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Interfaith Celebrities: Jason Segel on the Benefits of Not Fitting In

March 31, 2009

In my last column, I mentioned actor and screenwriter Jason Segel, 28, one of the new wave of successful Jewish comedic writers and actors who came out of the Judd Apatow stable. Segel currently can be seen in the romantic comedy, I Love You, Man, which opened in theaters last month.

A friend told me that he thought Segel had an interfaith background and this was confirmed in the last two weeks in interviews Segel did with the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent newspaper and with Terry Gross, the really talented (Jewish) host of the NPR radio program, Fresh Air.

Jason Segel
Rising star Jason Segel at a 2009 Oscars Party. Photo: Reuters/Danny Moloshok.

In his screen roles and in his TV show, How I Met Your Mother, Segel comes off as a charming, funny and sensitive guy. In his wide-ranging interview with Gross, he shows that he really is all these things in real life.

Perhaps most interesting to visitors to this site is a relatively short part of the 38-minute Fresh Air interview in which Segel discusses his interfaith background. (The whole interview is so interesting and funny that it goes by in what seems like 10 minutes.)

Segel was born and raised in Los Angeles. His Jewish father is an attorney and his Catholic mother is a homemaker. Jason was raised Jewish. He has an older brother and a sister. As Segel describes below, he had a hard time fitting in at school, so his parents sent him to acting classes when he was about ten years old to give him another place to shine.

Meanwhile, by the time he was 12, Jason Segel reached his present height of 6-foot-4. Being that tall was a mixed blessing.

His height made Segel a figure of fun at the Episcopalian-affiliated private school he attended before he went to public high school. He told Gross that when he was around 12, the kids at his school used to circle around him and then jump on his back while chanting, "Ride the oaf."

However, his height helped make Segel a very good basketball player and he played center for his public high school team. His high school team won the California state championship in Segel's senior year.

When he was 18, Segel was cast as a co-star of Judd Apatow's 1999 TV series, Freaks and Geeks. The show, set in a high school, now has a cult following, but it only lasted 13 weeks on the air. Segel opted not to go to college, but to continue to try to make it in show business. He had little success until 2005, when he was cast as a co-star of the hit CBS TV series, How I Met Your Mother.

However, as Segel told Gross in an interview broadcast March 23, early in his life he learned to rely on himself. During his fallow period he kept himself busy learning to write and writing comedy scripts.

Last year, Segel starred in the romantic comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He also wrote the film's script. The movie was a huge hit. It cost $30 million to make but it made over $100 million.

Here is the interview excerpt, which I've transcribed:

Gross: So where did you grow up?

Segel: I grew up in Los Angeles. I grew up in the Pacific Palisades of Los Angeles—which is a very nice, pretty affluent area. I was very lucky. I had a really great childhood.

Gross: I read you went to a Catholic school although you are Jewish. Is that true?

Segel: Yeah, I was the only Jewish kid at this all-Christian school and that was a little weird. I remember this one moment where I sent out my bar mitzvah invitations to everybody and the [school] principal came up and said, "Listen Jason, everybody is really excited, but I don't think the kids know what a bar mitzvah is. I was wondering if maybe you want to explain at communion what a bar mitzvah is."

Now keep in mind that these kids are already jumping on my back saying "ride the oaf." So, 12-year-old Jason Segel walks to the front of communion and has to stand in front of these kids and go, "On Saturday I become a man." Nothing gets you beaten up faster than the line, "On Saturday I become a man."

Gross: So, what were some of the other adventurous aspects of being the only Jewish kid at a Catholic school--Catholic or Christian?

Segel: I think it was Episcopalian. I am not 100 percent sure what the differences are. I'll tell you what was really weird. Like I said, I felt sort out of place at this school.

Gross: Maybe because you were?

Segel: Yes, exactly. You see, my father is Jewish and my mother is Christian, but I was raised Jewish. So, I am at this school and they really don't like me very much there. And then after Christian school I would in the afternoons walk to Hebrew school and then at Hebrew school they would tell me I was not really Jewish because my mother is Christian. So, all of a sudden I'm like this young kid--I would have been happy to believe whatever--whoever would have been nice to me. You know? But it was this feeling of not really belonging or not really fitting in.

