Last spring, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg were just two celebrities
hanging out filming in a Minneapolis parking lot. Now, that movie is finally hitting the big screen.
The End of the Tour, based off of David Lipsky’s bestseller Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, follows a young Lipsky (Eisenberg) as he tags along with writer David Foster Wallace (Segel) on the last stop of his book tour for Infinite Jest in Minnesota.
Segel returned to the Mall of America once more just ahead of the film’s nationwide release, surprising the audience at an advance screening. We had the chance to chat with Segel just before he revisited the food court where he and Eisenberg filmed one of the movie’s pivotal scenes.
As a writer concerned with how fame would affect his work (and its perception), The End of the Tour is exactly the kind of publicity that Wallace would’ve shied away from. While it flirts with hagiography, the film — especially Segel’s performance — achieves a fleeting snapshot of a brilliant-but-flawed man with a sense of self-awareness that pervades every moment he spends with other people. Since Wallace’s passing, his fanbase has grown more fervent, torn between those clinging to a glorified version of a tortured genius and those insisting that he was just a regular guy.
Preparing for The End of the Tour, Segel was forced to grapple with how to tackle becoming the human behind the legend. “I actually thought that was a really important thing going in,” Segel explains. “Because one of the pitfalls would be to deify David Foster Wallace.”
Segel recognizes that the deification of Wallace comes from a place of admiration. “I think the reason he resonates with so many people is because he feels like one of us,” Segel explains. He pauses and clarifies with a laugh: “One of us with a better vocabulary.”
Throughout the film, Wallace and Lipsky engage in a tennis match of wits, volleying intensely personal questions back and forth while trying not to let the other get too deep inside his head. At one point, Lipsky questions Wallace’s demeanor and suggests it’s all a front and that Wallace is dumbing himself down around others. Ultimately Wallace admits: “I treasure my regular guyness.”
That “regular guyness” coupled with Wallace’s existential angst about being in his mid-30s and spending all his time alone in a room with a piece of paper really resonated with Segel. Segel got together with some buds and started an Infinite Jest book club, reading 100 pages a week and breaking down the book. Segel was at a point where Wallace’s words provided what the actor says was the “emotional vocabulary” describing how he, too, felt as a 30-something: “Going in, it was really important to me that he feel like a 34 year old guy: complicated and funny and all the things that made us love his writing.”
In their four weeks of filming, Segel and Eisenberg expertly capture the quasi-friendship Wallace and Lipsky formed over the course of a few days. In an ultra-meta case of life imitating art imitating life, cultivating that relationship in real life came at breakneck speed.
“I finished How I Met Your Mother on a Friday and we started shooting [The End of the Tour] on a Monday,” Segel explains. “I hadn’t spoken out loud as David Foster Wallace in his presence before and he hadn’t spoken as David Lipsky in mine, so we didn’t even know what each other was going to do.”
While Segel had been channeling Wallace on his own, the pair didn’t have time to rehearse before the cameras started rolling. “The first time we started acting together was the day that his character arrives at my character’s house,” Segel says. “You can feel us sniffing each other out in that scene. That’s real.”
So what’ll you see of the Twin Cities in the film? A little snapshot of today’s metro masquerading as 1996. There’s the Minneapolis skyline, a drive down Sixth Street in downtown Minneapolis (check out the Saks Off 5th awnings), a glimpse of the bronzy Mary Tyler Moore tossing her beret, the old Hungry Mind Bookstore (R.I.P. under Patagonia on Grand Avenue), a shout out to City Pages (hey!), and — perhaps most recognizable of all — the Mall of America.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Segel recalls of the days they spent shooting at the Mall of America. “We didn’t really have any control of the environment at all because it was a super low budget movie, so it was really run-and-guns style.”
The duo, along with a small crew, filmed scenes throughout the mall including outside the Theatres at MOA, in the center of the food court overlooking Nickelodeon Universe (although that would’ve still been Camp Snoopy in the mid-'90s), and into the crushing fray of indoor theme park itself. Besides shooting on a tight budget without being able to cordon off a part of the mall, there was another marked challenge that greeted the filmmakers: technology.
“It takes place in 1996, so it was tough to frame all the camera phones out when Jesse and I were walking through the mall,” Segel laughs. “It was really exciting. Mall of America is really something else.”
Clad in a gray suit and maroon tie, hair slicked back, and a crinkled smile, Segel invited the audience to chat about the movie with him for more than half an hour after the screening. His answers during the Q&A harkened back to many of the same anecdotes told on various television appearances over the past few weeks, stories that play well to a crowd ready to laugh with the guy they know more from How I Met Your Mother than Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
Despite being known for his upbeat roles (hello, Muppets), Segel’s no stranger to the dramatic side of acting. Director John Ponsoldt actually sought Segel out for the part because of the underlying sadness he saw in the actor’s previous roles — from Segel’s comically heartbroken character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall all the way back to beloved (and besotted) Nick Andopolis from Freaks and Geeks. What Segel may lack in literal likeness to Wallace, he makes up for by bringing the writer’s sense of warmth, immediacy, humor, and reticence — sometimes all within the span of a minute.
That very human quality Segel gave to Wallace led one audience member to ask what it's like to know that Segel might be the image people think of when they think of Wallace (instead of Wallace himself). With taking on a biographical role like this, an actor inherits the burden of being "the face" audiences forever associate with that person, but Segel is reluctant to be a mental facsimile for the writer.
Instead, Segel explains that the remedy for that — and the film's ultimate goal — is to have audiences pick up some of Wallace's writing for the first time or the 10th time. Segel joked that Infinite Jest is a hefty commitment for Wallace neophytes — "the kind of book people own," rather than read — but that there's a lot of other accessible material like the essays "Consider the Lobster" and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."
After the screening, in what was a picture perfect snapshot of Wallace’s main demographic, audience members Jeremiah Cornehl and Ernest Lin stood outside in the rain discussing the film, Wallace, and what they took away from the night’s experience. Neither Cornehl nor Lin had been familiar with Wallace’s work before seeing the movie, but now they’re sold on him.
“I love some of the themes that he touches on, because right now being a 20-something, it’s very relatable,” Lin says.
“My roommate is one of the bros that Jason teases about who 'owns' a copy of Infinite Jest on our bookshelf, but I don’t think he’s read it,” Cornehl laughs, saying he’s likely to pick up Wallace’s essays but isn’t yet up to the challenge of Wallace’s 1,000 page magnum opus
“It definitely made me question my social ties or why I use social media,” Cornehl admits, referring to a scene in The End of the Tour when Wallace talks about technology and interpersonal relationships. “Some of what Jason Segel’s character touches on in the film, I’m like, ‘Oh fuck.’ It makes me reevaluate why I use Instagram and why I use Facebook.”
Lin feels it, too, reflecting on how using social media can cause a strain on real-life interactions if only because you forget you're connecting with a screen — not a person. “For a lot of people — I’m guilty of this too — you use social media to replace a lot of the real life face-to-face interaction of catching up with people,” Lin says. “It’s been months since I hung out with this guy [Cornehl], because you rely on social media and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. I see what he’s doing, so I don’t really need to hang out with him and talk to him.’ There’s a missing connection there.”
Sounds like it's mission accomplished for Segel and The End of the Tour.