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Wherever You Find Him, You’ve Got a Friend in Jason Segel

Forever unthreatening on screen, the ‘How I Met Your Mother’ star projects the jovial air of a reliable sidekick, whether he’s playing David Foster Wallace or palling around with Muppets

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

In the new film Our Friend, Jason Segel plays the friend, a role to which he is uniquely well-suited. Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck are a married couple coping with the fact that she’s dying from cancer — Segel is their old college chum who moves into their house to help Affleck raise the kids and prepare Johnson for the great beyond. I haven’t seen Our Friend, which has garnered good reviews for Segel as the faithful buddy, but I feel fairly confident I’ll be predisposed to like him in the film. As a rule of thumb, I just like seeing Jason Segel in things.

Some actors are “compelling” or “magnetic” or “arresting.” You can’t take your eyes off them. It’s not that Segel isn’t capable of earning such compliments, but his skills reside elsewhere. He puts you at ease. He makes you feel good. Whether in comedies or dramas — whether in love stories or sci-fi parables, on TV or the big screen — he’s always best when he’s paired with somebody. He radiates nice-guy energy in a way that makes you think he’s not trying to scam you — he might, in fact, actually be a nice guy. Jason Segel just wants to be your buddy.

Talking about stars as being “everymen” is always strange: Actors tend to be pretty handsome or sufficiently striking in such a way that they don’t really blend in. Yet, for all his good looks and height — dude is 6-foot-4 — Segel might be the exception. He has a quality where you initially look past him because your eye is drawn elsewhere. Take his first major piece of press, which was as part of the supporting cast on his stellar high school basketball team. He grew up in L.A., attended the posh Harvard-Westlake, and because he was tall even as a kid, he was an athletic asset. But he was overshadowed by Jason and Jarron Collins, twins who already had NBA scouts salivating. A 1996 L.A. Times piece focused on the guys around the superstar Collins brothers. This was the wholesome description of the then-teenaged Segel:

“Jason Segel answers to ‘Doctor Dunk,’ although he craves more than the 15 minutes of fame he received during an East Coast slam dunk contest. … The 6-4 junior forward is seventh man and self-appointed court jester. ‘I’m not nearly as skilled a basketball player as some of the other guys,’ Segel says. ‘But I have a lot of bravado.’

“Not to mention a made-for-the-highlight-reels dunk. During Harvard’s two-week East Coast trip in December, Segel wowed a Florida crowd with a two-handed slam made with the front of his jersey pulled over his head. Before the dunk, Segel stood poised, calling for silence with outstretched arms. After the dunk, he dove headfirst into the stands.”

The L.A. Times piece went on to mention that “Segel also keeps the team loose with impressions of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kermit the Frog.” Three years later, he was on Freaks and Geeks, the beloved high-school series that launched his career — along with just about everyone else in the cast. He played Nick Andopolis, a very uncool but lovable, pot-smoking aspiring musician. Segel related hard to this world of the unpopular.

“I was a bit of a natural fit,” he told Terry Gross in 2009. “I’ve been 6-foot-4 since I was 12, and kids used to stand around me in a circle, and one by one they would jump on my back while the rest chanted, ‘Ride the oaf, ride the oaf.’” Freaks and Geeks didn’t make a dent in the ratings and got very little Emmy attention, but it was one of those landmark shows that makes your reputation — and can leave a lasting impression on you when you’re just starting out. “That was one of the best times in my life,” he said wistfully on Fresh Air. “It’s when I met Judd Apatow, and it’s when I met Seth Rogen and James Franco and Linda [Cardellini], and Martin Starr, all these guys, Busy Philipps. We were all so young, and we were so naive that we kind of thought every experience would be like that… and it isn’t.”

Even in his audition, you can see the sweet, dopey Segel shine through. What’s risky about playing puppy-dog characters like Nick — gentle giants but also a bit clingy when it comes to women — is that it can be tough sledding once you age out of those impressionable-young-people roles. (Harmless clingy men can very easily become creepy, dangerous harassers.) When he appeared in Apatow’s subsequent series Undeclared as an obsessive ex-boyfriend, it started to feel like a pigeonhole. But Marshall Eriksen saved him, which isn’t too dramatic to say considering the “cave of depression” he told GQ he was in before getting cast in How I Met Your Mother. He’d been working on writing screenplays, even sold one, but he was starting to lose confidence in his ability to break through. Then came the CBS sitcom, which gave him a hit, visibility and a good-guy character he could play effortlessly.

