Describing one of the opening scenes in Jason Segel's new movie would not give away anything more than he reveals himself. He does it entirely naked.
Segel's on-screen girlfriend Sarah, played by Kristen Bell, is the beautiful star of a television crime series who comes to his apartment to break up with him. Fresh out of the shower and shocked to hear the news, Segel's character Peter drops his towel and does the rest of the breakup scene nude.
He did it to make it funny, but "you're going to be judged entirely on one criteria and that terrified me," he said.
Segel, 28, perhaps best known for his role as Marshall in the CBS TV comedy "How I Met Your Mother," wrote and stars in the semi-autobiographical "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," opening in theaters today.
Nude Scene Shocks Mom
Segel thought it would be funny to surprise his family about the nude scenes when they came to a early screening.
At the critical moment, Segel said, "I turn to my mother and there was just a tear drop coming down her face and her lip was starting to quiver, and I said, 'Mom, it's OK. Are you all right?' And she said, honest to God, she said, 'I just, ah, I need a minute.'"
His mother left the screening room for a few minutes before returning composed. Then she turned to Segel and said, "You should have told me."
Later during that screening, he did have the good sense to lean over and tell his mother, "Just so you know, it's going to happen one more time."
The odd moments of life fuel Segel's humor. He really did have a naked breakup with a girlfriend. He said he realized it was a critical moment in his life, but at the same time, "all I kept thinking was 'this is the funniest thing that's ever happened to anybody. I cannot wait until she leaves so I can start writing this down.'"
A working actor for 10 years, Segel has been one of those guys who plays in the chorus of high school screwups and child-men who waste away their early adult years living together in underemployment while they figure out life, and love.
"I think we found that I have I guess some sort of strange ability to remain likable while getting extremely close to creepy and pathetic," he said.
At 6 feet 4 inches, he's a big guy with a face that is as expressive as his words, somewhere between handsome and cartoon character.
Segel went into acting straight after graduating from Harvard-Westlake, one of the academically toughest private schools in Los Angeles where he was a star basketball player.
A single appearance in a high school play brought him an introduction to the head of Paramount casting. After that, he chucked the idea of college basketball and went to work in television.
He had some early success, cast in the TV series "Freaks and Geeks" produced by Judd Apatow, who also produced "Sarah Marshall."
He became one of Apatow's troupe of perpetual sophomores, but had trouble breaking into lead roles, while his friends Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen were bringing in big laughs in Apatow-produced movies like "The 40 Year Old Virgin."
Segel Digs Deep for Performances
Segel went through about four years barely working while Apatow told him that if he wanted to make it, he should write his own movie. The result is "Sarah Marshall."
"My goal in this movie was to dig as deep as I could into my own well of personal humiliation and put it on screen," Segel said.
Growing up in Hollywood, he lived in a world of broken hearts and thwarted dreams that provides plenty of material to draw on.
He's also a naturally talented and smart guy. He is largely self-taught at acting, writing and music. He taught himself to play the piano and wrote the pivotal song for "Sarah Marshall."
"I was born without a sense of shame or embarrassment and I'm not afraid at being bad at something for a while and I think that's where most people stop themselves at 'Oh I'm no good at this,'" he said. "I don't mind spending a year being terrible at piano because after that I'll be OK."