Jason Schwartzman is a modest, engaging and unassuming actor given his pedigree and success. The son of late producer Jack Schwartzman and actress-director Talia Shire, the young actor could count among his clan such notables as cousin Nicolas Cage and uncle Francis Ford Coppola It was cousin director Sofia Coppola (Uncle Frank’s daughter) who noted the similarities between him and the character of Max in Rushmore(described as “a playwright, horrible in school [who] loves older women”). Sophia made the introduction of Schwartzman to the casting director of “Rushmore.” Nervous about embarking on a career in the movie industry (accurately labeled “the family business” by Schwartzman), he often consulted his experienced mother for advice during filming. Whatever the method, his highly acclaimed performance in the critically touted film serves as a testament to its success.
Although he had auditioned for the role of Tom Hanks’ matchmaking son in 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle” (which went to Ross Malinger), acting was not Schwartzman’s primary focus. In 1994, he formed a band called Phantom Planet, serving as a drummer and songwriter, hearkening back to another familial influence, his grandfather, Oscar-winning composer Carmine Coppola. Phantom Planet was signed to Geffen Records and released its debut album, Phantom Planet Is Missing, in late 1998, shortly before “Rushmore” was released to rave reviews.
While he has insisted that his career in the L.A.-based pop-rock outfit comes first, Schwartzman has signed on to do another movie with the Wes Anderson/Owen Wilson filmmaking team, this time playing one of a family of zany geniuses in a New York City set comedy. Even Schwartzman’s decidedly un-WASPy looks befit both his real-life roles as a rock star drummer and a thoughtful actor. His unique screen presence and unquestionable talent for acting added to his creativity and determination as a musician just might equal a thriving career in both fields.
Schwartzman chose his subsequent roles carefully, appearing in low-budget, low-profile films which kept their integrity as individual expressions. He appeared in Roman Coppola’s directorial debut “CQ” (2001), a period film about a struggling director (Jeremy Davies) making a movie about the future, and the anti-high school comedy “Slackers” (2002). He ended that year appearing in the more mainstream “Simone” (2002), starring Al Pacino as a down-and-out Hollywood director making a last ditch comeback by turning a computer-generated woman (Rachel Roberts) into a star.
After gaining recognition for “California,” a song he wrote for Phantom Planet that became widely known thanks to the success of the independent film ” Orange County” (2002), Schwartzman starred to great effect as a speed freak in the critically acclaimed “Spun” (2003). The young actor attempted a foray into series television with the sitcom “Cracking Up” (Fox, 2004), playing a student who moves into the guest house of a seemingly picture-perfect, but apparently crazy Beverly Hills family. Despite the pedigree of creator Mike White and a healthy dose of critical raves, the series died on the vine.
Schwartzman’s gift for portraying quirky characters seemed far better suited to edgier big-screen fare, as evidenced by his turn in writer-director David O. Russell’s fourth feature “I [Heart] Huckabees” (2004). He next popped up in a supporting role as Will Ferrell’s intensely focused, truth-impaired Hollywood agent in the big screen remake of the classic ’60s series “Bewitched” (2005) before co-starring in the big screen adaptation of Steve Martin’s bestselling novella “Shopgirl” (2005).
In Sophia Coppola’s stylish period piece, ” Marie Antoinette” (2006), Schwartzman gave a slyly detached performance as the young King of France, Louis XVI, who weds the daughter of Austrian nobility (Kirsten Dunst), only to spend the next several years failing to consummate the marriage, much to the chagrin of the court advisors wanting an heir to the throne.
The actor is winning raves in the HBO series “Bored to Death” and last seen in cinemas in the ensemble dramedy, Funny People. Next up is his vocal work as the son of one “Fantastic Mr Fox”. He spoke to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
Question: Now when you do a voice of a character that is so much younger than you, do you work vocally on reinterpreting that character, in a situation like this?
