Catching Up With... I Love You, Man's Jason Segel
It’s hard not to root for the Judd Apatow Clan. Whether it’s Seth Rogen, who became the new face of comedy overnight with the success of Knocked Up, or journeyman Paul Rudd, who after years of trudging through romantic comedies is at the height of his popularity thanks to supporting roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman, this ragtag group has dealt with everything from canceled TV shows to being casting couch outcasts and now they’re the most sought after talents in Hollywood’s comedic fraternity.
However, one member who’s stayed under the radar is Jason Segel. Although he was the lead in the moderately successful Forgetting Sarah Marshall and is on television every week in CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, Segel has not received the career-changing attention that Rogen, Rudd or Jonah Hill have all enjoyed. But that could all change with I Love You, Man, which opened Friday.
Co-written and directed by Along Came Polly's John Hamburg, I Love You, Man stars Rudd as Peter Klaven, a man who has recently proposed to his girlfriend (The Office’s Rashida Jones), but is also lacking guy friends, forcing him into a search for a best man. After enduring some hilarious and horrible “man dates” he comes across Segel’s Sydney Fife, a disheveled bachelor who gradually becomes such close friends with Peter (they spend a lot of time in Sydney’s “man cave” rocking out to Rush songs) that it could ruin his potential marriage. With his lovable, puppy-dog demeanor and sharp wit, Segel elevates the movie, instantly grabbing the audience's collective heart and becoming its emotional center.
Paste caught up with Segel hours before premiering I Love You, Man at the opening night of the South by Southwest Film Festival to chat about his underdog career, juggling TV and movies, and his love of the Muppets.
Paste: How’s Austin?
Jason Segel: It’s great. I came last year for Sarah Marshall but we only got to come for two hours, so this is the first time I’ll get to spend some time here. We literally flew in, drove to the theater and I introduced the movie. We didn’t stay to watch; we just drove back to the airport.
Paste: So at least this time you get some barbecue.
Segel: That’s the plan.
Paste: How did you get approached for I Love You, Man?
Segel: It was through the director, John Hamburg. He sent Paul Rudd and I the script and we read it and we both loved it. We took a lunch meeting, a three-way man date, and Hamburg told us his thoughts for the movie and it just sounded great and we sealed the deal over lunch.
Paste: Did the Sydney character change much from page to screen?
Segel: You know what, it didn’t. John’s script was just so tightly honed, I mean, we’re used to doing a lot of improv and really creating a lot of our characters from scratch and this was different. There were moments where we improved and added things, and John was certainly open to it, but it wasn’t needed as much.
Paste: What are the keys to good improvisation?
Segel: I think the big key is not trying to be funny. I think that is the big pitfall when people are improving is that they are thinking every line they say needs to be a zinger, but that’s not how people talk. One of the things we’ve learned is pacing and it’s just as valuable and I think that’s why Rudd and I get along well because there’s a real trust between us and we know that we’re both comfortable being the straight man and letting the other guy get the laugh. I think part of being a good improv-er is being willing to do the set up lines as much as the punch lines.
Paste: A lot of people describe this as “the bromance movie,” but at its core it’s really about the loss of youth. Both characters are in their 30s, and, in Peter’s case, he hasn’t had any guy friends, and for the Sydney character, all the guy friends he had have moved on to marriages. Did you talk about these things when developing the characters?
Segel: I did. The movie is about two guys who are on the opposite sides of the spectrum and we learn to meet in the middle. Paul’s character has never been comfortable and never really seen the value in guy friends and my character is the polar opposite of having only had guy friends and not been interested in monogamy at all. I feel part of the buddy comedy is what are these guys learning from each other and that’s the big question: What’s the story for each of them? And I think I teach Paul the value of having male friendship in your life and Paul teaches me the value of growing up a little bit.
Paste: You and Paul have big cult followings, but do you like that you don’t have to carry a movie?
Segel: I’ve always been comfortable being the underdog. I think I got that feeling during Freaks and Geeks, where our ratings were terrible and the show was canceled after our first season, but we all felt we had done something really special. That’s a really nice way to feel because you can always go up from there. When you start to feel like you’re the shit, things can go wrong.
Paste: When choosing roles do you purposely try to stray from movies where you’d be the face of a film?
Segel: I fancy myself a character actor, so for me the main thing in choosing a part, and I only get to do one movie a year because of my TV show, so for me choosing my parts is really based on trying to do something I haven’t done before. I hadn’t done a character like this. I sort of played a puppy dog in Sarah Marshall and I play kind of a whipped husband on How I Met Your Mother and I played a real sleaze ball in Knocked Up, so for me, diversity is what interested me.
Paste: When you were shooting this, were you on a break from How I Met Your Mother?
Segel: Oh, I was doing days on the TV show and nights on the movie. It was insane, dude.
Paste: I’m sure the TV show is a nice safety blanket, but in a situation like this, it can get hard to juggle both, building your career in film while staying committed to a show.
Segel: Yeah, it does. It’s very tricky because all of a sudden you have an opportunity and the impatient little boy in you wants to just do every movie that’s offered to you. It’s actually maybe a blessing in disguise that I only get to do one a year because it forces me to choose really carefully. As opposed to coming out in six movies and three of them are good, I try to do one that really lands every time.
Paste: That’s probably a problem you welcome, seeing there was a time in you career when you couldn’t get any work.
Paste: During that time, did Judd Apatow keep your spirits up?
Segel: Yeah. One of the things that he did, which I’m so thankful for, is he taught me how to write. He said, “Listen, the only way you’re going to make it is if you start writing your own material because you’re not going to get cast as the lead in movies; that’s just not going to happen.” So he literally took me over to his house for a weekend and showed me how to write a script and it was the kindest act of mentoring I’ve ever seen.
Paste: And with that you not only penned Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but one of your pet projects has been getting a Muppets movie off the ground?
Segel: Yes. The script is done. Disney has it and we’re just waiting to hear how they want to proceed. It’s a big decision for them to relaunch a franchise, so I think they’re just trying to plot their next move carefully.
Paste: But this isn’t like what the recent Muppet movies have been; you want to take it back to its roots, like The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper.
Segel: That was my pitch to them. The Muppets have taken a strange turn with these parody movies like The Muppets Do Dickens and all this stuff, and one of the things that takes for granted is that kids know who the Muppets are. It’s not fun for the Muppets to do Treasure Island if you don’t know who the Muppet are, so my pitch to Disney was to reintroduce the Muppets, [make] a movie that is a real throwback to those early movies.
Paste: Before you go, I just need to ask what all of you think of the “bromance” phrase being pegged to this film. Have you had enough?
Segel: Oh, we all hate the phrase so much. When we were doing this movie that phrase wasn’t around, and then suddenly it just showed up. Everyone asks if this is a bromance, and what I say is there’s no word that can capture what’s going on between me and Paul Rudd; it’s beyond language.