Known for writing, producing or starring in such memorable recent comedies as Get Him to the Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up, along with his successful television series How I Met Your Mother, Jason Segel is on a roll in Hollywood. Making his animated debut in Despicable Me, the actor voices the villainous Vector, super arch-nemesis to Gru (voiced by Steve Carell).
During a press conference to promote the film, Jason Segel talked about finding the right voice for Vector, his tips for being funny and how he’s more proud of this film than anything he’s ever done. He also gave an update on how his Muppets movie is coming along, and hinted at what fans can expect from the upcoming season of How I Met Your Mother. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: What was it like to play this evil villain? What did you draw on for inspiration?
Jason: I was given a sketch very early, and I have a bit of a background in puppetry, so coming up with a voice to match the sketch was my real inspiration. I had a few months to come up with a voice and I came up with a few, and then I went in and they helped me choose. These guys are such geniuses. The one they ended up choosing was perfect.
You saw the character before you started finding the voice, but did he change at all during the process of making the film?
Jason: No. I got a sketch very early on that looked exactly like he ended up looking, and I came up with two voices, one that we used and one that was totally counter to the way he looked. We ended up choosing the one that I think was appropriate. I couldn’t be more proud of the way the producers and directors made this film. It’s beautiful.
Obviously, you look nothing like your character, but did you see any mannerisms that they picked up from you?
Jason: I was very excited. The whole thing that drew me to doing an animated film is that you’re freed from the physical limitations of your physical body. All of a sudden, you get to be something that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a 6’4″, lumbering dude, and that was really exciting. Puppetry is very similar. And then, this guy is based almost wholly on insecurity. He just wants to prove to his dad that he’s worthy and, in this case, the most evil person alive, so I drew from there. It was very freeing. You’ll probably notice that nobody in the cast is doing their voice. No one is talking like they normally talk and it’s because, all of a sudden, you’re freed from the physical limitations of how you look, which is amazing.
Which one of Vector’s gadgets did you love and wish was real?
Jason: I wouldn’t mind the shrink ray because I would like to make a lot of foods bite-sized, so that I could eat them constantly.
Jason: They’re very similar experiences. The thing that ties them together is the idea that you’re not tied to your physical body. So, being able to voice a character that looked nothing like me was very exciting. If I did that voice as an actor, you would call b.s. You would say, “No, that’s not what he sounds like.” But, all of a sudden, I could be 5′ 3″, wear an orange jumpsuit, and be nerdy.
Where does this fit in with your sense of humor, as far as the improv style you use?
Jason: What’s cool about doing this animated film – and this is the only one I’ve done, so I have no other frame of reference – is that you go in for three hours, every few months. I probably went in six times over two years, or something like that. And, from their standpoint, the goal is for me to give them as much material as I can possibly come up with, and they choose the funniest, the best and the most on-story. Every time, it was just three hours of intense effort, trying to be as funny as I could, and to be on story with the improv, and give them as much material as I possibly could.
Does it fit with your sense of humor?
Jason: Yeah. I am actually more proud of this movie than anything else I’ve ever done. There’s something very special about the idea of a family being able to go to a movie and everyone enjoying themselves, genuinely. It’s something “The Muppets” did beautifully and “The Simpsons” does it. Parents aren’t placating their kids when they take them to this movie because they’ll enjoy it as well. There’s something really great about the idea of a family walking out of a theater after everyone has had a really great experience and enjoyed themselves. I think a family getting along for a few hours is a special thing.
Do you think that animated movies are like an actor’s workshop, in a sense?
Jason: It’s a very unique experience, in that you’re not working with any of these actors, in any of these scenes. You’re alone in a booth. To me, it felt like a test of whether I could be funny, good and on-story. On-story, to me, is a big part of improv. It’s very easy to come out and say funny lines that you’ve thought of the night before, but to be on-story is the real challenge. You’re in there for three hours, trying to give them material they can actually use. I have a million jokes I could say, but to try to keep it on-story and valuable to them was something that was a challenge, and I really enjoyed that. It’s just you alone, which is awesome.
How did you become attached to Despicable Me?
Jason: John Cohen, one of our great producers, came to my house and told me about the story. Then, he gave me a sketch of Vector and I was hooked, instantly. The story is so beautifully told that there was no doubt I was going to do the film.
Growing up, did you have a favorite animated film?
Jason: I was really drawn to the early Disney villains and, funnily enough, this movie is about villainy. They managed to be really terrifying without scaring kids. If you think about Ursula from The Little Mermaid, that’s a terrifying character. They’re all witches, for the most part, in the Disney universe. They’re really terrifying, terrible and intense for the heroes, but somehow your eye was always drawn to them.
