In spite of his instant recognizability, Jason Segel has played a surprising variety of characters over the past several years: from "Freaks and Geeks’" lovelorn disco dancer to Knocked Up’s sophomoric lothario to I Love You, Man’s bachelor big brother, Segel can be alternately heartbreaking, sleazy, gregarious, or even creepy. In Bad Teacher, he brings all of those qualities together as Russell, a disenfranchised gym teacher who sets his sights on winning the attention of a comely, calculating substitute teacher, played by Cameron Diaz. Movies caught up with Segel earlier this week via telephone to discuss the process of developing a guy in Russell who’s not really good, but he’s still somehow the right one to romance Diaz’s Elizabeth. Additionally, Segel offered a few insights into his approach to his forthcoming Muppets film, and reflected on the variety of characters and creative opportunities he’s enjoyed over the past decade.
Movies.com: This movie has to kind of reverse-engineer the audience’s sympathies. How well was your character defined as a guy who’s right for Elizabeth specifically because he’s less nice than Justin’s character Scott?
Jason Segel: Well, I think the goal of Justin’s character was that he was superficially the right choice, but he wasn’t necessarily right for her, and while my character wasn’t a superficial match for Cameron, that ultimately they got along and he brought out the best in her. And that’s part of the lesson she had to learn, to not be so superficial. But what was easy about shooting was that I basically in real life totally just hit on Cameron and she totally dismissed me, so I got to do the exact same thing as the character. Our chemistry was pretty much the same off screen that it was on screen – I kept coming at her, and she had zero interest (laughs).
Movies.com: Are you in real life as resilient as your character, or are you more easily rebuffed?
Segel: No, I’m not easily rebuffed. I don’t really have any sense of shame or pride, so I’m not fazed very easily.
Movies.com: When you came onto the film, what was the initial impression you had about the character? Particularly since this film stays really true to its black-comedy tone.
Segel: It started with Jake Kasdan, the director, who I’ve known since my Freaks and Geeks days, so it’s coming up on 15 years. He called me and said he had a role that he thought I would do well in opposite Cameron, and I read the part and I liked that while superficially he wasn’t right for her, he brought out the best in her, and if there is any redeeming quality in her character, it’s that she sees that and ultimately makes that decision. But one of the things they were able to do because of how intrinsically likeable Cameron is is they were able to be unapologetic. Because for some reason you knew that she wasn’t a bad person; she may be behaving badly, but just because of the way Cameron is, I think you trusted that there was something good underneath.
Movies.com: How much of his reactions and interactions were fully scripted, and how much were you able to improvise? His incredulous reactions to the description of Scott and Amy going for a ride without taking any maps, for example, had me in stitches.
Segel: A lot of that was honestly playing off of Justin’s performance. He came in with a very strong character choice, and I don’t like talking about my characters in the third person like this, but that would be Russell’s reaction to a guy like that. It was actually very, very easy.
Also, the scene between the three of them at the museum was really funny, but it’s also very important in establishing how wrong Justin’s character is for Elizabeth.
That was a mix of Jake and I. Jake and I are a good team comedically, and once we saw what Justin was doing with that character, it was very easy for us both to make fun of it, because we hate that kind of dude. We hate that guy who waffles on an opinion, and doesn’t really have a strong point of view. So we really just made fun of all of the people who are like that in our lives.
Movies.com: How do you think about a movie that suggests these people are so wholesome and goody-two-shoes that they’re less likeable than a person who’s transparently calculating? How easy as an actor and a filmmaker to find the right balance?
Segel: I mean, it is tricky because in a conventional sense, the Lucy Punch character should be the hero. I mean, she’s the one who’s trying to do the right thing. But I go back to how likeable Cameron is – there’s something about her that makes you root for her to succeed. And I think there’s something about how honest my character Russell is that’s making you root for him. Because I’ll tell you – you’ll accept a jerk if they’re at least honest about it. At least you know what you’re getting. It’s duplicity which is the least attractive.
Movies.com: The character you play in Knocked Up isn’t exactly like Russell, but they’re in the same wheelhouse. Do you prefer characters like these as opposed to more conventionally wholesome ones like the guy you played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall?
Segel: I like them all. I really like playing characters and I like mixing it up. This one does feel kind of close to the Knocked Up character – at least like you said in the same wheelhouse – but I like it all. I loved the Sarah Marshall character, and I love this guy. This guy comes really easily because he’s just honest to the point of absurdity – he doesn’t hide it at all – and I’m drawn to that idea. But the really earnest guy, I like playing that as well.
Movies.com: How have you tried to dually develop your writing and producing efforts alongside your acting projects?
