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“I feel like there are other actors who are better at talking about acting in interviews,” Jason Schwartzman says. “They could really talk to you about it. I’m less inclined or adept at talking about acting as much as I’m adept at talking about stuff I like, just as a fan.”
For other longtime Hollywood staples, that response might seem a convenient dodge; coming from Schwartzman, it’s sheer honesty.
Beginning with his memorable role of the earnest yet troubled private school kid Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Schwartzman has perfected — in films including I Heart Huckabees and the HBO show Bored to Death — the part of the curious, wide-eyed and existentially off-kilter twentysomething. His range extends far further; he has played an evil boyfriend, a doomed French king and even voiced a young fox. But there is no mistaking his trademark sincerity. And so, even the fact that he would prefer to talk about anything else, from his favorite books and movies to best friends and collaborators, only supports the notion of Schwartzman as ego-less enthusiast.
Then again, it’s hard to blame him for his eagerness to discuss the directors he has worked with. Schwartzman’s roster of best friends/collaborators — he has blurred the personal and professional line on a number of occasions — reads like a special reader’s choice edition of The New Yorker; it’s a semi-independent cinema fanboy’s dream. First and foremost is Anderson, the Rushmore director who discovered and has subsequently cast him in The Darjeeling Limited (which they co-wrote along with his cousin Roman Coppola), Fantastic Mr. Fox and his new film, the 1965-set story of adventuresome preteen romantics, Moonrise Kingdom.
If Schwartzman has an identifiable style, the finer points of Anderson’s aesthetic could fill a textbook. With settings that are both timeless and anachronistic — 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums featured a New York that looked like it could have come out of a Roald Dahl novel, populated by real, troubled people — and props seemingly obtained from the secret magic aisle of a vintage shop, Anderson’s visual trademarks are oft-celebrated (and occasionally resented). But there are other recognizable aspects of his friend’s work that Schwartzman finds even more compelling to discuss.
While Moonrise Kingdom offered Schwartzman the chance to play a cocky, caution-to-the-wind scout leader — his false, Han Solo-like arrogance in a 1960s standard-issue Khaki Scout uniform is a hilarious juxtaposition in itself — his knack for playing the quiet, up against it soul was in part born out of Anderson’s penchant for creating such characters.
“They typically are somewhat stuck and are very desperate to move and get some blood flowing, to get some circulation,” he explains, summing up a vast majority of the director’s fictional universe, “and they go about it in whatever means are available to them, which can be funny and also powerful to the viewer, to watch someone who really just had his blinders on. A lot of the characters in the movies, they’re not funny people, they’re dead serious.”
Without ever winking or betraying the sincerity that makes the roles so sympathetic, Schwartzman has spoken some of Anderson’s most iconic, merrily twisted lines of dialogue, which he compares to the conversation style of hardboiled detective novels.
“A Raymond Chandler line I like is, ‘She had a face like a bucket of mud,’” Schwartzman explains. “Now that’s a very surreal idea, but it’s not flowery writing, it’s very straight. And I sort of feel that that’s one of the things too about Wes’ writing. It’s very straight, it’s very direct, but also kind of surreal — the sentences are sort of turned around on themselves, and so I think that’s one thing. And I think that sort of lends to the humor of it, too. It’s like half a beginning of a sentence is funny, and the next half of it is whatever the opposite of funny is.”
The Chandler comparison is apt, and quite convenient. For the past three years, Schwartzman starred as a very amateur private detective in HBO’s comedy Bored to Death, a modern twist on Chandler-style noir novels written and produced by the Brooklyn-based author Jonathan Ames. Again, Schwartzman blurred the personal and professional, and in more ways than one; his character was a Brooklyn-based author named Jonathan Ames. He wasn’t really playing an autobiographical stand-in for the real-life Ames so much as twisted character that began with a kernel of Ames’ self-perception (think of the recent Woody Allen substitutes, such as Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris).
Schwartzman-as-Ames traveled around Brooklyn and Manhattan, taking and often haphazardly solving small domestic mysteries solicited over craigslist. He was joined by his depressed and domesticated cartoonist buddy Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and stoner-magazine editor mentor George (Ted Danson) in adventures that saw him channel a similar earnest curiosity as roles such as Rushmore. Whereas he was starting clubs and writing plays in the early Anderson feature, Schwartzman’s Ames would stop dead in his tracks during action scenes to inquire about curiosities that caught his interest as he was being chased by mad men with guns or caught in full leather bondage body suits.
The show was canceled after its third season last fall, which ended the series in the awkward place of his character having just found the sperm donor from which he came — and learning that he was dating a woman who came from the same prolific, charitable masterbator. Taking it a step further, when offered the chance to reveal to his new beau their unfortunate relation, he declined, promising potential further once-removed incest.
“I’m down with it, because I feel like that is very true to the show, you know what I mean?” he says of the ending. “That’s true to the themes of the show, just this idea that someone who is trying to do the right thing and doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and then by trying not to hurt the person’s feelings, you sort of do maybe not the correct thing in the moment. And that is really a thematic thing of the show, is trying to not hurt people and trying to do right, and then in the process of trying to do right, you mess things up a little bit.”
As is often the case in the precarious world of television renewals, there exists a fully written fourth season that never got made.
“What was great about the show was that, the first season, it was sort of like this guy that was getting over this girl, becomes a detective, but to me it didn’t lock into that as a thing,” he offers. “The first season, each episode is the ‘case of this, the case of that,’ and if you look at the third season, there’s one case. So I sort of think it evolved and kept getting more and more intense, and the fourth season, from everything I knew, was the most almost cinematic one, it was the least like a TV show in that really was much more sprawling and intricate.”
He demurs from revealing more — he has too much respect for Ames, with whom he became close friends during the show’s run. The author even became ordained so that he could marry the actor and his wife, Brady Cunningham. That relationship was one of the silver linings that came with the show’s cancellation. Another roundabout benefit is the opportunity to work on other projects — he will feature with Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray in the comedy A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III later this summer — and further pursue his own writing.
Without true formal acting training, Schwartzman is willing to either work strictly from a script (he compares tampering with intricate Wes Anderson dialogue to Marty McFly seeing his father and altering his destiny in Back to the Future) or workshop and improv jokes, as he did while working on Judd Apatow’s Funny People. But one thing he does get to own is his music, which, after years as part of the band Phantom Planet (theirs was the “California” anthem that opened each episode of The O.C.), he puts out under the solo name Coconut Records. He tries to play and write music for at least half an hour a day, he says, likening it to government-recommended cardio exercise; without it, he feels all bent out of shape.
Still, he doesn’t want to give away too much about his future creative endeavors; there’s always a risk in speaking before film starts rolling in Hollywood, and anyway, he still doesn’t find himself all that interesting.
“I feel like I’m much more a fan of music and movies than I am a participant,” Schwartzman says. “I just love movies and music so much, it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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