Where did you find your inner dork to play Vector?
Jason: I’ve been 6′ 4″ and 100 pounds since I was 12. I looked like Jack Skellington. Kids used to stand around me in a circle and, one by one, they would jump on my back and the rest would chant, “Ride the oaf! Ride the oaf!” It’s true. So, you either become funny, which is hopefully what I did, or you become a villain, which is where I got the idea for Vector. He’s a guy who was horribly picked on, and this is where he’s ended up.
Both Vector and Gru have parent issues. Do you have any insight into why they both have these despicable qualities?
Jason: I think they could be siblings. You only see Gru’s mom, and you only see Vector’s dad. It should be Despicable Me 2: This Time It’s Personal.
In the film, you and Steve play nemeses. In real life, who is your celebrity nemesis?
Jason: I think it’s probably Ryan Reynolds, in that we have very similar comedic tastes and all that. And, our bodies are so similar that it’s basically a rivalry over who can be in better shape. At this point, I think I’m winning.
When are we going to get a chance to hear your music again?
Jason: I wrote some of the music for Get Him to the Greek. I wrote “Bangers and Mash” and “Supertight.” That’s a real side job for me, but I enjoy it. I taught myself to play piano when I was 17, to pick up girls. When you try to pitch a real musician these songs, they write them too musically. And, when you try to pitch them to comedians, they write them too funny. Somehow, I found a middle ground because I’m not that good a musician and I’m not that funny. It ends up being perfect.
Did it work to pick up girls?
Jason: I remember that the first thing I did was find a really not-that-intelligent girl and I told her that I wrote “Your Song,” by Elton John. I was like, “I wrote this for you.” And then, I lost my virginity.
What’s your best advice for writing comedy?
Jason: To write a drama. I’m not joking. That was the first advice I got from Judd Apatow, and I think it’s why his movies are so brilliant. He told me, when I was writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall, “I want the first draft you give me to be a drama. We’ll make it funny. It’s going to be funny because we’re funny and we’re going to add jokes, and the people we cast will be funny. The reason people will see it – and see it again and again, or connect to it – is because there’s an underlying drama.” That’s the best advice I can give. When you’re trying to write a comedy, first write a drama, and then make it funny.
So how do you write a drama?
Jason: You go from real experience. Almost everything I’ve written is somehow tied to something I’ve gone through. You try to hit a universal theme. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is about how complicated break-ups are, which everyone has gone through. The next thing I’m writing is about engagement and love, and everyone has gone through that. You have to hit a universal theme, and this movie does it perfectly. The idea of somehow opening yourself up to something in your life is universal, and that’s what everyone relates to.
Does your height ever hinder you in getting roles?
Jason: Not now. It hindered me, when I was a kid. I remember when I was 18, I was allegedly really close to playing Dustin Hoffman’s son, and I knew I wasn’t going to get that part. I’m about eight inches taller than Dustin Hoffman. I might be a foot taller than Dustin Hoffman. It just wasn’t going to happen. So, it hindered me then, when I was playing a boy. Now that I’m playing a man, it’s a bit easier. Girls have heels. Dustin Hoffman in heels isn’t a good look.
How is the Muppets movie you’re doing coming along? How terrifying is it to have to live up to Jim Henson’s legacy?
Jason: Well, that part is very intimidating. What I do think is that I have to approach it with a real sense of respect, and I’m very earnest about the way I approach it. There’s no sense of irony with me, going into the Muppets. I don’t think it’s funny that I’m doing the Muppets. I truly love them. What I learned from this film is the idea of a family being able to bond over seeing something together, and walking out of the theater with everyone in a great mood. It’s a very special thing, for a family to walk out of a film satisfied and happy, and then go have lunch or dinner together feeling happy, and talking and laughing. It’s a very rare thing. Family dynamics aren’t easy, so the notion of anything drawing them together, especially a movie like Despicable Me, is a very special thing.
When you go back to work on “How I Met Your Mother,” what’s in store for Marshall and Lily?
Jason: I don’t know the storylines. Allegedly, from what I’ve heard, I’m going to get even funnier, which seems impossible, but that’s the plan. I think there might be a kid, in our future, if I had to guess, but I’m truly guessing. I always pictured myself and Marshall a bit like the Abominable Snowman from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, where they go, “I’ll hug him and squeeze him and kiss him all over.” I picture me holding a baby upside down by the leg, shaking it.
Are the producers amused by your idea for a post-apocalyptic finale?
Jason: I just think, if the narration takes place in the future, there should be a reveal where they open the window and it’s horrible out there. I just think that’s a hilarious idea. But no, they’re not amused by anything I do. A lot of these ideas come from the fact that I’m a bizarre human being.