It can be a stellar moment when an admired comedic actor chooses to play powerful drama totally straight.
“Splash” and “Big” made Tom Hanks widely famous, but as an AIDS victim in “Philadelphia,” he conveyed deep vulnerability with Oscar-winning effect. As a lovelorn romantic in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jim Carrey delivered his career’s most expressive performance.
From the moment “The End of the Tour” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, viewers saw the richly complex film as a major turning point for Jason Segel. For years he had charmed TV and film audiences with his warmth and “aw-shucks” demeanor. Overnight, his soul-baring, critically acclaimed performance as late novelist David Foster Wallace has supercharged his career.
Bringing the multifaceted Wallace back to life was a challenge unlike any Segel had faced, but one he couldn’t resist.
“I’ve felt really, really lucky to be involved from the moment the script got sent to me,” he said by phone. “I also felt equal parts terrified.”
Directed by James Ponsoldt, “The End of the Tour” dramatizes the true story of David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter who for five days in 1996 interviewed Wallace. A writer’s writer, Wallace was the rising star author of “Infinite Jest,” considered one of the era’s great American novels. The 1,000-page book, and the novelist promoting it on a Midwest tour, were just beginning to capture national attention.
Wallace’s work was his attempt to explain the sadness he saw among the Gen Xers around him. In his conversations with the slightly jealous reporter (played with prickly sincerity by Jesse Eisenberg), he admitted to feeling lost and lonely himself. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at age 46, 12 years after the sparring two-man road trip dramatized in the film.
Segel, who wrote as well as starred in the hit comedies “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Muppets,” called the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies “genius.”
“It’s not a movie about giant plot movements,” he said. “The plot is forwarded by very nuanced character developments.”
In the hands of a director less skilled than Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) it could have been a film about “two guys talking to each other. Now it’s about one person who gets everything he wished for and finds out that you still feel the same. For the other it’s about meeting a person who is exactly where you want to be and having them tell you ‘Be careful what you wish for.’” Segel feels that acting as creative rivals with Eisenberg was ideal casting. At 34 and 30 they were identical to the men in age.
“You spend a lot of time internally thinking ‘I would love to try this kind of stuff.’ All of a sudden, getting that wish, you’re coming face to face with the question of whether you were being delusional,” he said with a laugh. “I went in scared, and at Sundance I left so proud.”
Ponsoldt said his interest in the project came from his personal investment in the subject matter as “a Wallace obsessive,” and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back.” “It was very important that this not be ‘My Dinner With Andre’ on wheels, two smart guys being smart with each other. I thought there was real emotion in it.”
As in the nonfiction Dylan film, “you have this young, brilliant guy. The world is collectively blowing smoke up his you know what, and he’s dealing with it, having very complicated reactions to fame. He’s not always pleasant. He’s a very complicated guy in the eye of the storm. I have an allergic reaction to cradle-to-the-grave biopics. This is a very subjective take on how one man was affected by his limited time with another more famous man.”
While Eisenberg showed in “The Social Network” how deeply he could dive into drama, it was new territory to Segel. Ponsoldt thanks casting director Avy Kaufman, whose credits include “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lincoln,” for examining “every actor under the sun for brilliance, sadness, sensitivity, humor. Because Jason was on a sitcom for nine years, I think people make a limiting and false assumption about him. When I spent time with him I was just utterly convinced he’s this guy.”
About a quarter of “The End of the Tour” takes place during the duo’s trip to the Twin Cities area, where they kill time at the Mall of America.
“That was one of the best experiences in the filming,” Segel said. “We were in the dead of winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, negative 15 degrees most of the shooting. All of a sudden we got what felt like a field trip. We hopped a plane and went to the Mall of America. This is a small-budget movie. Time is a big commodity on a movie like this. And every single one of us took time out to ride the roller coasters. To go to the aquarium. To do all of the things that the mall had to offer.
“I wish we got to see more of the city itself, but let me tell you we had a blast.”
Although there are many fans with happy memories of Segel’s work in light entertainment, he said that is not a slot he aspires to revisit soon.
“My goal, having spent a long time paying my dues by working really hard in comedy for 10 years, is having the freedom to explore things that scare me,” he said. “I want to do movies that when you walk out of them, they start a conversation.”