As Jason Segel created “The Five-Year Engagement’s” characters with writer/director Nick Stoller, it was understood that the actor would play up-and-coming San Francisco chef Tom Solomon whose fiancée gets offered a job in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After Tom moves there with her, he quickly discovers he doesn’t have much of a future in Michigan. As Segel and Stoller shaped the story, one actress emerged as their ideal choice for the beautiful, brainy character they named Violet Barnes: Emily Blunt. Segel and Blunt, who are good friends off camera, had great chemistry together on screen which made their characters’ relationship seem all the more real and believable.
MoviesOnline sat down at a roundtable interview with Segel and Blunt to talk about their irreverent comedy about a perfect couple who have been engaged way too long and can’t quite make it to the altar. They told us why they look for roles that have some kind of complexity, how they liked the film’s original take on a relationship, how they collaborated during the film’s brainstorming sessions, why it’s important to set your characters and your actors up for success, why it was fun working with the scene-stealing Chris Pratt, and how the big breakup scene made them both very nervous. They also talked about what’s coming up next for each of them.
Q: Emily, you can jump into any kind of role and be so different and so completely natural. Do you work hard to not look like you’re acting?
EB: That’s very nice by the way. Thank you for saying that. I find it really hard to talk about approaching stuff. I don’t know how to talk about it actually. I always get really confused. When I read a script, I’ll have a very visceral gut reaction to what does this mean to me? How does she feel in my skin? Could I play this role? I think I know very instantly, but I can’t list why I know. I do try hard to pick roles that differ. I love that about the job. I think the variety that’s out there is to be taken advantage of and I enjoy that element of shape shifting with everything. I’ve always loved it. I love character roles. I’m happier in them. I look for roles that have some kind of complexity. For this genre, it was a huge draw to work with Jason again because we’re friends and the script was really fresh. I thought it was a really original take on a relationship. It felt awkward and loving and flawed and messy and everything that love is and how a relationship is. It was a very easy thing for me to jump into working with these guys. It felt like a really effortless experience. It was collaborative with lots of improv. It was a blast and one of my happiest experiences.
Q: Not that you weren’t good, Jason, but I had to start with her.
JS: No, I think that’s fair. My panic goes without saying.
EB: You don’t need the improv.
JS: Oh no, been there, done that.
Q: Judd Apatow and Nick Stoller said you collaborated with them on some of the brainstorming sessions. What was that experience like?
EB: They tend to do that with every new actor that signs on. They do a complete rewrite simply for that character, and I think that’s why every character is very rich and juicy and there’s a lot to play with because they spend a few weeks doing new rewrites to who has just signed on. When I signed on, they brought me in and we had a big brainstorming session where they asked opinions, perspectives on things, and how would I react in this scenario. I do think this is probably one of the most personal movies I’ve done. These guys require you to bring a lot of yourself to the process because they want to make the scenarios feel real. Usually that’s based in something you’ve experienced and that’s why I think it feels quite fresh and not derivative of another romantic comedy.
JS: I actually have the easiest task when it gets time to act in that I’ve done five years of writing at that point and thinking about what the scenes are about. I’ve done all the homework that other actors have to do because I wrote it. I just show up and do exactly what I intended to do when I wrote it.
Q: Did you intentionally put yourself through the wringer with the complete emotional breakdown and exposing yourself in many ways?
JS: Absolutely. I like to be challenged acting wise and I like to do things that I’m scared of. So, I do write scenes that I hope that I’m capable of doing. It’s the same reason that I would take a part that I didn’t write. (to Emily) I’m sure it’s the same for you because you like to feel like “Fuck this! This is going to be challenging.”
EB: Yeah, and how am I going to do it? I want to have to ask myself that question when I read a script.
Q: At what point do you stop questioning yourself?
EB: Listen, here’s my feeling on it. I think you think about things. If you’re playing an historical figure or someone, you can research or read books and listen to music and that makes you think, and then, when you get on set, you just have to do it. That really helps, as much as you can absorb beforehand. Everyone has their own process. I don’t really know what mine is. (to Jason) I don’t think you know what yours is. It’s like at the end of the day you just show up and you have to do it. But there are days when you question what you’ve done or your take on it.
Q: Was there a big moment that you were particularly nervous about?
JS: The big breakup scene. We were both thinking about it.
EB: The breakup. We were quite nervous about that.
