No one can stake a better claim to the appeal of Jason Schwartzman’s performances than Wes Anderson, who gave the actor his 1998 breakout role in “Rushmore.” So when Anderson notices Schwartzman has taken a new direction, it means something.
“I particularly love Jason in Alex Ross Perry’s new movie, ‘Listen Up Philip,'” Anderson told Indiewire in a recent e-mail, referring to the movie that Tribeca Film opens today. “I like how radically unlike himself he is in this one. He lasers in on this character, and he is and brutal and still makes you laugh.”
There’s a lot “radically unlike” Schwartzman these days. Over the past 12 months, along with shooting a bit part in Tim Burton’s upcoming drama “Big Eyes,” Schwartzman plays major roles in two other low-budget comedies: Robert Byington’s “7 Chinese Brothers” and Patrick Brice’s “The Overnight,” which both arrive on the festival circuit next year. In the meantime, he’s also co-writing the Amazon television show “Mozart in the Jungle,” currently filming in Brooklyn.
A Long Time Coming
Schwartzman has long been associated with indie cred for good reason. His role opposite Bill Murray in “Rushmore,” as obsessive teen Max Fischer announced his unique and contradictory screen presence: Physically small and meek, his beady eyes and serious gaze gave an understated and commanding element. “Rushmore” only hints at the troubled, self-obsessed adult Max could become and “Philip” realizes that potential. As the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis put it in this week’s review, “He’s Groucho Marx by way of a fawn.”
As neurotic young writer Philip Friedman in Perry’s follow-up to “The Color Wheel,” another hysterical blend of discomfort and pathos, Schwartzman delivers a performance that’s funny and melancholic: Philip is so driven by his own success that he isolates himself from everyone, including his supportive girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), even as he thrives on attention. Finding solace in the wisdom of a cantankerous older scribe loosely based on Philip Roth (the great Jonathan Pryce), Philip struggles to reconcile his need to bask in his brilliance with his generally unsmiling demeanor.
And, aside from his turn as private detective Jonathan Ames on the short-lived HBO series “Bored to Death,” it’s Schwartzman’s first lead since “Rushmore.”
That’s about to change in a big way, and not only due to “Philip.”
“I was thinking about this,” Schwartzman said recently on the “Mozart on the Jungle” set. “I’ve been talking about the past year with my wife. She said, ‘You’ve been gone a lot.’ I just don’t know what happened.”
Stumbling Into Freedom
But there are a logical series of events that led Schwartzman to this moment, as he’s stumbled into a community of American filmmakers working way outside the parameters of studio projects.
Last year, the actor was invited to moderate a Q&A at L.A.’s Cinefamily with Robert Byington for his movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” starring Schwartzman’s pal Nick Offerman. Byington told Schwartzman about his own project, and added a plug for his friend Perry, whose “The Color Wheel” included a bit part for Byington as a low-key cynic. It happened that Schwartzman had recently been sent the script for “Listen Up Philip,” along with a copy of “The Color Wheel”
Schwartzman went home, read the script, and watched Perry’s black-and-white road trip comedy in which Perry stars as an megalomaniac who runs his mouth at every opportunity — not unlike Philip. Curious, Schwartzman looked up YouTube clips of Perry and eventually arranged to meet him in New York.
“It all clicked into place,” the actor recalled. “You know that everything Philip says is on purpose. He’s doing what he wants.”
Perry threw Schwartzman off when he mentioned that he had more than one actor in mind for the part, but ultimately it was Schwartzman’s underlying likability that sealed the deal. “Why don’t you play this part?” Schwartzman remembered asking the filmmaker. “Because then,” Perry replied, “people would definitely hate Philip.”
Schwartzman spent a month hanging out in New York with Perry to get inside the head of his new protagonist. “What’s tough about Philip is that his standards are so high,” Schwartzman said. “He expects so much about people. He doesn’t want to feel this way. That’s just how he feels because he’s constantly disappointed.”
Schwartzman said he got so inside his character he would sometimes argue with Moss to justify Philip’s decisions. The small cast and limited production resources not only enhanced the personal vibe of the production — they also made Schwartzman, who has surfaced in nearly all of Anderson’s films since “Rushmore,” feel right at home.
“When Wes has made his last few movies, they’re much bigger budgets, but they have a similar principle,” Schwartzman said. “The actors all live in a house together and everyone puts on their own costume before work and does their own hair and make up. That’s not common.”
Also a musician — Schwartzman spent years as the drummer for Phantom Planet — the actor has a comfort level with smaller productions that afford him a fair amount of liberty. “I think about this shit a lot,” he said. “Obviously, there are certain types of things that are more successful and more overtly will reach an audience. It’s not that I don’t care about this stuff.”
But even though he recently played a songwriter in last year’s “Saving Mr. Banks” and one of the “evil ex-boyfriends” in Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” Schwartzman hasn’t accrued major commercial appeal.
