Q&A: Paul Schneider


Since first coming to attention in David Gordon Green's "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," North Carolina native Paul Schneider has steadily been adding to a resume of quintessentially American characters. But while roles in films like "Lars and the Real Girl" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" have certainly raised his profile, its his scene-stealing turn as Scottish poet Charles Armitage Brown in Jane Campion's "Bright Star" that has put the film world on notice. Schneider recently talked with Chad Williams about the Romantic poets, Depeche Mode and leaving your mark.

The Hollywood Reporter: How much work was the Scottish accent?

Paul Schneider: It's an odd little challenge. I felt a certain obligation to earn my keep. They were going to fly me from the States to London to shoot when they could have just gone up the street and grabbed somebody with a Scottish accent, so I'm not unaware of the practical cost of doing that and, as far as acting is concerned, accents are kind of ... if they're not working, they're just the most obvious deficiency. If that's not working for you, then nothing else is. I think we're all very attuned to accents done badly.

THR: How did they find you in the first place?

Schneider: The way I heard it, Jane Campion was on the jury for the Venice Film Festival when "The Assassination of Jesse James" played there and for some reason made the leap from 1860s outlaw (Dick Liddil) to 1810s obese Scottish poet. She told me that she saw the film and was interested and then she got in touch with my agent and my agent got in touch with me.

THR: What was your initial impression of Brown when you got the script and how did that change, if at all?

Schneider: I read it and I was really lucky that ideas started coming to me. Sometimes I can read a script and be focused on the character and it can be a really great script but for some reason I just have no ideas for it and I'm sort of drawing a blank. And in those cases, I don't try to get the job because I don't see why they'd hire me as opposed to any schmo. For this one, I started reading Brown, and the relationship he had with Keats reminded me of the relationship between Saliere and Mozart -- two people that are trying to make their mark with one very clearly being the natural genius. And so when I read Brown, I felt like his approach to writing was very athletic, very masculine in the sense that he wanted to sort of punch his way through a poem. There was no Zen calm. There was no transformative serenity to his writing. It was all just bunched up balls of paper and every word had to be sort of squeezed out, as though he's trying to write by squeezing his muscles.

I told Jane that I wanted the act of writing for Brown to be very physical. He's always hunched over like it's an almost painful thing. Whereas, in contrast, Keats just sort of carelessly drags a chair out under a tree and sits down and crosses his legs and kind of farts out the greatest poems that anyone's ever read. I felt like Brown's act of writing would be more like manual labor. And then you can extrapolate that into how he would relate to polite society. My take on him is that he was one of these people who was trying not to be concerned with what he felt was superficial ... like superficial habits, superficial etiquette. The romantics at that point were kind of like the first punks. They had a bit of a following and they were trying to get away from this formalist way of writing and they wanted to write about how they were feeling. Which today doesn't seem very revolutionary but back then it was like, "what do you mean you want to write how you feel?" because the poems before these guys tended to be a little more classical intellectual studies. And I think that extended into their personal lives. They were rejecting formalist attitudes in writing so I feel like they probably rejected formalist attitudes in social behavior.

THR: Did you feel like you had sort of locked down how you would interpret Brown before shooting began?

Schneider: I don't have anything locked down in my life ever. I would never have that thought. He was very clear on the page, so there wasn't a lot of invention to do necessarily. I mean, obviously, I'm gonna do it the way I do it, unless Jane has any issue with it and then I'll do my best to change for her, but I'm going in there as flexible as possible. Like anything else I've ever done, it might look locked down to someone else, but in my head I'm wondering what the hell I'm doing.

THR: What was your key to identifying with the character?

Schneider: I think we've all been in a situation where one of our friends started dating someone we don't like. And I was able to do a little transfer between how Brown felt about poetry and how I feel about music. I kind of took Alexander Pope and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and turned them into Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and then I didn't have to act very much when we were talking about poetry. I would just sort of think, "well, how do I feel about John Bonham?" and then not have to act. But I think, without being too self-deprecating, that one thing I related to with Brown was this desire to really make a mark and wondering if you have the talent to do it. Especially when you're surrounded by people like John Keats or, shit, some of the people that I've worked with in the film industry.

THR: Have you had a Keats in your life?

Schneider: The Keatses in my life are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton and Victor Frankl. People that I read and I wonder if I'll ever do anything as meaningful as I feel the things are that they've done. I don't think that's specific to me either. We all have our heroes. We're all trying to scratch our names into the fucking cafeteria table of life.

THR: Even though their friendship was platonic, did you see the Keats-Brown-Fanny Brawne relationship as a love triangle of sorts?

Schneider: I think it was probably more serious than that to Brown. And if Brown had had the singular talent that Keats had he probably wouldn't have needed Keats so much. And it was pretty clear early on that he was less of a peer and more of a sort of secretary. And of course at the end of his life he became sort of a Keats archivist. I think had Brown been more substantially talented, it wouldn't have been such a threat to him. His problem is that his friendship with Keats is what defined him. And when Keats went off with Fanny he was rudderless and left to his own devices, so what does he do? He bangs a maid and starts a relationship with somebody he doesn't like. All of that couched in the world of trying really hard to do something creative. I thought a lot about how Ringo Starr must have felt when Yoko Ono started hanging around. I thought a lot about bands and music and people trying to attempt something creative but in a group context.

I thought a lot about Roger Daltry and Dave Gahan and being the lead singer in a band where you're not the lead songwriter and how weird that must be. Of course, Dave Gahan had a massive heroin problem. Are you kidding me? He gets rich on something he knows that's not his. And don't get me wrong, I love his voice, I fucking love Depeche Mode, but he's not Martin Gore. He's not the silent genius. He's not the Wizard of Oz. He's the one that everyone grabs and says, "oh my God that song is my favorite song." But every time someone says that he goes, "well, I didn't write that." Most people just assume that the person singing wrote the music and in most cases, that's not true.

THR: What was the most memorable moment of the "Bright Star" experience for you?

Schneider: "The Piano" is the movie that sent me to film school when I was 18. I hadn't thought about going to film school before it. So I saw that movie and I went to film school and all these years later I get a phone call from Jane. The whole thing was pretty surreal. We talked on the phone and I was actually staring at this poster of 'The Piano' that's framed in my kitchen. And I didn't tell her that I was looking at it while I was talking to her. Do you expect that (Led Zeppelin drummer) John Bonham is gonna call you up the day when you buy your first pair of drumsticks? You like what you like. You don't expect what you like to come to like you back. The whole experience is sort of like this huge pink elephant in the room, that I'm sure my brain will come to grips with at some point, but right now, we're just not dealing with him.