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Actor Jason Segel: I Walk A Fine Line Between Having Childlike Wonder And Being Creepy

Actor, screenwriter and author Jason Segel in WBUR's studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Actor, screenwriter and author Jason Segel in WBUR's studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 8 years old.

When you think of actor Jason Segel, you might think of some pretty "adult-themed" movies. Like "Knocked Up," "I Love You, Man" and "This Is 40." His latest movie is actually called, "Sex Tape," and of course there's that memorable scene in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" in which Segel flashes a significant amount of his own skin.

But your kids probably know a very different Jason Segel. He played Gary in the 2011 "The Muppets," which he also co-wrote. And he's the voice of Vector in "Despicable Me."

Now, he's author of a new book for kids. It's called "Nightmares!" and it's all about facing the fears that haunt kids — and many adults, for that matter — in their sleep. He says he used to have nightmares — just like the book's main character, Charlie. And he's joining us now to talk about them, and about his many accomplishments since overcoming his childhood nightmares.


On his perspective of dreams and nightmares:
Jason Segel:
"I've always felt like the message that 'you don't need to be afraid' is not the correct message. It's OK to be afraid — there are a lot of things that I'm afraid of and it's about walking through those fears...I think your nightmares are the gatekeepers to your dreams, really. You know, I do a lot of stuff in my business — I write and I act and I sing songs and I jump between all sorts of different material clearly. And it's not because I'm born gifted and all of these things. I really believe that it's because I'm not afraid. And I'm not afraid to be bad at something until I'm good at it. And I'm OK with things not doing well and other things being real successes so, I think it's OK to be afraid and to work through it. That's sort of the message of the book."

On his own nightmares as a kid:
"I had a recurring dream about witches eating my toes. But someone really zeroed in on it the other day and I hadn't put together where a nightmare like that comes from, and I think it's because when you're a baby, you have all these giant adults standing over you telling you they're going to eat your toes...It was a much more clear line than I realized."

On the origins of the book, "Nightmares!":
"[The screenplay version] was the first thing that I ever wrote. When I was about 21 years old, Judd Apatow — who produces most of our movies — took me aside and gave me some advice and said, 'You're kind of a weird dude and you're not going to make it unless you start writing your own material.' Because there's a great tradition of weird dudes writing their own material and doing just fine. So I took that advice and this was what came out, this was the first script I ever wrote and I sold it when I was really young and it got me started. But then, as our comedy started picking up, it sort of sat on a shelf. And at some point, I realized that the studio that owned it wasn't putting together that that was the same Jason Segel and so — I'm no dummy — I kept my mouth shut until I was able to buy it back and I turned it into this book. Because, in doing the Muppets, and being around kids and my friends are now having kids, the imagination of a kid is just so powerful. And with a book, they get to experience that story however they want...Another thing that really hit me is, you're told in every way possible that what you're good at is sitting and watching TV. That that is what you're capable of, and people are giving into that idea. And it's harder to read, you have to sit down, you have to put some effort into it. But you know what? It reminds you that you're smart and it helps make you feel capable. And to give that to a kid and say, 'Look, if you put in a little extra work the reward is really tremendous,' I thought that was a really neat thing."

On the relatively heavy themes in "Nightmares!"
"I've always believed — and then that belief was confirmed to me by, like, these amazing Pixar movies — but kids can handle it. And you don't need to placate them. And the more you treat a kid as though they're capable, the more capable they will be. Now, there is a line that you want to hit. Like, I thought Coraline was too scary, for example. It just — it frightened me as an adult. But I think there's a space you can create that they found, like in movies like Goonies and Labyrinth and that Roald Dahl did really well, where a parent knows that it's a perfectly safe space to let their kids go into, but a kid feels like they're getting away with something. Like, 'Surely my parents don't know what's in this book or they wouldn't be letting me read it!' And that's the space I think we hit really well with 'Nightmares!' It's perfectly safe, it's not scary to the point that you're going to have to be, like, making sure your kids are OK at night, but they'll feel like a little more grown-up...Look, my whole career is based on me walking this fine line between having, like, childlike wonder and being really creepy — and so, the book is like a combination of all of my skills."

On working with his "childhood idols" on "The Muppet Movie":
"The Muppets were my first exposure to comedy as a kid. I was born in 1980 so I was a little too young for "The Muppet Show" but my mother, who's the coolest, had taped every episode in anticipation of having a comedy dork kid and so she showed them to me growing up. I've had Muppet posters on my walls forever, and there's no coincidence there's like a Dracula puppet musical in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" which is the first thing I wrote that got made. So, after "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" I had this little moment of writing juice all of a sudden. I was 25 years old and I had a pretty successful movie and they asked me what I wanted to do next and I said, 'I want to bring the Muppets back.' And everyone thought I was joking, because normally the move is to just churn out something that's the same as what you've just had success with. But it was my dream, and so we labored at it for like five or six years...My character's name was Gary, and the greatest moment of reward for me for that movie after six, seven years of hard work [was not that] we won the first Muppet Academy Award for the song, it was when we did a test screening for kids. And they made them fill out these little forms and a 7-year-old kid filled one out and they said, 'What did you like about the movie?' And he's like, 'Muppets are fun, Muppets sing songs.' 'What did you not like about the movie?' 'Gary's face.' I have it framed on my wall in little 7-year-old chicken scrawl. He just did not like my face."

On what projects like "The Muppet Movie" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" have in common:
"I think that there's a running theme in everything that I've written...I was caught at like 8, 9, 10 years old by things like the Muppets and Labyrinth and Goonies — Roald Dahl books — that made me feel like there was magic out there still — and that I could find a golden ticket, I could find buried treasure...Look, everything in the world is telling you that you're not going to make it as an actor or a writer...My first movie, a romantic comedy, ends with a lavish puppet musical. Like, I know that it's been made now so it seems like yes, of course. But at the time, people were looking at me like I was nuts. That's not how this movie ends. But it does — it does in my world. And so to me, I see a very clear through line."

Correction: A typo in an earlier version of this article misstated a film title. Segel starred in 2011's "The Muppets" movie, and this version has been updated to reflect the change.


Jason Segel, actor, screenwriter and now, author. His new book is "Nightmares!" He tweets @jasonsegel.


Publishers Weekly: Jason Segel Steps Into A New Spotlight

  • "After making his mark as a film and TV actor, screenwriter and songwriter, Jason Segel now adds middle-grade novelist to his impressive list of credits."

WBUR: Making 'The Muppets Movie' Was 'Dream Come True'

  • "Once Disney gave Stoller and Segel the green light to make The Muppets, the Muppet puppeteers helped fill them in on the cardinal rules of the Muppet world. For instance, Muppets think of themselves as humans in their world. And they are never, ever mean."

Vanity Fair: What You Should Know About Jason Segel

  • "Jason Segel is the affable Judd-Apatow-comedy-troupe alum who has gone on to headline nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother, reboot the Muppets, and co-star with Cameron Diaz in this July's Sex Tape comedy."

This article was originally published on September 11, 2014.

This segment aired on September 11, 2014.


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