It’s not uncommon for actors and producers with projects to promote to talk up Philadelphia while they’re here, but Jason Segel walked the walk.
The How I Met Your Mother and Freaks and Geeks star got in his steps in the city last year while filming Dispatches From Elsewhere, a new AMC series he created and in which he stars with two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, actor-musician André Benjamin (American Crime; also known as André 3000), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Eve Lindley (Mr. Robot).
Based on the 2013 documentary The Institute, about an elaborate game that was played in the Bay Area between 2008 and 2011, Dispatches brings together four strangers whose lives have all been missing something before they’re lured into a shared adventure. When Segel’s character, Peter, a sad sack working for a Spotify-like company, breaks his routine by responding to a posted flier, the mystery and fun begin.
The show premieres Sunday night.
We talked with Segel about his evening rambles, his love for Fishtown and Rittenhouse Square, and the location that first convinced him Philly was the place to set his show.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What do you want people to know about ‘Dispatches’ going in?
I think I would want people to come in expecting to see something that activates their sense of play, and feels like nothing they’ve ever seen before. I think that we are in this period of so much content, where inevitably that just results in variations on a theme, that to have something that feels new, I think is a really exciting change.
When I’m at my best as a writer, I’m not conscious of strategy or what’s allowed. And I remember the reaction when Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a big studio romantic comedy, ended with a lavish Dracula puppet musical. Which now, in retrospect, seems like oh, yeah, how fun and cool. At the time, the reaction was, what are you talking about? But I think the whole point of being someone who makes stuff is that you trust your gut.
Many shows have been set in Philly and filmed in other places. ‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’ is filmed here and tells a story based on something that happened, well, elsewhere. How did you choose Philadelphia?
Philly seemed like the perfect metaphor for what the show is trying to explore. It’s sort of identified for that blue-gray, undersaturated, Rocky-movie grit. But it’s got more murals than any other city in the country. And if you turn down any given alley, you might find a tiled mosaic. And that felt to me exactly what we’re exploring in the show — this idea that there is beauty all around you if you just put on a new pair of glasses.
“I really fell in love with the city. It has all the culture of a big city, but I never felt like it was in charge of me.”
Had you been familiar with the city before?
There were a list of cities that were options, about 10 or 12 cities. And I didn’t know Philly well, only been there a couple times. But I went and did an unofficial, very early scout of the city. And you know, must have been day one or two that I saw [South Street’s] Magic Gardens and then started to feel like, oh, here we are.
Were you writing while you were here? Because some of the locations are used in ways that really feel part of the story.
The first drafts of the scripts were written not knowing where we were shooting. And so, in essence, they’re blueprints because the show is very much about interacting with your locations. These people are out on an adventure in the city. And so when I arrived, the fun part became tailoring the scripts for the actual city. And that’s like the area that I love.
We had an amazing location manager named Troy Coffee, who found amazing locations for us and then also encouraged me to just explore the city and find things that felt right, and then he went after them.
When you weren’t working, how did you spend your time? Any favorite restaurants or places to relax?
I lived right next to Jones. I was staying on Seventh and Chestnut — now that I’m gone, I can tell you that — and I would go to Jones quite a bit because they were open late. And then I would walk into Fishtown, which I loved.
That’s a bit of a walk.
Well, both myself and André [Benjamin] are big nighttime walkers. So we would occasionally run into each other on the streets. But yeah, I walked to Fishtown. I would walk across town to Rittenhouse Square, which is how I got the idea for a scene in the pilot. I was just walking there one night, thinking how beautiful that square is. I’m born and raised in Los Angeles. We don’t have squares.
And I walked down to Vernick, which I really loved a lot.
I really fell in love with the city. It has all the culture of a big city, but I never felt like it was in charge of me. When I walk out the door in New York, I’m like, the city is in charge. But in Philly, it felt like much more of a partnership.
Were you able to walk down around without being completely mobbed?
Everybody was really nice. But you know, I’m lucky in that most of the things I’ve done work-wise, have been positive. Maybe all of them. And so generally the reaction when someone sees me is like, “Hey, it’s my friend.” I’ve been acting since I was 18 years old. So I don’t really know any different.
Was there anything that you saw while you were here that you think Philadelphians might not know about or appreciate enough?
There are some pretty amazing tunnels under Girard College. They end up being [featured] on the show. I like spooky and I like surprises. And Girard College offered both.
“I think that we are in this period of so much content ... that to have something that feels new, I think is a really exciting change.”
So how did you get Sally Field to do your TV show?
I think any actor is eager when they hear that the intention is to do a really honest exploration of where you are at this moment in your life. And I know for me as an actor that’s a really exciting prospect, like how honest are you willing to be on camera? So basically, I presented that.
And then just begged.
She is so talented, not only as an actor, but also as a storyteller. And she challenged me in all the ways I needed to be challenged about story and scene and dialogue. She’s like someone who forces you to raise your game every day.
Anything else you’d like to say about ‘Dispatches’?
I really view this show as an exercise in how much of myself I can find in these characters, almost like a challenge for empathy. We’re in this moment, culturally, where we have a lot of voices telling us to recognize the differences. And this show is challenging us to see ourselves in all these different characters. And there’s a reward at the end of the tunnel.
Dispatches From Elsewhere. 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC. Moving to 10 p.m. Mondays the following night.