A few years ago, it seemed unlikely that Paul Rudd and Jason Segel would make the leap from cult-approved comedic performers to stars of a mainstream buddy comedy, but they’ve certainly paid their dues. Though Rudd’s breakthrough role in 1995’s Clueless positioned him as a charming, conventionally handsome leading man, his subsequent career has followed a quirkier trajectory, with offbeat roles in independent movies, theater, and television. His collaboration with Stella’s David Wain and omnipresent comedy producer/director Judd Apatow has kept him busy in recent years: With Wain, he won significant parts in Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten, and last year’s hit comedy Role Models (which he also co-wrote), and he’s appeared in several Apatow productions, including Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Walk Hard. Segel owes even more of his success to the Apatow connection; he played the model of awkward earnestness on the failed-but-beloved TV series Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared, then moved on to a supporting role in the hit Knocked Up before getting a vehicle of his own in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he also wrote). Segel also co-stars on the fine CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, currently in its fourth season.
In their new comedy I Love You, Man, Rudd plays an incipient groom who has never had any close guy friends who could serve as best man. So at his fiancée’s urging, Rudd sets out on a series of “man-dates” to find that special friend. Instead, he meets Segel, a committed bachelor whose friendship threatens to derail the wedding. Rudd and Segel recently spoke with The A.V. Club about straddling the creepy line, self-tanning in Hawaii, and how comedy is changing.
The A.V. Club: What brought the two of you to this movie? Was it conceived around you as a team, or did the casting come later?
Jason Segel: I got the script from John [Hamburg, director] with a note saying “Do you want to do this with Paul Rudd?” But I think the script had been around for a little while, and then John found it and decided to do a rewrite of it. I think we were who he was thinking about when he wrote it. That’s what he told us, anyway.
Paul Rudd: He likes to say that Steve Carell passed, and that he’d gone through a series of different actors before settling on us. I’m assuming he’s joking.
JS: I hope so. Yeah. It was originally Steve Carell and Judge Reinhold. [Laughs.]
PR: That would’ve been pretty good.
AVC: I think Judge Reinhold is actually due for a comeback.
PR: I think so too.
JS: That would be nice. He was always good.
AVC: The nature of male friendship has been the subject of a lot of these comedies lately, but this movie brings it right to the fore. Beyond the hooky concept of man-dates and a guy searching for his best man, what does this film have to say about the subject?
JS: I think the movie’s about getting comfortable enough in your own skin to be able to open up your male friends. And you don’t have to pat lightly when you hug another guy. It’s all right to just give them a proper hug and feel the friendship. And it’s all right to say “I love you” to your friend. I think that’s sort of what the movie’s about—if you’re comfortable in your own skin, you can have male friends and open up to them. Because it’s important. You don’t want to be laying all your worries and concerns on your significant other. That gets tiresome. And the next thing, you know, divorce court.
PR: Divorce Court is a great show.
JS: It really is.
PR: I think John wanted to make a funny movie, but somewhat of a realistic depiction of a dilemma I think many people have, which is “How do you make friends post-college?”
AVC: That’s a problem with finding any kind of relationship post-college. There’s no way to meet anyone.
PR: Yeah. As you hit their 30s and get married and have kids, your relationships sometimes fall off, and you see people less frequently. Like, my character’s just kind of being a girlfriend guy, putting all of my energies into my relationships. How do you go about making friends? It seemed like it was a good story. I know that when I read it, I kind of couldn’t believe this movie hadn’t been made before. This seems really subtly sophisticated, really funny, and relatable.
JS: I think it’s also unique in that it’s got all the elements of a romantic comedy, but also all the elements of a buddy movie, which I’d never really seen before. Sort of a romantic comedy between two guys. And then it also turns into… There’s a whole section of the movie where it’s strict buddy comedy. I think we’ve found a unique mix. It’s pretty great.
AVC: Once you came onto the project, how did your characters evolve? You’ve both done some writing. Were you given some responsibility in creating these characters off the page?
JS: I think it’s always your responsibility as an actor to create the character and bring something to it. But I must say, John presented us with two pretty fully realized characters.
PR: We got together before we started shooting, and we would sometimes rehearse in his office, and add things and little details, and he also did encourage moments when we would kind of goof around. An example would be like that scene where we get to know each other for the first time. We go out to a bar, and we knew we’d be filming it all night, where we would be having conversations and getting to know each other. Nothing was scripted, it was just that we knew we’d have these conversations, drink beer, and hopefully something funny would come out of it.
AVC: Did you film something as written and then go off from there?
PR: Sometimes. There were little things that were not written, that being one of them, and other certain flourishes. There are awkward moments in comedy. It’s kind of nice sometimes to not script some of those things, because you can hit some really organic awkward moments that can be funny.
AVC: So much of the humor in the film does come from those awkward moments, or jokes that fall flat. Is there a trick to getting the timing of that down?
