“My first takeaway [from reading the script] was, ‘They’ll never let me do this,’ ” Jason Segel, the popular star of film and TV comedies, told me on Tuesday when our conversation about his life and career arrived at the dramatic project for which he has received the best notices of his career and considerable best supporting actor Oscar buzz: James Ponsoldt‘s The End of the Tour, in which he plays the late, great writer David Foster Wallace over the course of a four-day, road-trip interview that he granted Rolling Stone in 1996, shortly after the release of his breakthrough novel Infinite Jest.
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes — on iTunes.)
Segel, 35, is one of Hollywood’s more unusual characters. He caught his big break around the turn of the century, landing a part on NBC’s Freaks and Geeks — but when that cult-favorite comedy was canceled and he found himself out of work for three years, he reinvented himself as a writer, penning Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which would eventually become a 2008 film in which he starred, as well as a story that would go on to become a best-selling children’s book. Most people, however, know him for his starring role on CBS’s hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) and/or a handful of big-studio comedic films that he made during breaks from it, ranging from mentor Judd Apatow‘s Knocked Up (2007) and This Is 40 (2012) to Segel’s passion project The Muppets (2011), which he also co-wrote; and from I Love You, Man (2009), with Paul Rudd, to Bad Teacher (2011) and Sex Tape (2014), both co-starring Cameron Diaz.
But if you ask Segel which project has meant the most to him, his answer is none of those, but rather The End of the Tour, a $3.5 million indie comprised almost entirely of two men in conversation. The project came along at a time when he was the same age that Wallace was when the actual events took place — and when he felt, as Wallace had, a disturbing sense of discontentment, despite having realized his greatest dreams. After Ponsoldt offered him the part, he tuned out the skeptical chatter from many pundits and instead focused on dissecting Infinite Jest, studying the audiotapes of the original interview and immersing himself in Donald Margulies‘ script. There would be no place for the sort of improv that had helped to make Segel a star; instead, he would have to prove to the world that he was capable of being not only a lovable goofball, but also, when necessary, a “serious” actor.
In the view of the vast majority of people who have seen the film since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and its theatrical release on July 31, including crow-eating critics, and as Academy members may yet affirm themselves, he very much succeeded.
The End of the Tour, an A24 film, remains in select theaters. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Segel for best supporting actor.