Jason Segel may long have played goofball roles on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and in a string of comedies, from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” to “The Muppets,” but his poignant turn as David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour” showed his dramatic side.
Segel’s latest film, “The Discovery,” co-written and directed by Charlie McDowell, is a provocative sci-fi-mystery-romance that has given Segel another meaty dramatic part. It’s an almost noirish film role, one that shows that the actor can move effortlessly between comedy and drama; he could be the next Fred McMurray.
In “The Discovery,” Segel plays Will Harbor, a neurologist whose father Thomas (Robert Redford) claims to have found the existence of an afterlife. The discovery is so profound, suicide rates are escalating (to 4 million) as everyone wants to “get there,” as the film’s lingo goes. Will is skeptical, however, and with the assistance of Isla (Rooney Mara), a woman whose life he saves, he investigates the reality of the situation.
McDowell, who previously played with time and romance in his 2014 film “The One I Love,” considers weighty themes in “The Discovery,” as his characters grapple with guilt and memory, as well as the textures of time.
The director and the film star met with Salon to talk about storytelling, how to find meaning in life and “The Discovery.”
Jason, people know you as a comic actor, but this is your second dramatic film in a row. Do you feel you need to change things up in your career?
Jason Segel: Some of it is just a function of getting older. I’ve been really lucky to spend some time around actors and artists I really admire. One thing I gathered from asking a lot of questions is that part of this job and this life we’ve chosen is doing personal exploration in front of an audience. In a lot of ways, that’s what art is: personal searching with people watching.
I realized it was time for me to check back in at this moment in my life and have my work be reflective of that. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was really reflective of who I was at 25 years old. You can only do that so long before you realize, The work I am doing isn’t representative of who I am anymore. I did a little course correct.
Charlie, you like to play with time in your films. What can you say about how we customize our experience of time or manipulate our temporal experiences?
Charlie McDowell: What I’m attracted to and really what the movie deals with is, What if you were able to change something in your life? Would you want to do that? I think I played with that in “The One I Love” and in this film in a different way. Being in a visual medium, that’s how I process and view things. This idea of memory is important to me, and I think about it a lot.
Why is memory so important? I like that we tell stories where we deceive our selves and cling to memories that aren’t true and pass them off as true . . .
McDowell: I come from a family of storytellers. The greatest memories I have of growing up with my dad [Malcolm McDowell alongside my mother Mary Steenburgen] are these incredible stories he has. And some of them are completely made up, and some are elaborated on. But I could picture them so clearly in my head. I’ve always been interested in visualizing something, whether it’s a memory or an idea you want to be true. I am a big believer in that. I’m constantly thinking of that. If I can’t picture something, then it doesn’t make sense to me. I try to visualize and believe that it’s true.
So you’re a realist as opposed to a fantasist? This is one of the points in the film.
McDowell: Yeah, definitely! For me, it was a really interesting way to visually tell the story: Instead of just sitting in the inherent darkness of the story, we introduced a love story that is greater than what we are witnessing in this specific visual. It was powerful.
Memories are activated by triggers. What triggered you to make this film?
McDowell: The film started with this big, global idea: How do we explore the theme of what if the afterlife is proven? Who are the characters in the story? And the first part of it was the interview scene. Rooney [Mara] read that scene and wanted to be in the film. We didn’t have the rest of the character, but she wanted to be in this world. She became the emotional focal point for the Will character and the audience. Their [relationship] is the film’s through line. The visual component came after that.
Jason, your character Will says in the film that “People have an instinct to search for meaning in their lives. When there is none, they create meaning. We lie to ourselves.” What are your thoughts about finding meaning in everyday life?
Segel: I can have two consecutive days and the first can feel like the world is my oyster, and the second can feel like impending doom, and no circumstances have changed. That is the kernel of this thing you’re talking about in your previous questions. The narrative of our lives is a total construct. We get to choose what that is. That is something I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older. I have a lot of choices about the story that I’m telling myself about my life. So where do I find meaning?
The reality is that we’re all guessing about what the point is. But it seems as though being good to the people around you has a lot to do with it. Taking care of yourself, doing a little bit of exercise — the minimal required exercise — I try to walk 15,000 steps a day. And pick something and go after it; have some sense of purpose. I found if I’m doing those three things daily, then I need to let myself off the hook. And that other voice — that tells you that you’re great or a piece of shit — that voice will kind of let me rest if I do those three things: Be kind, exercise, pursue your passion with vigor.
