“I’m self-aware enough that when I read the script, I thought, ‘Well, there’s no way I’m going to get this part.’ ”
The actor speaking is Jason Segel, sitcom star of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and sensitive bro-dude of such big-screen comedies as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” I Love You, Man,” and, uh, “Sex Tape.” The role he’s talking about is that of David Foster Wallace, who became the literary star of his generation with the 1996 publication of “Infinite Jest” and who, since his 2008 suicide, has practically become the Holy Martyr of modern American letters.
So you can kind of get what Segel’s talking about. Yet here he is, along with director James Ponsoldt, a few hours before “The End of the Tour” is due to unspool before a sold-out crowd at the Somerville Theatre as part of last April’s Independent Film Festival of Boston. In January, the film — an adaptation of Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s 2010 book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” based on his five days on the road with Wallace during the “Infinite Jest” book tour — premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to general hosannas. Accompanying the praise was the shared opinion that Segel had pulled off the nearly impossible: re-humanized a mythologized writer with empathy and care and pointed a much-loved but lightweight career in altogether new directions. Immediate Oscar buzz, and all that.
The film is a two-hander, really — Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, the latter a feisty terrier nipping at a brilliant St. Bernard’s heels. Ponsoldt, who successfully guided the Young Adult classic “The Spectacular Now” to the screen in 2013, stages the film as a battle of wits and souls between a journalist not ready to acknowledge his jealousy and a writer caught between living the moment and being aware of it. The background is the Midwest in winter, a tundra of strip malls, fast food restaurants, and cloistered book events. It’s a good movie, if not one to win over those who knew the writer — more on that later — and it may introduce a new generation to the great, rich pleasures of Wallace’s work.
Which will be fine by Ponsoldt, a convert from early on. “ I started college in fall of ’97,” he says. “ ‘Infinite Jest’ was The Book that everyone was grappling with — reading or pretending to read, or using as a prop in their dorm. Like Wallace [who was a ranked junior tennis player], I had grown up in a college town in a relatively rural area and went to college as an athlete. There were a lot of things about it that really hit me hard.”
He was thus primed to receive playwright Donald Margulies’s screenplay adaptation of Lipsky’s book: “I was terrified by the idea of taking it on, but I knew that if I didn’t I would probably regret it for the rest of my life.” And when it came time to cast for the leads, Ponsoldt’s ears pricked up at an odd suggestion: Jason Segel. “I’ve been a fan of his since ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ ” the director says. “Jason created the emotional anchor of that, and he’s someone, just as a filmgoer and a TV goer, I like hanging out with, in a way I like hanging out with Jack Lemmon or Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. There seems to be a moral rudder and a basic decency about him that I’m really interested in.”
The two men make an interesting pair, the easygoing Segel at 6 feet 4 inches towering over the smaller, higher-energy Ponsoldt. Both men are from “away” — Segel grew up in Los Angeles, and Ponsoldt in Athens, Ga. — but both have curious Boston retail ties: Ponsoldt’s uncle ran the legendary Jack’s Joke Shop in downtown Boston; and Segel’s uncle was the proprietor of Newton’s long-lived Mr. Sid clothing boutique. Weird, huh?
Segel, for his part, had only read Wallace’s famous 2005 Kenyon commencement speech — since published as “This Is Water” — before being cast but threw himself into the portrayal. “The last thing I wanted to do was an impression,” he says, “because that is a fight you always lose. From a technical standpoint, I rented a house outside of Los Angeles so that I could start reading. And I started a book club with some guys at my local bookstore and read ‘Infinite Jest’ properly, so it took 2½ months or so. It’s a hard book and it’s dense — maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I felt like it was a man saying, ‘How much are you willing to put up with to get to know me?’ And that really hit home with me.
“I made sure I knew every word of the dialogue perfectly,” Segel continues, “because to paraphrase would have been the most arrogant thing an actor could do. And I also felt like it was of paramount importance to understand everything I was saying. Really understand it. Because this is a guy who talks in theses — long paragraphs, perfectly organized, points and all.
“My interpretation is that this is a guy who has concluded that the only chance he has to be happy is to feel at union with his fellow man. And the struggle with that is that you’re the smartest guy in the room in almost every situation. And then you’ve got this guy who thinks that your motivation for doing that is disingenuous. That is how I viewed it, like ‘Man, I am in the middle of this battle, I’m doing the best I [expletive] can, and now you’re coming in and trying to unravel this thing that I’m trying to construct.’ ”
The performance has found legions of admirers, as well as detractors among those who knew Wallace personally and find the whole thing dismayingly parasitic. The Wallace estate registered its objection to the project before filming began in 2014, and film critic Glenn Kenney, who edited Wallace’s work for Premiere magazine in the 1990s and considered him a friend, has written a piece for England’s Guardian newspaper in which he says that “The picture left me so angry I actually had trouble sleeping on the night I saw it. . . . Wallace the artist and Wallace the conversationalist take a distant back seat to Wallace the eventual suicide.”
Adds Kenney in an e-mail, “Now that the Oscar campaign for Segel is underway, the press seems determined to abet, and the attitude toward Wallace-related naysayers to the movie seems to be, ‘Just put those buzzkills in a roped-off box two football fields from the red carpet, at least.’ ”
Duly noted, and maybe after the movie go to YouTube and look up the series of interviews Wallace did with Charlie Rose in 1997. There you will witness not a writer who wrestled with depression but, in the words of Ponsoldt, “a wildly dynamic, funny, funny guy. He had the look and feel of an ex-jock who was hard-wired. There’s this real light about him.”
And read the work, of course. Maybe start with the essays (”A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is a hilarious entry point) and work up to “Infinite Jest,” a novel that is as much the actual experience of living in an endlessly proliferating modern world as it is a commentary on it.
You still won’t have the full measure of David Foster Wallace. But you’ll have a proper start.