Sunday, February 25, 2018
Movies

Funny-but-melancholy 'Jeff' offers challenges and a detour for actor Jason Segel

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

His fans get a different Jason Segel in the indie dramedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Still funny but in a melancholy way, playing a slacker gleaning the secret of life from M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs, yet failing to live it.

It's a delicate change of pace from raunchy comedies like Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And it certainly isn't The Muppets, or even Segel's sitcom hit How I Met Your Mother.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, who performed a similar image makeover on Jonah Hill in 2011's Cyrus. Which seemed like a good place to begin the conversation when Segel called the Times:

Quite a detour with this movie. Why take it with the Duplass brothers?

I saw Cyrus and knew their goal is to extract the best from actors, things they don't even know they're capable of. I mean, Jonah Hill in Cyrus is a slaughter. I really felt that I would love these guys to bring out the best in me.

How do they do it?

It's a very quiet, very private challenge. They turn the camera on, point it at you and don't cut, maybe for 40 minutes. You end up feeling like: "Well, you claim you're an actor. Let's see." All of a sudden you realize you need to fill this time. What comes is honesty. That's what they're really searching for. They're not going to be heavy-handed about it, or assert that they're talented. They achieve everything they want like assassins, without you even knowing it.

Jeff's philosophy springs from the movie Signs. What movies shaped you?

Being There meant a lot to me. Harold & Maude. (Director) Hal Ashby hit a very particular tone, like Tim Burton doing a Wes Anderson movie. As an actor, those movies taught me it's okay to be calm. You don't have to show off, or keep proving you're a good actor. Playing Jeff, the biggest challenge was that he just watches, and every part of you wants to act so bad.

Have you spoken with Walter since Man or Muppet? won a best song Oscar?

We shared a nice email that we are Academy Award winners by association.

Any disappointment that you didn't perform on the show?

(Whispers) Between us, there's a tiny bit of relief, like, what if I'd (messed) up? Of course I wanted to perform, but what if I blew it? I'd be so embarrassed with Meryl Streep and George Clooney laughing at me.

You aren't scripting the Muppets sequel. Would you co-star with them again?

(My character) Gary left. There's no reason to fit a square peg into a round hole. Don't force me in. What was great about bringing back the Muppets was that the story made so much sense. And I would like them to keep making sense. It's totally amicable. I just want a little puppet break, to pursue some human-related projects.

Like what?

Maybe I'll just take a couple months off and just write for pleasure. I haven't done that in a long time. I did four movies last year, wrote two of them and do a full-time TV show. That's a lot of work.

I'm 32, relatively wealthy, and I haven't seen Paris. This is getting dumb. This industry is so fickle that you're terrified if you take a break they'll forget you. I'm all right for a minute.

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.

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