There's a moment relatively early into The End of the Tour where writer and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) sits across a diner table from Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and remarks "If they're responding to your work, and your work is really personal, than reading you is another way of meeting you, isn't that right?" If that holds true, the brilliantly personal filmmaking on display in The End of the Tour (based on Lipsky's book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace) is a way of meeting both Wallace and Lipsky.
As the two travel the Midwest together on the final days of Infinite Jest's 1996 book tour, they engage in stirringly profound conversation about the nature of writing, relationships, and depression. Segel's Wallace perfectly embodies and expresses the feeling of disconnection in modern America. He feels almost burdened by his overactive mind and the way it prevents people from treating him like a normal guy. But while The End of the Tour presents itself as "the David Foster Wallace movie," it's actually a film about Lipsky struggling to validate his own place as a writer through the contextual lens of Wallace. Lipsky wants the acclaim and adulation Wallace has, and his steadfast drive to prove himself ends up derailing the best conversation he'll ever have.
In anticipation of The End of the Tour's release, we had the chance to sit down and talk to Segel in Seattle and discussed the language of depression in Infinite Jest, playing the part with relatable intelligence, and how he found common ground with Wallace's struggle for meaningful connection.
What was your first exposure to David Foster Wallace’s writing?
It was the short form. The first thing that I read—because I’m really into tech stuff—was an excerpt from Infinite Jest that was printed autonomously called “The Rise and Fall of the Videophone,” which was so funny and was literally telling the future. Because this is pre-all of that, this is 1996 or whatever. It was about how video chat became available and people were so excited, but then people realized that they could no longer split their focus, like they could on a phone call, because the person could see them, so you couldn’t be doing other stuff. So people started making masks where the eyes were looking directly at the camera [laughs], so they could do other stuff. And then it evolved to people making dioramas of their living room with a perfectly-done them just looking into the camera, and it eventually ended with people taping off the camera so they could just go back to the phone call. And I thought it was so funny. Then I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which has the cruise ship essay that is one of his funniest things that I’ve read. But I had never tackled Infinite Jest until this movie.
Yeah. It’s… it’s…
It’s a monster.
It’s dense. So you were more drawn to his nonfiction as opposed to his fiction?
Yeah, the short form. Infinite Jest was the first of his novels that I read. But it’s interesting—even though that is fiction, it feels like the most personal of his work to me. I feel like he is every character in that book, and I feel like there’s a distress signal being sent out from Infinite Jest saying, I feel really dissatisfied, does anyone else want to join me in this discussion?
When preparing for the role, were there specific portions of Infinite Jest that you latched onto as stylistic anchors or made you go I need to find a way to bring this into the movie?
Yeah. The way he writes about depression in Infinite Jest is really profound. One of the things I think is amazing about David Foster Wallace is he provides a surrogate experience where he says, “I’m gonna be you for the next thousand pages,” but he’s somebody who’s gifted with a vocabulary and a perspective to express things that we might normally overlook. So you read some stuff and you’re like, wait—yes! That is how I feel. And he talks about depression two places: one of them is in the movie. It’s the metaphor of jumping out of a burning building: what could be so terrifying that jumping out of a building feels like an escape from it? And the other is this girl that’s taken to a hospital after a failed suicide attempt. And the doctor says, “Why did you want to hurt yourself?” And she says, “You’ll never understand. You think I was trying to hurt myself. I was trying to end the pain.” And reading that was very informative for me in a couple ways: one, that is the kind of thing that, if you suffer from it, is ever-present. So even if you’re not right in the thick of an intense depression, you know that it’s potentially around the corner and you are like, constantly in a state of diligence to guard against it, you know?
When I read it, I thought, “Yeah! I wish that I had said that instead of ‘leave me alone.’” [Laughs] That is why people are so drawn to him. Because most of us are just capable of leave me alone.
There’s a part in the film where Wallace talks about treasuring his “normal guy-ness.” He has this vocabulary and these mental tools he employs in his writing, but in-person he prefers to keep things simpler and more relatable. When approaching the part, how did you tap into the normal guy-ness while still maintaining his intelligence?
Well that very pull, I think, is what creates some of the tension in the story. How do you feel like part of the group if you are always the biggest brain in the room? When you listen to This Is Water—the Kenyon [College] commencement speech he gave years later—or you read Infinite Jest, his proposed solution to this feeling of emptiness is connection. That that’s what is missing, you know? These are all my guesses; I had to make choices playing the part. But this is somebody who is trying so hard to feel connection. But you also are sitting there constantly [analyzing]—you’re so smart, you know everyone’s agenda in a room. And you’re having this conversation with David Lipsky wanting to connect with him, wanting to have a real conversation, and silently watching a guy try to stick the knife in your back. So it was interesting to play both of those things.
