An interview with actor Jason Segel, who plays the late author David Foster Wallace in the movie “The End of the Tour.”
“David was six feet two, and on a good day he weighed two hundred pounds. He had dark eyes, soft voice, caveman chin, a lovely, peak-lipped mouth that was his best feature. He walked with an ex-athlete’s saunter — a roll from the heels, as if any physical thing was a pleasure. He wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives — it was the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes — and readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style.”
— David Lipsky’s description of the writer David Foster Wallace, from Lipsky’s 2010 book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.”
Jason Segel might not be the first actor you’d think of to play David Foster Wallace, the quirkily brilliant Midwestern author of expansive, inventive novels (of which the 1,100 plus-page tome “Infinite Jest” is his masterpiece) and essays. Segel, a handsome, soft-spoken 35-year-old Californian whose screen persona is generally that of a sensitive, gentle funnyman (“The Muppets,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” the TV series “How I Met Your Mother”), wouldn’t disagree.
‘The End of the Tour’
Opens Friday, Aug. 7, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Sundance Cinemas (21+), and Lincoln Square. Rated R for language including some sexual references.
In Seattle recently to promote the film, he remembered reading Donald Margulies’ screenplay “The End of the Tour,” a dramatization of a real-life five days in Wallace’s life, in which Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky joined the writer for the last few days of Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” book tour. Segel loved it, but thought, “I’ll never get hired to do this.”
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A meeting with director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now,” “Smashed”) convinced him otherwise. One of Ponsoldt’s goals, Segel learned, was “to remember how funny he [Wallace] was. That humor is the inroad to some of the weighty insights.” A thoughtful actor who understood comedy, who could make the long conversations that make up the film spark to life, was what the director wanted.
Upon casting, Segel embarked on an intensive tour of his own: of Wallace. (The writer, who struggled with depression for many years, took his own life at the age of 46.) Lipsky’s interview tapes were available, and Segel studied them carefully, mostly “for tone,” he said — “This road trip needed to be fun.” He gained weight, grew out his hair and beard, talked to people who knew Wallace. And he dived into the writer’s work, reading the essays on his own but tackling “Infinite Jest” by forming a book club.
“We did 100 pages a week,” Segel remembered, smiling. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” The vast, experimental and thoroughly literary novel “is the most personal of [Wallace’s] works — he’s every one of the characters.” Segel described it as exploring themes of “pleasure, entertainment, achievement. It was David Foster Wallace trying to express a very fundamental crisis — we’ve been told that these things will satisfy us.”
As an actor, he found a connection with Wallace by drawing on an aspect of the story that that he had some personal experience with: doing a press tour. “What is at the forefront of your mind is what you talk about on press tours,” he said. “He [Wallace] was ready to talk about ‘Infinite Jest.’”
Segel, who shares with Wallace a low-key modesty (asked if there was something he would have liked to ask Wallace, given the chance, he paused for a long time and finally said, “I think I would be too scared to meet him”), saw the role as a possible turning point for his career.
“I’m getting older, thinking of different stuff. I needed to find a new relevance in the movies I was doing,” he said, naming roles like Edward Norton in “Primal Fear,” Gary Oldman in “The Professional,” and most of all Peter Sellers in “Being There” as inspirations.
Since “The End of the Tour” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, he said he’s seen an uptick in the number of interesting, not-necessarily-comedic scripts sent his way, but hasn’t yet chosen his next role.
For now, he still has Wallace, and “Infinite Jest” (the kind of book that “you make friends with, and have an intimate relationship with”), on his mind.
“I hope the movie is an extension of the themes that he expressed,” Segel said. “It was approached with a lot of empathy and love.”