Personally speaking, I've been a fan of Jason Schwartzman since he and writer-director Wes Anderson collaborated on Rushmore and created what I still think is a definitive portrait of the beautiful torment of teenage life. While of course Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson conceived the ideas, Schwartzman fleshed them out both literally and emotionally, offering a character that was weird and idiosyncratic but also remarkably relatable, not the least of which because it seemed like the actor was going through many of the same things as his on screen counterpart.
Eleven years later, Schwartzman has matured into one of the most versatile and interesting actors in Hollywood, even if, as he himself puts it, he isn't yet able to "get a part like someone can order a pizza." His latest film reunites him with Anderson for the fourth time, playing another kid who's growing up way too fast in Fantastic Mr. Fox. In addition to talking about tackling another coming of age story, Schwartzman discusses his own Hollywood story, and offers a few insights about the interesting filmmakers with whom he works so frequently, and so closely.
Cinematical: You've worked with a number of filmmakers, such as Sofia Coppola and David O. Russell, who have very specific visions for their films. How is Wes different, whether it was just on Fantastic Mr. Fox or in general, that makes your collaboration more satisfying?
Jason Schwartzman: Well, first of all, he's just a unique individual, as is Sofia and David; they all share a similarity which is what you said, they all do have a vision or a style or voice, for lack of a better word. And each of those styles are all different than each other and I think that it all just comes down to the fact that they're just different people and they just have different life experiences and different senses of humor and different things that they're attracted to aesthetically. I've known Sofia for the longest, you know, because I've known her since I was a baby, but Wes, there's just no one like him, and it's nice because sometimes I'll go a little while without seeing him because he lives in Paris, and when I get back around him I just get so happy because I feel like I realize just how much I miss him. I miss his sense of humor and I miss his imitations or stories or just like going to see a movie together. I think it's just who he is as a man.
But some directors, there's no trace of them in the movie, I mean of them, but I feel like Wes, his movies and him are very similar, they're very close to one another. So I feel like he's just an individual and that's what gives him his thing. We met on Rushmore and that was the first time I'd met him, at the audition, and over the course of the years we've maintained a friendship, and it's gotten better and deeper, and we worked together when we wrote a movie together and then we made the movie together, and then to this. I suppose that being friends with someone you work with, it's interesting because on one hand, in theory it should be easier but it's not necessarily easier because in a weird way, you know you have a responsibility to go farther, or you have no excuse not to try everything you have nothing to be embarrassed about in front of that person. Wes has seen me at my worst, personally and probably just in takes where I'm acting just bad, like what was that? So once you can kind of get all of that out of the way, you do have such freedom to fail and to try and to experiment. So I'm there with him on that level, and then it is easier because there are so many things that we share in common and love and find funny that we are able to have a bit of a shorthand, I feel, or it takes less for us to understand one another.
Cinematical: What did you guys figure out together, or what did you decide was sort of at the core of Ash, the character you play in this film?
Schwartzman: It's a good question, and the character, I feel like he was just there on the page. He was written so well. And then when I saw what he was dressed like, I saw the puppet, I saw what he was wearing and how he looked, and I read the script and I just felt like 'there's the outline, so I've just got to color this in'. We didn't do too much talking, we were just off and running, and we just started to get right into it and the characters kind of came to life.
Cinematical: You've played a number of characters already who come of age on screen. How is it now to play another one having now gone through that yourself? How does going through that on screen help you personally and then later, professionally?
Schwartzman: I don't know about help, but I do just think I have some experience at feeling like an outsider. I have some pretty good life experience, and when I read the script, I thought a lot of it sounds like that's how I felt when I was a teenager. So I was able to relate to it and try to put some of that stuff into it. But I don't try to get anything [out of playing a role]; my focus when I begin work is not on how is this movie going to serve me. I just think how can I be of service to this movie and how can I perform well for this director and be part of a good movie. That's my main thing when I work on a movie, my goal.
Cinematical: Then how has playing those kinds of roles, or going through that coming-of-age experience in your life, helped you be of service to a role like this?
Schwartzman: Totally. I don't know about other parts but let's say specifically like when I was a kid, I felt different, I felt littler, I was interested in things that were considered dorky, [and] I liked girls that never liked me back. Not only did they not like me back, they liked people really close to me. So girls that I liked would come up to me and say, "hey, can I ask you a question?" My hopes would get so high, and they would say, "is your friend single?" I was the middleman, I felt like that, but I never personally went grumpy with it; I never became prickly. I just tried to make people laugh; I went the other way. I also feel like I knew a lot of people like this character.