I think that is what became so frustrating for him during the interview and ultimately became the betrayal. It’s like, man, I’m really trying to talk with you about vital stuff that I am experiencing literally right now. [Laughs]
In the moment.
Yeah. You have an opportunity you don’t even realize. I’m going through some shit right now that we could be talking about, and you can’t get past this idea that I’m a liar.
Right, that’s one of my favorite aspects of your performance, just those little twitches. There are these moments where conversation between Wallace and Lipsky is really flowing and then all of a sudden Lipsky asks a swerve question, and there’s this quick facial pang of agony and frustration that washes over you.
It’s this thing you’ve experienced it in life. It’s the phenomenon of having a conversation with a contrarian or someone who’s had one too many drinks, where you keep getting blocked on the lead-up to your point. Like they keep disagreeing with you before you get to the important part and you’re like, you’re stopping me at the dumb parts. I haven’t gotten to my point yet. [Laughs]
I remember taking a speech class where one of the main takeaways was that everybody always tries to steer conversations to themselves by bringing in their own tangential connections to any given topic. I realize I'm doing that exact thing by bringing it up, but it's like, you're talking about a football game? I went to another football game. Just little ways of forcing in our own personal things instead of letting the conversation flow.
That’s right. David Lipski, as opposed to just listening, is also really trying to assert his status as if not an equal, as a contemporary. You can tell that it’s very important to him, ego-wise, that David Foster Wallace know that he’s not just an interviewer. And so he doesn’t do the job of just an interviewer. It gets really tainted.
It becomes a…
Another aspect that I really enjoyed was while it’s essentially a film just about two people talking to each other, there are these moments of arresting cinematic beauty—like the washed out snowy fields or sun-drenched hotel rooms—that director James Ponsoldt weaves in to give viewers a reprieve from the chatter; a chance to almost reset and take a breath. What did you enjoy most about the vision James brought as the director?
I can tell you—it’s gonna be tough to translate if people haven’t seen the movie when they read this—but I did not know that the climax of the movie was this moment post-closure with Lipski and David Foster Wallace… where Lipski has a moment alone in David Foster Wallace’s house. When that happens, that is where I get emotional. And on the page, I would’ve had no idea. You know, James does interviews; for a film magazine, he interviews directors. And I was so focused on Wallace because I was playing Wallace, but what James saw as sort of the view from above is that this is really a story about David Lipski. This is a story about a guy getting to meet his idol and realizing at the end of it that he’s potentially blown the opportunity to really have an experience with him. Finding out that that was what the movie was about was really exciting. When I sat and watched it for the first time, it was such a different movie than I thought it was.
So there’s kind of the running narrative that’s like oh, it’s Jason Segel in the dramatic role! What a revelation! To which I’m always like, oh yeah, he’s a acted well in other things before, just because lots of them are funny doesn’t mean they don’t count. So with that in mind is there anything you kind of drew on from previous roles when coming to The End of the Tour or did you kind of separate yourself from previous roles?
There is a thread, which is the stuff that I have really liked that I have done is stuff that’s really reflective of how I’m feeling at the time. That like really tests my capacity to analyze what I’m going through in my life at that moment. So I’ll watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and that movie, despite being a comedy, actually feels very vital to me. That feels really reflective of what you’re going through at 24. [Laughs] You’ve had a break-up and the world’s gonna end, and you’re figuring out how to stand on your own two feet. That is how I felt at the time.
And one of the things that really drew me to this project is this is actually very reflective of what I’m going through now, or where I was specifically a year ago when my TV show came to an end. And there was sort of a natural end to the cycle of comedies I was doing, where I was feeling a disconnect between what I was thinking about and the work I was doing. They were no longer in line. And I was at a moment very much like where David Foster Wallace was in these four days of I have to face the reality. I’m 34 years old, alone in a room with a piece of paper. That is literally what I felt like. I really can’t do that old stuff anymore. What do I do now? And so I thought this is… this is scary, but this is right. I should do something I’m scared of.
The End of the Tour
Opens Aug 6, SIFF Cinema Egyptian/Sundance Cinemas/Lincoln Square Cinemas, $9–$12