ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
When the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother ended in 2014, Jason Segel admits he suffered a bit of an identity crisis. “I could do anything I wanted, but I was confronted with this embarrassing realization that I didn’t know who I was at 33,” says the actor, now 40, who played the goofy, good-hearted Marshall Eriksen for nine seasons. “I knew who I was at 23, and I was trying to stretch it into forever.”
During the series’s run, Segel, who first broke through as a teenager in Freaks and Geeks, parlayed his playful man-child persona into big-screen success, writing and starring in movies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Muppets. “A responsible adult is taking stock of their life every year, but I was just rolling and rolling and rolling,” he continues, calling from his car on a December afternoon amid some last-minute holiday shopping. “I think Peter is a little bit of a manifestation of that realization.”
Segel is referring to his character in Dispatches from Elsewhere, an AMC series he also wrote and directed that premieres March 1. The show is inspired by a mass
alternate-reality game that took place in San Francisco in the late 2000s and saw a reported 7,000 participants attempt to decipher a cult-like organization called the Jejune Institute by listening to a propaganda radio station. (The game was also the subject of the 2013 documentary The Institute.) Segel relocated the action to Philadelphia and cast Sally Field, OutKast’s André Benjamin, and newcomer Eve Lindley as his cohorts on a peculiar scavenger hunt. He chatted with Hemispheres about helming his own series, his pivot away from comedy, and what he’s learned from his fans’ tattoos.
Why did you want to adapt the story of the Jejune Institute game into a scripted show?
The question of why people would participate in something like this for two years of their life was most interesting to me. The particulars vary from person to person, but I think a lot of us are united by some feeling that there should be more, that someone is going to show up and tell you that there’s magic lurking just around the corner. It’s the itch that Harry Potter scratches, that Roald Dahl books scratch.
Would you say you’re susceptible to getting wrapped up in something like this?
Well, I [went to San Francisco and] did the experience. I can’t say too much about my induction, because it’s shrouded in mystery. The clandestine nature is part of the appeal—you really felt like you were being given access to a secret. It was one of the most provocative interactions of my life, almost like a forced existential crisis. Like, what do you actually believe in? What do you actually care about? It really inspired me to reclaim my sense of play. I hadn’t written anything since The Muppets, and I knew that I wanted to write about something personal. It’s how I write best.
After How I Met Your Mother ended, you started taking on more serious roles, including the late author David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour. Are you moving away from comedy?
As I got older and experienced some real-life stuff, I became less interested in frivolity. When you’re 20, time feels limitless. Now I think, I’m only going to get to make so many things—how do I want to use this time? When I say, “Created by Jason Segel,” part of what I’m saying is that this is some glimpse into who I am. I had a few things that I casually was like, “Yeah, of course, put my name on that.” And then I watched them and said, “But that’s not me.” So I guess I made some sort of private deal with myself that anytime I was going to say “This is me,” it should really be true.
Did comedy also begin to feel risky, in the sense that humor is always evolving and certain projects can age poorly or be viewed as insensitive over time?
Political correctness aside, comedy styles are constantly in flux. Like, Ace Ventura or Wayne’s World would not work right now. If someone came out with the energy of Jim Carrey and his singular characters, you’d be like, “Whoa, easy.” Then our group [Judd Apatow’s Frat Pack] had this moment of really normal-life stuff, people hanging out, and that had a beautiful life. And then that sort of transitioned into people wanting more of a premise. What I think is interesting about drama is, in a modern dramatic movie, you’re exploring the same themes as you are in Shakespeare. It’s timeless. To me, the real sweet spot is things that are impossible to define genre-wise, like James L. Brooks’s [1987 film] Broadcast News. They’re just about the human experience—how sad and dark and hilarious it all is. That’s what I’ve always been interested in writing, with varying degrees of success.
How did you approach writing Simone, the trans character played by Eve Lindley in Dispatches from Elsewhere?
I talked to Eve quite a bit, and we had a great writers room full of diverse voices, including a trans woman. There are a lot of ways to become informed, which is obviously incredibly important when you’re writing a voice that’s not your own. But I would also say that once you have done your due diligence in terms of research, one of the premises of the show is that we’re all way more similar than we think. If you write honestly about a more general sense of fear and longing and human connection, then that should apply to all of us. That’s what I believe the show is about. I think one of the things that we’re having a really hard time with in the world is not realizing how similar we are.
You’re a big music fan. Was it intimidating to direct André 3000?
I mean, yes. First of all, I’m pinching myself because of my childhood relationship to OutKast. But I found that André and I actually had a lot to talk about in terms of our journeys through the entertainment industry and achieving all the things that you’re sure are going to make you feel X, Y, Z. And then you realize, Oh, all that’s happened is that this thing is done.
This is the first time you’ve created, produced, directed, and starred in your own show. How did you find the experience of being in the driver’s seat?
It was the first time in 20 years I felt myself butting up against my limits, which is pretty cool. It doesn’t feel strategic. I did exactly what I did in The End of the Tour. When I did that, I said, “What would a real actor do?” And in this experience, “What would a real director do?” It’s all fake it till you make it.
Naysayers were skeptical about you playing Wallace in The End of the Tour. Did that cause you to doubt yourself?
To be honest, it wasn’t anything someone was going to say on the internet that was going to make me second-guess myself. The loudest naysaying voice was my own. I was already questioning if I was a good enough actor to play that part. But I asked myself, like, who do you want to be? The person who sits resentfully at dinner parties saying, “Well, if I had played David Foster Wallace…”?
You turned 40 in January. Single women your age are frequently asked about marriage and children. Do people badger you about this, too?
No. I get asked about the ending of How I Met Your Mother way more than my marriage thoughts.
And what did you think of the ending?
You know, this is really true, and not me dodging a question: I did not watch the ending. All I know is that people had really strong reactions.
I’m still shocked that the spinoff How I Met Your Dad didn’t get picked up, even though Greta Gerwig starred in the pilot.
Yeah, I am too. I never saw it. I don’t know her besides this one interaction I had with her, when she came to the How I Met Your Mother set and she was so damn nice. To me, kindness is the currency that resonates most of all. I think it’s really neat if you’re talented, but if you’re nice, that really is everything. And she was just the coolest.
Of the many popular projects you’ve been involved with over the years, which do fans most often approach you about?
It really depends on the amount of tattoos they have. If it’s, like, maximum coverage, then it’s probably going back to SLC Punk! If it’s a little bit of hipster coverage, then it’s usually Freaks and Geeks or Muppets. And I am tattooed on some people’s bodies, which is pretty crazy. Most people that I meet approach me with that energy of like, “Hey, How I Met Your Mother got me through law school,” or “Forgetting Sarah Marshall got me through a breakup.” I’m really honored that people seem to have a relationship to those stories, and that they’ve resonated personally somehow.
BY THE NUMBERS
Height of Segel, who was nicknamed Doctor Dunk while playing high school basketball for the California state championship–winning team at Harvard-Westlake
Episodes of How I Met Your Mother
Frames in which Segel was naked in Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Word count of the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest, which Segel read with his book club to prepare for The End of the Tour
Rotten Tomatoes score of the Segel-written The Muppets—the highest for any Muppets film
Songs Segel cowrote for the fake band Infant Sorrow on the Get Him to the Greek soundtrack