Once more Mr Nice Guy
Jason Segel ticks all the good-guy boxes – he never plays dirty, he always gets the girl, he kept the Muppets together . . . “I think, maybe, it is time to play a villain,” he tells DONALD CLARKE
CINEMA THRIVES on bad behaviour. Every actor longs to essay the snake-eyed villain who steals ice-cream cones and shuts kittens in the washing machine. Still, somebody has to play the nice guy and, at the moment, the nicest nice guy in town is Jason Segel.
Segel’s been sidling up to us for a while. You will remember him as the protagonist of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He had supporting roles in Bad Teacher and Knocked Up. Then, bouncing the nice meter into the red zone, he wrote and starred in the recent, glorious re-invention of The Muppets.
A large man, with a soft, Californian voice, Jason turns out to be every bit as amiable as expected. No babies are strangled during our conversations. He reveals no inclinations towards neo-Nazism.
“Yeah, I do play the nice guy a lot,” he says. “I think, maybe, it is time to play a villain. I walk the line between charming and creepy in everything I do. And I tend to fall on the charming side. Next, I’d like to fall on the creepy side. The best villains have always had a charming element.”
That reinvention will have to wait. This week, Jason turns up as another of his amiable charmers in a nifty comedy entitled The Five-Year Engagement. The plot is in the title. Segel, also co-writer of the piece, plays a chef from San Francisco who, in the opening sequence, proposes elaborately to his boffin girlfriend (Emily Blunt). Unfortunately, she then secures a lecturing job in Michigan and the engagement slips into neutral.
“Relationships are very fluid over a long period of time,” he muses. “This movie starts where most end: the proposal, the happiest moment in a relationship. In our generation, we make the mistake of saying ‘yes’ to that easy bit and not thinking about the harder parts. Which is everything else.”
What a responsible, mature attitude. It sounds as if Jason was very well brought up. Now 32, he is the son of Alvin Segel, a lawyer, and Jillian, a homemaker. Home was the gorgeous, northern suburb of Los Angeles that goes by the name of Pacific Palisades. Palm trees abound. Ocean spray laps the most desirable properties.
“Ah yes. The tough streets of Pacific Palisades,” he laughs.
Most performers will admit that luck played a huge part in their success, but Segal was more fortunate than most. As a teenager, he had no great interest in acting, but, purely as an exercise in recall, he decided to memorise the longest speech from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.
“I was curious to see if I could remember it,” he says. “Just as an exercise, I asked the acting teacher if I could do it in the theatre. He said: ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then my parents told me that the president of casting at Paramount, who was thinking of sending his kid to the school, had come to check out the play just to see the performance space. He now wanted to know if I wanted to become an actor. My life just changed.”