Jason Segel Gets Weird in AMC's 'Dispatches From Elsewhere'

The 'How I Met Your Mother' veteran opens up about his "artistic check-in," filming in Philadelphia, and what he learned from mentor Judd Apatow.
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The aughts' go-to goofy everyman, Jason Segel, spent nearly a decade on a sitcom and his precious hiatus time between seasons writing and starring in films (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets). So after How I Met Your Mother ended in 2014, he did an "artistic check-in" and decided to challenge himself creatively.

"Once you get some success, you're sort of encouraged to take the thing that defined you and stretch it as far as you can. And at 33, 34 years old, I found myself still writing, still trying to stretch Forgetting Sarah Marshall as far as I could," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "I realized that because opportunities were coming pretty consistently, I hadn't really checked in with who I was or where I was in my life in a long time."

Part of the challenge he posed to himself included starring as novelist David Foster Wallace in 2015's End of the Tour, but also un-self-consciously asking friends, "what is art?"

"One of my friends said [art is] an act of self exploration in front of an audience," he said. "I think I was doing that early on, but I haven't done that bravely in a long, long time. That's the whole reason I'm doing this in the first place, and that's one of the things that I'm good at as a side effect of not having a very strong sense of pride or shame. I don't get embarrassed approaching those issues and I don't feel shame about vulnerability or weakness. And so I felt like it was time to really look at where I was at this point in my life."

The result? AMC anthology series Dispatches From Elsewhere, which premieres Sunday, March 1 at 10:08 p.m. (after the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead) before moving to its regular Mondays at 10 p.m. slot. In his new series, about a disparate group of strangers who come together for a mysterious scavenger hunt (played by Segel, Eve Lindley, Sally Field and Andre Benjamin), Segel hopes his everyman isn't the only person audiences relate to.

Below, Segel discusses the themes of his new series (he wrote and directed the pilot), filming in Philadelphia, what he learned from mentor Judd Apatow, and what a second season of Dispatches, which is billed as an anthology, could look like.

How did your "artistic check-in" come about?

You know, I started when I was young. Freaks and Geeks, I was probably 19 or something like that. A lot of what I was doing was on instinct. I didn't have a lot of experience and I wasn't, like, an acting kid. And I think one of the things that was really unique about Freaks and Geeks, for example, is that everybody was acting from their guts, and it was just sort of a challenge of how honest are you willing to be onscreen?

The first thing that I wrote that got made was Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And even though it's a comedy and sort of broad, it is a really honest depiction of where I was at 24 years old when I wrote it. It's sort of literal — I did full-frontal nudity, which is a very literal version of baring it all.

The first step in trying to do something that felt like it was reflective of where I was [after How I Met Your Mother] — a man in his 30s — was End of the Tour, this movie I did where I was probably out of my depth approaching it. I was really excited and I hadn't felt that way in a long time. But the whole period, I knew that what I really love doing is making something — thinking of an idea and seeing it all the way through to becoming something that you can hold or watch or whatever.

I couldn't figure out what to write about. And then I found [the real-life scavenger hunt on which Dispatches is based]. I thought so much about the Dracula musical from Forgetting Sarah Marshall when I was writing this. Because a little part of me was like, do you still have the guts to write something like the Dracula musical, which is completely devoid of any strategy or precedent but, like, you love it? And having faith that people will respond the way I did to something? That was how I tried to approach this — writing without strategy but using my other instruments.

So in your period of self-reflection, was there a literal Eat, Pray, Love-type journey you went on?

No, I moved out of L.A. for a little while to prep for End of the Tour. I was playing in my mind, like, what would a real actor do? Because I didn't really have a model for how to prepare to play David Foster Wallace. I was in a little cabin in the woods and I was too afraid to watch any acting, because I didn't want to get psyched out leading into that movie. So I was watching only documentaries and I saw a documentary about this real experience that happens in San Francisco. And it just hit me. Thematically, it felt like it was examining the same questions I was thinking about.

Since you're mainly known for comedy, is there a different mindset you needed to get into for more serious subject matter or is it really just tapping into this other facet of yourself that already existed?

Well, I feel like it is a complicated answer that probably won't translate that well to print. But what I am known for is other people's perspective of me, so my self-image isn't really affected by that. When I wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I didn't think, "I'm going to try to write a big, broad comedy." That's just the tone inside my brain. And so for Dispatches From Elsewhere, it's got the tone of life — where there's funny parts and mysterious parts and dramatic parts. I guess I never really felt limited by genre.

This is meant in the most respectful way possible, but Dispatches is really weird. Would you categorize it that way, or is that an annoying word for you?

No, I've definitely called it weird. I've used a lot of adjectives about the show. I think that challenging is one of them as well. I look at the show as there's a challenge of empathy presented at the beginning of each episode: Think of this person as you. And we present four people from different walks of life. Instinctively you're going to identify with one of them. But the goal of the series as it progresses is to, by the end, see yourself in all of the characters. I use a lot of unconventional storytelling techniques to kind of wake us out of this malaise of content that we have right now, where even when I'm watching something I want to watch, 20 minutes into it my mind is wandering, and maybe I'm checking my phone, and things feel like variations on a theme. One of the goals of the show as a whole is say, "wake up. Here's something you haven't seen before and it's going to activate parts of your brain that are hungry for it."

