how he got on mother
by jay s. jacobs
Jason Segel has gotten a bit of an odd specialty in his Hollywood career – he has become an integral part of some of the most interesting TV ensembles of recent years. His first meshing was on the cult favorite Freaks and Geeks – in which he played the burnout Nick; a man passionate about two things – rock music and smart, beautiful Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini). His character had a star-making moment when he serenaded her with a self-written rock ballad called “Lady L.”
Despite wonderful coverage, Freaks and Geeks didn’t quite last a season. Segel then took a recurring role on another acclaimed, short-lived series, Undeclared, as a jealous printer whose girlfriend has left him to go away to college. Things started turning around… ratings-wise, when Segel became a recurring character on the most popular show on TV – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
However he has really hit pay dirt with his new series. How I Met Your Mother has gained critical acclaim while helping to shore up the ratings for CBS’s Monday night comedy block in a post-Raymond world. Working with a talented cast that includes Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan, Segel plays Marshall, the long-time best friend and roommate of main character Ted Mosby (Radnor). At the end of the first year, Marshall broke up with his fiancée Lily (Hannigan) after nine years. Much of the new season will revolve around how the two adjust to life apart.
On the day of the show’s second season premiere, Jason was nice enough to call us and tell us a bit about his career and what to expect coming up on the show.
Your first movie role was in one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies Can’t Hardly Wait – granted you only had one line.
(laughs) Oh, yeah, that’s right.
Early on in your career you also appeared in the movies Dead Man on Campus and SLC Punk. How did you first get involved in acting and in the movies?
Oh, man, you know what? I got really lucky. I was playing basketball in high school. I decided to put on “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee, just on my own. After the performance, the head of the acting department came up and said, “You know, I think you should maybe think of quitting basketball and give this a try.” I told him I thought he was crazy. We had just won the state championship and I’m so tall. (laughs) He said, “Well, do me a favor. Just come do this mock audition workshop I’m putting on.” So, I showed up at this thing and went in and read for him and some woman. I had no idea who she was. I thought it was maybe another teacher. It turned out that she was president of casting at Paramount. That pretty much got me started. After that they put me in my first movie – which was actually Dead Man on Campus.
Dead Man on Campus also had two of your future series co-stars and TV love interests in the cast: Linda Cardellini and Alyson Hannigan. Did you get to know them in the movie, or more when you really got involved in the series with them?
That’s right, yeah. I didn’t, no. Linda and I sort of saw each other for the first time three years later. I remembered her and she didn’t quite remember who I was. (laughs) Alyson was the exact same phenomenon. She didn’t remember me at all. I guess that means I’ve grown up.
Even though it did not quite last a season, your first series, Freaks and Geeks became a real cult success since it was on the air. What was it like to work on, and were you surprised by how it has stayed popular years after its run?
Yeah. That really changed my life. That was, in a lot of ways, the start of my career. I met Judd Apatow doing Freaks and Geeks. Judd taught me how to write and I’ve written quite a bit since then. I’m on my third script, now. One of them is with Judd at Universal, hopefully to be done this hiatus. We did that together, and then we did Undeclared, and we did a pilot together that didn’t get picked up, called North Hollywood. We just finished a movie called Knocked Up. So, I think more than anything, it was meeting Judd during that period that changed my life. He’s been a real mentor to me.
We actually have interviews with a couple of your former costars on Freaks – Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley.
They’ve obviously worked a lot since the show went off, as did several other cast members like James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps and yourself. When you were on the show, did you realize you were in with an unusually talented crowd?
You know, we all actually had a sense that we were surrounded by great people. I think that’s maybe what Judd does the best. He knows how to spot people. We started out improv-ing for about a month before we started shooting on Freaks and Geeks. Just watching everybody improv and how perfectly they were their characters, I think we all had a sense we were going to do something great. We also had a sense it might be a little bit too sad (chuckles) for NBC. We could tell it was getting cancelled, because it started out with the craft service table filled with lavish deli platters, and then by about mid-season it was down to a box of Corn Pops. (laughs) We had a sense that it might be going off the air.
Are you ever at a party and have someone ask you to sing “Lady L?”
