Jason Segel is delightful company, and not simply because he’s drinking cocktails in the early afternoon. He’s funny, handsome, ever so faintly slurring. It’s almost like lunching with a young Albert Finney. But not quite, because Segel hasn’t any ’60s macho arrogance (Would Finney go around mocking his penis? Segel’s appears, flaccid but dashing, in his first produced screenplay and star vehicle, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). On a drizzly afternoon in L.A., Segel is wearing a flat flannel cap and a scarf that is so poorly tied it exposes great swathes of chest. At 6’4″, he looks like a giant Oliver Twist who should have his face pressed against the other side of the glass at the Chateau Marmont, instead of happily dining inside. Segel’s been this tall since he was 12.
“The kids would gather around me in a circle, someone would jump on my back and everyone would chant, â€˜Ride the oaf! Ride the oaf!'” That is just too sad to think about, I tell him. “It’s not so sad,” he insists. “It’s when I became funny.” Segel’s height works effectively in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. His character, Peter Bretter, is torn between Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell, two Lilliputian starlets of startling fury. The size discrepancy underscores Bretter’s every humiliation.
Jason Segel’s physical vastness, coupled with a quavering melancholy, results in his own brand of curious charisma. In his short career, the actor has used almost every shade of this quality: as sweet and needy Nick on NBC’s Freaks and Geeks, sad and psycho ex Eric on the follow-up Fox series Undeclared, newlywed Marshall in CBS’s How I Met Your Mother and a slacker ladies’ man in Knocked Up. And now, in his first starring film role, as a heartbroken musician who runs into his TV-star ex on the Hawaiian vacation meant to erase her from his memory.
Decades ago, Elliott Gould, Charles Grodin and Albert Brooks were box-office stars, but it took writer/producer Judd Apatow—who worked with Segel on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall—to make the neurotic Jewish man a romantic lead again. Segel has numerous appreciation groups on Facebook populated with comments like, “btw Jason Segel is such a friggin cutie its unbelievable…lolz!” which I believe stands for “Laughing Out Loud Zionist,” and not just because I know he was the only Jewish kid at a Christian school.
“They put swastikas on my desk. When I sent out my Bar Mitzvah invitations, the principal called me into his office. He said, â€˜The kids are really excited about your party, but they don’t understand what it is.’ So at Communion, he made me give a talk explaining it. You’ve never been beat up harder than after saying, â€˜On Saturday, I become a man.'”
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the most sweetly nuanced film in the Apatow stable of realistic romantic comedies. It’s like a deep ’70s comedy, tonally akin to Robert Altman’s California Split or Elaine May’s Heartbreak Kid—a funny, messy character study that benefits greatly from Segel’s empathy for his female characters. “I didn’t want there to be any villains,” he says. “I wanted it to be about how relationships are complicated. You’re with a dude and they haven’t done anything wrong, but they’re not moving forward. Kristen’s character is conflicted, but she has to move on.”
In a particularly touching moment in the film, Kristen Bell’s cuckolding beauty sizes up just how pretty and nice Peter’s new crush is and, even though she doesn’t want him, she realizes she doesn’t want him to want someone else either. The man she left Peter for, while a total dolt, is surprisingly kind to her heartbroken ex. There’s something about the film that brings to mind the great Lorrie Moore line: “Life is sad. Here is someone.”
Forgetting Sarah Marshall may be so moving because its writer knows the territory well. Before Segel found his way back to success, he says he endured a five-year-long barren period during which, when walking a press line with his more famous girlfriend—that would be Linda Cardellini, his Freaks and Geeks co-star—photographers yelled, “Get off the red carpet so we can take pictures of famous people!” The waiter brings another drink out to our garden table and Segel is compelled to coo, as he sips, “I love drinking!” But, I remind him, aren’t Jews the ethnic minority with the lowest rate of alcoholism? He waves that thought away. “That’s only because we’re conducting the polls.” He puts his glass down. “I didn’t start drinking until I was 20. I was in a monogamous relationship with an older woman from 19 to 25, so I was trying to act older than I was. When that relationship ended, I made up for lost time.”
