It all began innocently enough. At the end of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, actor-scribe Jason Segel inserted a Dracula puppet musical as both a touching coda to his witty comedy and a good excuse to showcase a longtime passion.
Segel had persuaded Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create the puppets to help stage his mini-tribute. But when Segel asked if he could meet Kermit and Miss Piggy, he learned that his old friends had been sold to Disney!
“I just got a little fire in my belly,” Jason Segel recalls. “The Muppets are such a great group of characters. I just couldn’t stand the thought of it going fallow. I went to Disney and pitched the idea of a Muppet movie.”
So began the next chapter in the charmed life of the 31-year-old Los Angeles native—and the resurrection of Henson’s internationally beloved pantheon. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” admits Segel.
Looking back at a biography that suggests a carefree, almost inadvertent tilt toward good fortune, Segel’s leap of faith is fitting. Jason Segel’s acting career began in high school, where he staged a play just to see if he could memorize an unusually long monologue. As luck would have it, there was a studio executive in the audience who liked Segel’s performance and landed him an agent. What came next was a decade-long, slow-but-steady climb as both actor and writer (his first screenplay, though unproduced, actually sold), culminating in the breakthrough success of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
But all this success did not come without application or forethought. Encouraged by Judd Apatow to write for himself rather than wait for Hollywood to come knocking, Jason Segel has not been sitting on his hands.
In an interview with MM, Segel breaks down—in his own disarming, understated fashion—the whys and wherefores of his charmed life.
Phillip Williams (MM): You’ve become a very successful actor, but just as successful a screenwriter. What’s your secret?
Jason Segel (JS): Judd Apatow gave me some great advice when I was writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He said, “Make your first draft a drama. Put the comedy in later.” Because you lose interest quickly if it’s all fart jokes.
MM: You really just sat down and wrote a drama, putting all thoughts of comedy aside?
JS: You know, Judd knew exactly what he was doing, and I understood this as soon as I started writing. Because my tone naturally leans toward comedy, so that just came through. But keeping focused on the heart and drama in the relationships helped me to create something that people would presumably want to watch.
MM: What is your writing process?
JS: I try to go someplace that evokes a sense of the story I’m trying to tell. That’s why I wrote Sarah Marshall in Hawaii. I wrote The Muppets in London just because, to me, London feels very “Muppety.” (laughs)
MM: Once you have a place to write, do you just sit down every day and write for four hours or whatever?
JS: It’s more when I feel inspired. I don’t stick to an exact schedule and that’s, to some degree, why I go someplace specific to write. It helps to keep me focused and inspired; it reminds me that I am in this particular place to accomplish something. I also put on a suit to write. It’s a bit strange, I know, but it helps me feel like I’m going to work, like ‘This is my time to write.’
MM: What’s your approach to keeping it fun and productive while you collaborate?
JS: [The Muppets co-writer] Nick Stoller and I met [when he directed] Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and it was a real meeting of the minds from the get-go; we just clicked… I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to work with directors I trust.
MM: Where did James Bobin come into the picture? How did he end up directing The Muppets?
JS: We were meeting with potential directors and James’ background—the work he had done with “The Flight of the Conchords,” for example—just seemed like a natural fit. The tone of “Conchords,” strangely enough, is actually a lot like The Muppets. It’s about two wide-eyed innocents making their way through the big, bad world, so to speak. They are never mean to anyone, they are full of good intentions.
MM: I can see how it’s helpful for you to have someone else take the reins when you are acting. But as a writer, how do you give it away to the director? What’s your protocol for collaborating on something you’ve written?
JS: Part of it is working with people you trust, but also choosing to trust them to do their thing. That’s another thing that Judd used to encourage us to do: Trust people to do their work.
MM: As an actor, how is it different for you to be performing a script that you’ve written as opposed to something that comes from another writer?
JS: The only risk [with your own script] is being a little too comfortable with the material. You just have to be aware of that. Of course, having the input and influence of the director helps shake that up a bit. Having said that, if I wrote it, then I know it. There’s no real guesswork as to where the character is coming from. But as an actor, I’m not very complicated to deal with anyway. I don’t come to the director with questions about my character’s motivation. If the character is happy, I make a happy face. If the character is sad, I make a sad face. That’s my full acting technique. (laughs)
MM: When you are writing, how do you sculpt a character?
JS: I find people’s flaws interesting, so that’s what I focus on. Once I get a sense of that, I’m on my way.
MM: It sounds like work is mostly fun for you. Do you ever crack a sweat?
JS: It’s a very strange and somewhat complicated answer but essentially, yes. I do sometimes crack a sweat, but I love the work so much that I don’t mind.
Just recently I was shooting a film and doing [“How I Met Your Mother”] at the same time. I almost couldn’t make it work in my schedule—I ended up working seven-day weeks—but I just love it so much that I didn’t mind. There were days when I would shoot at night on the feature then drive directly to the set to shoot for TV; most of my days ended up being about 30 hours long. It was insane, but I really didn’t mind because I was having so much fun. It was like I was in the trenches or something.
MM: It seems like one of your main talents is that you are willing to just go for it; that you don’t bring a lot of unnecessary drama to the table.
JS: I think the main thing is that I’m not afraid. I didn’t really fit in early on at school; I was a Jewish kid in a Catholic school and, for a while, I wasn’t sure where I belonged. I got picked on a lot. I think you make a choice to either buckle or relish your role as the outsider. Ultimately, I learned to not care about what other people think.
I don’t mind failing at something; it makes me able to enjoy the ride. There are plenty of parts that I haven’t gotten and screenplays I’ve written that haven’t sold, but that never discourages me. As an actor or writer, you have to make your own opportunities.
MM: What do you do outside of work?
JS: I’ve kind of turned my hobbies into my job, so I really don’t do much outside of work. What I do for a living is what I do for fun.
MM: Sounds pretty good.
JS: It’s great. I hang out in my house and play piano. I play with puppets. There was a period before I started to break in where I was just this weird guy hanging out alone playing with puppets…
MM: Unemployed with Muppets…
JS: Yes! But at least now I’m able to say I get paid for it!
MM: What about your personal life?
JS: I’m a single dude hopping around.
MM: Do you seeing yourself getting married or settling down at some point?
JS: If I met someone who I wanted to be with, that would be great. But I don’t feel like I have to be in a relationship.
MM: You’re okay kicking around your house by yourself?
JS: Well, I’ve got my puppets! MM