There is a phenomenon I find interesting where people can go so long without getting attention or love that they become the people that made them that way. They get picked on enough and suddenly they become bullies or mean, but they started off as so innocent and wanting some validation and affection. That's what I feel like [Ash] is – and that's the thing: it's like he's so embarrassed about so many things about himself, I feel like, and in this movie it was cool to play a character who realizes that not only should he not be embarrassed about something, but that thing that he's embarrassed about is something he should be so proud of. It's the thing that makes him save people in this movie. When I watched this movie I was overwhelmed by this idea that we all shouldn't try to be like each other, we should all be okay with ourselves because it's a society of individuals who are all going to pull their own weight and connect with one another and bring their own experience to this world – like a puzzle. We all need each other, because we're all different. That's what I got from it, and I'd wished I'd seen this f*cking movie when I was 12; it would have made me feel much happier.
Cinematical: You said that you don't go into each film considering what you'll get from it or it will do for you, but have you reached a point where you want to stay away from roles you feel audiences might identify you too strongly with, or even if it's in your wheelhouse isn't as much of a challenge?
Schwartzman: Well, it's always a challenge (laughs). I think that I try not to think about it too much; I think that I just read something and I'm just attracted to it. For whatever reason, there's just something about it where I think that this is what I've got to do. But it's not like I'm in the career place of other actors my age who can just get a part like someone can order a pizza; for me to be in a movie, it's so complicated. It's a mysterious industry and the way that I get a part is like let's say I read something and I'm like, "oh, I really love this." You tell an agent and they go, "well, they want that guy because he was in these three movies that made $120 million each." You go, "but he's not right for it, the part says..." and [they say] "I know." "Well, what if he doesn't like it?" "Well, then they're going to go to these five guys." That's a very common thing for any actor. But let's say you do like it and they like you; well, then, maybe the studio can't get the money, or there's so many f*cking variables that go into it. So I really am not even in a position yet to be like picking and choosing, you know what I mean?
I don't have a lot of expenses in my life, and I've done that so that I haven't had to take work just for money, but I like working and I want to keep exploring new things. But there are also aspects of characters and things that I've played that I do find just interesting in general. There's lots of things that I have no interest in, like you'll see an actor in a part and I'll think, "would I have wanted to be in this?" and I'll think, "no, it's boring. He just wanted to be in it because it was a good opportunity for him to like spit on himself or show off or something." I want to be part of a good movie; I would rather someone say "Jason's in a really good movie" than "Jason's in a really bad movie, but he's pretty good in it." And also, it's fun to play certain characters; you read a script and you go, "that is going to be f*cking fun."
Cinematical: You obviously surround yourself with people who think very deeply and thoroughly about the project you're all working on...
Schwartzman: They don't, but keep going (laughs).
Cinematical: Film critics and journalists have a tendency to deconstruct and analyze people's work and their careers. But do you and the folks you work with devote as much energy to analyzing yourselves, is it purely an intuitive process both artistically and professionally, or is it something in between?
Schwartzman: I would think that it's got to be somewhere in between. I think about this a lot with bands, too; I always think about it. Like, especially when you're a band that has a reputation: to do something else because someone has accused you of doing something too similar is not the right reason to do it. You should just do it because it's the natural progression or whatever. But it's a tricky age when there's all of this stuff, but I'm interested in criticism, and interested in deconstructing [things]; I mean, I overthink everything. The people I know, I think they do, but I think at the end of the day, they just have an idea for a movie and they just want to make it. But I always think about it – well, what are people going to think of this? Like this movie Antichrist – what drew him to Antichrist, why would he want to make that, or whatever. I overthink all of it, and in a weird way, I don't not like all of this – and that's a double negative – but when I'm watching movies, I hardly watch the movie. I'm more thinking about why did you make this movie. In my entire life, I'm much less interested in the final product and I'm much more interested in the things that got them to do that. My friends laugh at me but I will read books on the makings of records or movies that I've never even seen or heard; I don't care about them, I just want to know about the process of doing it. I'm very interested in that. That's not really an answer to your question at all, but what was the question?
Cinematical: Do you find that you intellectualize what you do and why you do it as much as the media has a tendency to do?
Schwartzman: Um, yeah. The answer is yes (laughs).