Trepidation was not an uncommon response to the announcement, back in late 2013, that Jason Segel had secured the role of David Foster Wallace in an upcoming movie. The lankiest of the goofballs to emerge from the Judd Apatow players company, Segel had then worked almost exclusively in comedy, juggling his day job as a cast member on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother with roles in broad big-screen yuk-fests. And though he is, in fact, a writer himself—he’s penned several of his own starring vehicles and helped re-launch the movie career of the Muppets—plenty were still struggling to picture him as one of the most revered wordsmiths in modern literature. Some early production photos of the actor, his hair pulled back into one of Wallace’s trademark bandanas, didn’t inspire new waves of confidence.
But then people actually saw The End Of The Tour, James Ponsoldt’s dramatization of a memoir by journalist David Lipsky, who spent five days with Wallace in 1996 as the writer attended various publicity events for his then-new magnum opus Infinite Jest. The film, which premiered to raves at Sundance in January and co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, finds Segel all but disappearing into the role of the late novelist, essayist, and general chronicler of turn-of-the-century malaise. One could quibble with the actor’s particular take on Wallace—it’s more of an interpretation than an impersonation—but there’s no denying that Segel demonstrates a newfound dramatic range, building on the hints of melancholy he’s displayed in otherwise comedic parts throughout his career. It’s a game-changing performance.
With The End Of The Tour making its way to theaters this week, we caught up with Segel during his own publicity tour to discuss the challenges of playing a real (and revered) person, the rewards of one-on-one acting, and how surprisingly grueling it is to gain weight for a part.
The A.V. Club: You mind if I record?
Jason Segel: No, no, please do.
AVC: Is it strange…
JS: I heard there was a new phenomenon—oh, you only have 15 minutes, don’t you? I was just gonna say, there’s a new phenomenon where the interviewee is also recording. Like for proof of the conversation. Have you heard about that?
AVC: No. That’s peculiar.
JS: Yeah, I just heard about it the other day. People are finding it strange and interviewers are getting offended.
AVC: I wouldn’t be offended. But it is peculiar.
JS: A little paranoid, right?
AVC: For sure. So is it strange to be doing interviews for a movie in which you’re playing someone who is essentially doing one very long interview himself?
JS: You know what? It’s actually proved to make for really interesting conversation. Because you as an interviewer have a relationship to the film that is unique and so the conversation ends up being really interesting. Like, your perspective on it is different than if it’s just a broad comedy of some sort.
AVC: Do you find yourself tempted at all to take David Foster Wallace’s approach to dealing with the press?
JS: No. It’s interesting. My mentality changed at some point when I realized all I could do was my best. So the way that I handle kind of everything now is I just have a conversation with you and hope it turns out okay. [Laughs.] I realized I don’t really have any power to manage the way that I’m perceived, as much as you would like. You think that you do, but you really don’t. And so all you can do is be yourself and hope people aren’t, like, villainous.
AVC: As you see in the movie, Wallace struggled with that, with how he might come across in print.
JS: Having written profiles was actually a tricky thing for Wallace in this context, because he knew every move that [David Lipsky] was trying to make. He was familiar with them. He had experience with them. And so, I think, there’s a particular scene on the airplane when all of the sudden in the middle of a convivial conversation, Lipsky kind of goes for it and asks about suicide and all of the sudden David Foster Wallace realizes, “Oh, this person is not my friend. And I have three days of this interview left.”
AVC: How did the project come to you?
JS: I was about to get on an airplane and the script got sent to me and I read it on the plane and was just absolutely in love with it. Really felt like there was no way they would want me to play the part. But I heard that James [Ponsoldt] saw something in me—he said dating back to Freaks And Geeks. He saw something sad behind my eyes and it lead us to discussions about what the movie needed to feel like and what Wallace needed to feel like and by the end of it I think we both felt comfortable that I should give it a try.
AVC: Wallace is famous, but he probably isn’t as purely get-noticed-on-the-street recognizable as, say, a movie or rock star. Did that relieve any of the pressure to get his mannerisms just right?
JS: No, it felt the same. I think he’s perceived with respect and empathy and love for the fact that this is a real man who has people who care about him in varying capacities and love him. And so we tried to be as accurate as possible, while making sure not to butt up against impression.
AVC: You listened to the tapes from the interview.
JS: Yeah. I listened to the tapes, and studied other interviews and I had some other audio of his.
AVC: How much of the dialogue in the film is straight from that series of conversations Lipsky and Wallace had over the five days?
JS: The dialogue is almost all from the conversations. It’s just that [screenwriter] Donald Margulies has brilliantly curated them to create a narrative. Not everything is said at the time or in the way that it was originally said. Everything maintains the spirit, of course. But it was four days of recordings.
