“Can I do a flashback?” asks Jason Schwartzman.
The 29-year-old actor and musician is chatting over coffee, sitting in a Manhattan hotel lobby almost Zen-like, but full of questions and curiosity. He clearly relishes conversation, pursuing any tangents with a lively interest:
—Words he hates: “vibe, journey and voice.”
—The “amazingness” of math: “Logic plus logic equals the illogical. Do you know what I mean?”
—The previous night’s Steelers game: “The ... has pretty much hit the fan.”
Schwartzman’s storytelling is vibrant, abstract and often not chronological. And at this particular moment, everything seems to relate back to the past.
Schwartzman made his film debut eleven years ago in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” as Max Fischer, the spectacled, love-crazed, eminently intrepid teenage misfit — easily one of the most remarkable first stabs at movie acting.
“I can’t express enough to you how bizarre that experience was,” Schwartzman recalls. “It was like a drive-by shooting, but a positive one.”
Playing such a particular part at a young age (he was a senior in high school) seemed just the kind of role that might be difficult to grow out of. But since then, Schwartzman has made few missteps and given several strong performances.
He’s played a clueless, teenage Louis XVI in “Marie Antoinette” (directed by his cousin, Sofia Coppola); he starred in David O. Russell’s zany “I (Heart) Huckabees”; and he was one of the three traveling brothers along with Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody in Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Unlimited” — and its excellent accompanying short, “Hotel Chevalier.”
But 2009 is shaping up to be especially good for Schwartzman. He played a memorable smarmy supporting role in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and he lends his voice to Anderson’s animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which comes out in November.
His highest-profile work, though, is starring in the new HBO series, “Bored To Death.” He plays a Brooklyn writer, Jonathan Ames, who after splitting up with his girlfriend (and reading a Raymond Chandler novel) decides to post a message on Craigslist offering his services as a private detective.
He’s no expert, but he’s no Clouseau, either. Ames (named after the series’ writer and creator) may fall asleep on a stakeout or fall too easily for a femme fatale, but with earnestness and a strident belief in love, he somehow seems to solve cases. (He’s also got some help from his magazine editor, played in scene-stealing fashion by Ted Danson, and a friend, played by Zach Galifianakis.)
“The characters that I’ve been lucky enough to play I would say all want something really badly. I typically find that they’re at make-or-break moments,” said Schwartzman. “I’ve been in that situation a lot personally, so I’m very attracted to it. I like people that are so close to falling apart in order to get it together.”
Descendant of a Hollywood dynastyFor Schwartzman, his moment came with “Rushmore.” Up until then, he wasn’t much interested in movies despite being from one of Hollywood’s great families.
Schwartzman is the son of Jack Schwartzman (who produced several films, including Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” before he died in 1994) and Talia Coppola, the sister of Francis Ford Coppola and an actress most famous for her role as Adrian Pennino in the “Rocky” movies.
But Schwartzman grew up watching action movies he didn’t relate to and never thought of himself as an actor — even though his cousin Sofia often cast him in school plays. Instead, he gravitated toward music.
“You could play music alone in your room, blast your music, play an instrument,” says Schwartzman. “It wasn’t Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson. It wasn’t ‘Lethal Weapon.’ ... Music was Kurt Cobain, Pixies, David Bowie. Music affected me on a deep, deep level — made me feel a part of something.”
He played drums in Phantom Planet, a band formed during high school and which found some renown after having their song “California” chosen as the theme song to the TV series “The O.C.” More recently, Schwartzman started the side project Coconut Records (a band) and did the theme to “Bored to Death.”
But after Sofia Coppola’s recommendation — and a number of auditions — Schwartzman was cast in “Rushmore.” Shortly beforehand, his mom rented him “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Harold and Maude” and “The Graduate.” He says that was the first time movies ever made him feel like music did.
“My mom is a real lover of the arts,” says Schwartzman. “What’s a positive intimidation? Inspiring. It’s inspiring. I’m not lying to you, there is a book open in every room in our house. There is music playing in different rooms in our house.
“She even leaves on Turner Classic Movies for the dogs.”
That gave Schwartzman what he calls a “freakishly huge” love of books, movies and music: “I knew I needed to orbit around that feeling.”
“When I all of sudden became a part of ‘Rushmore,’ it was like a giant acupuncture needle or something. It just put everything in line for me. It was like going to the emotional chiropractor. I was so disjointed as a teenager, from being unpopular or from being not the guy that girls liked — just feeling like an outsider, just being a dork.”
Flash forward to “Bored to Death.” To Schwartzman, it’s a mysteriously perfect confluence. He had been wanting to play a detective — an archetype he gravitates to because of a love of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” and Francois Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses.” He also considers Ames his “favorite living writer” and now counts him as a close friend.
Ames describes their first meeting — at an old deli in Los Angeles — as a “great first heterosexual date.”
“Someone who screws up and gets the job done is very human — and Jason is very human. He’s got a lot of wisdom in him,” said Ames. “Paul Feig, one of the directors, felt that this show really highlighted Jason maybe more than other projects did, maybe did access more of his sweet side, his compassionate side — which is the thing I respond to him as a person.”
Schwartzman, who married his longtime girlfriend Brady Cunningham in July, says — as he beats a pillow like a tom-tom drum, he just wants to work, to try to say the lines without getting in the way of the writing.
“That’s been my whole thing,” he says before pausing as a smirk grows. “Give or take a couple MTV Movie Awards.”