March 22, 2019

Jason Segel on the universe — and ‘The Five Year Engagement’

Not long ago I interviewed Jason Segel (“The Muppets”) about his Duplass brothers film, “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” when he also talked about his views on life, God, the universe and – oh yes – his new film “The Five Year Engagement,” which opens April 27.  This new comedy – which Segel co-authored with the film’s director, Nicholas Stoller – stars Segel and Emily Blunt (“The Adjustment Bureau,” “The Young Victoria”) as a an interfaith couple whose nuptials are put on hold.  Here are some excerpts from our conversation, in which the 32-year-old actor waxed philosophical on everything from his penchant for Joseph Campbell to himself growing up in an interfaith family in Los Angeles.

NPM:  Tell me a bit about your religious background.

JS:  My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.  I went to an Episcopal school during the day and Hebrew school at night.  I actually have a pretty thorough religious education.  It’s a lot of guilt – guilt from all sides [laughs].

I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school.  What occurred to me is, “This is not God.”  It’s the antithesis of the point.  I was a young kid who would have been happy to believe whatever I was told and I was being excluded from both sides?  It really informed who I became as a person.  You either become misanthropic or you become funny.  I went with funny.

NPM:  Is there any difference between Jewish and Christian guilt?

JS:  No, it’s all the same. It’s all people who think they know; you know the word we use for God is meant to be the most powerful force that you could possibly imagine.  I’ve come to terms with the idea that any of us who have any claim to think that we know what’s going on is pretty arrogant; that’s not the God we’re talking about. Everyone is so sure of what they believe in, but they have no idea. I think the smartest opinion is to say, “ I have no idea.”

NPM:  Isn’t it just as arrogant to say there’s no God as to say there is one? 

JS:  Well, atheism makes no sense, just logically. Do you know the story of the watch and the watchmaker?  It’s pretty compelling.  If you were back in caveman days, and you found a watch, you would know implicitly it’s different than a rock or a tree. You’d know that something made it.  And if you’re able to pull back, our planets are revolving around the sun in perfect order; these are the gears of the watch.  I think it’s foolish to think the universe isn’t designed by something; the big question to me is, is it conscious?  And I don’t know the answer to that.

NPM:  Did you have a bar mitzvah?

JS:  I did, at Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades.  And I nailed it.  It was a really fun day, actually, and Wolfgang Puck catered my bar mitzvah; it was very fancy.  And it was very 90s in some fashion; I remember I wore like a long purple jacket with mustard green pants; like, I looked like a terrible standup comedian.

NPM:  Did you get any laughs on the bimah?

JS:  A bar mitzvah is not a particularly funny thing.  It’s tough to get laughs in Hebrew.

NPM:  Do you identify as culturally Jewish?

JS:  Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of “I know better than someone else” is wildly arrogant.

NPM:  Tell me about the genesis of “The Five Year Engagement.”

JS:  Nick Stoller [the film’s director and co-author] and I are like the least masculine men in Hollywood.  We’re super interested in relationships; that’s always been something that sort of drives me.  And what we thought was interesting was to explore the way a power dynamic shifts over five years.  You know, relationships are so fluid, and you meet new people and people’s jobs change and you move and it’s never stagnant.

NPM:  In the movie, you’re Jewish and the character played by Emily Blunt is not; in the film’s trailer, there’s a scene in which the couple is talking about whether the men will wear yarmulkes, and you say you have one in your “Jewish drawer.”

JS:  Actually we had a whole family dynamic that she was Christian and I’m Jewish, and the [ensuing] religious discussion; her family wanted the Christian wedding and I wanted the Jewish wedding, and our families wanted it more than us.  But we ended up cutting a lot of it.

NPM:  Have you noticed that most films that revolve around a Jewish guy have him involved with a non-Jewish woman?

JS:  That is true [smiles broadly].  But that I don’t have an answer to.

NPM:  I heard you improvised the line about the Jewish drawer.  Do you have one? 

JS:  Yes I do.  I definitely have a Jewish drawer; it’s in my office at home.  It’s like where my tallis and stuff are, which I only open on the high holidays.