Loyal fiance to Lily (Alyson Hannigan), steadfast friend to Ted (Josh Radnor), Marshall was a great bud — a little anonymous but an amiable goofball. One of the last memorable three-camera sitcoms, How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons. But, eventually, Segel grew tired of it. “It’s the greatest problem in the world to have,” he said in that 2010 GQ profile in the midst of the show’s run. “Jeez — I’m the luckiest guy in the world. But when your idol is Peter Sellers, playing one character for eight years isn’t what you’re trying to do. I don’t really feel like I have that much more to offer with this character.”

Segel’s comments were satirized in a later episode of How I Met Your Mother — and he’s subsequently said he’d be up for any reunion the showrunners wanted to do — but you could also understand why he’d be eager to bolt. Working with director and future writing partner Nicholas Stoller (whom he’d met on Undeclared), he starred in and scripted 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall — and a year later, he teamed up with Paul Rudd for I Love You, Man. Once you’ve had some successful movies, it’s hard to be excited about going back to that sitcom you feel is holding you back.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man were a study in contrasts for Segel. His role as Peter in the former felt like a familiar riff on the romantic fools he’d often played. But the character was actually drawn from his own experience — specifically, the pain of being dumped when you’re not wearing a thing.

“I got broken up with while naked,” Segel admitted, recalling that his girlfriend at the time was heading home after just flying back into town — she told him that they needed to talk. “And it’s never ‘We need to talk, I love you so much,’” he said, later adding, “The whole time I thought, ‘As soon as she walks out this door, I’m going to write this,’ and it worked out.”

The scene remains a minor landmark in the history of bro cinema of the 21st century: There was a vulnerability and realness there that was very much in keeping with the Apatow school of sensitive/shocking comedy about immature men trying to find themselves. “There was a part of me that really loved it because we are so used to and almost numbed by female nudity,” Segel’s co-star Kristen Bell later told Entertainment Weekly. “Jason Segel was one of the first to exploit male nudity in a film and I just thought that was, and I say this with a laugh, but that was very brave.” (“He was mainly nervous that his wiener look normal, which in a very cold stage is hard to achieve,” Stoller said with a laugh in the same article. “So he had set up a private room where he got his wiener looking normal.”)

By contrast, I Love You, Man’s Sydney was more of a cad — a dude’s dude — but Segel figured out how to make him the consummate buddy for Rudd’s sensitive groom-to-be who doesn’t have any guy friends. “[Sydney’s] got this attitude that I don’t possess in life,” Segel told Terry Gross, “which is, ‘This is who I am, take it or leave it.’ Which is what really drew me to playing that part.”

Sydney was as close as Segel’s gotten to being the Bill-Murray-of-the-early-1980s wild card, and honestly, it’s not even that close. There’s a decency to his performances that always smoothes off his characters’ rough edges. I’m sure Segel has been a jerk in real life and that there are people who hate him for all types of reasons — he’s a human being, after all — but the guy’s such a grinning, happy doofus that it’s hard to believe that. Even when he’s stoned during a junket interview — or, rather, especially when he’s stoned during a junket interview — who wouldn’t want to hang out with the guy?

Several of the How I Met Your Mother cast members seemed destined for glory outside of the series — Neil Patrick Harris was becoming an in-demand award-show host, Radnor was writing and directing indie films, Cobie Smulders got involved in the Avengers world — but Segel was as poised as any of them. 2011 was a particularly big year for him. He was part of the hit comedy Bad Teacher, he’s great in the little-seen Jeff, Who Lives at Home and he unveiled The Muppets, which he co-wrote (with Stoller) and starred in.

Since childhood, Segel had been doing impressions of Kermit, who was his favorite Muppet. (“Kermit to me is Tom Hanks when you’re a kid,” he said in 2017. “He’s Jimmy Stewart. He’s the everyman. I remember watching The Muppet Show when I was young and thinking, ‘I wanna do that!’ That’s before I understood Kermit was a puppet.”) So when Segel took a meeting with Disney after Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he realized this was his chance. As he recalled in the GQ profile, he told the executives, “You guys own the Muppets, and you’re just kind of sitting on ‘em. I really love the Muppets, and I think I know how to bring the franchise back.” The problem was, Disney thought he wanted to do a raunchy riff on Jim Henson’s creation. Segel insisted that wasn’t the case: “I’m not gonna make it the Judd Apatow version of the Muppets. It’s not gonna be ironic.”

The Muppets is an imperfect movie, but what’s great about it is what’s great about Segel, which is that unapologetic streak of cornball sincerity. Watching Segel palling around with the Muppets, it couldn’t have been more obvious: The dude is a Muppet. He’s a big, lovable bozo who seems impervious to the cynicism and sadness of the real world. There was nothing manufactured about his character Gary’s enthusiasm for returning the Muppets to their former glory. Plus, it was a great joke (and a sign of the reboot film’s generous spirit) that Gary is brothers with Walter, an actual Muppet, and it didn’t seem strange. “It’s really tough to be in a bad mood around the Muppets,” Segel said around the film’s release. “Everyone, including the crew, when we get tired, all it takes is to see Kermit — you don’t want to be a jerk in front of Kermit.”

