Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Jason Segel goes dark 'n' dorky as Vector, the upstart mastermind giving protagonist Gru (Steve Carell) a run for his title as the #1 supervillain in the world in the animated flick Despicable Me. But in contrast to his dastardly gadget-wielding alter ego, Segel harbors a distinctly un-villainous soft spot when it comes to what Despicable Me is all about: bringing people together and giving families something special to share when they go to the movies.
That said, Segel was chock full of material both naughty and nice when we caught up with him in Los Angeles. Alternately self-deprecating and sarcastic, cheekily cocksure and sensitive, the Judd Apatow protégé held us rapt discussing Despicable Me, the Muppets flick he's writing, comedy how-tos, his height, being bullied as a child, why he learned the piano, and how he lost his virginity. (Hint: the latter two are related.)
Below, ten of the best bits, from Jason Segel's mouth to your brain.
On why his role in Despicable Me was more freeing than any live-action character could be:
"The whole thing that drew me to doing an animated film is that you're freed from the physical limitations of your physical body. All of a sudden you get to be something that has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a 6' 4", kind of lumbering dude… all of a sudden I could be 5' 3", wear an orange jumpsuit, and be nerdy. You know in real life I'm, like, SUPER good looking."
On how his own childhood helped him get into character as the evil, nerdy villain, Vector:
"I've been 6' 4" since I was 12. I was 6' 4", 100 lbs. I looked like Jack Skellington. Kids used to stand around me in a circle and one by one they would jump on my back and the rest would chant, 'Ride the oaf! Ride the oaf!' It's true. So you either become funny, which is hopefully what I did, or you become a villain, which is where I got the idea for Vector; he's a guy who was horribly picked on and this is where he's ended up."
On how and why his musical talents first came about:
"I taught myself to play piano when I was 17 to pick up girls… The first thing I did was I found a really not-that-intelligent girl and I told her that I wrote 'Your Song,' by Elton John. I was like, 'I wrote this for you.' And then I lost my virginity."
On the hardest part of recording a vocal performance for an animated film:
"It's very easy to come out and say funny lines that you've thought of the night before, but to be on story is the real challenge. So you're in there for three hours trying to give them material they can actually use. I have a million jokes I could say, but to try to make it on story and valuable to them was something that was a challenge, and I really enjoyed that idea. It's just you alone, which is kind of awesome -- a lot of the time other actors really slow me down, because they're not quite as good as me."
On his most despicable moment, which happened while doing a promotional bit for Despicable Me:
"We got to play with the minions a bit, who I think are the cutest element to the movie. We did a little conga line with them. It was a bit awkward, because, to be honest, it's midgets in outfits. And at one point I had to come up with something funny, and I said, 'Hey, can I throw this ball off of your head and see if it bounces back to me?' And one of the guys in the outfits said, 'You've got to remember, I'm a real human being.' And then I felt really awkward. That's my worst moment. To date."
On his celebrity nemesis:
"I think it's probably Ryan Reynolds, in that we have very similar comedic tastes and all that, and our bodies are so [similar] that it's basically a rivalry over who can be in better shape. At this point, I think I'm winning."
The best advice he has on writing comedy:
"Write a drama. I'm not joking. That was the first advice I got from Judd Apatow, and I think it's why his movies are so brilliant. He told me when I was writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 'I want the first draft you give me to be a drama. We'll make it funny. It's going to be funny because we're funny, and we're going to add jokes, and the people you cast will be funny. The reason people will see it -- and see it again and again or connect to it -- is because there's an underlying drama.' So that's the best advice I can give when you're trying to write a comedy: first write a drama, and then make it funny."
On his upcoming Muppets film:
"I'm very earnest about the way I approach it. There's no sense of irony with me, going into The Muppets. I don't think it's funny that I'm doing The Muppets. I truly love them."
On the scene that made him cry in Despicable Me:
"I cried at the end. I'm not a real cryer, but at the end of the movie, Gru -- Steve Carell, who did his part to perfection -- reads a story to these kids, and part of the theme is that even the coldest heart can be melted by love. That really got me. The movie is perfect."
On the role that, years ago, he instantly knew he wasn't going to get:
"When I was 18, I was allegedly really close to playing Dustin Hoffman's son. I knew I wasn't going to get that part. I'm like eight inches taller than Dustin Hoffman! I might be a foot taller than Dustin Hoffman. It just wasn't going to happen. So it hindered me then, when I was playing a boy. Now that I'm playing a man, it's a bit easier. Girls have heels. Dustin Hoffman in heels isn't a good look."
And a bonus one, just because:
"I think recycling is a myth - an Internet myth." He was kidding, of course. I think.
Listen for the voices of Steve Carell, Russell Brand, and Segel (in the body of a 5' 3", bespectacled nerd-villain) in Despicable Me, in theaters this week.