First, Jason Segel was the guy from How I Met Your Mother; then he was the guy who bared all in Forgetting Sarah Marshall; after this year, he’ll just be the guy who’s everywhere.
In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which just opened last week, Segel gives a sweet, soulful performance as the endearingly shaggy title character. Jeff, a consummate slacker with bong in hand, receives a phone call that initiates a treasure hunt of misadventures. The film is clever, funny and hip; its big open heart peppered by the Duplass brothers’ deft wit.
Next month, Segel’s Five Year Engagement will open the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18th. The comedy, which co-stars Emily Blunt, is Segel’s fourth screenplay. He’s been four for four in the hit department, so we took a minute to chat with the actor about the secret to great comedy.
ELLE: Your next film, The Five-Year Engagement, was recently chosen to open the Tribeca Film Festival.
Jason Segel: I wrote it with my writing partner, Nick Stoller. We also wrote the Muppets together and Get Him to the Greek, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall I wrote and he directed.
ELLE: Do you write in the same room together?
JS: No, my schedule is such that I have to write at very odd hours. We hand it back and forth and take great amusement at what the other one has written.
ELLE: What’s the secret to a great screenplay?
JS: The secret to a great comedy is to write a drama. It’s going to be funny by nature; that’s my tone. We’re funny people and we’re going to cast funny people. What keeps people invested in a story is something true and that’s drama. If someone sets out to write a comedy, it’s weird laugh-a-minute set-ups for punch lines. You kind of lose interest in 20 minutes. The best thing you can do is to write a drama and then layer the comedy on top of it. If you took away the jokes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a pretty sad story. It’s funny because we’re funny; that’s what we do. If you didn’t care about that story, you would change the channel after 20 minutes.
ELLE: With many the best screenwriters working today, you can’t pigeonhole their tone as comedy or drama.
JS: James Brooks does it perfectly. Try to label one of his movies, like Broadcast News; it’s the tone of life. I don’t know if it’s a comedy or drama. Terms of Endearment, I cried harder at that movie than anything and it’s also super-funny.
ELLE: When you’re writing, what’s your trick for getting your dialogue to sound natural?
JS: I’m kind of improving in my brain. I’m playing all the characters in my own mind. It’s pretty strange but yeah, I’m playing all the characters and then writing my imagination.
ELLE: In Jeff Who Lives at Home, you achieve a natural tone between comedy and drama; how did you avoid the bromance box?
JS: This style was right in my wheelhouse. The goal of playing Jeff, as soon as I read it, I realized was not to do any ‘acting’—don’t get fancy-pants about it. As scary as it is, the goal was kind of to do nothing. Ego-wise, every part of you wants to show off when you’re acting and this was very much about being really calm and regular.
ELLE: The brilliance of this particular screenplay is that the signs are real, but they don’t add up to a huge epiphany or fame and fortune; instead they’re about intervening in other’s lives.
JS: Jeff is a pure soul. He’s very much Chance the Gardener, from Being There. I thought of this movie and my approach as very much like a Hal Ashby film.
ELLE: Do you personally believe in signs and a master plan for your destiny?
JS: There is the allegory of the watch and the Watchmaker, which has stuck with me since I was young. If it was caveman times and you were wandering on a path and came across a pocket watch and you had no idea what it was, you would be able to tell very quickly that this was not the same as a rock. Something designed this, even if it was broken and didn’t work. You would know that it was not made by nature. If you’ve able to pull back mentally, the planets are revolving around the sun in perfect order and we don’t fly off the earth. These are the mechanics of a watch; these are gears flowing perfectly. I think it’s ignorant not to think that something designed that.
ELLE: Were they open to suggestions from their actors, especially since you’re a screenwriter yourself?
JS: Yes, there was a lot of freedom on set, and trust between all of us. That’s very much their style. It’s the same philosophy we have in the Judd [Apatow] world; it’s that you can imagine what your actors can do, but no one knows better what they’re good at than the actors themselves. It’s a very ego-free environment, just in setting the stage for everyone to be their best. I think that’s their goal.