In just a few short years, James Ponsoldt has become one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood, thanks to his intimate, character-driven films, each one more impressive than the next. First, there was Off the Black, a 2006 indie; then there was Smashed, a Sundance darling in 2012; a year later, there was The Spectacular Now, the acclaimed teen romance that jump-started the careers of Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Now, there's The End of the Tour , a David Foster Wallace biopic that won't be released for three more months, but that has already garnered rave reviews for the fast-paced script and Jason Segel's compelling lead performance.
Yet while each of these movies has had A-list actors and the backing of indie studios, their real common thread is their director's commitment to telling the truth.
"James is very very hyper vigilant about honesty," said Segel, speaking with his director at the IFFBoston premiere of The End of the Tour on Wednesday night. "James pushed me at every moment to be as honest as I possibly could."
The effort worked; Segel shines as Wallace, embodying the writer's traits and quirks with eerie accuracy. Ponsoldt had nothing but praise for his star, calling the performance of Segel in the role "dead on."
It was the actor's work as a lovestruck drummer on NBC's short-lived but highly acclaimed Freaks and Geeks, given when Segel was just 19, that told the director that he was the right choice for the part of Wallace.
"Jason was the emotional anchor" of the show," Ponsoldt said, adding that viewers could sense his "moral center," even at that young age.
The director also praised Segel's co-star in Tour, Jesse Eisenberg, calling the actor "brilliant."
"He's a genius," Ponsoldt said. "I don't throw that around a lot."
Comparing Eisenberg to a young Dustin Hoffman, Ponsoldt said that Eisenberg's obsession with language made him a perfect choice for the role of David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone writer assigned to shadow David Foster Wallace for five days at the end of his Infinite Jest book tour.
"Both Jesse and Jason are great writers," Ponsoldt said, referring to Eisenberg's playwriting and Segel's children's books, but Eisenberg's attention to detail is "other-worldly."
Perhaps unsurprisingly due to their characters' intimate relationship in the film, the two actors became close friends over the course of the movie, even driving together to work every day. Ponsoldt called their friendship a "gift."
"Watching them become friends through the process was a real pleasure," he said.
Elsewhere in the talk, Ponsoldt spoke of the complex nature of directing a David Foster Wallace-based film, noting that the reclusive author would've likely had "complicated feelings" about the movie. Still, as a major fan of Wallace — Ponsoldt called his books "verbal cocaine" — the director couldn't imagine not telling this tale, what he called the "platonic love story" of Wallace and Lipsky. And he especially couldn't do it without his two lead actors, men who embodied their characters with riveting perfection.
Said Ponsoldt, ""I find them endlessly watchable."