The funniest moment of the “New Girl” finale is barely a joke. It’s an accusation, really.
As Nick (Jake Johnson) starts to pack up his apartment, unbeknownst to his wife, Jess (Zooey Deschanel), Schmidt (Max Greenfield) spots a box pushed toward the back of the closet.
“What’s in the box that says ‘gross stuff,’ man?” he asks.
“Jess’ underpants,” Nick replies.
“You have Jess’ panties in a box?” Schmidt asks, to which Nick nods.
“While I’m delighted that you have a box… labeled ‘gross stuff’… of your wife’s… undergarments, uh, I also feel like you may be lying to me,” Schmidt says.
That’s it. That’s the scene. On paper, it’s silly and fun. It provokes many questions and tells us a bit about each character. But reading the words is nothing compared to seeing it play out (which you can do right here), and that’s because of Max Greenfield’s performance.
For seven years on “New Girl,” Greenfield has been elevating his character’s scenes with impeccable precision and uncapped energy. He bursts off the screen in such a way that Schmidt has captured the hearts of fans across the nation. There are endless “best of” montages online and an even more abundant stream of gifs. Schmidt is an icon, and Greenfield helped make him one, very, very carefully.
Such a status isn’t bestowed lightly, nor with any ease. It took great writing, attention to detail, but most importantly, time and talent. There were three phases to Schmidt, as outlined by Greenfield:
Those aren’t his words, mind you, but they’re in line with the character. During the first season, Schmidt was a douchebag — a lovable douchebag, but a douchebag nonetheless. In the premiere, his main objective is going to a party as a sexy cowboy so he can sleep with women dressed up as Native Americans. In the same episode, he takes his shirt off — for no reason other than to show off his body — while talking to his new roommate’s model friend (his future wife, Cece, played by Hannah Simone). He creates “Dudesgiving” and later “Bangsgiving.” He’s sleeping with multiple women, flaunting how much money he makes, and he’s emotionally closed off from his friends.
“Those first five episodes are usually terrifying because [nothing] has aired yet and you’re not getting any feedback,” Greenfield said. “So you’re sort of just out on a rope with no net and that’s when you start to go– right around Episode 4 you go, ‘Holy shit, I might never work again after this. I’m doing something out-there shit.'”
But Greenfield made it work. Even as a first-time series regular, he showed a deep understanding of what his role was and how to approach it.
“My feeling early on was that Nick and Jess were the grounding pieces of our show,” Greenfield said. “And I knew that they could never go too big — now eventually we could go there, but especially in the beginning stages of the show, they were the grounding force. Lamorne’s character had just sort of moved in because we were lost Damon [Wayans Jr., who had to leave after the pilot to work on “Happy Endings”], and Cece was popping in and out. So in the very, very beginning it was […] kind of a three-character show.”
“And my feeling was if you were going to have these two grounded characters who were doing incredible work — just really, really good solid single cam acting — there needed to be the big explosive joke hitter. You needed that. Most shows have had them. Like, if you look at ‘The Office,’ Rainn Wilson got that in the beginning. You had it with Neil Patrick Harris’ character [on ‘How I Met Your Mother’] and Joey [on ‘Friends’] and all these other characters like that — that sort of No. 3 that hit the punchlines. I was like, ‘Alright, I’m just gonna go big on this stuff.’ And it’s paid off.”
Among Greenfield’s most successful choices was crafting Schmidt’s winsome and mysterious accent. Though it may have contributed to quite a few people questioning the character’s sexuality, what Greenfield refers to as “a machine gun cadence” was born from necessity as much as insight.
“When I first moved out to L.A. from New York, I still had an accent,” Greenfield said. “I remember auditioning for shows like ‘Everwood,’ and they were like, ‘No man, we can’t put you on this show.’ […] I remember my wife telling me at the time like ‘You have got to get rid of this fucking accent.'”
Then came “New Girl,” and he was still in the process of ditching it.