Charlie, can you talk about the design of the machines and the videos in the film? I thought they were very stylish and inventive.
McDowell: I always start with character — what’s true to the character? If the lab had been a futuristic, slick-looking place, we wouldn’t believe that Redford’s character worked there. He put this together and designed it, so it was about finding equipment from his era that he would have used and understood and then adding on to that with modern equipment. You see Apple computers.
In terms of the headpiece — that came from a National Geographic cover that I saw in a doctor’s office. It had this man with hundreds of these suction cups on his head. It wasn’t like a headpiece; they were actually on his head. I loved the visual of it. But it starts with "What does this character’s lab and office look like?" It started from a grounded place and then you add interesting ideas on top of that.
Jason, out of curiosity, have you ever stolen a corpse, as Will does?
Segel: [Laughs.] I’m trying to think if I’ve done it before in a movie. I don’t think I have.
But in real life, did you draw on any experience?
Segel: I have no robbing cadavers experience in real life. That was a fun day, our last day of shooting. It was a marathon 20-hour day. We shot in Newport in the morning and then drove to Providence and spent the rest of the night in an active morgue. That was a fitting way to end the movie. Something felt right about it.
McDowell: It was tough shooting there. The smell was rough.
Jason, Will is the film’s voice of reason. Can you talk about his moral compass?
Segel: It was a great, complex part that I got to play. There are conflicts in his moral code. He was a guy really grappling with the question, What is important? Is it the truth? Is it the right thing or your personal desire?
What observations do you have about the film’s depiction of guilt, memory and even forgiveness?
Segel: It’s what drew me to the movie: Is there room for regret in this life? Or is our only option to become one with ourselves and our past and keep putting one foot in front of the other? That’s Will’s point of view. Our job is to become OK with who we are and what our life has been — and keep enduring.
McDowell: It’s about focusing on what’s in front of you. Even if you know there’s something more, don’t you want to live your life in the moment and understand what you are doing? Being present in that place. That was a theme we wanted to explore. Then this idea that millions of people not wanting that. They don’t have a very good life — they can’t pay their mortgage, they just went through a breakup, whatever it is. When they want to press the reset button and go somewhere else, I think that was interesting to explore, because a lot of people would.
Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?
McDowell: No, I haven’t. I have definitely said, “Oh, I want to kill myself,” but everyone’s said that at a certain point. But I’ve never had real, actual suicidal thoughts. I think that I have guilt about having had such a nice life that my thought process goes so far as completely understanding people having suicidal thoughts.
I feel guilty about the great life I have, and I know people don’t all have that, so it’s something I think about. Thinking about it and the act of how you would do it, and going through the steps of planning it and doing it are very different things.
But I think with this idea [in the film] that the afterlife is proven and you could go somewhere else — it changes how we view death. Is death death anymore? If we are guaranteed to go somewhere else, to a new life, are we just constantly living? That idea fascinated me. Would death mean the same thing? Is murder murder, or are we just sending someone to a different place?
We talked about the number [of suicides in the film] and we wanted it to be as realistic as possible as if this actually happened. In the world, 4 million people is a small percentage in the grand scheme of things. It sounds huge, and it would be a massive deal globally to our society.
If you could reset something in your life, what would it be?
Segel: Honestly, I have come to believe that everything is in the order it’s in for a reason. I am happy with who I am today. I am aware in the great Jenga game of life, if I were to pull out any one of those tiles, I don’t know that today would be today. Today is a beautiful day. I walked around with my friend, we’ve done a movie together, and life is really good. Are there things that I did not like? One hundred percent!
But I really don’t know that you can cherry-pick your past.
There is a little bit of hubris to want to change the past. It implies that you know better — that things didn’t happen the way that they were supposed to. If I could go back and tell younger Jason, “It’s going to be OK,” maybe that’s the one thing I would do.
McDowell: That would fuck you up so much!
Segel: [Laughs.] Yes, I would be like, “Why are you here? And how did I get so handsome?! You look like you do minimal exercise!” [Laughs.]