How did Jason Segel, the most laid-back man in Hollywood, become one of its greatest assets, asks ShortList’s Jonathan Crocker
There was once a time when we got up late, wore the same hoodie for three days solid and ate out of tins. Then, we got proper jobs, learned the value of ironing and left that life behind. Unlike Jason Segel. Segel plays the lovable slacker so well that he’s regularly required to revisit his slovenly youth. But an idle loafer he is not. Film star, comedian, screenwriter, songwriter, musician, puppeteer; he wrote his own hit rom-com in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and sang The Muppets to Oscar glory. Now, the 32-year-old is back as the lead in indie comedy Jeff, Who Lives At Home, who’s on the hunt to find his destiny. Say hello to the nicest and the hardest-working man in Hollywood…
You’ve played slackers in Knocked Up, I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Are you like that in real life?
I was in my early twenties. Then I decided to become a man. In Jeff, Who Lives At Home, my character believes that he has a purpose. And he’s going to sit there and wait until it happens. I don’t believe that’s how the world works. I think you make your own destiny.
Did something happen to make you have that epiphany?
I just realised that if I kept waiting, I was going to be waiting forever. You know what happens around 25? You reach this moment where you realise you’re no longer a prodigy. No one is going to congratulate you on doing sh*t. You’re just an adult living in the world. I think that’s actually a sad moment but a very empowering one.
Were you anything like your character in Judd Apatow’s Freaks & Geeks when you were young?
You can’t tell now because I look so manly, but when I was young I looked a little bit like a girl. I had hair down to my shoulders. People kept telling me I was a beautiful little girl. I was picked on quite a bit. I was a weird little kid.
Were you the funny kid in class?
No, I wasn’t a comedian. I think what happened was, at one point, I got really into comedy and I started to realise it was an art form. I bought a record player and I accumulated a collection of records of different comedy styles dating back to the Thirties. And I studied them. Now I have a million styles at my disposal.
So, would you say there’s a craft to being funny?
It’s sort of interesting when you see someone who’s like, “Oh, I’ll just try to be funny.” And then there are other people, such as Chris Rock, for example. He makes it look so natural, but that guy knows comedy. You can bring up a Thirties comedian and he will say a joke. There’s an art to it and there’s studying, just like any other skill.
Who’s the funniest guy in the Judd Apatow gang?
I’ve never seen someone as naturally funny as Jonah Hill. It’s unbelievable. The pop-culture awareness and how quick he is — it’s unprecedented. When you’re around Jonah, it’s remarkable. He’s lapping me. Three years younger and running circles round me.
You used to live in the UK. Do you miss it?
I miss the weather. I look so much better in several layers than I do in a T-shirt.
What’s your favourite place in London?
A pub called the Duke Of Kendal, near Connaught Square. Every Sunday, they do the Second World War singalong. An old woman who played the troops off during the Second World War — I think her name is Rose — plays the piano and a gathering of 80 to 90-year-old people start singing torch songs. I saw my parents dance there for the first time together. It was adorable. Dude, you should go.
Do you sing?
Everybody sings. They sing songs like ‘You Can Feel My Cabbages And Pinch My Brussels Sprouts’.
Susan Sarandon plays your mum in Jeff, Who Lives At Home. How did you find that?
The biggest struggle was not looking like I was wildly attracted to my mother. That’s the only acting I had to do.
Do you ever get star struck?
Yeah, I’m not good around celebrities. I met Barack Obama recently. He walked in and said, “Hey. I love you, man.” And I said, “Thanks. I love you too, Mr President.” It got worse. He was like, “I hear you’re doing a screening of your movie in Georgetown…” And I was like, “Yeah, you should come. There’ll be free snacks.” It was the most awkward exchange of all time.
Did he come along?
No! He said, “Yeah, that’s my big problem. I can’t get free snacks.”
Do you find that fans of your films shout quotes at you in the street?
Paul Rudd gets “Slappa da bass”.I get, “Hey, it’s Sarah Marshall — show your dick!” Super-awkward when you’re with your parents.
Is it weird to think that showing your penis on screen might be a more defining moment in your career than your work on The Muppets?
That was a very specific choice and it wasn’t for shock value. That scene is meant to be dramatic, but you’re watching a comedy. If there was no nudity in that scene, it’s a drama scene. But I thought, “Any time it feels a little too intense, let’s just cut to my penis.”
If you could play a musician in a biopic, who would it be?
Tom Waits. There’s a picture of him in a studio apartment, playing the piano, surrounded by guitars. His single bed. Cans of baked beans, empty cigarette packets… It’s just a dude doing what he does before he’s famous. It reminds me so much of me living in my one-bedroom apartment making films of puppets. Me and Seth Rogen writing dumb short films we hoped would get made. The thing that inspires me is people before they’re famous. When you’re the only person who believes in you.
If you played in a Hollywood super-group, who else would be in it?
Ed Helms. He’s wildly talented. Steve Martin, great at the banjo. And the Coen brothers, who love to strum the guitar.
So who plays what?
Ed on banjo. Steve Martin on second banjo. And then I’d play third banjo. And then I’d have the Coen brothers on fourth and fifth banjo.
What are you guys called?
Jeff, Who Lives At Home is at cinemas nationwide from 11 May