When reading David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel “Infinite Jest” is only part of your preparation for a role, you know you have an intellectual challenge ahead of you. That’s what actor Jason Segel faced to play Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s drama “The End of the Tour.”
Not quite a biopic, the film is based on a four-day interview of Wallace conducted by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky on the last four days of the press tour for “Jest” in 1996. As the young writer Lipsky, Jesse Eisenberg is both skeptical and desperately jealous of his much more successful subject. As Wallace, Segel (who’s already earning Oscar buzz) is defensive and still uncomfortable with his newfound fame.
It was a stretch for Segel, best known as one of Judd Apatow’s class pets, which is why he turned to Wallace’s writing, videos of his speeches and tapes from Lipsky’s interview.
“You can’t paraphrase this dialogue — David Foster Wallace is just so much smarter than I am,” said Segel, 35. “Any of the old tricks I get to use in improv type movies, they don’t apply.”
Segel spoke about preparing to play Wallace, what press tours are really like, and the tragedy of Wallace and Lipsky’s brief friendship.
What did you find was the best way to get in Wallace’s head?
For me it was definitely reading “Infinite Jest.” I’ve done a lot of press tours for my own stuff. … All of these things that we’re talking about right now are at the front of my brain because for the past few weeks, this is what I’ve been talking about. So the movie very particularly is focused on the last four days of the “Infinite Jest” book tour. And prior to the book tour, he’s been writing the book. So what occurred to me is that what this person is thinking about actively, what is at the front of his mind, is what he’s been thinking and talking about every day: the themes of “Infinite Jest.”
This movie is mostly just you and Jesse Eisenberg talking. Did you prepare a lot for that kind of acting?
We didn’t have any rehearsal. … So the first time we ever acted together was the scene where David Lipsky arrives on David Foster Wallace’s door. I think actually it really helped. You can feel us sniffing each other out in that scene. I’m nervous in that scene, Jason Segel is nervous. I don’t know what Jesse is going to do. I haven’t done what I’m going to do yet for anybody but myself. I don’t know if people are going to like it. And the chess match begins. It felt like that, it felt like we were acting both with each other and against each other.
You totally disappear into this performance. How did you embody Wallace physically?
As a big guy, which I am, and David Foster Wallace is a big guy, there’s this thing that I do and that I could imagine that he might do. When you’re big you sort of subjugate yourself to other people, there’s a hunch, and you talk quietly. It’s an effort to take away the fact that if I stand up straight to you and I speak confidently …
… you think you look terrifying?
Yeah. A little bit. There are moments, given the size difference between me and Jesse, when James [Ponsoldt], especially during our argument scenes toward the end, would come up to me and tell me to move my hands less. I’d say, “Oh, I’m moving my hands too much?” He’d say “No, but it looks like you’re going to attack him.” And David Foster Wallace is a handsy talker.
I feel like all writers kind of are.
Well, I felt like when I watched him talk, it was like the movie “Minority Report,” where he has the screen and he’s moving information around. I felt like here’s the guy who has all the information at his disposal, and is kind of like moving the thesis where it belongs, moving the supporting points, putting in the conclusion.
For a movie that’s supposedly about David Foster Wallace, he felt at arm’s length the whole time. Was that deliberate?
I think that the movie is through the lens of David Lipsky’s experience. You see a guy, David Foster Wallace, who is (in my opinion) ready to have a real discussion because he is going through some stuff at that moment, but Lipsky comes through with such an agenda that he walks away missing the real story. It’s a little like when you have a conversation with a contrarian, and you have a point that you want to make but they keep stopping you along the way.
I think Lipsky did what I have accidentally done in the past, which is write the story in my head and then expect the subject to provide quotes for it.
You have two guys on opposite sides of a tunnel, the tunnel being success. So you have Lipsky looking through this tunnel at David Foster Wallace saying, “What’s it like to be there, I bet I know what it’s like to be there. I’ve been trying to get there my whole life.” And you see David Foster Wallace who is looking back with great empathy saying “Hey, be careful, because I’m ‘there’ now, and it turns out ‘there’ doesn’t exist. And this tunnel? It just goes on forever.”
I would imagine that when you start out as a writer — well you know this, you’re a writer, I’m a writer as well. When you start out, there’s something binding any artistic personality. No matter how different their personalities are, there is something that we all have in common, as creative people, which is that somewhere in us, we think that what we have to express is worthy of everybody paying money for and devoting their full attention to. And that’s a very distinct personality type.
I like that this movie is a fable of what happens when your hero or someone you revere as a genius turns out to be just a normal guy.
There’s some part of us that needs our idol to be something other than us. If your idol is something other than you, then it’s able to justify why you haven’t achieved stuff yet. It’s because they’re rarified air. If you meet your idol and find out, “Oh, he’s just me, but he sat in that room with more focus and more dedication,” that’s tough to deal with. It’s a little like when you find out that being in shape is just being healthy and exercising.
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