When I ask Jason Segel about his day—the last in a three-day press junket for his film The Muppets—he answers, “Good. It’s much easier to do this when it’s something you love.” So he’s promoted movies he doesn’t like? “I have. I’ve experienced both. This has been a pure pleasure.” Speaking from an L.A. hotel, the 31-year-old hopes that, with his reboot of the Muppets franchise, everyone feels his pleasure. That hope practically leaps from the phone. In The Muppets, cowritten by Segel and Nicholas Stoller, Segel’s character, Gary; his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams); and his brother, Walter, who’s played by a puppet, set out to reunite the Muppets and to resurrect Jim Henson’s legacy.
So what happens when a little boy’s dream comes true?
He lives happily ever after. Don’t try to Willy Wonka me. [Laughs]
What was it about the Muppets’ comedy that spoke to you as a kid?
The Muppets always felt like you were watching this controlled chaos. You were getting a glimpse into adult humor, and it felt a little dangerous. And the Muppets’ humor is never about being mean. It reminds you of the best version of yourself.
About that never-mean quality: You said, “I don’t care about much besides being nice.” Is it tough being a nice guy in Hollywood?
No. It’s so easy to be nice, and even if it’s just self-serving, being nice is better than being mean. When you’re being mean, you might feel powerful, but people are waiting for you to fail. I think there is something in the way that I’ve carried myself where people are rooting for me.
The film’s new Muppet character, Walter, seems like your alter ego.
Walter is a thinly veiled analogue for me during this process. He is a wide-eyed, naive, innocent, giant Muppet fan who finds the Muppets at a place that he doesn’t feel honors what they’ve created, and sets out to bring them back to the forefront of comedy. It was exactly my plan. The last movie was 12 years ago, so kids zero to 12 have grown up without a Muppet movie. That seems wrong to me.
The film is different from previous Muppet movies in that people, like you and Amy Adams, are more central.
All the great Muppet villains are humans. But it was a divisive move on my part. I knew my name and Amy’s name and Chris Cooper’s name would help get the movie made.
Divisive among whom?
Well, it’s a $50 million budget for a Muppet movie. To get them to agree to that, you need to have some sort of name factor to sell a movie.
You’ve joked your house is filled with Muppets figures.
That’s not a joke, that’s the truth.
Perhaps this isn’t a joke either, then: You say that’s why you’re still single.
It’s absolutely true. I have a lot of first dates and not a lot of second dates.
Maybe you shouldn’t have those first dates at your home. What do women say?
It’s gotten a little bit better now that I’m doing the Muppet movie. For a while I was the creepy unemployed dude with puppets in his house.
Paint a picture: Walk me into your living room.
It looks like the lobby of a small hotel. There’s, like, eight seats, and there’s the chair that I sit in, and then every other chair has a puppet in it. [Laughs] I was born without a sense of pride or shame.
Some of the original Muppets contributors weren’t pleased with your script. Frank Oz turned it down, saying, “I don’t think they respected the characters.”
Some of them worked on the movie. The unfortunate thing is that they made those comments before they saw the film. I don’t think they were necessarily familiar with our style of moviemaking. For us, the final stage of writing comes in the editing room, and so we’re gonna shoot every option. And they were skeptical of, in particular, the story line that the Muppets aren’t at the forefront of comedy anymore or that they’re not famous anymore. That was a big point of contention. Our producer put it really well to me: We are by definition the stepparents. The stepparents can do no right to a kid.
Amy Adams said, “You sign on to the man-child thing when you work with Jason.” The man-child, of course, figures in Judd Apatow films you’ve been in, and it describes your character here, too.
The onscreen versions are stunted; they need to grow up. My real-life version is a man-child, but it’s a little bit different. It’s that I refuse to give up my sense of wide-eyed wonder. I like naïveté. There’s no reason that I should be a leading man except that I believe that I can be. People like to be reminded that a sense of wonder can get you a long way.
The Muppets opens November 23.