In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jason Segel gives a sweet, soulful performance as the endearingly shaggy Jeff. He’s a consummate slacker, bong in hand, his 30-year-old rear end growing roots in the plaid couch in his mother’s basement. Convinced that signs are the Universe’s breadcrumbs leading him on a path to his destiny, Jeff receives a phone call one day that begins a treasure hunt of misadventures. The twisty-turning, gently spiritual plot is full of surprises and small miracles guiding Jeff to his entirely unexpected destiny—coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous. The film gives new meaning to “magical realism” as it sprinkles whimsy (including a kiss beneath a “waterfall”) amid its uber-realistic dialogue, without ever becoming precious. Instead, Jeff is clever, funny and hip, its big open heart peppered by the Duplass brothers’ deft wit.
Screenwriters/directors Jay and Mark Duplass are Sundance darlings whose indie potential is fully realized in their first big-studio outing, a film about brothers: Ed Helms plays Pat, Jeff’s brother, as a smarmy, manipulative salesman, in a role not unlike his turns in The Hangover, Cedar Rapids and The Office. The Duplass brothers have an insightful touch with mothers and their grown, somewhat dysfunctional sons, also shown in their previous film, Cyrus (with Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill). Susan Sarandon is quietly wonderful as the exasperated mother who doesn’t realize she has been missing out on love until a secret admirer sends her intriguing emails.
We recently chatted with Segel about improvising with the Duplass brothers, his own comedy writing, and whether he believes in signs.
ELLE: How did you achieve a natural tone between comedy and drama, and avoid the bromance box?
Jason Segel: This style was right in my wheelhouse. The goal of playing Jeff 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: Your transformation from slacker to someone who helps other people was organic and laid-back.
JS: I thought a lot about what the victory is for Jeff at the end, and I can really relate to it: It’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’re not crazy. You’ve been banking on this thing being true, and everyone thinks you’re nuts. Just the relief of knowing you’re not crazy. It’s exactly how I felt when I wrote the Dracula musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Everyone was like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s ridiculous!’ And then people saw it and liked it and more than feeling arrogant, I was like, ‘Thank God I’m not crazy!’ It’s a feeling of vindication.
ELLE: The brilliance of this screenplay is that the signs do seem real, but they don’t add up to a huge epiphany or fame and fortune; instead they’re about intervening in others’ 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: Did you have these kinds of discussions with the Duplass brothers?
JS: We didn’t talk all that much. It was a very quiet trust that we had with each other.
ELLE: What was it like improvising with them?
JS: That’s sort of what they demand of their actors; they want it to feel genuine and real, like it’s just a couple of people talking. So the script is very much a blueprint. They want you to understand what the point is and then say it in your own words.
ELLE: Are they open to suggestions from their actors, especially since you’re a screenwriter yourself?
JS: Yes, there was a lot of freedom on set. 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.
ELLE: Your next film, The Five-Year Engagement, was recently chosen to open the Tribeca Film Festival. When you worked on it with your writing partner, Nick Stoller, did 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. We also wrote The Muppets together, and Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall I wrote and he directed.
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 of the best filmmakers working today, you can’t categorize 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: The Duplass brothers excel at writing naturalistic dialogue. When you’re writing, what’s your trick for getting your own dialogue to sound natural?
JS: I’m kind of improvising 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: Do the Duplasses take turns behind the camera?
JS: Jay is camera A operator and Mark is behind the monitors, watching and then giving notes. But they’re conferring between every take.
ELLE: Are Jeff and Pat based on Mark and Jay Duplass’ relationship?
JS: From what I understand, there is an actual Jeff, who has a brother named Pat, names changed to protect the innocent. They’re friends of the Duplasses. As for Mark and Jay, I’ve never seen two siblings get along better. You’re jealous of two people getting along so well! They’re literally the nicest people I’ve ever met. Squabbles are resolved in seconds. It’s everything that we all wish we were.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens today.