How I Met Your Mother actor Jason Segel reflects on the “magical mid-life crisis” that led to him writing, directing and starring in AMC’s reflective, offbeat and surreal adventure Dispatches from Elsewhere.
By way of an introduction to a new television series, it is certainly eye-catching and unique. Before the opening credits of Dispatches from Elsewhere, Richard E Grant stares down the camera to unroll two minutes of exposition about lead character Peter, detailing the life of this lonely, submissive, routine-driven office worker.
Then when the story begins and Peter calls the number on a flyer for the Jejune Institute, he receives details of a time and place at which to take part in a mysterious initiation, leading him to take a leap of faith – one that changes his whole outlook on life.
While Grant’s character, Octavio, serves as the audience’s guide through the series, Jason Segel’s Peter is one of four ordinary people who are brought together when they stumble upon a puzzle hidden behind the veil of everyday life. As Peter, Janice (Sally Field), Simone (Eve Lindley) and Fredwynn (Outkast’s André Benjamin) begin to accept the mysterious ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere,’ they find a world filled with possibility and magic.
“I would say it’s the closest I could come to my version of The Wizard of Oz,” explains Segel, who also created and wrote the series. “Those four people go on a quest to find a missing girl and, in the process, try to find themselves, find community and find some of the magic that gets lost. Every Roald Dahl or Harry Potter book, they’re all built on the same idea that we have this hidden desire that someone is going to show up and say we’re meant for more. We all wish that, and this show scratches that itch.”
Segel jokes that the idea came from a “magical midlife crisis.” Having begun working in the film and TV business when he was 17, the actor broke through with a starring role in Judd Apatow’s short-lived NBC comedy Freaks & Geeks, before appearing in movies such as Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he also wrote) and I Love You Man. Meanwhile, he also starred in CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which ran for nine seasons until 2014.
“One of the side effects of being so, so lucky, which I was, was I didn’t have to do much thinking about who I was and why I was doing any of this during that decade,” he says. “The first thing I wrote, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I wrote from my guts and I wrote it with a complete lack of strategy because I was young and I didn’t know any better. It was the work of somebody who didn’t know things were difficult or there had to be a plan or anything like that.”
Segel describes Apatow as his mentor, with the Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin filmmaker having taught him how to write and encouraged him to pursue his ideas. “He said to me, ‘Jason, you’re a weird dude, and the only way you’re going to make it is if you write your own material.’ It was the best piece of advice I ever got,” Segel recalls.
“I wrote my first movie when I was 24 years old. From the moment that movie was made, that same year, I got How I Met Your Mother, and I had a decade of things being fairly easy in terms of getting jobs and what would come next.”
Now 40, Segel had an “artistic check-in” after How I Met Your Mother ended, with no idea of what he would do next. But it was a San Francisco social experiment called Games of Nonchalance that would inspire his next major project. Wanting to pitch a screen idea based on the experiment, Segel called its creator, Jeff Hull, the “real-life Willy Wonka,” but was immediately hung up on.
“I was so confused, it was so cryptic. Then about a month later, I got an email with a location and a time in San Francisco,” he says. “I showed up and it was a hotel. I walk into the hotel, they said, ‘Mr Segel, we’ve been expecting you,’ and I went to this hotel room and there was a card waiting for me with another time for the next day, a location and a note that said, ‘No one is going to make you feel stupid.’ I thought, ‘Oh, these people understand what all of our fears are like.’
“I showed up the next day and I was basically put through the induction that you see in episode one of the TV show. At the end, I got another email that said, ‘We were watching you. You have divine nonchalance, and we’re giving you the rights to this project.’ That was how this all started, and it stayed equally as weird up until this moment.”
Segel originally conceived the project as a movie, but when he realised he was more interested in the characters than the central plot device – the hunt for a missing girl – he turned to television, with each episode profiling a particular character.
“The thing that really cracked the series open for me was when I cracked the structure,” he explains. “The adventure story, you can craft a million different ways, but the structure of this was very, very difficult. Once I figured out it was about who pulls a flyer and why, immediately what came into my mind was The Wizard of Oz. It’s four people, they can each need different things and be on the same journey to attain them and do it together. That was when that was when the show started to make sense for me.”
Another piece of advice Segel received from Apatow was that “everything happens in casting,” which means you write a part as best you can and then, after an actor has been cast in the role, you rewrite it with that actor in mind. Field plays Janice, who is searching for a sense of identity, while Benjamin is conspiracy theorist Fredwynn who can’t build relationships with other people.
Meanwhile, Simone struggles with the feelings of belonging and acceptance. Segel says Mr Robot star Lindley had the part from the moment she auditioned.
“She gave this audition that was so much more complicated and nuanced than I ever could have written. Then I just wrote towards her,” Segel says. “I tried to get to know her as much as I could. I picked her brain as much as I could.
“There’s some very explosive and emotional scenes between Simone and Peter as the series goes on and I can write them as best I can imagine them, but I don’t know Eve Lindley’s life. I don’t know what it might be like for a trans woman to be in a complicated relationship. So I was really lucky to have actors who were willing to tell me and show me and experiment with me and fight with me on screen. It really brings life to the show.”
Segel is speaking in Berlin, where the series had its world premiere at Berlinale last month, before its debut in the US on cable channel AMC. Shot in Philadelphia, it is produced by AMC Studios and also marks Segel’s first directing credit, having helmed episode one.
He says he is inspired by filmmakers such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, whose work is similarly surreal yet grounded in real life. “There’s so much being done about extraordinary people,” he says. “But what if you are coming to terms with [the fact] you’re just like everybody else? That’s what I’m going through. That’s what the show is about. It’s what we’re all going through in a moment-to-moment basis. We’re all coming to terms that we’re in this together.”
Being writer, actor and director on the project meant “the game of telephone” was removed for Segel, who says it would have been impossible to try and explain the tone of the show. “I had never wanted to direct before because everything that I wrote, I felt like one of my friends or somebody could direct it better. So I never wanted to do it out of pride. This was the first time that I wrote something where I felt like I personally should direct it.”
Beyond the adventure storyline, Dispatches from Elsewhere also uniquely blends themes of age, gender, sexuality, identity and race by telling a story about how four disparate people are more alike than they – or we – might think.
“The show, at its heart, is a challenge of empathy, to present people who seem like completely disparate types – and I challenge you at the beginning of each episode to think this person [featured in that episodes] is you,” Segel says.
“If we’ve done our job, by the end of the series, you recognise yourself in all of those characters. I feel as though that was why I wrote the show, because we’re being told we’re so different and we should be scared of each other and hate each other, or stick to your own group. If you carry that far enough, you end up the king of your own kingdom of one. I was interested to break down those walls.”
Segel says he sometimes wishes his career had been given to him on a plate, instead of the actor selecting his work more carefully. But like the characters in Dispatches from Elsewhere who embark on an adventure in an attempt to find what is missing in their lives, that has never been his story.
“That’s not what my career has ever been like, at least in terms of stuff that I wanted to do,” he adds. “While it’s harder this way, I do get to have the sense that when I make something from my guts, I feel like I’ve done what I imagine a real artist does.”