Actor/writer/producer Jason Segel knows how to stay busy. It's slowing down that's a challenge. As a teenage member of Judd Apatow's comedy troupe, he starred in 1999's Emmy-nominated but short-lived high school comedy series "Freaks and Geeks" and the fine, even shorter-lived "Undeclared."
Following several years as a hard-to-cast, 6-foot-4 juvenile ("I was too tall to play Dustin Hoffman's son and too young to play a doctor"), he returned to TV in 2005 with "How I Met Your Mother," now in its seventh season on CBS. He wrote, starred, and went full-frontal for laughs in the hit "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which grossed more than $100 million and spawned a sequel, "Get Him to the Greek."
Segel also has starred in "I Love You, Man" and "Bad Teacher," voiced the villain in the animated feature "Despicable Me," then co-wrote, danced and sang in the Oscar-winner "The Muppets." He's currently in the indie comedy "Jeff Who Lives at Home" and next month stars as Emily Blunt's longtime fiancé in "The Five-Year Engagement."
Segel has forged an image of Jimmy Stewart wholesomeness and heart, with just enough eccentricity to keep things interesting. He plays the title character in "Jeff," an awkward, earnest pothead residing in his mom's basement. Segel said he had vaguely similar experiences in his early 20s when his acting work hit a lull.
Because he "didn't have a Plan B," he reinvented himself as a writer to stay afloat. Having learned early how transient show business success can be, he lived in the same one-bedroom L.A. apartment from age 18 to 30, buying his first house just two years ago.
"I'm still terrified it's going to end," he said. "There might be a moment when people say, 'We don't want you to act anymore.' But you can always sit alone and write." At 21, he sold his first script, a "Goonies"-style kids' adventure that was never filmed.
In the wake of his rising success, he has bought it back and intends to produce it. "The Monte Cristo part of me wants to make that a huge hit. The vindictive side of me wants to say, 'Watch this!'" He said that Apatow was acting out a similar revenge fantasy in turning Segal and his "Freaks and Geeks" co-stars Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill into movie stars.
As the drifty Jeff, Segel portrays a wide-eyed character who sees fate unfolding in the happenstance of everyday experiences. While that philosophy powers Jeff through a series of comic misadventures, Segel isn't buying it.
"You know when you look at the spinning blades of a fan and it seems you can look straight through them? That's your mind trying to make sense of what's going on. I think that's kind of what we do with life. We're trying to figure out what's happening and trying to ascribe some meaning to it, though we haven't a clue. And that's what Jeff is trying to do."
When Segel hears his performance described as funny yet a bit creepy, he responds, "Thank you. I think that's just who I am. I try to just be honest when I act, not do very much. I think the reality is that I'm somewhere between charming and creepy in real life. I try to err on the side of charming but it's right on the line most of the time."
That commitment to honesty was a quality that drew Segal to work on "Jeff" with indie icons Mark and Jay Duplass. The brothers mine humor from absurd situations that are observed with truthfulness and candor. "I hate watching someone know they're being funny [while] doing comedy. I hate actors feeling proud of themselves when they're acting. These guys really just want you to be calm and honest. It's a real ego challenge to do nothing. Every part of you wants to show that you're good. They just want you to be normal."
Segel said that at this point in his life, his driving ambition is not related to his career. "I have one goal, and it's to be nice in this world. I don't really care that I'm famous. I'm really happy that I'm successful and all that. But we're all going to die and all that's going to be left is whether you were nice or not. I'm pretty happy that if you ask people 'What do you think of Segel?' they'll say, 'He's pretty nice.'"