PR: Personally, and I don’t mean to brag, my jokes have been falling flat for most of my life. [Laughs.]
JS: I must say, what I think what Paul did in this movie was so difficult and so remarkable. That character trait of getting things a little bit wrong—in the hands of a lesser actor, it could’ve been really annoying. And Paul hit the sweet spot so perfectly that as opposed to getting annoyed with him, you just feel such sympathy, and also empathy, because we’ve all been there. It’s perfect. You fall in love with Paul Rudd in this movie.
PR: [Laughs.] God. Ugh. Jason. Thank you. I feel unclean now.
JS: Yeah, just wait. [Laughs.]
PR: And let me… Is it time for me to sing the praises of Jason Segel? Because I will.
JS: No, no. ’Cause that’ll just feel cheap.
PR: I know it feels cheap.
JS: I don’t want it like this, I don’t want it like this.
PR: I know, it seems as if the reciprocal compliment always sounds as if it’s—
JS: It’s cheap.
PR: It’s forced, it’s cheap. It’s not. He beat me to the punch.
AVC: What if I were to ask, say, “What did Jason Segel bring to the table?”
PR: Thank you, you’re like some sort of marriage counselor. [Laughs.] One of the things I loved about these two characters is that we both kind of wear our emotions and our hearts on our sleeves. Jason has this kind of innate ability to be so totally open and hilarious and not worried about how…
JS: This is a lot hard for me to listen to. [Laughs.]
PR: Only because I don’t have the eloquence or wherewithal to try and get my point across. There’s something so specific and unique about him, where you don’t know—and this is what I think is also so great about this character—you kind of don’t know where he’s coming from. But it’s fascinating, it’s interesting. Jason will hold his gaze a little too long, and it’s funny, but it’s also a little creepy.
JS: I love holding my gaze. [Laughs.]
PR: You love holding your gaze. You held my gaze. You still hold my gaze.
JS: I love holding your gaze.
PR: But only because I have an open wound. [Laughs.] Anyway, how about that? Don’t you feel a little…
JS: [Laughs.] I do. That got to me.
PR: I was so hoping where it would work out where we both got to spend a lot of time onscreen together. This is our third movie together, but we only had brief interactions in Knocked Up and Sarah Marshall.
JS: Paul was nice enough to come out and do a few scenes.
PR: “Nice enough”? You were nice enough to ask me. I didn’t do anything nice. I just said “Fuck yeah, I’ll be there.”
JS: You did go to the tanning booth four times in two days.
PR: That was nice. It wasn’t a tanning booth. It was the spray tan.
JS: Spray tan, that’s right. Because we had to make him look Hawaiian. And Paul kept…
PR: I arrived. I landed in Hawaii from New York, which is just a really long flight, and arrived in Honolulu and had to go right to spray-tanning. Then I had to take a drive an hour and a half or so to the North Shore. I got to my room and took a shower, which was so stupid. And they didn’t have spray tanning in the North Shore. So as soon as I took a shower, I had to go back an hour and a half to Honolulu to get spray-tanned again. [Laughs.]
AVC: A business like that in Hawaii doesn’t seem like it would be successful.
JS: Yeah, exactly.
PR: Yeah, that’s it really. You’re opening up a spray-tan business in Hawaii. I think I was the only customer.
AVC: It must be only for people who are pale or burned, nothing in between.
PR: It’s for the Irish. [Laughs.]
AVC: Both of you have shown a willingness over the years to throw yourself into awkward, embarrassing situations. It is difficult to steel yourself for that? Do you have to summon up some courage?
JS: Honestly, I don’t know what it is, but I seem to have been born without a sense of shame or embarrassment, for the most part. Very few things make me feel uncomfortable. It was one of the things that came from working with Judd [Apatow]. Judd saw when we were doing Freaks And Geeks that apparently my skill, if I have one, is that I can get really, really close to the creepy line while somehow still being likeable. And so that’s been my whole exercise in my career, just trying to get as close to that creepy line as possible and have people still enjoy watching.
AVC: [To Rudd.] Are you in a similar situation?
PR: I think you start worrying about certain things.
AVC: Is there a vanity that you have to overcome?
PR: I think if you have that, things just won’t be as funny.
PR: Or relatable. I think we’re all much more interested in playing characters that are relatable rather than cool. Because growing up, I never really cottoned to the action guys. I hated Top Gun.
JS: Me, too.
PR: It was like, “I can’t relate to that kind of character.” But even as a kid, I could totally relate and loved anything Albert Brooks did. So I think that that kind of stuff was always more interesting to me. And I don’t have the ability to fly planes. [Laughs.]
JS: [Laughs.] And I don’t have the body for action movies.
AVC: It seems like film comedy today is dominated by an expanding troupe of actors that appear in different movies together, whether they’re Apatow productions or David Wain movies.
PR: [Fake smug.] I’ve got my foot in each of those comedy pools.
