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Another member of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty’s star-studded cast received their time in the spotlight in episode six of the limited series Sunday evening. Actor Jason Segel, who plays Shakespeare professor turned NBA assistant coach Paul Westhead in Winning Time, spoke candidly on being a part of the innovative Adam McKay project and why it paired perfectly with where he’s at in his career.
“I got episode six when they offered me the part, so I had a long time leading up to it,” Segel, whose character has to suddenly take charge of the Lakers in episode six after head coach Jack McKinney is involved in a bike accident, told me. “I knew that episode six was kind of the Paul Westhead coming out party on the show. I had been sort of comic relief, now you’re going to sort of meet the guy who’s going to end up having to coach the Lakers unexpectedly.
“So I had just thought a lot about those scenes and what I wanted each one to teach us about Paul Westhead in a pretty quick amount of time so we were ready to go on the trip with him.”
Segel knows a lot about comic relief, making a name for himself in Hollywood through hilarious hits such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and I Love You, Man (2009), not to mention starring in one of the top sitcoms in the past couple decades, How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014).
Jason has spent the past several years predominantly lending his talents to dramas like Windfall (2022) to change things up. The decision unquestionably benefitted the actor after seeing his performance in such Winning Time episode six scenes as when Paul earnestly advocates for Jack’s care in the hospital following his accident.
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Segel said whether it’s comedy or drama projects he’s taking on, his approach is always the same.
“I don’t differentiate between comedy and drama when I’m doing the acting,” Segel said. “I try to understand the tone of the project then I try to be really, really present as to what is going on and at that point, it’s a little bit like surfing; the scene is in charge.
“I think that has come just from doing a lot of improv and doing a lot of comedies. Over the past seven years, I’ve done almost exclusively dramas and so I just try to stay really present as to what’s happening in the scene and just to let it ride.”
Segel’s first big break was in the comedy series Freaks and Geeks, which ran on NBC from 1999-2000. Like several actors from the show including Seth Rogen, after its short run, Freaks and Geeks executive producer Judd Apatow had his back later on when Apatow wrote and directed Segel in 2007’s Knocked Up, the actor’s big break, and helped plug him into other projects including Forgetting Sarah Marshall on which Judd was a producer.
“I think there’s a rich tradition of mentoring in comedy. I think that that’s part of the lineage and I know Judd was mentored; I think it’s part of the deal,” Jason said. “I’ve certainly felt really really lucky and blessed to be a part of that.
“I also think there was at least for us, a bit of a Monte Cristo’s revenge streak about helping us all out because when they cancelled Freaks and Geeks, I think Judd was like, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right and I’m going to systematically make each one of these people stars to show you how f***ing dumb you are.’”
Segel compared McKay, Winning Time’s executive producer, to Apatow saying both pick incredibly talented people and allow them to take chances after initially being “hard on the material”.
Jason also said he only selects projects now that are different than what he’s done previously.
“That is the only reason I take stuff these days is because I feel like it’s going to be new and exciting,” Segel said. “I used to think my work was separate from my life and I’ll do these jobs and I’ll come back to my real life. That’s fine if you’re not working that much, but for about a decade I worked every single day between being on the TV show and writing and making a movie each summer.
“If all that stuff is bracketed from your real life, then 10 years go by and you realize, ‘Oh my god, I missed all of real life; I didn’t do much growth.’ Now, I’m really conscious of thinking about every one of these projects as an active part of my life and my growth as a human being and so I pick something where I’m going to learn something about myself, learn something about a subject, work with someone who I think being around that person for 10 weeks will enrich my life.
“Every decision is pretty conscious these days and this show, Winning Time, checked off like five different boxes. It’s got drama, it’s got comedy, it’s got like a [lot] of people I admire. There were scenes I was scared of if I was good enough to do them and I got to be around people who I might be able to help mentor myself a tiny little bit. So yeah, it was a dream.”