Jason Segel has never been a conventional leading man. Nevertheless, he’s maintained a presence on both the small screen and big screen thanks to endearing roles in Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man. Last year, Segel became a household name—and a Muppet of a man—when he fulfilled his dream of bringing The Muppets back. Now he returns to decidedly less kid-friendly entertainment in his latest Judd Apatow–produced film—The Five-Year Engagement, in theaters today. We recently caught up with Segel to reflect on his Muppets experiences, the common themes between his G-rated and R-rated work and where his values come from.
You also worked with Judd Apatow early in your career. How has he shaped your work?
I was interested in writing, but it was Judd who said the smartestthing to me. He said, “Write your own material and tailor it to yourself because you’re not a typical leading man.” That’s when I wrote Sarah Marshall and my career took a turn for the better.
Now the way it works, once you’ve proven you carry a film, people get excited about putting you in their movies. A small group of people getthat chance. Hollywood’s not the most innovative place, and once they’ve seen you can do it, they keep letting you.
Prior to The Muppets, your only other movie-writing credit was the hard-R comedy Marshall. So, how do you manage to swing between writing very R-rated comedies and family fare?
The tone for the film was well-defined in the first three Muppet movies from the ’70s and ’80s and The Muppet Show series. All we had to do was stay true to the tone set by Mr. Henson and [Muppet co-creator Frank] Oz.
The movies we write, even with cursing and nudity, tend to have an inherent sweetness [to them]. That’s built into Nick and I. There’s a tradeoff, in that you lose certain raunchy jokes but get puns and breaking the fourth wall, which you could never do in a regular movie.
What did you find to be most challenging about working with puppets in The Muppets?
The logistics of shooting with Muppets is difficult. Sets have to beelevated to hide the puppeteers. There were scenes written like having10 Muppets run full-frame out of a building, but then we had to figureout logistically how to make it happen.
Watching these puppeteers at work. They are absolute geniuses at the top of their game right now. They haven’t been making big-screen films but Internet videos and TVspecials. They were chomping at the bit for a movie opportunity, so when they got it, they really brought their A-game.
As you mentioned, even your R-rated films have an inherent sweetness. They also say a lot of rather wise and positive things about relationships, despite the raunchiness.
That’s what interests me. What hopefully separates our style of comedy is it’s not just joke upon joke, but there are underlying themes, and that’s what holds viewer interest for 120 minutes. You lose interest in one gag stretched over entire films. Our movies explore deeper themes.
Do those deeper themes extend to your newest film, The Five-Year Engagement?
I couldn’t be more proud of it. It’s about myself and Emily Blunt, and we’re engaged early in our relationship, then it follows what happens for five years of relationship. It’s about how much you sacrifice in a relationship for your partner’s happiness.
Where do you draw your sense of purpose from, and how do you manage to stay out of the tabloids in Hollywood?
I was raised in a mixed Jewish-Christian household with values, but they were more about being a good person in general. My mom said, “The way you carry yourself is a reflection of the job I did.”
The adult films are about what becomes important to you in life, which is my friends and loved ones and relationships. Money and fame goes away, but how you’re remembered as a person is what lasts and what matters.