Schwartzman: Well, I asked Wes. When he said that I would be playing the character of Ash, and I read it and I saw that he was an adolescent, a young kid, I asked him if I was to prepare a higher voice, or what he wanted. And he asked me to try it, but as kind of a – just to say that we tried it. But really, he always felt that he’d rather me just speak in my normal voice. So, I didn’t make my voice higher or anything. But sometimes I did, I guess.
Question: What were the challenges for you to play Ash, and to give him his own particular vocal identity, as it were?
Schwartzman: Well, just first of all, playing it, it was really – have you heard how we did all the audio tracks for this movie?
Schwartzman: So, you know, we did it live.
Question: Yeah. Which is very unusual.
Schwartzman: It’s so unusual. And I got to say that I think that one thing that was kind of great about it was, I didn’t think that I was ever playing a young fox, you know? Even though I knew what the character looked like, and I’d seen the puppet, I didn’t ever think, ” Oh, I’m playing a fox.” And I think that I would have done that, to help me, probably, with my imagination, if I was to do it in a recording studio, alone, in the more orthodox style of doing animated movies. And I probably would have imagined myself as a fox. But I think because we were all together, you know, all of us running around on location and really digging in the ground if our characters were digging, and really playing these scenes out in a very realistic way, and having it recorded very crudely, and – in almost like a documentary style – I think that it kind of allowed me to forget all of the stuff about me being a young kid, or being a fox. And I just tried to play these scenes with George Clooney and Bill Murray as sincerely as I could. And I think that it just kind of came out that way. You know what I mean? There was no time – in a great way, there was very little time to over-think it, because it was all just happening so fast around us. And in fact, there was very little discussion between Wes and I in terms of what he wanted from me. I read the script, and it just seemed – he had written it so well, and so succinctly, it just – it was all there. And I just felt like I just – I just got to go in and perform these lines well, and just – as long as I just connect with George Clooney and Bill Murray, maybe I’ll be okay.
Question: Do you and Wes have a shorthand now that because you guys know each other very well, and worked together before. Does it make it easier on this kind of movie?
Schwartzman: Well, I feel like maybe the better friends you are, I think that there is a shorthand. Wes is, first of all, a very articulate person. Just, anyways. And – you know, sometimes it can be difficult if you’re working with a director, and they’re not able to express what they mean, or what they want from you. They can’t – they don’t know how to articulate themselves. And it’s nice to work with Wes, because he’s so articulate, and he’s such a gifted writer and has such a way with words, that I never run into that problem. So on top of that, his super-articulate powers – or, his powers of being super-articulate – we now have a shorthand. I think that it comes from so many years of being close friends, and also having had so many shared experiences. Like, we’ve gone through so much together. So many highs and lows, and weird moments, and surreal moments, that it doesn’t take us very long to get on track with one another, and to express ourselves. Even now he lives in Paris, and sometimes I don’t see him for a very long period of time, but once I see him, we’re kind of right back into our natural rhythm of friendship. But what I’ll say is I think that it makes the work harder, but in a good way, because you have no excuse not to go for it. Like, he has seen me at my worst, not only personally, but just in takes. The hardest thing I find about acting is just how embarrassing it is a lot of the time.
Schwartzman: I don’t know why. When you’re working with someone new, the scariest part is, lhat moment before you say your lines for that first time. Because you think they’re going to hear you say it and go, ” Wait a second. This guy’s – this is wrong. This is awful. Get this guy out of here.” And – so with Wes, he has seen me so bad before, and – you know, known me for so long, that there’s such a nice feeling of trust that allows you to go – that allows me to feel like I can go deeper and farther, because I’m not worried about being bad, because he’s already seen that, and he’s already seen all these great things. So, we have no excuse at this point not to completely explore everything together, when we’re doing a take. I think the more you know someone, the less you can be lazy. You have no excuse to be lazy.
Question: Why did you feel this was the right time for you to do television with Bored to Death?