Gross: The world's mainstream religions don't want you.

Segel: Yeah, you know what occurred to me, it is funny that you say that, but what occurred to me was that this certainly isn't God. God doesn't want an 11 and 12-year-old kid to feel this way. You know. My belief in God is that God wants you. God wants you to believe in him, or it, whatever you would call it.

So, it actually helped me forge this feeling of, all right, you know what, kid, it is you, it's you and God; and it's you and the world. It gave me a bit of feeling of solitude that I think came in handy during my out-of-work periods where--when I decided that the only way I was going to make it was if I started writing. I was actually--I'm very grateful that I got that feeling at such a young age because I felt like, 'you know what, you better do it. It's going be you.'

Gross: That's great because not everybody, not everybody is able to find out what's useful from a difficult situation, so it's lucky.

Segel: I came from a well-off family and my life had been pretty easy. So, I actually think it maybe--it helped me not have a sense of entitlement that I have seen in a lot of my peers who grew up in that same community. There's some sense that, well, I am supposed to do well because this and that. You have got to earn it. I think that period helped me lose any sense of entitlement I might have had.

Short Interfaith Celebrity Notes

The Nick Jr. cable station children's show Yo Gabba Gabba! will feature Jack Black, 39, as a special guest star in a new half-hour, special episode, premiering Friday, April 3, at 1:30 p.m.. Yo Gabba Gabba! is a live-action music series for pre-schoolers. In the show, Black rides into Gabbaland on his mini-bike and runs out of gas. Lost and scared, Black meets each of the Gabba characters who become his friends and re-fuel his mini-bike so he can go home.

Scarlett Johansson, 23, has joined the cast of the upcoming Iron Man 2. Mickey Rourke, continuing his comeback, has also joined the cast. The sequel, like the mega-hit original, is directed by Jon Favreau (currently appearing in a supporting role in I Love You, Man) Gwyneth Paltrow and Iron Man star Robert Downey, Jr. reprise their roles in the sequel.

I think making Iron Man 2 is a good career move for Johansson. It would be really shocking if the Iron Man sequel is not a box office hit and Johansson needs a hit. She has had a terrible track record of picking movie roles since her breakthrough role in the hit film, Lost in Translation (2003). Almost all her movies since Translation have flopped financially and critically. Probably because Johansson is so strikingly beautiful, the public is still interested in her and her face on the cover of a magazine will sell copies. Her celebrity power has kept her on the A list of Hollywood actors despite her many box office bombs. But a day of reckoning finally comes when film producers want to see a recent hit on an actress's resume before casting the actress in a major role.

Amanda Bynes, who celebrates her 23rd birthday this Friday, April 3, is returning to series TV as the co-star of the ABC comedy pilot, Canned, about a group of friends who are fired in a corporate shake-up. Bynes' character is a Midwestern girl who often spends nights at the office to get her work done.

I suppose a show about getting canned is now very timely, given the state of the economy. Still, I wonder if most TV viewers would rather not be reminded of the recession and would prefer more escapist fare.

Jake Gyllenhaal, 28, is set to star in a new movie musical version of Damn Yankees. He'll play Joe Hardy, a middle-aged guy who makes a deal with the devil to be young again and a great professional baseball player. Jim Carrey plays the devil. If Jake can sing as well as his sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, 31, he'll do fine. The hit Broadway musical version, with songs by the Jewish songwriting team of Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, opened in 1955. The 1958 film version was also a hit.

The producers of the new movie version of Damn Yankees have not yet cast the third lead role, Lola, a sexy vixen who has sold her soul to the devil. I think Scarlett Johansson just might be a good Lola. Last year, she released a CD in which she sang a collection of Tom Waits songs. The CD got mixed reviews and didn't sell well, but it proved that Johansson can carry a tune. If she can dance, too, she would be a very good Lola. She already has the sexy part down.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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