JS: This may very well be a delusion, but when I walk on set, I think nobody can act this better than I can. But, I mean, the important part is that first part of the sentence because I’m not saying that that is true. I’m just saying it’s like walking out onto a basketball court. It’s an athletic mentality. That’s exactly what it is. You think “I’m about to dominate this game.” It doesn’t mean you’re right, but that’d better be what’s going on in your brain, or you’re about to get killed.
Q: Were either of you particularly aggressive and competitive against each other?
EB: (laughing, to Jason) Be honest! I’m not competitive. I never think about those things.
JS: Okay. I am well aware, as evidenced by the opening of this roundtable, that Emily is a more prolific and better actress than I am. (laughs)
EB: Actress, yeah!
JS: I felt very much in my wheelhouse doing the comedy scenes, but when it came time for the breakup scene or some of the dramatic scenes, — because I come from an athletic background as you can probably tell – I would think “I am not going to let her out-act me today.”
EB: But he would tell me this once the scene was done and I’m emotionally going “Oh Jason, that scene was really funny. I think that was a cool scene.” And he was like “Yeah, you should’ve…I was getting myself all pumped up.”
Q: As the number one comedy guy, were you comfortable with the big Chris Pratt scenes where he stole the show?
JS: Yes, and I’m not the number one comedy guy. Part of my thing, Nick’s and my strategy, is to set everyone up to be their best. We want everyone to come in and nail it. And ego-wise, I’m very, very happy to be the straight man in a movie. I’ve played the best friend before and the job of that role…
EB: It’s not an easy task.
JS: No, it’s to come in and give a huge comedy pop in every scene you do. That’s sort of the job of Chris Pratt’s role and he nails it. He just knocks it out of the park.
EB: Chris Pratt is a comedy savant. He really is. He is so spooky good.
JS: Yeah. That is the function of that part, and the same with the Alison Brie part. They have to come in and kill it every time. When our storyline is starting to bring you down a little bit, you want to be able to cut to Chris Pratt and Alison Brie or your studymates – Kevin Hart, Mindy Kaling, Brian Posehn, Chris Parnell – and they’re supposed to buoy up the script.
EB: And Rhys Ifans as well. He has such a great role and he brought so much to that. It was so cool.
Q: Can you pronounce the dog’s name yet?
EB: Gwyfth. (to Jason) Can you do it?
Q: How did you feel about the turn that the script takes when your character and Winton have their moment? How did that make you feel about the character when you first read it?
EB: I feel that what’s clever about the script is that you understand everyone’s predicament and I think you understand it at every turn. I don’t think you necessarily side with anyone, even though you might see that Violet is definitely following her dreams and she’s being tenacious about her own ambitions. You understand it’s not in a selfish sense. She is trying to make Tom happy, and he’s promised her that he would be happy. I think it’s complex. When she goes after Winton, both of their characters at that moment are at their lowest point. She is incredibly down and frustrated that her relationship just seems to be falling to pieces and he’s wearing bunny costumes during the day. When she goes off to Winton, she’s coming from a place of sheer despair.
JS: God bless her, she needs a break.
EB: She needs a break from old misery guts.
JS: I wouldn’t have stayed with Tom.
EB: I remember you said that when you were writing it. You need to understand why she doesn’t want to be with him anymore.
JS: Absolutely. It comes down to setting your characters and your actors up for success. We very intentionally made sure that it didn’t seem like she was the cuckolding girlfriend. We covered that ground in “Sarah Marshall.” It’s not interesting territory for us anymore. That was a conscious choice of “God, Tom, please come around. Please come around. I’m sorry, I just can’t wait anymore.” She’s direct about it. She has a hard time telling him ultimately, but she sure gives Tom chances.
EB: The breakup is so sad because I think they both feel that it’s love that they’ve lost.
JS: It’s so funny when you do testing and stuff, not just on this movie but any movie. People have a lot less leniency for some reason for women straying from a relationship than they do for men. They feel like they can understand why a man would leave if the woman is being naggy, but it’s very easy for them to look at a woman and start using like…
EB: “Oh, she’s ambitious and she’s selfish.”
JS: Yeah and “She’s cold” and all this stuff. She’s human. I think I said it before, but I write every part as though I might play it, whether it’s a man or a woman. People are all the same and I don’t think we should treat those characters differently.
Q: What inspired your character’s transformation into a mountain man?
JS: We’ve talked about it. I call it passive aggressive facial hair.
EB: A defiant beard.
