Guest of Honor

Jason Segel on David Foster Wallace, Our American Character

The actor discusses the late literary luminary, dead-end American dreams... and Snapchatting selfies.

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Jason Segel portrait session at 'THE END OF THE TOUR' Screening at Virginia Theatre on April 16, 2015 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images For EBERTFEST 2015)

Jason Segel gained fame on comedy shows like the beloved “Freaks and Geeks” and “How I Met Your Mother,” and in films like “The Muppets” reboot, which he also co-wrote. But his new role is a departure: he plays author David Foster Wallace in the film “The End of the Tour.” It’s about the four days Wallace spent with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, while on tour to promote his book “Infinite Jest.”

The book went on to become a modern classic… and 12 years later, Wallace tragically took his own life. Rico first asked Jason how the film came into his life.

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Jason Segel: Well, you know how they say, “You don’t want to see how legislation is made?” Sausage and legislation?

Rico Gagliano: …Or pornography, I believe, is the third one.

Jason Segel: Right, yeah. Well, my experience with this project is that the script got sent to me. [laughs]

Rico Gagliano: It just magically appeared.

Jason Segel: Well, yes — and I’m self-aware enough to know that when the David Foster Wallace script comes across your desk, the first sentence isn’t: “Somebody get Jason Segel on the phone!” [Laughs] But I wasn’t privy to that part of the dynamic.

Rico Gagliano: I see. Here’s the requisite soft ball question of course: The first thing that would go through my mind is, “Oh no! Now I have to read a thousand-page-long book!” “Infinite Jest,”’ which he’s best known for. To prepare for this role, did you manage to get through it?

Jason Segel: I did — I got through it with some help from three really great guys who worked at my local bookshop. And, we did a system where we would each read a hundred pages a week, autonomously, and then get together on Sundays and talk about what we had read.

Rico Gagliano: Ahh, you got the Cliff’s Notes, in a way.

Jason Segel: Well, no, because I was reading everything very thoroughly. But what I had was sort of a group environment to then discuss the themes. And, I think that this movie… the themes are an extension of the themes in “Infinite Jest,” and in an amazing speech that he gave called “This is Water.”

What’s raised in all of them, the common thread, is this question of: “Where are we going to place our value if we want to be able to sleep at night?” Because we’re sort of sold — it’s a very American idea — that where we should place our value is somewhere in the achievement, and entertainment, and pleasure zone. That if we accumulate enough stuff, so that we can sit around and watch TV, and drink a beer, that that should make us feel satisfied.

Rico Gagliano: And somehow it doesn’t.

Jason Segel: You find out it doesn’t. And I think you spend your 20s… you’re sort of toiling under the delusion that you don’t feel good because you’re just not there yet.

Rico Gagliano: You haven’t gotten enough stuff, or the best stuff.

Jason Segel: That’s right, and that’s how they keep selling you stuff. You know? And then finally you reach the point that I think is right where we catch these four days. This really terrifying moment where everything that you have set out to accomplish has come true… and yet you still feel the same.

Rico Gagliano: Actually, I think we have a clip that illustrates this. This is a scene from “End of the Tour” where David Foster Wallace is being interviewed on a plane, and he’s talking about a time in his late 20s when he felt like his writing career was over and he was very depressed. [Ed note: below is the film’s trailer. The clip we played concludes with Wallace saying of his newfound fame: “This is nice. It’s not real.”]

You have had some amount of fame pretty much since you were 19 years old, on “Freaks and Geeks.” I can imagine there’s some empathy for Wallace, there. At what point did you come to this realization that “it’s not real?”

Jason Segel: Well, I think it was… I was starting to feel this way as I approached my 30s. I think you just start thinking about different stuff. But really, what happened for me was, as the TV show was coming to an end…

Rico Gagliano: This is when you were older, so not “Freaks and Geeks.” “How I Met your Mother”?

Jason Segel: That’s right. The TV show was coming to an end. I was also… you know, part of what happens in Hollywood is you do a movie, or a couple movies, and people become familiar and acquainted with a certain version of you. And if those movies do well, then you are offered the opportunity to do many more movies like those.

Rico Gagliano: Sure.

Jason Segel: And I did a bunch, and I was reaching a point where I was bored with that. At the same time the TV show was ending. And then I read this script, and David Foster Wallace has this line where he says, “I have to face the reality of where I am now, which is being 34 years old and alone in a room with a piece of paper.”

Photo Credit: A24 Films
Photo Credit: A24 Films

You know, for me, as somebody who writes and kind of made my way creating my own material, I felt exactly that way. Like, “I’m about to start from scratch again. Because the stuff that I’m interested in doing at this point in my life, is nothing like what I’ve done before, and I’m going to have to do this from the beginning.” And this terrible question of, “Will the magic happen again?”

You know, if you write “Infinite Jest,” and then it comes out… and then you find out that what’s supposed to happen now is you’re supposed to do that again??

Rico Gagliano: Yes! There’s a question I’m going to ask you in a minute — which is “the question you would least like to be asked at a party” — and so many people have answered that with: “What is your next project?”

Jason Segel: Yeah!

Rico Gagliano: It’s like, “Let me have this project, for God’s sake.”

Jason Segel: Yeah, totally. Well, I moved out of L.A. a while ago, because what is happening here is this business. And that’s great — I’m very lucky to be a part of this business. But, you know, here I’m surrounded by billboards about what my contemporaries and people I look up to are doing, and it’s not surprising that you walk around feeling never quite like you’re enough. And… we are, you know?

Photo Credit: A24 Films
Photo Credit: A24 Films

If you are being nice to the people around you, and are trying to take care of yourself and like, do a little exercise, and then are working as hard as you can at what you do, then you’re entitled to have a little bit of peace.

Rico Gagliano: Oh God, that sounds so nice. Is that it, that’s the secret? We’ve solved it?

Jason Segel: Yeah, it’s called “Healthtronics!”

Rico Gagliano: Thanks!

Jason Segel: I’m going to start a religion.

Rico Gagliano: All right, trademark that.

Jason Segel: Yeah, totally.

Rico Gagliano: So here’s the question that I foreshadowed earlier, which we ask everyone on the show: If we were to meet you at a party, what question should we not ask you?

Jason Segel: Oh… maybe, “Can we Snapchat a selfie?”

Rico Gagliano: You’re not a big social media-ite?

Jason Segel: Well, I just… it’s so interesting. Because I really like meeting people. I really like interaction.

Rico Gagliano: I can tell.

Jason Segel: Yeah, and so then you meet somebody and they want to, like, Snapchat a selfie. And I tend to say, “No, I’d rather not take a picture, but can I shake your hand?” Which, to me, is a much more personal interaction! But it’s so interesting, people… their face turns to disappointment! Like “Yeah, but what about my proof?”

Rico Gagliano: That’s right — physical contact and actual conversation, it’s not enough.

Jason Segel: Yeah! They say, “My friends will never believe me!” And I think, “Well do you have a reputation as being a liar? Stop lying about meeting celebrities!”