Which character do you identify with the most?

There's pieces of me in all of them, and I think that's true of all of us. Each of these four characters, our four main characters, are in a different version of feeling isolated, feeling alone, trapped by their own uniqueness in a way. So yeah, I see myself in all of them and I think that becomes really clear as the series progresses.

What was your writers' room like?

We had two writers' rooms, as a matter of fact. And they were both really, really helpful and informative. I had my hand in a lot of them, but they're also a collection of really amazing playwrights and TV writers. One of the goals was that each episode have a tone that is reflective of the character that it's profiling. So it was really helpful to have a diverse group of writers both literally but also stylistically, because we gave different writers different episodes for the tone and feeling that they're good at.

I don't know the numbers, but it was very diverse both by just people being talented in all walks of life and then also intentionally because the show is diverse. So we tried to make sure that the room was well-represented.

Your partner in the scavenger hunt, Eve Lindley's Simone, is a trans woman. How did you make sure you could portray that authentically?

We approached that two ways. We had an amazing trans writer in the room named Patti Harrison, who was incredibly helpful in all the ways that you can imagine. Also, separate from being trans is just an amazing writer and comedian in her own right.

In addition to that, I was mentored by Judd Apatow. One of the great lessons that he taught me was that you create a blueprint and then you do your casting. And everything gets fine-tuned, rewritten with the input and experience of your actual actor. So there are huge parts of the story that are influenced by my talks with Eve and input from Eve.

What's it like when someone like Eve — talented, but not widely known — walks in to audition?

It was exactly the same way I felt when Russell Brand auditioned for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where I was like, "Oh, this changes everything — in the best possible way." Everything becomes richer, you know?

What was it like working with her?

It was a real joy. She's early in her career, which is really exciting because a lot of her talent is so raw, but she has this depth that goes beyond her years. So you're getting the benefits of somebody with real chops, but also the excitement of the newness of it all. She says it as the character — "I'm like a bitter Amelie today." And that was what the character calls for, someone who desperately wants to feel like they are the type of person who finds the magic in everyday life, but is constantly getting in their own way. She just understood that idea perfectly.

The real-life scavenger hunt this story is based on took place in San Francisco, but the series is set in Philadelphia. How far along into the process did you know you'd be filming in Philly?

I wrote it for San Francisco, which is where the real events took place. It's very difficult to shoot in San Francisco, so then I was tasked with finding another city and Philly seemed like the perfect metaphor. It's associated with that blue/gray grit from the Rocky movies, this underdog status identity, but then there's more murals in any other city in the country. Or you turn down an alley that most people walk by every day and it's beautifully covered with a mirrored mosaic. It was the perfect metaphor for the show, that there is beauty all around you if we would just put on a new pair of glasses.

You seemingly took a selfie with every person in Philly while filming there last summer, and you even crashed a couple of weddings. But did you get to meet Gritty?

No, I never met Gritty. For a minute we were going to try to put Gritty in the show, but for thematic reasons, which you'll see as the show goes on, it didn't make sense. But no, sadly I didn't get to meet Gritty, but I did get to ring the bell at the 76ers game.

Dispatches is billed as an anthology, but you've kept quiet on what, exactly, a second season would look like. What can you say about your plans for the series going forward?

I don't want to give anything away about this season. But I think the idea about this show is that there are amazing things going on all over the world that are challenging us to be our best selves and remember who we are, and encourage community and bust through this division that we all feel. And I'm interested in talking about all sorts of different versions of that idea.

That feels like an extension of what you were talking about as far as your artistic check-in and exploring different avenues of humanity, or whatever. That sounds a little lofty.

It's funny. There's a great documentary called Beauty is Embarrassing — when you talk about things like art or any of these grand ideas, there's something a little bit embarrassing that kicks in inside you because you wonder if you're worthy to even be talking about it. So, yeah, I understand what you mean when you were going to say that humanity sounds a little grandiose or whatever, but I don't know. Isn't that the point of doing this stuff? Or it's to create entertainment and make a bunch of money. But I don't know, I'm at a point in my life where I'm like, "What does it feel like to just make something that has no ulterior motive except to make us feel these things that we're not feeling collectively?"

Sure — and using anthology as the format to do that is interesting because it wasn't necessarily in the TV lexicon 10 years ago.

I think another thing that lends itself to anthology is that you can get actors or other creative people who might not want to do something for years to come in and knock a season out of the park. That's what's really exciting about TV, is you can get somebody to come in and do 10 amazing episodes.

That must be appealing to a lot of people.

It's appealing to me, man, I did almost a decade on a TV show and I've learned that I like to be able to switch it up and play different characters. That's why I was doing movies that whole run. Because I think you need to be keeping it alive.

Dispatches From Elsewhere premieres Sunday, March 1 at 10:08 p.m. on AMC, and moves to its regular Mondays at 10 p.m. time slot the next day.