“There are very few people on the level where they can just order a movie like you could order fruit,” he said. “I’m not at that level in this business. Certainly I’ve been a part of movies that have received exposure, but it’s still hard to get anything made. That’s why it was so amazing to say yes to ‘Philip’ and then we were just making it.”
Later, having mulled over his sudden onslaught of indie roles, Schwartzman clarified his situation while Perry sat by his side. “It wasn’t that I wanted to do smaller movies,” Schwartzman said. “It was just that these three things came along.”
Added Perry, “I hear about these things all the time when I’m talking to agents. They’ll say, ‘So-and-so is looking for an indie right now.’ But not about actors who are your age. Nobody would ever say that about you. It doesn’t make a difference to you — you’re not really burned out and wanting to get dirty for a few weeks.”
Schwartzman added that he’s purely driven by instinct. “There just has to be one element about it for me,” he said. “Is the movie something I’d want to be in? But I’m only saying this in pre-defense of any mistakes that might be made in the next few years.”
Directors who work with Schwartzman generally describe his talent as a penchant for improvisatory wit that allows him to engineer his performances from the inside out.
Anderson, who said he cast Schwartzman for “Rushmore” 30 seconds after the pair met, calls the actor “hysterically funny and tremendously intelligent.”
He also noted an organic quality to Schwartman’s process. “Jason is very disciplined, studious, and focused when he is playing a part in a movie,” Anderson said, “but he has something like a Robin Williams kind of a brilliance, too. The switch gets flipped, and off he goes.”
It’s a tendency that younger directors are eager to capitalize on. “I knew I needed someone enigmatic,” said Patrick Brice, whose “The Overnight” finds Schwartzman acting opposite Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott. “One of the things that I think is really unique about Jason is his ability to be an enigma while still eliciting empathy from an audience at the same time. He gives you a sense of the world within his characters, the sense that they have a life outside of what you’re seeing onscreen.”
Though Byington can take some responsibility for luring Schwartzman toward “Philip,” he was less certain about being able to cast him in his own “7 Chinese Brothers.”
“I assumed he was unattainable,” Byington said. “When we started to talk about the script, it was clear he was really into it, obsessively so, and this translated directly on to the screen. When I started rehearsing with him it was clear that he’s a dizzyingly talented actor, who is very passionate about the craft. He asks tons of questions during the prep, but once he has it, forget it.”
Just as he spent a month in New York to prepare for “Philip,” Schwartzman insisted on hanging out in Austin two weeks ahead of production to get in the mindset for “7 Chinese Brothers,” and even landed a role for his dog Arrow — as well as a cameo for Perry. “Jason is usually a step ahead of you,” Byington said. “He’s not afraid to appear foolish and indeed thinks it’s his job to be willing to try things. He’s also got a star quality that doesn’t grow on trees.”
But that star quality shines more selectively than most. “I think you are lucky to find someone like Jason to work with in the first place,” Anderson explained. “You try to hang on to them.”
A New Beginning
Earlier this week on the “Mozart in the Jungle” set, Schwartzman sat at a director’s monitor with his cousin Roman Coppola, with whom he’s co-writing the show. The two were focused on nailing the cadences of a particular scene, but even behind the camera, Schwartzman couldn’t escape his upcoming ubiquity. In between takes, an assistant swooped in to clear an outtake from the set of “Philip” set to air on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Schwartzman beamed over the scene, in which the actor was actually pulled over by a cop while shooting a take and contemplated out loud whether he should just drive away. “I could’ve been arrested!” he announced with a grin. “That’s commitment.”
Afterwards, he wandered to an empty trailer and sat cross-legged on the floor, his arm propped up on a fire distinguisher. Months after contemplating his whirlwind of experiences with smaller productions, he was still uncertain about how to explain the shift.
“What do you think happened with Matthew McConaughey?” he asked. “Do you think Christopher Nolan knows he’s going to McConaughey? Or do the agents say, ‘He’s having a great year.’ How does he wind up in all these movies all once?”
While McConaughey’s resurgence may reflect the efforts of canny Hollywood power players, Schwartzman’s own appearances suggest he’s just going with the flow. The movies have found him — and it’s not the professional outcome that leaves him satisfied.
“I haven’t received any calls with offers because of this movie,” he said, but doesn’t seem too torn up about it. “Now that I have some distance from it, I really appreciate Philip’s honestly with people. Everything he says is what he means.”
In the months following the production, Schwartzman said he noticed that the character got under his skin. “I’ve had real full-on verbal altercations with people,” he said. “One was in Switzerland at the airport where I was defending something that was happening. I was going to be seriously screwed over by the airline. So I caused a ruckus. Then I had another thing recently on the phone where I was giving somebody a piece of my mind. I almost fainted. It was an uncontrollable feeling.”
At the same time, he found an upside. “Afterwards, my first thought was, ‘I wish Alex had heard that. He would’ve been proud.’ I’d tapped into something — and I wanted to thank him for it.”