In casting the film, Segel has also discovered, for the American market at least, beehived British comedy star Russell Brand, who plays the role of Peter’s replacement. “Russell came in to audition wearing leather pants, eyeliner, the hair and said, â€˜You have to forgive me, I’ve only had a chance to take a cursory glance at your script. Perhaps you could tell me what it is you require?'” But perhaps the most daring newcomer in the film is Jason Segel’s dick, in the soon-to-be-infamous “naked breakup” scene.
“I had a naked breakup,” he sighs, “and while it was happening, I was so aware it was ridiculous and I was telling myself, â€˜This is going to be hilarious at some point.’ One day I was with Judd and I said, â€˜What if…’ and he started laughing so hard. At the time, I thought filming it would be fun. It’s terrifying. It’s the worst thing you could ever do.” He gets up to adjust a heat lamp and I mentally place Paul Simon on his back, but instead of saying, â€˜Ride the oaf!’ he’s chanting, â€˜Call me Al!'”
Segel sits back down. “What were we talking about?” “Your penis.” “Of course. So the pictures don’t leak online, the screeners have a big black circle. Well, not that big.” Hey, I say, now you know what it’s like for actresses who have to show their tits on film for no good reason. He shakes his head. “Here’s the difference: Men like all sorts of women—big breasts, small breasts. There’s no woman out there who says, â€˜I like a nice small dick.’ You know what I mean?”
CBS, the network that airs the breakout hit How I Met Your Mother, in which Segel co-stars, has yet to see the film. But he imagines, “Anything that might bring more viewership to the show, they’ll be pleased about.” It must also be curious to find success on a relatively tame sitcom after starring in the edgy cult favorite Freaks and Geeks. “Judd decided after Freaks and Geeks was cancelled, he was going to show everybody he was right and that we were talented,” he says. After cancellation, Segel transitioned from actor to writer under Apatow’s guidance. “He invited me to his house and said, â€˜If you can improv the way you do, you can write.’ Then he gestured to his opulent mansion and said, â€˜Funny bought all of this.’
“He told me, â€˜You’re a really weird guy. The only way you’re going to make it is if you write your own material,'” remembers Segel. “He showed me how to do an outline, how to do a beat sheet. Then he slapped me on the butt and sent me on my way.” By age 20, Segel had sold his first script, an as-yet-unproduced Goonies-style action-comedy, to Warner Bros., where he picked up a little more advice. “The head of Warner Brothers gave me The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. It tells you the way humans are ready to accept a story. Like, the hero must meet a mentor towards the beginning of the movie. The hero must fail before he succeeds.”
In the film, it’s clear that Segel’s character will end up with Mila Kunis, aka “the right girl,” and—kudos—the first nice Jewish girl to make it past Apatow’s shiksa goddess fixation. It’s certainly the first Apatow film to climax in a lavish puppet musical, puppets being Segel’s secret passion: “I threw it out there and the next thing I knew, there were 40 Jim Henson puppets.” A budding musician—he wrote the love song that his Freaks and Geeks character sang to his beloved on-screen—Segel is also thrilled that the soundtrack will feature songs he wrote. He’s been making his living in the business since his teens, but for this film, Segel’s enthusiasm—and anxiety about its reception—is palpable. “We’re all just wondering who’ll be the one to spoil Judd’s run,” he concedes. “I am afraid that this group has become so successful that one of us will be the iceberg that sinks the Titanic. I really don’t want to be it.”
I ask if he’s ever found work success to coincide with love. “Not once. I think I could write a great love story. But I haven’t found the love part yet,” he sighs. “I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to be with me. I’m a weird dude. I was writing a Dracula musical for puppets for two years before this movie—with no irony. Women thought I was crazy.” He shrugs, enormous and sad. It starts to rain, hard, and he offers me his coat. “But what will happen to you?” I ask, as I put it on. “I will blossom into a man.” And when we part I feel happy and a little sad, like when the lights come up on an Apatow movie. Because there’s something oddly moving about a man who is too tall, telling a stranger too much.