For a while there the David Foster Wallace movie seemed cursed. Not only had it drawn the wrath of Wallace’s estate and his widow, but the casting of Jason Segel in the lead role — surely a stunt, Wallace’s fans said — had also unleashed howl after incredulous howl.
Wallace, who shot to literary fame for the voluminous 1996 novel Infinite Jest and hanged himself in 2008, was known for writing hyperintricate fiction and nonfiction.
Segel, a Judd Apatow protégé, built a career out of deploying his hangdog countenance and aw-shucks manner to maximum comic effect, in the television series Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother, and films like Sex Tape and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he wrote, starred in and graced with multiple shots of his family jewels.
But late in 2013, Segel was sent the script for The End of the Tour, an adaptation of journalist David Lipsky’s book recounting five days spent with Wallace during the promotion of Infinite Jest. Paging through the screenplay, Segel felt a rush of recognition. He was about to turn 34, the age Wallace had been at the time, and had also achieved success but was struggling with the question of what exactly to do next. That it was such a U-turn from Segel’s regular fare made the part only more tantalizing: Segel was ravenous for change.
“I knew I was going to try it, immediately,” Segel said in an interview in the lounge of Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel. “When you start repeating yourself, it gets boring for everybody.”
Segel is as affable and endearing a presence as his on-screen characters suggest. He is also 6-foot-4 and, not wanting to seem intimidating, adopted the softhearted goofball act years ago, shrinking down, he said, “both metaphorically and physically.” Wallace was also a big guy, but playing him would be, for Segel, at long last a stretch. “I was terrified, of course,” Segel said.
Late in January, the film had its premiere at Sundance. Segel’s performance — empathetic, nuanced, whip smart — left the packed theater breathless. And Twitter haters ended up eating crow.
James Ponsoldt, who directed the film, said he had anticipated that reaction ever since production began. “We all felt we had this secret treasure,” he said.
A devoted David Foster Wallace fan himself, Ponsoldt said he knew within minutes of meeting Segel that he was the one. “He’s a really complicated guy, who’s only begun to reveal his real potential as an actor,” Ponsoldt said. “It’s like with Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Jamie Foxx. A lot of our favorite actors were put in a box before they destroyed that box.”
To play Wallace, Segel said he worked to strip away any vanity or hint of pretense or self-satisfaction, and strived to be as honest and empathetic as he could be. Infinite Jest, he said, ended up being the biggest influence on how he played the role.
“It felt like an SOS, saying, ‘Does anyone else feel this way?’” Segel said, “That there’s something about the American promise that X, Y and Z are going to satisfy this itch that you’re not enough, that a whole generation found to be a false promise. No achievement or pleasure or entertainment or consuming is going to be the thing that makes you feel like everything’s OK. And it really hit home with me. Because you really are still you when you go back home at night. No matter what award you’ve gotten or how much money is in your bank account, you feel the same going to sleep.”
That said, Segel admitted to feeling pretty good that his performance and the film have drawn such praise: He was able to show himself and most everyone that his departure from comedy has real legs. He also said he was still exploring what do next. While playing the role helped scratch his own itch for deeper, darker roles, it still left him hungering, he said, for infinitely more.
The New York Times