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.”
Quite so. Jason took a few small roles in local theatre. Then, in 1999, he became part of the short-lived – but ultimately hugely influential – situation comedy Freaks and Geeks. Produced by Judd Apatow, our era’s most prominent comedy Svengali, the show also featured future stars such as Seth Rogen and James Franco. Five years later, Jason had secured a regular gig on the hit TV comedy How I Met Your Mother.
“People always ask me for advice, and you can’t say: ‘Go get discovered in a high-school play.’ I wish I could say something different, but so much of it has to do with luck. There are actors a million times better than I am stuck in small towns because they have to pay the bills.”
All those Amazonian Mozarts who never got to learn a musical instrument? All those ghetto Einsteins who were never introduced to physics?
“Yes. I think that’s why I’ve stayed the way I am,” he says. “I quietly scoff at arrogant actors. ‘You think you’re something special? Dumb ass!’ So much of it has to do with luck.”
True. But you also have to carefully exploit the contacts that good fortune brings you. Apatow, director of Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is currently the most powerful man in American comedy. He produced such films as Superbad, Pineapple Express, Bridesmaids and Anchorman. He, once again, appears on the credits of The Five-Year Engagement.
If Segel is to be believed, Apatow remains very protective of his protégés. He does not feel competitive towards the younger actors and writers. The Apatow generation has come together to construct the era’s signature comic mode: an improvised blend of earthy raunch and mildly tortured selfanalysis.
“He has been an amazing mentor to so many people,” Segel says. “That is often the case in this business as opposed to other professions. When older guys see a young talent, they will coax them onwards. But he was also very offended when Freaks and Geeks got cancelled. He went on a Count of Monte Cristo revenge policy to say: ‘Fuck you Hollywood! I was right’.”
In recent months, as Segel’s fame has solidified, he has found himself appearing in the gossip rags. Things are not going to get easier any time soon. A few months ago, he confirmed that he was stepping out with rising Hollywood star Michelle Williams. They make a slightly odd couple. She is best known for moping her way through miserable roles. He is the good guy in Judd Apatow comedies.
“That stuff is a drag when it gets into your personal life,” he says calmly. “I am an adult. I know what I signed up for professionally. But when it gets to people who didn’t sign up for that, then that’s when I think it becomes unfair.”
He’s not talking about Michelle. She signed the same metaphorical contract.
“No. Being with people who understand that stuff is an important thing. But my sister doesn’t need to be photographed. My parents don’t need to be photographed when we are out to dinner. Suddenly, my mother is self-conscious about what she wears.”
Blame the internet. There would, in previous eras, have been nowhere to print half this stuff.
“Yes. And the camera phone. You can’t escape the weird feeling that somehow they’ve ‘got you’ when you’re photographed doing something ordinary. ‘Jason Segel buys milk?’ What’s that question mark mean?”
Jason doesn’t strike me as the kind of fellow who will buckle under pressure. He has a very easygoing manner. But he also comes across as a man with a disciplined mind and a quietly unshakable will. Just consider his triumph with The Muppets. The story goes that he told Disney, who currently own the rights to Jim Henson’s puppets, that he was going to make the thing and that was that. Happily, it then turned out to be a critical smash and a box-office hit.
“Two stories got combined,” he laughs. “I went and pitched it to them and they thought I was joking or I was too deep into irony. I had to explain that I really wanted to make a sincere Muppet film like from the 1970s.”
As is the way with such things, the project then slipped into a sort of limbo. Disney hadn’t said yes, but they hadn’t quite said no either. Segel decided to take the initiative.
“I was on a talk show and, when they asked what I was doing next, I said: ‘Well, Disney just announced we are making the Muppet movie.’ Now, either the movie won’t get made and one of us will look stupid or we will make the movie and neither of us will look stupid.”
He reshuffles his aw-shucks face just a little.
“It was a ballsy move. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing.”
He’s nice. But he’s no fool.
THE APATOW MOB
Producer, director and writer Judd Apatow has launched an entire generation of comic performers.
They include . . .
Starred alongside Segel in Freaks and Geeks, Apatow’s well-remembered, short-lived TV series, and went on to feature in Judd’s first two films as director: The 40-Year Virgin and Knocked Up. An alter-ego, perhaps.
Now known as a big serious actor who writes novels on the side, Franco got an early break in Freaks and Geeks and appeared as dissolute stoner on the Apatow-produced Pineapple Express.
Mrs Judd Apatow, an angular comic actor with a good line in put-downs, has turned up in 11 of her husband’s projects. Later this year, she takes the lead role in Apatow’s next film as director This is Forty. Can the laureate of male angst tackle female mid-life crises?
Began life as a younger – though no smaller – sidekick to Rogen, but he has now gone on to become an equally acclaimed (indeed, Oscar-nominated) star of major movies. Appeared in seven Apatow projects including Superbad and Knocked Up.
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