AVC: At a certain point, did you have to just to walk away from those tapes? You can’t create some sort of exact replica of the rhythms of these conversations, right?
JS: Right, because it actually didn’t apply to what the final script was like. And Stanley Kubrick had this quote that I heard once where he said, “You’re not trying to capture reality, you’re trying to capture a photograph of reality.” And I think that that is what this movie is. It’s trying to capture the spirit of those four days.
AVC: There’s a couple lines in the film about how reading Wallace’s work is almost like knowing him, because much of what he wrote was so personal, as though he were offering an entryway into his headspace. Did that make it easier for you as an actor to prepare for the role because you had so much of him available?
JS: I think that what was most helpful to me was Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace’s writing is the most personal type of writing. The same way that you feel when you read Catcher In The Rye when you’re in high school. You feel like somebody is really laying bare how they feel. So in reading Infinite Jest, I felt like I got real insight as to what Wallace was thinking about and feeling and what was at the front of his brain during this whole period.
AVC: Is there anything in that novel, or just his work in general, that resonates really strongly with you?
JS: There are themes that he was working with and working through for a long time. This idea that we’re told culturally that there are certain things that are going to make us feel satisfied. That are going to scratch that itch. You get achievement and pleasure and entertainment, but at some point, usually in your early-to-mid-30s, you reach this moment where you say, “Hey wait a minute, I’ve been working for a long time under the assumption that I was going to feel better when I got this stuff, and I’m starting to wonder if that’s a lie.”
AVC: The question of when you feel, as an artist or writer, that you’ve really “made it” comes up a few times in the film.
JS: I think by the time you listen to the speech he gave called “This Is Water”—the Kenyon commencement speech—you see he’s worked through these ideas a little more in his own mind and that it’s about adjusting where we place our value. If it’s achievement, you’re never going to achieve enough. If it’s power, you always need to wield power over others. If it’s money, you’ll never be rich enough. But if you make it now and be part of what is happening, then you’re always in it and it’s always enough.
AVC: You’ve never worked with Jesse Eisenberg before.
JS: No. I hadn’t really met him until this movie.
AVC: Did you do rehearsals to work through that unfamiliarity, or did you build off it for the movie?
JS: Well, we had to just deal with the unfamiliarity based on circumstance. I was doing my television show at the time, Jesse I think was filming something else, so we had no time to rehearse. I finished my TV show on a Friday and starting shooting on Monday. So, luckily, I think the nature of the movie and their relationship really worked for that, because the first scene we shot was the first scene where we met. And you can feel us sniffing each other out on-screen, I think.
AVC: Having worked a lot as one part of a large ensemble cast, both on television and in movies, was it rewarding to star in what basically amounts to a two-hander, just one-on-one with another actor?
JS: Well, it was a very intimate acting experience. Because it was, like you said, mostly just Jesse. But what was really fun was when we’d get an infusion of a new castmate—it was like the first day of school. You can suddenly see Jesse and I completely vying for our guest star’s attention.
AVC: Many of the movies you’ve appeared in have fostered an improvisational atmosphere on set. Was it difficult to turn that off for The End Of The Tour, and to ignore the comedic instincts you’ve honed over the years?
JS: It’s so funny, I actually found it freeing that [improv] was not an option. I suppose it’s always an option, but it would have been highly arrogant to try to add anything to these guy’s already perfectly constructed thoughts, and so there’s something freeing about knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do. Our only job was to be present. Whereas when you’re doing improv, there’s a different kind of pressure on the way to work in the morning. “I hope I’m sharp today, I hope I think of funny stuff.” There’s a different kind of tension.
AVC: It has to be a lot more fun gaining weight for a role than losing it.
JS: You know what, they’re both equally pains in the ass. [Laughs.] It’s fun for the first week, because you’re like, “oh my gosh, ice cream and whatever,” but after awhile, every night feels like Thanksgiving night. You know, you’re just tired. You have no vital energy and you just feel like sleeping.
AVC: Did you have to develop an eating regimen?
JS: It was just literally anything I could shove in my face. It was tricky because I had a limited time to do it and I had photographs that I wanted to match, so I knew very specifically what I wanted to accomplish.
AVC: How much time are we talking about?
JS: I think I had about four months to get myself ready for the movie.
AVC: You’re obviously deep in the process of promoting The End Of The Tour. But what else do you have on the horizon?
JS: I write this series of books called Nightmares! And the second one is coming out on September 8. It’s something I’m really proud of. I’ve always been really drawn to Roald Dahl-style books and the first one came out last year and I love it. It’s about some kids who are sort of forced to face their biggest fears and in doing so they are slowly finding out that their nightmares are in fact the gatekeepers to their dreams.