(laughs) No, but I had a meeting with Quentin Tarentino about maybe two months ago for his new movie. I didn’t get the part, but, it was amazing – he walked into the room singing “Lady L.” That was all I needed. I didn’t need to get the part after that.
After Freaks you had a recurring role on Undeclared, which had a lot of the same people behind it, also got critical raves and lasted even less time. Did you ever stop and think what do I have to do to get a hit here?
Yeah, well, you know, I’ve felt that way several times in my career. It’s always a very scary feeling. But then, what was really cool was when this show came along – How I Met Your Mother – there was something different about it. I’m used to feeling like the underdog. Especially when I’m working with Judd. That’s the tone of our creative collaboration. But this show, from the beginning, we had this sense that this is really straightforward and simple and good. It just ended up working. Just like Freaks and Geeks. The five of us on How I Met Your Mother really hit it off.
How I Met Your Mother is your first traditional five camera sitcom. All of your previous things had been single camera, I believe. How is it different working like that? Do you enjoy it more performing with a live audience?
Well, you know our show is unique in that it’s multi-camera, but we have no audience…
Yeah, so we rehearse on Monday and Tuesday, and then we shoot on Wednesday through Friday with just the crew laughing, as opposed to an audience. So, it’s a bit of an amalgam between the two. We get the luxury of being able to do take after take and get things right. But also, there is a bit of the excitement, because the crew is allowed to laugh. We have a good time.
Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan are all actors who have been around in different good roles over the years. This show is the first real big breaks for Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders. What is the ensemble like to work with?
Like I said, there was this strange chemistry between the five of us, right from the beginning. I think we met at a barbeque, [it] was the first time the five of us met. Alyson was there for my screen test. I read against her. Within I’d say a couple of minutes of starting the scene, we had gone off-book and sort of started improv-ing. It was so funny and so natural and I just knew we would make a great team. Then when we met the other three – something about it just felt right. It was very easy from the beginning.
As the new season is starting Marshall is dealing with a problem that all too many of us guys have had – losing the woman you love to funk legend George Clinton…
That’s right. (laughs)
How do you think he’ll deal with the break-up with Lily and potentially getting back together?
You know, Marshall is single for the first time as an adult, really. He had been with Lily for nine years. He’s learning a lot of things for the first time, but my favorite comic tone is pathetic and single. (laughs) I just think it’s funny. Because, like you said, it’s maybe the most universal experience there is; this feeling that you’re never going to find somebody. So, it’s been really fun. The writing has really, really picked up this season. I think we’re going to come in strong. They’ve just given me great things to do.
So how long do you think that Marshall will be able to stay a slightly left-leaning environmentalist while working with Barney and his neo-con crowd?
Yeah, no kidding. I have a hunch that Marshall will never switch over to the dark side, because he is just a total innocent. Actually, my character is based on Craig Thomas, who is one of our producers. Josh Radnor is based on Carter Bays, another producer. Craig is still just idealistic to the core and wide-eyed, so I have a hunch Marshall sustains that, as well.
I interviewed with Josh in the middle of the last season. At the time, he said the writers told him they really liked Ted and Robin as a couple. They were a little sorry they painted themselves into a corner by saying at the end of the first episode that they would not get together. Now, that they have hooked up on the show, do you think they will have to break them up again or do you think the writers will try and spin that original idea?
Yeah, you know, I don’t know. Their chemistry is so great. I think they work great as a couple. But, you know, we don’t really know what’s going to happen until Friday. (laughs) So, I think we feel the same way that hopefully the audience does. We’re dying to know who the mother is. I saw that they had set this precedent already that they wouldn’t end up together, but who knows? They’re pretty creative and clever on our show.
Do you think that if it’s not Robin that we’ll ever meet the mother, or she’ll just be one of those classic unseen TV characters like Bob Sakamato or Vera?
(laughs) Right. Well, that could very well be. I’ve always had this hunch that when Carter Bays, who Josh’s character is based on, meets his woman, we’ll probably get closer to Ted’s character meeting his.
