He's currently got one of the top movies at the box office — not to mention one of the highest rated films of the year. He stars on a long-running hit network comedy. He just hosted "Saturday Night Live." And next year, he will headline a romantic comedy with a Golden Globe-winning actress.
Not bad for a guy who a decade ago couldn't even get cast in a role that was written expressly for him.
Jason Segel has defied the odds to become a top cinematic comedy star. But it didn't come easy. The Los Angeles native started acting professionally when he was still a teenager, and he achieved early success on the short lived but much beloved show "Freaks and Geeks." Still, Hollywood didn't consider him to be leading man material.
Judd Apatow, the producer of "Freaks and Geeks" who later made the blockbuster films "Knocked Up" and "Bridesmaids," wanted Segel to play the main character in his TV comedy "Undeclared." But the network rejected Segel. On the DVD commentary for the show, Apatow said, "We couldn't get [Jason] approved because they wanted to have somebody who was more of an underdog." Segel -- who told Entertainment Weekly, "I've been 6'4" since I was 12" -- was seen to be too big and too off-the-wall to grab the audience's sympathy. Apatow had to accept the network's judgment, but he found a way around it, casting Segel in a smaller role that popped up repeatedly through the course of the series.
Later, when Apatow was prepping his first feature, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," he again suggested Segel for a major role and once again was shot down. Segel talked about this dark stretch in his career in the New York Times, and he recounted the advice Apatow gave him: "He said 'You're kind of a weird dude. The only way you're going to make it is if you start writing your own material.'"
So that's what he did. Teaming up with co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller, who had been a writer on "Undeclared," Segel turned the pain of a real breakup into the surprise hit "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." The comedy showed off Segel's comedic timing, musical ambitions, and complete lack of modesty.
After working with The Jim Henson Company on the puppets for the finale of "Sarah Marshall" — based on an actual "Dracula" musical Segel had been working on for several years — Segel and Stoller pitched them an idea for a movie. That became "The Muppets," which opened last month and has so far brought in an impressive $57 million haul to date. The screenplay by Segel and Stoller showed the team could still be funny when writing for family audiences.
In a recent phone conversation, Nicholas Stoller told me that during the making of "Sarah Marshall" he wrote down the phrase "The Five-Year Engagement," which became the title of their next collaboration. Stoller said that he and Segel were inspired by both their love of classic Hollywood romantic comedies and long-term relationships in their own lives that didn't wind up in marriage.
Produced by Judd Apatow, "The Five-Year Engagement" splits the difference between his guy-centric comedies like "Superbad" and last year's female-focused smash "Bridesmaids." Stoller called this film a true "two-hander," with Segel sharing the lead with "The Devil Wears Prada" star Emily Blunt, who also has a cameo role in "The Muppets." Stoller said that casting the female lead is tricky, because there will be a point where the male character has to get mad at her, and the audience has to believe she can stand up for herself. He said that the British-born Blunt — who gets to use her natural accent in the film — definitely has what it takes to face off with the towering Segel.
I asked Stoller if there was a difference between writing a broad family film like "The Muppets" and an adult relationship comedy like "Engagement." He answered that there really wasn't, and that their focus stays on keeping the emotion of the story running under the laughs is the same for both.
For Segel's part, by creating his own material inspired by the comic and heartbreaking moments of his real life, he molded himself into the sympathetic leading man that Hollywood didn't believe he could be. When I interviewed him for "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Segel told me that Apatow expressed to him how proud he was of Jason for sticking it out. Then Segel recalled with a laugh: "And he said, 'Because, I gotta tell you, if I was you five years ago, I would've blown my brains out.'"
"The Five-Year Engagement" opens April 27, 2012. Watch the exclusive trailer premiere below.