Jason Segel is one of the many actors to come out of the Judd Apatow school of comedy and following in the footsteps of Jay Baruchel and Jonah Hill, he too has landed a role in an animated film. The actor stars as Vector, the nemesis to Steve Carell’s Gru in Universal Pictures Despicable Me. Over the past decade he’s gone from the co-star of a defunct cult show (“Freaks and Geeks“) to a series regular on one of the most popular comedies on television, “How I Met Your Mother.”
Not only is he an actor but he’s also a musician, a writer, and even a puppeteer! Is there anything this man can’t do? At the age of 30 he’s accomplished more in his career than a lot of people have in a lifetime. When we met up with Segel to discuss his new film he spoke about the perks of hiding behind a cartoon character, his comedy rival (you’ll be surprised by his choice), and his work on the upcoming Muppets movie…
First, Segel revealed how he landed the part of Vector, the not so big, not so bad villain in the film.
Jason Segel: John Cohen, one of our great producers, came to my house and told me about the story. Then, he gave me a sketch of Vector and I was hooked, instantly. The story is so beautifully told that there was no doubt I was going to do the film.
Once he knew the story it was time for him to come up with the right voice for the character.
J.S.: I had a few months to kind of come up with a voice and I came up with a few and I went in and they (the directors) helped me choose. I mean these guys are such geniuses the one that they ended up choosing was perfect.
Vector is a dorky over achiever looking to gain his father’s approval. Segel might not be able to relate on that level but he did understand the awkwardness that the character embodied.
J.S.: I’ve been 6′ 4″ and 100 pounds since I was 12. I looked like Jack Skellington. Kids used to stand around me in a circle and, one by one, they would jump on my back and the rest would chant, “Ride the oaf! Ride the oaf!” It’s true. So, you either become funny, which is hopefully what I did, or you become a villain, which is where I got the idea for Vector. He’s a guy who was horribly picked on, and this is where he’s ended up.
On paper, Segel looks nothing like Vector but sometimes animators incorporate actor’s movements into their characters, which wasn’t something he was going for.
J.S.: The whole thing that had driven me to doing an animated film is that you’re free from the limitations of your physical body. All of a sudden you get to be something that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a 6’4, kind of lumbering dude. This guy is based almost wholly on insecurity. He just wants to prove to his dad that he’s worthy and, in this case, the most evil person alive, so I drew from there. It was very freeing. You’ll probably notice that nobody in the cast is doing their voice. No one is talking like they normally talk and it’s because, all of a sudden, you’re freed from the physical limitations of how you look, which is amazing.
Segel worked on Despicable Me for a while but since it was a few hours here and there he has no idea how long the actual production process took. He felt that the concentration was more on getting the right material as opposed to their time limitations.
J.S.: What’s cool about doing this animated film, and this is the only one I’ve done so I have no other frame of reference, is that you go in for three hours, every few months. I probably went in six times over two years or something like that. And from their standpoint, the goal is for me to give them as much material as I can possibly come up with, and they choose the funniest, the best and the most on-story. Every time, it was just three hours of intense effort, trying to be as funny as I could, and to be on story with the improv, and give them as much material as I possibly could.
Voice acting proved to be an interesting experience for Segel and it brought about more than its fair share of challenges.
J.S.: It’s a very unique experience, in that you’re not working with any of these actors, in any of these scenes. You’re alone in a booth. To me it felt like a test of whether I could be funny, good and on-story. On-story, to me, is a big part of improv. It’s very easy to come out and say funny lines that you’ve thought of the night before but to be on-story is the real challenge. You’re in there for three hours, trying to give them material they can actually use. I have a million jokes I could say, but to try to keep it on-story and valuable to them was something that was a challenge and I really enjoyed that. It’s just you alone, which is awesome.
Now that he’s established himself as a decent comedic performer Segel says there’s only one other actor who could (possibly) outshine him.
J.S: I think it’s probably Ryan Reynolds, in that we have very similar comedic tastes and all that. And, our bodies are so similar that it’s basically a rivalry over who can be in better shape. At this point, I think I’m winning.
Not only is he a great actor but he’s embarking on a serious screenwriting career, which we saw with the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He gave some advice on the best ways to write a comedic screenplay. The first thing you need to do is write it as a drama…
J.S.: I’m not joking. That was the first advice I got from Judd Apatow, and I think it’s why his movies are so brilliant. He told me, when I was writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall, ‘I want the first draft you give me to be a drama. We’ll make it funny. It’s going to be funny because we’re funny and we’re going to add jokes, and the people we cast will be funny. The reason people will see it and see it again and again, or connect to it – is because there’s an underlying drama.’ That’s the best advice I can give. When you’re trying to write a comedy, first write a drama, and then make it funny.
As for his method behind writing an actual drama…
J.S.: You go from real experience. Almost everything I’ve written is somehow tied to something I’ve gone through. You try to hit a universal theme. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is about how complicated break-ups are, which everyone has gone through. The next thing I’m writing is about engagement and love, and everyone has gone through that. You have to hit a universal theme, and this movie does it perfectly. The idea of somehow opening yourself up to something in your life is universal, and that’s what everyone relates to.
Before we let him go we had to get his thoughts on The Muppet Movie. Segel is well aware of how epic the project is and all the pressure that comes with it.
J.S.: Well, that part is very intimidating. What I do think is that I have to approach it with a real sense of respect, and I’m very earnest about the way I approach it. There’s no sense of irony with me, going into The Muppets. I don’t think it’s funny that I’m doing The Muppets. I truly love them. What I learned from this film is the idea of a family being able to bond over seeing something together, and walking out of the theater with everyone in a great mood. It’s a very special thing, for a family to walk out of a film satisfied and happy, and then go have lunch or dinner together feeling happy, and talking and laughing. It’s a very rare thing. Family dynamics aren’t easy, so the notion of anything drawing them together, especially a movie like Despicable Me, is a very special thing.
Despicable Me debuts in theaters July 9, 2010.