JS: I want to get in the Wain comedy pool.
PR: I have a feeling you could get into the Wain comedy pool. I think all you would need to do is call.
JS: Call David Wain? Call D-Wain?
PR: Call D-Wain. I’ve got his number. I’ll give it to you. Before the day is done, you’ll be doing a webisode of Wainy Days. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you feel like there’s some kind of cohesive vision to comedy these days, like you’re moving forward together in some way? Sorry if that’s a fairly abstract question.
JS: I can give you an abstract answer. Would you like that?
JS: I can’t speak to the David Wain group, though they’re amazing, but I think that the era right before us in comedy is that Farrelly brothers era, where things were a little bit broader. Like Matt Dillon showing up with the huge teeth and all that in There’s Something About Mary.
PR: Which is hilarious.
JS: It’s hilarious, and I love that style of comedy as well. But now there’s been a slight shift, and Judd sort of ushered in this era of comedy where everything had to be really grounded and based on universal problems and things that everybody could relate to, and then comedy was built on top of that. I think part of the reason people respond so much to these movies is that they’ve experienced these scenarios. Like, this movie is very much in that vein as well. This is a real-life topic, and we try to make it funny, but there’s some real underlying heart to it.
AVC: From a performance standpoint, there’s a lot of talent out there. Is there a danger of filmmakers leaning too heavily on actors to carry material across? Are you ever faced with situations where you feel you’re being asked to make something great out of something that is fundamentally weak?
JS: Well, I think you try not to choose that material.
PR: I think that it’s weird. There are many great writers out there, and actually great scripts. The problem is—and this is what I’ve always felt, even when I got out of school and started reading scripts—the really smart, character-driven stuff tends to be smaller films, and they just don’t get made. There are obviously some great big movies that are smart and do get made. But you talk to other actors and ask them about some of the best scripts that they’ve read, the ones that are really good… You wonder, “Whatever happened to that script? Did they ever make that movie?” And I don’t know. I just think it’s because there’s risk in making those. People want to put out what’s appealing to the masses because it’s a business, and that’s the most important thing. So at every turn, they’re always waiting for any actor to enhance what’s actually being made. I used to think that when I would watch some sitcoms. When I was out of school, I’d think “These actors are incredible, because some of this stuff is not so good.” You know what I mean?
PR: On the other hand, it seems as if people make such a big deal in every kind of discussion of Judd’s movies about improvisation, and I think that the scripts are undervalued. Yes, their directing style sometimes is that they want us to do sections where we’re improvising things, but that doesn’t mean we’re making anything better. I don’t know what the fuck I was talking about.
AVC: You’re not trying to salvage something. It’s not like you’re trying to save something that’s garbage.
PR: You can’t turn water into wine sometimes.
JS: I think that part of the issue is choosing your material carefully. I don’t think that Paul or I, luckily, are at a point now where we’re desperate and need to do something tomorrow. So we get to choose our stuff a little more carefully and avoid that problem.
PR: That being said, you never know how some things are going to turn out either. You hope for the best.
AVC: You’ve both had your successes lately. And you’ve both been involved in movies and TV shows that weren’t successful, yet have big cult followings. Does it feel odd to achieve success in the mainstream? Is there part of you that misses the intensity of the passionate few, as opposed to many?
JS: How I Met Your Mother has been very interesting in that regard, because I think it’s a case of the passionate few versus the many. I was not expecting to do something for four years—let alone eight, because I think we have four more left on our contracts. That’s an intense thing that I never expected to experience, because I personally like playing characters, and the idea of doing the same character for so long is very new to me. Freaks And Geeks lasted half a season. It was basically the length of doing a movie. And Undeclared, I only did three episodes. And that was great. I think I do prefer the notion of doing something intensely for a short amount of time, and getting to leave it behind and move on.
PR: I’ve always been drawn to—in music or in anything—stuff that a lot of people don’t know about. There is something really cool when people don’t really know your name, but occasionally some people might, you know, fans of Wet Hot. There’s cred in that. And even though I really like and am thrilled and happy and proud to be in these movies, and certainly have noticed a difference in these last few years as far as mainstream success, I know that you’re out there more as a result, and it’s not as cool, and there’s farther to fall. I think there’s like a shelf life to all of this. Particularly comedy. There are comedic trends and they change quickly, more so than dramatic trends. The backlash comes now, and that’s kind of a bummer, but I just try not to concern myself with that too much, and just hope to do things that are good and that I like. But there is something kind of nice about feeling like you’re part of the cool club when you’re doing these weird little indies.
JS: I think part of what drove our group, too, is we were the underdogs for a long time. Like when we were doing Freaks And Geeks, we were getting cancelled, and when we were doing Undeclared, we got cancelled, and it really drove our group to… You want to show ’em, you know? And it’s a tricky thing to make sure that you maintain that sort of drive when all of a sudden you’re doing well. But I think we’ve done a good job.