“I’ve never had an evening before,” said Jason Schwartzman in response to the thunderous applause at the the start of “An Evening with Jason Schwartzman” on June 6 at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).
Schwartzman, in Seattle for screenings of his latest two films, Bob Byington’s “7 Chinese Brothers” and Patrick Brice’s “The Overnight,” chatted for nearly an hour with Indiewire’s own Eric Kohn.
Below are highlights from the lively conversation, which spanned the actor’s career.
1. His cousin Sofia Coppola helped him land the part in “Rushmore.”
Schwartzman told the audience that never he set out to act. As a teenager, his focus was on music — playing drums in a band he formed with some high school friends. “We were recording our record [for his band Phantom Planet] and, at that time, I suffered from typical kind of high school behavior. I was sort of a clown and I would revert to clownish behavior like dressing like an ice cream man or a milk man,” he said.
His first acting gig just happened to fall into his lap, while accompanying his mother to a special 1997 screening of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon,” for which Schwartzman’s late grandfather Carmine Coppola had composed the score. “I wore a tuxedo which had tails and I think I was wearing a top hat,” he said.
A guest at the event, Davia Nelson, then the San Francisco-based casting agent for Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” was describing the project to Sofia Coppola. According to Schwartzman, “Davia said it was about a young eccentric teenager who wrote plays and was in love with an older woman. And Sofia said ‘oh, that sounds like my cousin Jason.’ It was true that the summer before I had written and directed a play and I was in love with my nanny.”
Sofia introduced Schwartzman to Nelson, who soon after, sent him the script for “Rushmore” and had him audition with Anderson for the leading role of Max Fischer. The rest is film history.
2. “Rushmore” was the first script Schwartzman had ever read. And it changed his life.
“It was everything that I thought was funny…I just thought this is what I’m talking about,” Schwartzman recalled. When he gave the script to his mother, actress Talia Shire, he said that she went to the video store and brought home three films that would end up changing his life. They were “Harold and Maude,” “The Graduate” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” “I had never seen any of those movies,” said Schwartzman, “It was the first time a movie had made me feel the way a record did. It changed my life.”
3. Schwartzman didn’t think he would land the part in “Rushmore.”
At the time, he was a high school student with no professional acting experience, focused on drumming. “I didn’t actually think I was going to get the part,” he said. “My attitude was ‘this is going to be an insane thing to tell people about.'”
4. His close relationship with Wes Anderson has fueled his passion for acting.
Speaking of his longtime collaboration with Anderson, Schwartzman said, “It’s been incredible because as we all know, it’s hard to meet people that you really consider a true friend and also really hard to find people that you work with that you like. The idea that I was fortunate enough to meet someone that truly was like a big brother to me and a real mentor, showing me movies when we were making ‘Rushmore’ and really turning me on to stuff at a really important time in my life, it’s beyond a normal thing I could describe, a true, deep friendship.”
Since “Rushmore,” Schwartzman has appeared in Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Both director and actor are in tune with one another in such a way that they are able to communicate using their own form of shorthand. Said Schwartzman: “There’s an archive of memories that we’re able to talk about that gives it a unique space for me working with him. He’s so curious as a filmmaker and he loves making movies and loves what we’re doing.”
5. Playing Max Fischer made him fall in love with acting.
As Kohn acknowledged, starting out with a memorable role such as Max Fischer in “Rushmore” is a “Hell of a way to start your career as an actor.”
Schwartzman agreed, noting how the “experience was so singular, it made me fall in love with acting and movies. I didn’t think I was going to be an actor.”
After the film’s release, he got an agent who, Schwartzman said, “tried to help me find a way to work and navigate those waters.”
6. What he really wanted to do was…write.
“I’d always wanted to write,” said Schwartzman. The opportunity to give writing a shot finally came about when he and Anderson reunited to work on “The Darjeeling Limited.” “Wes read me the opening scene on that movie and said, ‘I think you and I and Roman [Coppola] should write this together,'” Schwartzman recalled. He proceeded to learn more about the craft of writing after having met author Jonathan Ames, also the creator of the HBO series “Bored to Death,” in which Schwartzman starred for three seasons. “He’s a really great writer and a truly wonderful novelist,” said Schwartzman. “I I began to spend more and more time observing his writing on ‘Bored to Death.'”
He likened “Mozart in the Jungle,” the series he developed and wrote for Amazon with Roman Coppola and Alex Timbers, to boot camp. He said “that [it] was really a crash course in learning how to write. I don’t feel like I write. I just feel like I type away at this stuff. But when you see a real writer, it’s like magic.”
7. He found out he was offered a role in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” through his agent – not through his cousin.
“For the record, there are so many ways that actors get in movies and unless you’re one of five people who have proven to make a lot of money for people and they are bankable actors who can get a movie made, everyone else is trying to piece it together,” said Schwartzman. “To be offered a movie that’s filming is a very rare thing,” he continued, “I’ve been fortunate the few times that’s happened.” Schwartzman said he loved the experience of shooting the film in which he played Louise XVI. “It was a beautiful experience. We got to shoot in Versailles,” he told the audience. The only downside? Said Schwartzman: “I had to put on 60 pounds of fat to play the part.”
8. The movie he quotes the most is “The Three Amigos.”
When auditioning for the 2005 film, “Shopgirl,” Schwartzman said he got the opportunity to meet one of his childhood idol’s, actor-comedian Steve Martin who adapted the novella he wrote into a screenplay that would eventually become the film. “It was insane because all of [Steve Martin’s] movies are — I’m sure for us all they represent the same thing. ‘The Three Amigos’ might [be] the movie that I find myself quoting the most.”
9. A movie’s budget is less important than the cast and crew’s enthusiasm for the project.
“I’ve never been in a movie that’s a humongous budget movie that’s got explosions. I don’t really think in terms of budget,” said Schwartzman. “I just approach each movie as its own thing and try not to compare it to the one before.”
Schwartzman expressed gratitude that he’s made a career doing what he loves. “I’m really happy to be working and really lucky to be working. I just bring enthusiasm and excitement and my main thing is ‘what can I try to learn?’ Because I didn’t go to acting school, I guess I have a chip on my shoulder like I’m not supposed to be here.”
He tends to choose film projects where he can learn something. “On the last few movies I did (‘7 Chinese Brothers,’ ‘The Overnight’ and ‘Listen Up, Phillip’) I felt so excited because everyone was into it, really pumped up to be there. They’re there because they want to be there and they’re excited to be there. That’s how I feel. I’m nervous, but I’m excited to be there….”