Interview: Jason Segel, actor and screenwriter

HE resurrected the Muppets, does a mean Kermit impression, plays loveable slackers who somehow get the girl, and isn’t bothered with Hollywood. So, what’s not to like about comic actor Jason Segel, asks Chitra Ramaswamy

HE resurrected the Muppets, does a mean Kermit impression, plays loveable slackers who somehow get the girl, and isn’t bothered with Hollywood. So, what’s not to like about comic actor Jason Segel, asks Chitra Ramaswamy

JASON SEGEL is fast gaining a reputation for being the nicest actor in Hollywood. He can usually be found in Judd Apatow’s wildly successful (and wildly rude) comedies, playing the kind of loveable slacker who somehow manages to get the girl. He resurrected the nicest puppets in showbusiness last year when he co-wrote, starred and sang in the first Muppets movie in 12 years. He is on TV most days of the week in long-running US sitcom How I Met Your Mother, in which he stars as – you guessed it – a very nice man called Marshall.

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And in his latest film, The Five-Year Engagement, he plays a man so in love with his girlfriend (Emily Blunt) that he proposes to her in the opening scene. Oh, and he does a mean Kermit impression. It’s safe to say the 32-year-old Hollywood actor is really rather nice.

“I think that being nice is the most important thing in the world,” Segel tells me with a wide grin. “I’m going to use every chance I get to make the world a nicer place.” He lets out a big belly laugh. “That said, my character in Knocked Up is a sleaze. And the guy I play in I Love You, Man, f***s chicks a lot and talks about it. I guess my Muppets character is nice, but you know, it’s a kids’ movie. I’m not going to be a sleazy guy in The Muppets.”

We meet in a London hotel at the end of a long day of Press. Segel has been up since 5am, not that it shows. He is full of energy and good manners, offering to help me when I struggle to open a bottle of water, then laughing his head off when he can’t manage it either. He is handsome in a friendly, beardy way and a big bear of a man at 6ft 4 inches. After the interview he insists on an embrace instead of a handshake and half squeezes me to death. “Let’s hug it out,” he chuckles, which is just the sort of thing one of his characters would say.

In fact, it’s hard to tell where Segel starts and his characters, often written by him, end. “I write every part as though I’m going to play it,” he admits. There is something very artless about him on and off screen too. “Process is not how I operate, apart from bringing a picture of Peter Sellers to every set,” he says. “When they say it’s time to act, I just do a face that matches the words.” He laughs. “I’m giving away my secrets here.”

After the interview I spot him sitting on a wall outside the hotel with a beer and a cigarette. He waves at me enthusiastically from his perch. It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a major player in Hollywood comedy whose films gross millions, who lives in an LA mansion so close to the Chateau Marmont that he can (and does) order room service, and who is dating the Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams.

“I refuse to think of any of that Hollywood stuff,” he says. “I don’t look at myself on the internet. I just try to live my life as normally as possible. I take pride in being nice to my friends and family and doing the right thing. And you know what else? That so far I’ve been able to do all this without indulging in any mean-spirited humour.”

Ah, yes, the humour. Segel is a key player in the Judd Apatow comedy stable, alongside the likes of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill. The films, such as Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall – which Segel wrote as well as starred in – and Bridesmaids are global box-office hits that have been credited with the resurgence in American comedy in the same way that John Hughes’ films were in the 1980s. The Apatow house style, depending on who you’re talking to, is whip-smart, grown-up, and subversive, or the kind of immature misogyny that’s squarely aimed at testosterone-fuelled frat boys.

Segel seems shocked by this interpretation. “I think the movies I do with Nick [Stoller, director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets and The Five-Year Engagement] are the opposite of that,” he says, looking upset. “I actually haven’t heard those criticisms. I’ve heard quite the opposite, that our movies celebrate female characters. I would love to hear of any group making films that have better parts for women. You know, these are the people who made Bridesmaids. I take more umbrage against movies that disrespect their audience by not having a plot.”

He does think that romcoms are, by and large, dreadful. “The lowest common-denominator romcom still exists,” he notes. “You know, the one where a 25-year-old girl is a head doctor at a hospital and some kid off a Nickelodeon show is the lawyer whiz. I feel condescended to by that.”

Step forward The Five-Year Engagement, a romcom that starts where most end: with an “I do”. The rest of the film is, unusually for the genre, about the ordinary trials and tribulations of a loving relationship. With a multitude of jokes about body parts, obviously. “I loathe the typical wave of romantic comedies,” he says. “They throw together two viable Hollywood actors who have had successful movies the year before but are strangers. Emily [Blunt] and I have been good friends for years, I felt like having a real palpable history between us was important so I wrote the role for her. It gives the audience a reason to root for us. And I wanted to hark back to romcoms like Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally where the problem wasn’t some fake obstacle. It was just circumstances and being in the world together.”

Segel grew up in the wealthy Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. His father was a lawyer, his mother a housewife “and comedy dork”. By the time he was 15 he was making short films on his computer using puppets as a makeshift cast. Then in high school he memorised a 20-page monologue from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and put on a play. What came next could only have happened in LA. “This woman was thinking of sending her kid to my school and happened to come check out the theatre department that night,” he says. “She turned out to be president of casting at Paramount. Next thing I knew I was an actor.”

He seems embarrassed that it happened so easily. “I’m good at what I do but there is no way of getting around luck,” he admits. “The best actor in the world is stuck in a little town with bills to pay. That’s why I never get arrogant about this stuff. I had so much opportunity. There are better actors than me, and better writers. But I work really hard.”

His break came in 1999 when he joined the cast of cult US comedy series Freaks and Geeks, created by Apatow and Paul Feig (who directed Bridesmaids). What did Apatow, the one who encouraged Segel to start writing, see in him? “I have no shame,” he says. “That’s very valuable with his style of comedy. Modesty aside, I’m pretty smart. I think you just have to have funny bones and be natural. But I would do anything as long as it’s in good taste …” He pauses. “No, that’s not right. As long as it’s not mean.”

He is probably most famous for the opening scene of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which he remains hilariously and full-frontally naked while his girlfriend breaks up with him. This actually happened to Segel with an ex. Even in the moment, he was thinking it would make comedy gold.

“I find vulnerability very funny,” he says. “I think the only time I ever feel really vulnerable is when I’m in love. This is a person who knows more about you than anyone else in the world and they have the ammunition to slaughter you.”

It was Segel’s lifelong love of the Muppets that led him to make an audacious pitch for a film to Disney. And his love of comedy, puppets, and niceness continues to pay off. “Muppets never get laughs by making fun of people,” he says, becoming serious. “There’s a whole generation who didn’t grow up with the Muppets and these kids are becoming assholes.” I laugh but for once Segel doesn’t. “Look at all the bullying out there,” he says, stretching his giant frame out across the sofa so that it looks like a piece of dollhouse furniture.

“It’s because of so-called humour making fun of people. The Muppets were always cool, dangerous and hilarious. But they were always nice too.”