When it comes to scary stories, you might not think of child-at-heart and The Muppets star Jason Segel. However, Segel and New York Times bestselling author Kirsten Miller paired up to pen a fun, yet freaky, middle-grade novel called Nightmares! The story, which is the first of a trilogy, is about a boy and his friends who must face their fears in order to save their town. We chatted with Segel in an exclusive interview to hear about the book (a lot of it is based on his own childhood night terrors!) and also found out what the holidays are like with his family, what the eight-year-old Jason would think about his life now, and how Jimmy Fallon helped him figure out why he has nightmares about witches eating his toes.
RT: Why did you decide to write a middle-grade book trilogy?
I think [8 to 12 years old] is a really interesting age because you’re still really open to receiving lessons and feel like the people who are talking to you aren’t condescending you. That’s one of the things that I think Pixar is really good at. If you think of the opening of Up! It’s pretty intense and they’re treating kids like they’re capable. So I wanted to write a book for that age group that planted this little seed of an idea that there’s still magic out there. That’s what happened for me because everything that I do — the odds were stacked against me becoming an actor or a writer — but somewhere early on, I got these messages that anything is possible. Willy Wonka makes you feel like you can find the golden ticket. Goonies, the movie, made me feel like I could find buried treasure, you know? And those messages literally stuck with me.
RT: Was there someone in your life who encouraged that “anything’s possible” idea?
Both of my parents are really supportive in anything we want to do that makes us happy, but I have to say that my mom in particular was really big on presenting me with these special little nuggets, like The Muppet Show. She taped all of the episodes and showed them to me when I was old enough to understand what was going on. She showed me Harold and Maude when I was really young. She is a comedy dork like me (laughs). It was really, really cool. It stuck with me. I’ve been really drawn to that Edward Gorey-Tim Burton aesthetic and I think it’s a result of my mom.
RT: Do any of your childhood fears show up in Nightmares!?
I had these really weird terrible nightmares about witches eating my toes, which I write in the book. I think we actually figured out on [The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon] the potential reason. When you’re a baby, grownups stand over you and tell you they’re going to eat your toes, and put your feet in their mouths and stuff like that. I think it’s more traumatizing than grownups realize!
RT: What books did you read as a child have stuck with you as an adult?
James and the Giant Peach really stuck with me. The original Winnie the Pooh really stuck with me. I read it again as an adult and it moved me just as much. There was this video game that came out when I was a kid, called Myst. You basically just walked around in this beautifully created world and found puzzles that you were supposed to solve. The game came with this book and I carried it around like the Bible. It felt magical to me. Honestly, there’s this big digital book movement, and it’s amazing to read books from your iPad, but I wanted a book as an object that a kid can hold, and carry around with them that you can give as a gift, that’s a tangible thing. That really influenced me.
RT: What do you think the eight-year-old Jason would think of 2014 Jason’s life?
Oh wow! I think the thing that I’d be most in awe of was that I’m somebody who met Kermit. I think that would have blown my mind more than anything. That I had shook the man’s hand. It’s like shaking Sinatra’s hand to a kid.
RT: What’s your most embarrassing childhood moment?
This is easy. It still haunts me today. I was a very obedient child and I did what my parents told me. Disneyland was my favorite place on earth and my favorite place in particular in Disneyland was the magic shop on the corner of Main Street. I could spend hours in there because there was this guy who demonstrated tricks. So at the end of one of our trips, I was probably around 11 years old, I asked if I could go to the magic shop and my parents said, “Sure, but whatever you do, don’t leave the magic shop. We have to go across the street.” So I was in there, and they were taking such a long time, and I started having to really, really, um, need to use the restroom, and all that kept going through my mind was that they said, “Don’t leave the magic shop, don’t leave the magic shop.” So I waited, and I waited, and I waited, until finally I had to walk to the corner of the magic shop and pretend I was looking at something and I wet my pants. I was totally embarrassed. I was standing there beet red, and then my parents came and got me and we walked to the car and I started crying. We had to pull over at a Kmart and my parents got me a new pair of jeans. I did learn from that that it was okay to go to the bathroom. But I was always a rule follower.
RT: Do you have any family holiday traditions from when you were young that you still do today?
My mom is really, really big on decorating the house. She’s like me. She goes full-out theme-style, so come Halloween, it becomes a haunted house; come Christmas, it becomes a Winter Wonderland. And she still does it to this day. I have an older brother and a younger sister and we’re all grown, but there’s something that makes me feel warm and at home that when we go home for the holidays, it’s like going to a haunted house or Santa’s Village! She goes for it.
RT: You seem like such a kid at heart, so we think you’d make such a fun dad. Do you think you’d like to have children someday and what type of parent would you like to be?
That’s a great question. I would love to have children someday if I’m lucky enough for that to happen. [As far as] the kind of parent I would be, I would do the same thing for my child that my parents did for me, which was instill this idea that you are capable of doing anything. And not to be afraid to try. That it’s okay to fail, or whatever society perceives as failure. It’s sort of irrelevant. The whole excitement of life is trying stuff. The thing that they really instilled in me was that the most important thing is to be nice to everybody. I know it’s trite but as I’ve gotten older and been able to really wrap my head around what that means [and] it’s really served me well. You have a choice about where you place your values and anything you try to place your value in that’s sort of external like being the most successful, or having the most money, or being the smartest — is never going to be enough. But if you place your value in being good to your friends and family and strangers and trying to make the world a slightly better place, you’ll feel good when you fall asleep. And that’s what we’re all shooting for, right?
RT: What’s scarier, witches or babysitting for two kids by yourself for 24 hours?
Ah, man! I think witches are scarier. I can handle [babysitting for] 24 hours. That is one thing I know. I can do 24 hours because for 24 hours, I can probably get away with being a contemporary. Where I get into trouble is where I have to stretch into me being the adult. But I think I can get away with 24 hours of me being the buddy.
RT: We heard you became an ordained minister. Is this your fallback profession?
(Laughs) I like weird stuff. You know, life presents you these opportunities, so I’m not really afraid. So anyway, I walked out of my house one day and on all of the lamp posts on my street somebody had posted all of these fliers that said, “Jason Segel, will you officiate our wedding?” They were literally on every lamppost on my street. I checked on the day that they were getting married and I wasn’t available. I was shooting something. So I called The Tonight Show and asked them if they would let me marry a couple on their TV show and they said sure, so I called the couple on the phone and I said, “I got your fliers and I’m sorry but I’m not available on the day of your wedding.” And they were like, “Yeah, we know, it was a long shot.” [I said,] “But if you want, I’ll marry you on The Tonight Show in one week, and we’ll fly your family out and they can be there,” and they were flabbergasted. So I got ordained and married them on The Tonight Show. It was really, really fun.
— Interview by Jo Aaron
Thanks, Jason, for talking with us! What about you, readers … do YOU have a question for Jason? Let us know in the Comments.
Also, you can pick up Jason’s new book, Nightmares!, online at amazon.com.