The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The End of the Tour.
What was your experience like coming to this project?
Jason Segel: My experience in coming to this project was really unique – obviously, there’s only one of me. I had made a decision that I wanted to do something entirely different than what I had been doing. I had reached a moment where everything felt like it was coming to a natural end. My early thirties, my TV show that was on for a decade was coming to an end, and the kinds of comedies I had been making weren’t really working anymore. I thought I needed to go back to doing things that scared me. Like I could fall flat on my face. Then this script arrived, and there’s a line in where he says “I’m 34 years old and alone in a room with a piece of paper” and that is exactly how I felt. I had a blank canvas in front of me for the rest of my life and had no idea how I was going to fill it. This also seemed like a great opportunity to be terrified, and I was literally terrified up until they called action the very first time. And then they say action and you have a very limited amount of time to start acting before it gets weird! Then you have to just go.
“I needed to go back to doing things that scared me.”
The director, James Ponsoldt, was one of your students. How did this project get to him?
Donald Margulies: This has a wonderful backstage story. I’ve been teaching playwriting at Yale for 25 years, and I have taught some incredible people in the making. And James Ponsoldt was one of those shining young people. I saw his film Smashed and I sent him an email congratulating him. I thought he had done a really subtle, smart take on what could have been a very formulaic story. It was around the time that he and I reconnected that I finished The End of the Tour. That also coincided with him being on the verge of a tremendous career, and we are the beneficiaries. He is really just busting at the seams. I asked my producers if I could send the script to him, and they said sure. I woke up the next morning to a copious email from James – “Don, I can’t believe you sent this to me! I love David Foster Wallace, my wife and I had David Foster Wallace recited at our wedding . . . it’s a sign!” What was so extraordinary was that James was being wooed by everyone in town at the time, since he was between his two Sundance experiences. The fact that he made our movie his next project was just an extraordinary gift.
Segel: When I got the script, I was confused that it was sent to me. I’m self-aware, and I realize that I probably wasn’t someone’s first thought for this project. No one receives this material and says, “I think it’s Segel!” So I read the script and my agent said James Ponsoldt would like to speak with me about it. We sat down to talk about it and I asked him why, and he said “Dating back to Freaks and Geeks, whenever you were doing comedy, I felt like there was something sad behind your eyes.” And I knew what he was talking about. And he said it’s important that this movie not just try to deify David Foster Wallace, that he be portrayed like he was during this period: funny, young, alive. It just made a lot of sense to me. I hadn’t had anyone since Judd Apatow believe in me more than I believed in myself. James said, “You can do this.” It was really special. I feel lucky that I got to catch someone early on in what’s going to be an amazing career.
Can you talk about working with Jesse Eisenberg?
Segel: I didn’t know Jesse before this movie. We got to meet once before we starting shooting. The first scene Jesse and I shot is the scene where I show up at his house. We hadn’t had much interaction before that, and you can feel us sniffing each other out up there. He had no idea what I was going to do. I hadn’t uttered a word as David Foster Wallace in his presence, nor had he Lipsky in mine. There was a moment of “what’s this person going to be like” which I think really worked for the movie, because that’s exactly what’s happening. And it continued to be that way to some extent. David Foster Wallace writes a lot about tennis, and it felt to me like this weird thing of playing a friendly, competitive tennis match where you rely on each other for the volley because you want to get some exercise and you let it go on a while, but both of you are thinking, when I am going to level my big shot and win this point. That’s what every scene felt like. I need him, but I can’t wait to beat him.