, you just deal with all the fear that’s telling you that you’re not going to be capable of doing this. That was the first part of the process because it’s a big undertaking and it’s different than anything I’d ever done before.
Then, somehow you arrive at a point where you feel like, “Ok, I need to proceed unapologetically and do the best I can.” And so, I started reading. I just read and read and read and I tackled Infinite Jest because that was the most pertinent thing.
You know, the movie is the last four days of the book tour. So, having done a lot of tours for movies, press tours, it is all consuming. It’s what you are thinking about and talking about all day, every day. And so, I wanted to make sure it was what I was thinking about and talking about all day, every day. So, I started a book club with some local dudes and that’s what we thought about and talked about.
I watched a couple videos with him – he was on Charlie Rose – just to see him and compare you guys, I guess. You have his cadence down and he kind of talks out of the side of his mouth. You have that down perfectly. Did it take a while just to get that down?
Jason Segel: Yeah. You know, there’s a really fine line because especially coming from comedy, you’re dealing with a lot expectations both positive and negative…. I’m self-aware enough to know the people we take in to the performance. One of the pitfalls is that you don’t want it to look like a sketch, that you’re doing an impression. So I tried to zero in on things that I thought were important hooks because there’s 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.
But yes, I had the videos to watch. I had audiotapes from this 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 music to the way he talks. I’ve never seen somebody who’s able to speak off-the-cuff in a fully formed argument, with 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? And you can sort of see somebody who has all of the 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, where he’s moving the information where it belongs.
At some point did you guys consider keeping the name of the book as the title of the movie?
Jason Segel: When the story came to me it was The End of the Tour. So yeah, that was the script I received. Although I do love the title of the book because it is right on theme. You know, you spend a long time trying to get us there and eventually you find out that there is no there. All that’s left is to really be yourself and do the best you can.
Your performance is so natural. I forgot that you were in the film.
Jason Segel: Oh, that’s great. I think that speaks to David Foster Wallace’s writing because I think, very much like Salinger and Catcher in the Rye, which most people read when they’re young, the similarity is that it’s someone saying, “For the next number of pages, I am you.” It’s not wish fulfillment and it’s not an omniscient narrator telling a story, it’s you. And I feel like there is 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 to express some things that I think we’re all feeling. Anyone want to join me?”
I’m sure a lot of people will watch the movie and think they can now tackle Infinite Jest because of your introduction to the character. So you’re almost like a David Foster Wallace for people who never seen him or heard of him. Does that kind of stress you out a little bit?
Jason Segel: No, I think an amazing effect of the movie would be that people pick up David Foster Wallace. I mean 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 like a real Ghost World kinda girl. And when I put the book down, she literally rolled her eyes at me and said, “Infinite Jest. Every guy that I ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf.” And I think that is kind of a lot of people’s experience with it.
But was really neat when you finish that book, is that you are reminded that you’re capable. And you are reminded that you’re smart because culturally you’re given a different message very subtly. The message that 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 open a beer and watching a marathon of Real Housewives. You know, that is the message that you’re receiving and as David Foster Wallace points out, that’s to sell you stuff. That is to get you in that chair with your feet up and show you commercials.
And 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, the reality show model, that people feel like something is missing.
To further that, one of the saddest parts of the film was that while he was aware of everything that was wrong, he still didn’t know what to do to fix it or how to make himself happy.
Jason Segel: Well if you listen to this amazing speech called, This is Water, that he gave… It’s a Kenyan commencement speech. You can you YouTube it and watch the 23 minute one which is a full version of the speech. What breaks my heart about it is, it is a guy who knows what the problem is, like you said, and has some idea that potentially it’s about how we place our value and to know that he had the tools but didn’t make it ultimately is a very, very sad thing.
What sense of responsibility did you feel going into the film knowing that you’re playing a real person whose family is still very much around and has such a tragic end?
Jason Segel: I think that what really struck me about the script and what 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 is a very particular four days in a man’s life where he is exploring issues that he wrote very passionately about. And so I actually felt very comfortable going into the movie with those words at my disposal because a lot of them are verbatim from the interview. And Donald did a really beautiful job shaping them into a narrative that held true to what he wrote about.
You mentioned that is not a biopic. I can just see studio heads going, “It would be more exciting doing a biopic because then we could show the time when he was 16 and punched a guy.”
Jason Segel: Yeah, I don’t know that you can make this movie in the studio system. This is a movie that’s made for love. Everyone hopes that 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.
You know I think a movie like this… it’s interesting, something is happening in the movie business where studio films are moving much more toward these tentpole movies. And they’re great but their escapism by definition, that’s what they are for. And the middle area of movies seems to have moved to television. And so now what’s left on the other side – the reaction to the tentpole movies – are movies like this, where you go with the expectation and hope that you going to leave and have had some sort of communal artistic experience that you can talk about with the people that you saw the movie with.
When you heard about this, did you pursue it or did you have to audition? Was this something that you were looking for?
Jason Segel: No. You know, they say you don’t want to see sausage and legislation be made, so I don’t know what happened.
My experience was that the script got sent to me and said, “Do you respond to this?” And I read it and I said, “Yes, of course. This is exactly the kind of thing that I want to do someday.” I almost thought it was sent to me by my agents as like a proof of concept. Like, “Would this be the kind of thing that you’d like to do in 10 years?”
And they said, “Well, James think you might be the right guy for this. Can 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?” You know? Like I couldn’t tell if he wanted me to do the movie are not.
And finally I think that we realized that we both saw the movie the same way and saw the way to proceed the same way and the next thing I knew I was doing the movie.
And it was a really terrifying thing as you can imagine. There is a risk coming from my previous work, playing a guy who is known and loved, 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, “Nope. 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, that it just wasn’t gonna fly. I can’t tell you how relieving it was that at Sundance people seemed to have the experience that you had where they were able to watch the movie, sort of unencumbered by anything I had ever done before.
Even in your work before you weren’t always the funny guy. In Freaks and Geeks, your character was so emotionally damaged. It didn’t seem like this came out of nowhere. Even Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I think I read where James Ponsold said that you had these puppy dog eyes.
Jason Segel: That’s what he 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?”
What’s the worst audition you’ve ever been on?
Jason Segel: There were a bunch. There’s one in particular where I was 17 years old and I was a high school athlete. I was going out on auditions for the first time and 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.” I will never say his name but I think that one was the most uncomfortable I’ve been on an audition.
I was uncomfortable with you telling me that.
Jason Segel: “You, my boy, are groovy like a Hollywood movie.” And I didn’t get the part to boot.