New York Film Fest: Jason Schwartzman Says 'Listen Up Philip' Lead Has to Be a Jerk Throughout
"Can you really play an asshole from the beginning to the end basically? And he has his moments, but for the most part, he's not even back and forth between being a dick. He's just being different degrees of … relentlessness"
The dark comedy Listen Up Philip, which Alex Ross Perry wrote and directed, has been well received at festival screenings over the past year but features an egotistical, insulting, isolated young author who pushes away anyone trying to get close to him.
In fact, Philip was such an offensive character that the actor playing him, Jason Schwartzman, found himself repulsed when he first read the script, likening it to the shocked experience that people have the first time they see the film.
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"I don't like this man, and I don't like the way he's treating his girlfriend, and I'm feeling claustrophobic," Schwartzman said of that first experience with the material. "I'm going to put this down for a second … like all the walls were coming in on me."
But he was intrigued and found himself returning to the script — and then having to put it down and pick it back up later.
"Forty-five minutes later I was like, 'I wonder what's going on with that guy.' I went back. Twenty more pages. 'Ugh, this is hard to read. It's tough material.' And that process went on and on like that all day," Schwartzman told The Hollywood Reporter after Listen Up Philip's New York Film Festival premiere Thursday night. "I was so nervous when I took the part because it's like, can you really play an asshole from the beginning to the end basically? And he has his moments, but for the most part, he's not even back and forth between being a dick. He's just being different degrees of … relentlessness."
Schwartzman added that while he and Perry tried to make Philip more likable at various points in the film, those experiments ended up having the opposite effect.
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"It was weird because it actually made him more detestable, because it was passive aggressive. And I just realized the whole movie is designed or built for this character to be like a recording meter or a sound, just to be in the red the whole time. And if you try to do anything to it, it's like putting a smile on something that's just fundamentally not capable of sustaining it," Schwartzman said.
But the actor said there was an honesty to that portrayal that was "kind of likable or at least watchable."
As outrageous as some of Philip's comments are, Perry told Schwartzman that a lot of the film was inspired by real people or events, but he wouldn't tell his star his specific inspirations.
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Perry did explain a little bit more about Philip's real models ahead of the film's Thursday-night screening.
"He's like a little bit me and a little bit one of my friends and a little bit somebody else," Perry told THR. "I don't know many authors, so a lot of it was just my fabrication of what I thought someone going through that period would be like … a bit of a person in a transitional phase. The reason he needed to be an author was I needed him to be a lonely guy and in every other creative profession, except for painting, you have to learn to collaborate with other people. But if you're just a writer, you can sit at home by yourself and never need to develop people skills, and that's what I wanted for the character."
As might be expected with a character based partly on himself, Perry says he doesn't think it's accurate to describe Philip as "unlikable."
"I think there are plenty of unlikable characters in the film, but to me, the unlikable characters are the people who don't [support Philip or are lazy]," Perry said. "The character who is focused and believes in himself and is smart and competent — he's not unlikable. He's insulting, but that doesn't make him unlikable. He's a passionate, driven person, and therefore I like him."
Read more Alex Ross Perry Promises More 'Painfully Awkward Situations' in New Film
Although Listen Up Philip has played numerous festivals over the past year, including premiering at Sundance in January and playing in downtown New York at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the New York Film Festival premiere was the most meaningful for longtime attendee Perry.
"This has been my festival of choice for 10 years. I come here every year; the lineup is always impeccable. This is it," Perry told THR.
In his opening remarks and during the Q&A at the end of the film, he talked about how having his film play at Lincoln Center was a homecoming for him.
"I live here," Perry told the crowd, remembering that he'd seen almost 200 films at Lincoln Center. "It just means so much to me that I'm allowed to be up here and be your entertainment tonight."
Before the movie, he recalled that on the same night in 2007, he went to a New York Film Festival screening as a first date with his current girlfriend. And after the movie, Perry revealed that they were now engaged.
Tribeca Film is releasing Listen Up Philip — which co-stars Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter and Jess Weixler — in theaters on Oct. 17.