Jason Segel: Hollywood's New Heartbreak Kid

Jason Segel
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE LEVITT

Now Segel gets to prove his skeptics wrong. Directed by former Undeclared writer Nicholas Stoller, Sarah Marshall is the story of songwriter Peter Bretter (Segel), whose celebrity girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him to date a cocky British frontman. Bretter flees to Hawaii, accidentally winding up at the same resort where the ex and the rock star are enjoying a very hands-on vacation. Thanks to a performance from Segel that's both daring and depressing, something at the center of Sarah Marshall seems just a little softer than your average dude comedy, a little more sensitive, a little more...

Oh, let's just say it: At the center of Sarah Marshall is Jason Segel's penis. Its unveiling during the naked breakup that kick-starts the film was enough to send his mother sobbing into the lobby at a preview. ''It's a proper breakup scene,'' Segel says. ''And then you add this weird layer of discomfort. The guy's naked and crying and exposed and raw.'' But exposure is difficult. Segel admits to being terrified of measuring up, crediting whiskey for getting him through the day. ''The MPAA rule is that it's an R rating as long as it's flaccid,'' he says. ''But it was very important to me that it not be completely flaccid. So it was an exercise in finding the right level of appropriateness.''

At least it's not far-fetched: Segel actually lived through a naked breakup — just one painful episode from 10 years' worth of relationship disasters that inspired the film. (Rumors that Sarah Marshall is based exclusively on his split with Freaks costar Linda Cardellini are untrue.) Frankly, the guy's got enough horror stories to fuel a trilogy, including this classic moment of intimacy gone wrong: ''I was making out with this woman, and my shirt was off, and she leaned over and, in a really cute, girly voice, went, 'Hey, fatty!''' He tells this mortifying tale with the strength of someone who'd rather write than wallow. Cue studio heads, frantically penciling in a sequel.

The day before traveling to Hawaii for the Sarah Marshall junket, a plainly exhausted Segel is at his day job on the HIMYM set, where, luckily, sleep-deprived works as a character choice. Between takes, Segel — who wrote most of the songs in Sarah Marshall himself — likes to noodle at the set's piano, but on this afternoon his quiet tinkering is immediately interrupted. ''I think his head could explode any moment,'' says costar Alyson Hannigan. ''As soon as he enters the stage he's completely professional. But then you go outside and he's chain-smoking on the cell phone, and you're like, 'Oh, yeah...he's doing quite a lot.'''

Segel is about to begin filming the buddy comedy I Love You, Man with Paul Rudd, on top of his ongoing HIMYM obligations. Meanwhile, he and Stoller are penning scripts for Five-Year Engagement (a self-explanatory rom-com shooting next summer) and a little project in the works involving these creatures known as the Muppets. Seems at a recent meeting where Disney execs were laying a world of scripts at his feet, Segel made one gutsy suggestion: ''I stopped them and was like, 'These all sound great, thank you, I'm very flattered. The thing I would really like to do is bring back the Muppet franchise.''' They bought his pitch — in which the beloved characters put on a show to save their struggling studio— on the spot.

No question he's the right man for that job: Sarah Marshall already includes a Dracula puppet musical with characters designed by Henson Studios. And because he's still a little goofy, Segel is planning to replace the statue of Shiva that looms over his living room with the dual Muppet deities of Statler and Waldorf. It's an appropriate tribute from a man who worships puppetry as ''one of the most amazing things ever, 'cause you don't need actual friends'' — though he has high hopes that his famous pals (Rogen, Jonah Hill, a new acquaintance named Clooney) will join him in Muppetland.

''This is great vindication,'' says Stoller of his friend's moment in the zeitgeist. ''He's a man now. I think he's finally at the correct age to be a success.'' And Segel's reveling in it, looking to Woody Allen and Peter Sellers for inspiration. ''I think the notion of crafting one movie a year would be an amazing lifestyle,'' he says. But Mr. Affable's also got something of a dark side — he'd like to play the villain in a horror movie someday. ''I have a similar issue with people who hire me as I do with women,'' he admits. ''You have to have a particular taste to want to be around me. I have a slightly askew view. You might come out of the bedroom in the middle of the night and I'm playing with Dracula,'' he smiles, glancing at the puppet that sits — creepily, of course — to his left. ''I don't want the straight-ahead version,'' Segel concludes. ''Anyone can do that. Hire me if you want what I do.'' Spoken like a man who's comfortable with every inch of his abilities.

Originally posted Apr 04, 2008 Published in issue #986 Apr 11, 2008 Order article reprints
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