JS: Yeah, a defiant beard growth. It’s a move that I’ve done in relationships. It’s a move that I’ve done when I’m unemployed. Like when people won’t hire me, I’m like “Well, watch this! I don’t care either! Here is a handlebar moustache.”
EB: “Watch this! I ain’t no babyface!”
JS: Yeah, exactly. It is a form of defiance.
Q: It’s one of the most disturbing beards I’ve ever seen.
EB: I loved it! I thought it was so cool.
JS: It is. If you saw me not in a sweater but in that beard, you would think he’s right up there with Chris Hemsworth.
Q: Was the idea of not having a wedding ever in the cards?
JS: We knew that it was going to end in a wedding. However, seeing the movie, I am incredibly impressed and surprised at how much you think there might not be a wedding at one point. I have always felt like romantic comedies are incredibly predictable. You look at the poster and you know those two are ending up together at the end of the movie.
EB: Even if they’re back to back going [looking bored and irritated with each other].
JS: And so, we always just assumed you can throw that away, they’re going to end up together. There is a legitimate section in this movie where you’re not sure if they’re going to end up together. It was not planned. We thought during that whole period that everyone would be waiting for them to get back together. But it’s kind of interesting to see them with other people for a minute.
Q: Were you trying to avoid clichés?
JS: Yeah, absolutely. Trying to avoid clichés or also just not define this movie by a genre. I don’t know that it’s just a strict romantic comedy. I don’t know how you would label a James Brooks’ movie or how you would even label “Annie Hall.” Is that a romantic comedy? I don’t even know what you call that. It’s what life is like. It’s the tone of life. That’s what we were shooting for.
Q: Do you think if you had written this script at a time when you didn’t already have some street cred that it would be difficult to get something like this made?
JS: Yes, certainly, because there’s no big plot movements. It’s about exploring relationships.
EB: We had one explosion but it got cut out of the movie.
JS: Yeah, we did have an explosion.
EB: It was when all the money for the budget went [pfffft].
JS: Yeah. It got cut out. At one point, we have a talk about money and I concede that I’m broke and she admits that she has a huge amount of money saved in her bank account and I’m like “What the fuck?! Why didn’t you tell me this?” She feels terrible and she gives me money to open my own restaurant in Michigan and within two weeks it explodes.
Q: There was lots of food in this movie. Were you actually there cutting the onions? I’m like one slice and tears.
JS: You know what you do? Match in the mouth. It’s not lit.
EB: Or a spoon.
JS: Really, a spoon works also? A match I know because the sulfur draws in whatever chemical is coming off the onion.
EB: Can I tell you something that I think is interesting? I chop a lot of onions because I love cooking, and the times where I’ve never cried chopping onions is when I’m not thinking about it, when I’m talking to someone or I’m listening to music. As soon as I pull out an onion and go “Oh God, this is going to make me cry,” I start crying. I promise you, it’s the brain.
JS: I chop onions not to cry.
Q: I love the donut scene. Your face said it all.
JS: When I eat the donut, I know. It kills me too that scene.
Q: You know it’s over.
JS: Right there.
EB: It’s so sad. The phone call when I admit that I was testing you and you let me have it, I think it’s such a great scene.
JS: Oh yeah, Nick and I label the scenes when we’re writing because we do them in blocks. We have the all night fight, but we call that scene “Never call an ex.”
Q: What do each of you have coming up next?
EB: I’m not quite sure what I’m doing next.
JS: I’m not sure either. I’m going to take my first break. I’ve been churning them out. I think this year I had “Muppets,” “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” this movie, and then I’m in Judd’s next movie, “This is 40.” I’m ready for a break. Plus I have a full time TV show which somehow you forget is some people’s full time job.
EB: Yeah, it is. I think that’s what I felt last year that it was quite full on so I haven’t worked this year yet apart from doing press, so I don’t know when I’m going to work next.
JS: I was doing a radio interview for “Jeff Who Lives at Home” and this reporter goes “Well you much be exhausted” and I was like “Why do you say that?” She says “Well you’ve had four movies come out in the span of a year and you wrote two of them and you’re doing a TV show.” I was like “Yeah, reporter, you’re right. I’m exhausted!”
Q: It takes someone else telling you.
JS: Yeah! Totally.
Q: That’s how you know you’re doing something you enjoy?
JS: Yeah, absolutely.
“The Five-Year Engagement” opens in theaters on April 27th.