Segel: I much prefer the writer-producer role, just because I like having some amount of creative control. Something like this is very fun because I pop in and out, and like I’ve said, I think it was ten days total of shooting for me. But I like having control of the material and control of the editing, because if it turns out to be something I don’t like, I can blame myself. And also for a part like the Sarah Marshall role, I wasn’t going to get cast in that part unless I wrote it – I wasn’t famous enough. So part of it too is a necessity it the mother of invention kind of thing, where if I want to play a certain type of role, I tend to just go ahead and write it instead of waiting to compete against four other actors for it.
Movies.com: Having now created a wider variety of opportunities for yourself, what sort of criteria do you have for choosing roles?
Segel: The stuff that I want to do, if this makes any sense, is stuff that scares me; I don’t like to walk into a situation knowing how to do it, and knowing that I can do it. There’s something about wondering if I’m going to be able to pull something off that brings out the best in me – I’m being challenged. So I try to keep it mixed up, and the next few movies I have coming out are all pretty different, so I’m excited about that idea. But I’ve always loved the old-style character actors, the Gary Oldmans.
Movies.com: Gary Oldman has been able to do an amazing variety of roles, many of them dramatic. Is that something you particularly want to try or move into?
Segel: That stuff is very appealing, but the thing that’s tricky us you have to make a slower transition from comedy into drama, because a dramatic actor does a comedy, people are pleasantly surprised at how funny they are. But when a comedic actor does a drama, people are a little annoyed that it wasn’t funny (laughs). It’s really true! So you have to make a slow transition from comedy to drama so that people aren’t walking in expecting a broad comedy and getting something serious.
Movies.com: With Muppets coming up, the studio has been really smart about creating these different trailers to reintroduce them to the world. How do you feel about the marketing materials focusing on you and Amy as opposed to just the Muppets themselves?
Segel: Well, there is no doubt that the Muppets are the star of that movie, which was our goal the whole time. But like you said, I do think they had to be reintroduced to some extent, and the past few Muppet movies weren’t particularly successful. So there is some element of needing to reintroduce the Muppets and also give people some assurance that they’re being reapproached, and that with good people like Amy and Chris Cooper involved, it’s sort of I don’t want to say gravitas, but you know there must be some reason that Academy Award nominees and winners are in the movie, you know?
Movies.com: Did you have to be careful in the reinvention or reintroduction of the Muppets? Because it seems like you have the option of going straight back to their original incarnation, or deconstructing them a little bit.
Segel: To be honest, there are some slight modern touches, but we really tried to stay true to the late ‘70s – early ‘80s tone of the Muppets. That was my whole goal – those were the Muppets that I grew up with – and that meant so much to me comedically that we wanted to reintroduce those Muppets to a new generation.
Movies.com: With this coming on the heels of Bridesmaids, how does it feel to be part of a wave of comedies being made by "Freaks and Geeks" alumni?
Segel: Well, it’s very, very cool, and it’s all thanks to Judd Apatow, in my opinion. We’ve all stayed very close and I think we all have a real mutual admiration society going on with each other. We read each other’s scripts and all of that stuff.
Movies.com: There’s also the connective tissue of these two films both featuring female protagonists at the center of their stories.
Segel: Yeah, I think that means it’s time for me to do Tootsie. No, but it’s due time – there are so many great women out there between Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler that it’s more than time.
Movies.com: What is next on the horizon for you?
Segel: I’m doing a movie now called 5-Year Engagement with Nick Stoller, which is also sort of under the Judd banner, and then I’m going to do a little part in Judd’s new movie, and then I go back to the TV show for the seventh season, which is very exciting. And I’m in a movie called Jeff Who Lives At Home, which is a movie with the Duplass brothers that’s coming out some time in the near future. So I’ve got a lot on my plate.
Movies.com: How do you distinguish film acting from working on a TV show? It seems like you kind of have to get it right once on a movie, but you can refine a character of many years on TV.
Segel: Well, they’re very different processes. Going into the seventh season of a TV show, yeah, the characters do evolve, and also you get to explore them in a very long-term sort of way. But movies, there’s an intense focus about them because it’s three months of playing a character and you know it’s going to end, and it’s a very insular experience in that you’re with your cast and crew, often on location, and you’re just very focused on this one thing. Whereas a TV show becomes almost a lifestyle; it’s eight months out of the year for eight years, so it’s just a very different feeling.
Movies.com: Do you have a preference between those two disciplines?
Segel: Well, I feel incredibly lucky for the TV shows; they’ve been so good to me, and there’s some consistency to it. And I also enjoy writing and producing the movies, so I must say I feel pretty equal about them.