Schwartzman: Oh. That’s a good question. I don’t know about right time or wrong time. All I know is, this is just the time that Jonathan Ames and I collided. And I think it just happened. basically, years ago – and this is – it’s really weird. Years and years ago, I was going out with a girl who gave me one of his books, and said, ” You should read this book. You would love it.” And she literally said something like, ” You seem like you could be this guy in this book, and you would love this writer,” or something. And I was like, ” Okay.” And I read it. And it was, like, not only did I love the writing, but I felt, ” Man. Who is this guy? Who is this writer? He’s so amazing.” And I read all of his books after that, and I was so excited that I had – not – I hadn’t discovered. But in my life, a discovery had been made, and this great new figure was in my life, at least from a distance at that point. And then I – I actually saw, he had adapted this very book that I was given, called Wake Up, Sir. So, he’d adapted it into a screenplay. And it was sent to me, and I saw – right when I opened it up, I saw, ” Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir.” Before I even read it, I called my agent, and I said, ” I don’t know what the story is, if there’s tons of actors probably trying to get part of this, or – you know, everyone wants to be in this, maybe. But can I just – I just want to meet with him and express to him how much I love him as a writer.”
And – we got each other’s e-mail addresses, and we began a correspondence, which I was very nervous to do, because I typically don’t like to talk to anyone that I really admire, because if it goes bad, it can be really bad. Like, I had a thing happened where when I was 18, I really loved this one band. And I was at a concert, and I was – stood next to the singer at a concert by chance. And then I told him how much I liked him. And then we started talking, and then I made, like, a couple jokes, and then weird references to things. And it just – we never clicked. And to this day, I literally wince if the music comes on. It kills me. And so the writing – his writing had become such an important thing to me, and I was nervous – you know, ” What if I sit down with this guy, and it just – he’s so smart, I’m an idiot.” You know, ” What if we just don’t click?” But that was not the case. And actually, right upon meeting him, I had a very strong feeling that this was someone that I was going to – you know, hopefully be working with. And it is a thing, like being on a first date, in a weird way. Like – you know, you don’t want to get your hopes up too high. But you’re thinking, ” Wow, I really like this person.” You know, ” I hope they – I hope they want to – you know, creatively kiss me at the end of the night.” You know what I mean? Like, you’re so nervous.
And we were talking about Wake Up, Sir, the script that he was writing. And I asked him – and not only that, but the meeting went on for hours. It was like, a five hour meeting. And it covered every topic, and just everything. And – you know, he’s also a teacher. So he was giving me a syllabus of books to read. And – you know, ” You should read this book on writing,” and nah nah nah. And I was saying, ” Well, I’m stuck. I can’t write this thing. I’m trapped here, what do I do?” And – anyway, it was just very inspirational. And after a couple hours, I said, ” So, what are you doing in Los Angeles? What brings you here?” And he said, ” Well, actually, I’ve written a short story for McSweeney’s, but HBO actually read it and has optioned it, and they want me to turn it into a series for them.” And I said, ” Oh, that’s so great. What’s it about?” And the second he launched into the premise, I felt this weird feeling which I can only say in retrospect was like, a combination between jealousy and greed. Which was like, ” Wait a second. I know we’re here talking about Wake Up, Sir. But this sounds like what I want to do, too. But can I do that? Can I want this many things? Can I be this selfish?” I felt like a kid at Christmas who was like, ” I want that. No, I want that.” No, I just – you know, and – by the way, I’m not in a position creatively where I can be like, ” I want that.” But that’s how I felt. Like a little kid inside.
