Even five years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Jason Segel, the Muppet-loving, butt-baring star of modern comedy classics like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Knocked Up” as some kind of Sundance darling, but that’s exactly how the actor found his unexpected second act.
When Segel was picked to star as the lauded and immensely troubled late author David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” the filmmaker’s decision to cast the lovably goofy “This is 40” and “How I Met Your Mother” star was met with plenty of skepticism. Segel, however, dove deeply into preparing for the role, listening to the recordings of journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg in the 2015 drama) and watching clips of Foster online to get a sense of the writer’s presence. He even started his own book club to read and discuss Foster’s “Infinite Jest.”
It paid off, and when the film bowed at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, both Segel and Eisenberg were lauded for their performances – and, yes, even kicked up some Oscar talk, just for good measure – with indie distributor A24 purchasing the film the day before its packed premiere. The film was the hit of the festival, and Segel’s alternately dark and funny turn as the idiosyncratic genius showed off an actorly range and depth of feeling that may had never seen from the “Freaks and Geeks” star before.
A24 made a small play for awards season glory with the film, focusing their campaign on Segel’s turn as the ill-fated author, complete with the requisite schmooze-y events required of such an endeavor. While Segel’s work didn’t catch the eye of the Academy, he did earn his first Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead. (He ultimately lost out to Abraham Attah, the young star of “Beasts of No Nation.”)
Instead of using the heat sparked by “The End of the Tour,” Segel appeared to retreat from the Hollywood lifestyle, moving out of Los Angeles and onto a literal orange grove (a major life change he happily detailed to Conan O’Brien in August of 2015, during a “Conan” appearance meant to promote Ponsoldt’s film). Segel, who has been sober since 2013, also disconnected from other modes of personal promotion, including social media.
“I stopped doing social media a long time ago, because there seems to be a greater emphasis on how you appear, than how you actually are,” Segel told us back in January at Sundance. “There are people who are putting up a brilliant façade, a beautiful façade of a happy life who are miserable people.”
Social media and the brilliant façades it often hosts were top of mind for the actor, who was back in town to promote his first big screen role in over two years, as the star of Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery.”
Like Segel, McDowell is something of a Sundance darling, too. He bowed his debut film, “The One I Love,” at Sundance in 2014, where the twisty-clever romantic drama enthralled audiences and was picked up The Weinstein Company.
“The Discovery” is a far more self-serious outing than McDowell’s previous film, which poked at similarly big ideas in a much more amusing package, bolstered by the frisky chemistry between leads Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss. Segel stars as Will Harbor, the son of a brilliant doctor (played by no less than Robert Redford), who has proven the existence of an afterlife. The film picks up two years after the eponymous discovery has been made public and not all reactions have been positive. Netflix picked up the rights to the film while McDowell and co. were still making it.
Segel came on board the film in March of 2016, nearly two years after he had completed “The End of the Tour,” after originally cast star Nicholas Hoult was forced to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts. Segel and McDowell are long-time friends, and the actor had previously appeared in some of McDowell’s shorts the filmmaker made while studying at AFI.
“To work with him, to work with Rooney, to work with Mr. Redford, it was sort of a no-brainer,” Segel said. (And, yes, Segel explained he did initially call the veteran actor “Mr. Redford” during shooting, before finally making a jump to “Bob.”)
Segel is exceedingly straight-faced in the film, working in a key that’s reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s turn in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which the feature frequently appears to invoke. It’s the most purely dramatic thing Segel has ever done on screen before, a darker and deeper exploration than even “The End of the Tour.” McDowell’s film is rife with big questions, which is what compelled Segel to make the feature after so many months out of the limelight.
“It leaves people with all sorts of disparate questions,” he said. “Which I think is the function of art. You walk away from something, you say, ‘Well, it raised this question for me,’ and another person says, ‘No, how about this?'”
It’s a heady return to the big screen for the actor, one who has kept relatively quiet since a breakneck couple of years during which he starred in a series a films that leaned heavily towards the lighter side of life, including “I Love You, Man,” “Despicable Me,” and “Bad Teacher.” Since 2012, he hasn’t appeared in more than two films a year, and his nine-season turn on “How I Met Your Mother” came to an end in 2014, when the CBS sitcom concluded its run after 208 episodes. Segel also hasn’t written or produced a film since 2014’s “Sex Tape” (which made $38.5 million at the U.S. box office, a steep dropoff from his previous team up with co-star Cameron Diaz, the $100 million “Bad Teacher”).
Even his well-documented passion for The Muppets – enough to fuel the 2011 feature “The Muppets,” which he wrote and produced, along with starring in it alongside Amy Adams – has fallen away, and he was not involved with either the 2014 sequel “Muppets Most Wanted” or the short-lived television series it spawned.
Segel is rumored to have a handful of projects in development, though, including Seth Gordon’s maple syrup heist film and a pair of projects with writer and producer Drew Pearce, including the rock n’ roll comedy “The Other F Word” and the animated family feature “The Billion Brick Race.” Comedy still seems to compel him, and despite moving into darker territory during the course of his last two projects, he’s as a buoyant and fun as ever.
He’s also honest. Segel wasn’t cagey about his own major takeaway from “The Discovery,” and readily offered that, for him, the film is all about making – and potentially righting – mistakes.
“The question that I was thinking about going into the movie is, ‘Can you actually solve your problems by pushing a reset button?,'” he said. “Is that a possibility? Or do you always take your problems with you? Are those endemic to you, not to your circumstance?”
Segel, it seems, may have already found his reset button.
“The Discovery” is now streaming on Netflix.