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Segel’s starry-eyed man-child amuses and moves us

by Naomi Pfefferman

March 15, 2012 | 3:06 pm

Actor Jason Segel poses at the premiere of "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" at the Directors Guild of America theatre in Los Angeles, California on March 7. Photo by REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Jason Segel folded his 6-foot-4-inch frame compactly onto a couch at the Four Seasons Hotel and placed his hand upon his chin. Quirky and thoughtful in conversation, the star and co-writer of such comic hits as “The Muppets” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” spoke eloquently on topics ranging from the works of Joseph Campbell to his own gothic mansion in the West Hollywood hills, where he lives surrounded by puppets and other artifacts that reveal his penchant for the macabre (think Edward Gorey and Tim Burton). 

On this sunny morning he’s wearing pinstriped suit pants, a checked button-down shirt and his curly hair is slicked practically straight up, giving him the appearance of a fetching Tim Burton character himself. His size comes up often: “I’m terrified of having kids; I’m afraid I’ll crush them like Lennie from “Of Mice and Men,’ ” he said. And of the 19th century gothic author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “Frankenstein is the most tragic of all the monsters,” he opined, shaking his head sadly. “He just wants Dr. Frankenstein to love him, and actually speaks very articulately in a beautiful monologue — very much like, ‘I didn’t ask for any of this.’ ”

Segel has used his own gentle-giant melancholy to comic advantage from his early career in the television shows of Judd Apatow to the more recent bromance “I Love You, Man.” It is perhaps even more effective in his latest turn, as the overgrown man-child at the heart of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” the comic drama by the independent film darlings Mark and Jay Duplass (“The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus”). 

The eponymous Jeff does live at home, specifically in his mother’s basement, where he looks for signs on TV and in random telephone calls that will lead him off the couch to find his destiny. When his exasperated mother (played with feisty aplomb by Susan Sarandon) finally gets him out of the house to pursue a mundane household errand, Jeff resolutely follows what he perceives as “signs” (others would say, coincidences) that lead him on a series of misadventures around town. Along the way, he gets mugged, hooks up with his tool of a brother (Ed Helms), embarks upon a mission to see whether his sister-in-law is having an affair, and crosses paths with family members in the strangest of circumstances and locales. In the end, he proves to one and all that sometimes being true to your convictions, odd as they seem, can pay off on a universal scale.

Segel, a Hollywood A-lister at 32, may seem far removed from Jeff and his basement, but the actor sees similarities. “He reminds me of me during my out-of-work period,” the actor said. “There was a time, from 21 to 25, when I was very much like Jeff: I was smoking a ton of pot, and I’d been on [TV’s] ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ but now I was just sitting there, without a college education, so I thought I was going to have to live with my parents for the rest of my life. And I was just waiting for the ‘sign,’ which for me would have been to be cast in a movie; I was going on auditions, but nobody cared, because I was this gangly kid who looked like Shaggy from ‘Scooby Doo.’ ”

A terrific depression ensued: “There’s a context now, because I made ‘The Muppets,’ but back then I was just the dude alone in a one-bedroom apartment playing with my puppets,” he said. I’d talk to them and stuff — what about, you don’t want to know — deep, deep, sad conversations.” Worse, Segel said, he was in the process of writing a musical about Dracula — “without a sense of irony.”

If the fictional Jeff’s victory is the moment when everyone realizes that his ideas, in fact, are not daft, Segel had such a moment when he turned his Dracula musical into the finale of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which was inspired by a true-life girlfriend who broke up with him while he was naked. The film made Segel a movie star. “But before it came out, I was terrified; I knew it had the weirdest ending to a movie of all time,” he said.

Nick Stoller has been Segel’s writing partner for years: “When you look in Jason’s eyes, he looks hurt, but he’s actually not a morose person,” Stoller said in a phone interview. “But he does have that quality where it’s hilarious to watch him suffer.”

Mark and Jay Duplass, who have lured movie stars such as Marisa Tomei to appear in their eccentric films, cast Segel as Jeff “because he has a magical quality that’s hard to find,” Mark said. His brother added, “Jason is a bit of a dreamer, a believer and an optimist. He has a childlike quality without an ounce of cynicism.”

Segel may be the most soulful of the Jewish comic-romantic leads, a list that also includes Ben Stiller and Paul Rudd, and for this he partly credits his childhood, which, like that of many comedians, had its share of strife. Segel’s father is Jewish, his mother is not, and while he was raised Jewish, he attended an Episcopal middle school, followed in the afternoons by Hebrew school at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

“At Hebrew school they told me I’m not Jewish, because my mother is Christian, and at Christian school I was the only Jewish student, so they didn’t like me,” he recalled. “It was kids standing around me in a circle, jumping on my back and chanting, ‘Ride the oaf!’ ”

Then there was the matter of Segel’s bar mitzvah invitations: “I got called into the principal’s office, like I’d done something wrong, and he said, ‘Everyone is very excited about your little party, but they don’t know what a bar mitzvah is. Would you mind getting up in front of the school and explaining?” he recalled. “So there I was, standing in front of the assembly, voice cracking, puberty-ridden Jason Segel, croaking, ‘On Saturday, I become a man’ — and it literally direct-cut afterwards to me getting punched in the face.”

“It’s all right,” he added, when his interviewer looked shocked. “I’m no longer scared of being punched in the face.” The rejection on all sides caused him to realize, “This is not God speaking here,” and that came in handy when he had to man-up during that out-of-work period, and led to the decision that the only way a weird guy like him was going to get acting work was to write scripts for himself. He found a blueprint for how to structure screenplays in Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” which posits that people are wired in a certain way to receive stories: “The hero must fail before he succeeds,” Segel said, by way of example.

His character will do just that — multiple times — in Segel’s next screenplay and starring vehicle, “The Five-Year Engagement,” which opens in April, in which he and Emily Blunt play a couple whose relationship is taxed when their nuptials are postponed. “I’m probably the least masculine man in Hollywood; I’m super interested in relationships,” he explained of the impetus for the film.

As he often does, Segel portrays a character who is nominally Jewish, and the interfaith clash with his fiancee makes for at least one hilarious moment, where his character’s family insists the men wear yarmulkes to the wedding. “You don’t even own a yarmulke,” Blunt protests, as Segel sheepishly replies, “It’s in my Jewish drawer.”

“I definitely have a Jewish drawer with my tallis and stuff in it, which I usually open once a year on the High Holidays,” he said. “But in terms of organized religion, I think the notion of ‘I know better than everyone else’ is wildly arrogant. I will just raise my own kids to be nice.” 

And with that he high-fives a reporter, shouting after her to “read ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces.’ It will rock your world.”

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” opened March 16.

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