This was a period where it really seemed like Segel would become one of the next big comedy fixtures as both an actor and writer. Even the following year’s uneven The Five-Year Engagement — another Stoller/Segel project, this time about a longtime engaged couple (Segel and Emily Blunt) who keep pushing back their wedding date — suggested he had ambitions to expand the idea of what a studio comedy could be. When How I Met Your Mother ended in March 2014, the stage was set for him to finally make that leap. Instead, he came out a few months later with Sex Tape, a painfully unfunny comedy he costarred in with Cameron Diaz.

When the script, by Kate Angelo, was bought by Sony in 2011, it was a big deal: Riding the wave of popularity of R-rated comedies, a story about a suburban married couple who impulsively decide one night to make a sex tape, only to have it go missing the next morning, felt like a certain box-office smash. (Plus, the film would reunite Segel and Diaz with their Bad Teacher director Jake Kasdan.) But although Sex Tape was a modest hit, it deservedly got terrible reviews. Segel was his usual puppy-dog self, but the shtick suddenly felt strained. And I suspect Segel knew it.

“There was a moment around that period, ’cause that was also around when How I Met Your Mother ended, where I was like, ‘I have a blank canvas ahead of me now,’” Segel said this week. “Sex Tape ended up doing well, I think, but it didn’t feel good. So I got to look forward and say, ‘This is freedom. You can do anything right now.’”

Consciously, he made the decision to stop doing comedy, trying to find out if he could be a dramatic actor. (He’s also written children’s books and created an AMC series.) Of the three dramas he’s been in since Sex Tape that I’ve seen, the first has been the best — although, interestingly, it connected with his earlier, funnier work in that, once again, he gave off the energy of a best buddy.

In 2015’s The End of the Tour, he plays tormented writer David Foster Wallace — the sort of “Look, ma, no jokes!” role that comics often take to show the sad clown underneath their humorous persona. Segel sidestepped those clichés by focusing on the gentle spirit that’s always been central to the geeks and goofballs he’s portrayed. His Wallace is a passive but lovely guy, forming an unlikely friendship with the journalist (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s come to profile him. There can be an adversarial dynamic to the reporter/subject relationship — “Is this guy going to do justice to my story? Or has he come to screw me?” — and while that tension exists in The End of the Tour, Segel suggests that Wallace needed to connect with this guy, and that the reporter needed that same connection. It’s an unassuming performance that’s really sad but also lifesized. It’s superb because it doesn’t aspire to some grand sense of greatness.

Segel figured he’d never get cast as Wallace, although he loved the script, which he read on a plane during the midst of a personal crossroads. (For one thing, he had recently chosen to stop drinking.) In an Indiewire interview, Segel recalled, “There is a line that best summarizes it, this line toward the end of the movie where [Wallace] says, ‘I have to face the reality I’m 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper,’ and my TV show had just come to an end. A decade’s worth of comedies that I had done, that cycle of comedies coming to an end: It felt like I was looking forward at the next 50 years. Like, ‘Fuck, I am 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper.’”

His other forays into drama have been a little more inconclusive. He’s good in The Discovery, a glum but involving sci-fi drama that imagines a future in which humanity learns that there is an afterlife, and he’s quite moving in a small role in Come Sunday, where he plays a close friend to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s spiritually conflicted religious leader. (That movie’s best scene involves what is, essentially, a breakup between the two men over conflicting interpretations of their shared faith.) Clearly, if Segel is serious about putting comedy aside, his strength will be his modesty. From the start of his career, there’s always been something recessive about him. Even now, he still seems like the kid on his high school basketball team who’s overshadowed by the true star. The gentleness of his presence — in direct contrast to his towering height — underlines the quiet warmth he brings. On screen, he exudes beta-male energy — he’s the wingman you can count on.

In life, most of us don’t want to be the sidekick — we want to be the leading man. Even when Segel quite literally has been the leading man, he throws off the job’s trappings. He gets naked and vulnerable. He lets the Muppets steal the show. His unthreatening nature makes him immensely appealing — and makes you think about the fact that so much acting is about wowing us, bowling us over, stunning us.

Segel’s chief asset is his lack of such urges. He’s played his share of stoners, but even when he’s not, his onscreen vibe is permanently mellow, untroubled. I could very easily see him focusing on writing in the future, letting acting take a permanent backseat. His absence in front of the camera wouldn’t be some major tragedy, but it would be a loss all the same. There are some friends who, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen them, we’re always happy to have them back in our lives.