And just to backpedal for a bit, I was feeling a bit adrift creatively, looking, struggling to find something to do next that I really could relate to. And I was with my friend, and he was saying, ” Well, if you could just have it your way, if you could just customize your own piece, what would you want to play?” And I said, ” Well, I’ve always wanted to be a private detective. But I just don’t know how to do it in a way that’s right for me.” And so when your favorite writer is telling you at lunch that he’s going to do this private detective piece, which is this archetype that you’ve – or, this modern-day superhero that you’ve been wanting to play forever – the two of those things together was just – it was like, such – it was too good to be true. And I felt almost insane with excitement. And – but I didn’t tell him that then. But I just basically – I saw in front of me, silently in my head, ” This is what I want. If I take this thing that I love, this character that I love, and you put it through his filter, it’s going to be something that I – I might be able to get my hands on. I can get into this.” And so he sent me the short story, and I read it without ever saying, like, ” Is this something I could also talk to you about doing?” But he sent it to me, and I printed it out, and I loved it. I loved it so much, the short story. It was incredible. And I called him, and I said, ” Would you mind sending me the script, so I could just see how you adapted it?” And he sent it to me. And after the first page, I put it down. And I called my agent, and I said, ” Is there any way that I could, like – kill for this part? Because I’ve got to play this character.” And I begged, I petitioned, I did everything. I met, I auditioned, I did everything that I needed to do to get that part.
Question: And HBO has renewed it to, they’ve picked it up. Is that right?
Schwartzman: They have, yeah. And so for me, it’s just fun because it doesn’t feel like I never thought we were doing a TV show, in a weird way. It just feels like doing a movie. There’s one camera, there’s a crew, you’re on location, you’re busting your ass 18 hours a day. And in fact, it felt more like doing a 2 1/2 hour-long movie. You know, it’s the same characters – you know, meeting and getting into trouble. It was very exciting. It was more like – it was like short stories or something. It’s been really – I would have been heartbroken if we couldn’t have come back, because I really had a great time.
Question: What else are you involved in doing at the moment, Jason? Because I know you’re producing a lot of stuff. I mean, is there anything you’re working on besides –
Schwartzman: Well, I just finished another movie for this director named Edgar Wright, who made a movie called Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz.
Question: I know Edgar Wright very well, yes.
Schwartzman: Oh, great. And I made this movie with him called Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. And that will be coming out in July.
Question: And whom do you play in that?
Schwartzman: I play a character named Gideon Graves. The movie’s about Michael Cera, who falls in love with this girl, but in order to get her and to date her, he has to defeat her seven ex-evil-boyfriends, in these crazy battles and I am the final baddie, the big baddie nemesis. I’m like, a record producer, and I’m like, really kind of maniacal and crazy, so that’s what I did. Then I came home, and I’ve been trying to write my third record. Then I’m going to ship off to New York to go to Bored to Death again in about two months.
Question: It sounds like you’re a busy lad. Are you having fun?
Schwartzman: I am. And it’s weird, because it’s been odd, my career has been a combination of like – I feel like I work, but I go in this weird – like, it’s hard for me to get a job. It’s hard. I’m not at the acting level yet of the other guys, where they could just, like, get a part like some people would order a pizza. You know what I mean? Like, it’s very difficult for me to be in the movie. It takes – and that’s why I haven’t done as many movies as a lot of – like, a lot of other people my age have done, like, twice as many movies. It’s just really hard to get it all together. And for me to be in a movie – it takes, sometimes, a near miracle. And I feel so lucky. And you can’t believe, like – I never thought I would be doing this for a movie. I never could have conceived of it. And so – and it’s odd. I would have thought, over the years, perhaps that feeling would have dwindled. But it just gets – it gets more intense, actually. Like, this feeling of like – I feel like a bit of an imposter. I don’t know why I’m working. I don’t know – this has just been incredible, and I’m just – basically, my entire goal is just not to ruin people’s movies.
Question: Well, you haven’t done that so far.
Schwartzman: But it’s been odd, because this movie, for instance, Fantastic Mr. Fox – I did this two years ago. And – over time, then, the like – the show kind of came – like, everything kind of came together odd – like, the way – the timing of it was weird. It seems like I’m, like, busy. But in fact, it’s been slow. And then it just kind of all came to fruition simultaneously. But, I mean, you’d be surprised how often I’m just at home in my underwear, doing nothing. I mean, embarrassingly so.
Question: I don’t believe that’s possible.
Schwartzman: Oh, it’s – I’ll prove it to you. It’s very possible.
Question: No, no – okay.
Schwartzman: I won’t – okay, maybe I won’t prove it. I won’t prove it.