“When I would be nervous, especially in an audition, I would tend to really commit [to the new voice],” he said. “I think the way I was able to move through some of those larger stretches of dialogue [was] from me over-annunciating every word and shedding any trace of any accent, which sort of then creates its own accent.”
There were many reasons fans fell hard for Greenfield’s performance, including great decisions by the writers to amp up feelings of empathy for the former schlub. The douchebag elements were phased out along with the douchebag jar, in favor of building a character who felt deeply and craved deep feelings from others. Just look at the ever-popular “cookie scene” from Season 2: He’s pouting because Nick refuses to reciprocate the loving friendship Schmidt puts out there, and their emotional push-and-pull becomes a theme of the series (all the way through the finale, when Schmidt finds out Nick never used the foot lotion he gave him as an annual gift).
“Our show was so much about relationships,” Greenfield said. “You had the centerpiece of our show — which was this relationship between Nick and Jess — and you really had to elongate [that] and concentrate on nuance in that relationship. In order to do so, I think they really sped up the progression of Schmidt’s character.”
But not everything changed. Some of Schmidt’s early traits stuck over the years.
“Schmidt felt very unfazed,” Greenfield said. “He wasn’t jealous. He rolled through things, he’s unapologetic, and I think that was one of the main reasons why [people] love him. He owns his shit.”
Then he had a real relationship, and the second phase of Schmidt’s development began: The Public Serpent, a title borrowed from his punny Season 3 Halloween costume.
“And then and then I think he met Cece’s character, fell in love, and that was really the turning point for him and it was like, I can’t shake this feeling and now we’ll spend the rest of the time with this character as he sheds his old self.”
Shedding his former skin was an invigorating process to watch, as Schmidt dug into many new layers of himself. He realized he was in love only after it was gone, and watching a despondent version of the character post-heartbreak proved as endearing as it was surprisingly funny. Even when he was contemplating morality — “Just tell me I’m a good person, Nick!” — Greenfield found fresh ways to progress his character from a douchebag to a man his dream woman would want to marry.
“You’re finding stuff and […] you see what works, and then all of a sudden you’re getting a lot of feedback and people are saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ or they’re praising certain things. And I think that starts to sort of shape the character. And at some point you go, ‘All right, I feel like we know what we’re doing here.”
Schmidt’s arc was ahead of the series’ overall curve. His peak came two seasons before the series ended (with Nick and Jess getting married), as he and Cece proposed and tied the knot amidst the core relationship’s tumultuous state. In a way, his arc became the primary story driver because it was the series’ deepest mine — consistently, Schmidt’s arcs just worked.
“He went from this single ladies man to married with a kid — his journey has probably been the most significant of the group,” he said. “It’s been interesting to play a character on a sitcom that’s changed as much as he has.”
Now, with “New Girl” over, Greenfield is looking toward the future. He’s nabbed scene-stealing supporting roles in two high-profile Ryan Murphy projects — “American Horror Story” in 2016 and this year’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” — and landed praised supporting roles in the festival favorite “Hello, My Name Is Doris” and the Best Picture nominee “The Big Short.” The day the “New Girl” aired, CBS announced Greenfield will star in its upcoming comedy series, “The Neighborhood,” but he’s not worried about typecasting.
“In the beginning. I was so happy to have the job, I was like, ‘Fucking typecast me as much as you want. Great!'” Greenfield said. “But you know, the climate has changed so much in the seven years that the show has been on; there’s so much content out there, I don’t know that being typecast or pigeonholed as a certain character is even a possibility.”
But even as he moves past “New Girl,” Schmidt will always be with him — literally, in his pocket.
“I just learned how to do a .gif on my phone, and I wrote ‘Schmidt’ in, and I’m flabbergasted by the amount [of options],” Greenfield said. “You could really use one for sort of any scenario. It’s wild.”
Life finds a way, sitcom icons never die, and — as Greenfield said in the pilot — Schmidt happens. The world is a better place that he did.
[Editor’s Note: IndieWire’s Consider This series is meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating, and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners, or somewhere in between; more importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]