Maybe it’ll be the slutty pumpkin…
(laughs) You know, I’ve always thought that would be an amazing call back, if it ended up being the slutty pumpkin.
So where do you think the pineapple came from, anyway?
Now, that’s a good question. We’ve had a lot of debate about that. All I know is that I ate it at the end of the episode. That was a scene that never met the cut. But, who knows? It’s a mystery.
Okay, let’s get serious here. Who is really Ted’s best friend – Marshall or Barney?
Oh, there’s no question, it’s Marshall. We all put up with Barney as best we can, but, no, it’s definitely Ted and Marshall to the end.
Neil Patrick Harris is very funny in the role, but very different than the way we remember him in Doogie Houser. Do you think he’s trying to stretch out and change his image?
You know, more than that being a concerted effort… when Barney was first written on the page, he was intended to be this sort of slobbish, overweight guy. So, Neil came in and did this version of Barney, which I just think is so interesting and great. More than him making any effort to try to change his image, I think he’s just a really diverse and talented performer. We just haven’t seen him like this before, but it’s well within his grasp. He’s a talented guy.
Have you ever mentioned to Craig and Carter that some of the story that older Ted is telling may be a little inappropriate for his kids?
(laughs) Yeah. We’ve thought about that. But, maybe in the future society’s values have changed.
Josh told me he would never be friends with someone who would do the “Have you met Ted” trick. Have you ever done it or had it done to you?
I haven’t, no, but I don’t think it’s that bad a start. There you are, now you know each other’s names… And you’re off… I think it’s a pretty good set up.
How weird was it when you hit the point in your career where people start to recognize you on the streets?
You know, we got a little taste of it when the Freaks and Geeks DVDs came out. There was a little resurgence of people having seen the show. But this is – it’s getting more and more noticeable for the first time. Like in restaurants or things like that, people will come up to the table. But, I sort of love it. (laughs) You’re doing the job so that people will enjoy it and like your work, so I welcome it.
I’ve only seen a rough cut of the season premiere – which ends up with Lily looking in the bar at you but not going in… Without giving up any real big secrets, what can we expect from the new season?
Well, I think you’ll see Lily and Marshall trying to coexist during this very, very awkward time – which has also been fun to film. You’ll see Barney take Marshall out on an adventure to meet women – which, as you can imagine, turns out disastrous. And you’ll see Ted Mosby be an architect…
Oh, wow, he’s actually working…
Yeah, that’s right. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff coming up.
Do you have any ideas for the show that you’d love to see them do – either about Marshall’s character or more generally?
I think they should really let Marshall go out there and date. (laughs) Like I said, I think it’s the funniest area – the guy haplessly out there trying to date. But, I’ve been so thrilled with the scripts that have come in so far this season. We’re on episode seven now, and they’ve all just been brilliant, so I’m thrilled.
Most of your roles have been comic, although certainly Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared had their serious parts, as well. You were also a recurring character in CSI for a while. How different was that, doing straight drama? Because that certainly isn’t a light-hearted show…
Luckily, I think that was one of the reasons that I was cast – to bring a little bit of levity in the scenes that I had. But, it was intense. Before I showed up to film, I had to go down to the crime lab and learn fingerprinting techniques and look at crime scene photos. Judd never made me look at people slipping on bananas or anything like that. (laughs) So, that was a change. But, you know, to me, it’s all about being natural. You add funny on top of that for a comedy, but besides that it’s just show up and be natural. So I tried to do the same on CSI. That show was a blast. I was very honored they had me.
Ideally, how would you like for people to see your career?
As diverse and as positive. Diversity, I think, is the key. I look at somebody like Peter Sellers, who was just one of the amazing, amazing character actors. Being There couldn’t be further from Pink Panther. I’m always in awe of that. Also, you do have a choice over what material you do, certainly as you progress in your career. I’d like to choose things that at least speak to something that I think is relevant. That’s always when I act the best, when I connect to it in some way. When it’s frivolous, I show up and do it and do my best, but… Even something as simple as trying to be single, at least you can hook into and try to express something that anyone can relate to.
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
No. I think, sadly, it’s all true. (laughs) I am this tall. And I’m better looking in person.
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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 23, 2006.