THE EXTRA MAN
HE MAY NOT BE A MEMBER OF HOLLYWOOD’S COMEDY CLIQUES, BUT JASON SCHWARTZMAN IS DOING JUST FINE ON HIS OWN.
EVERYONE IN BOOK SOUP seems to know Jason Schwartzman. The girls at the information counter at the back, who smile happily—not flirtatiously—when he comes over to ask them if they have the book on vintage toy musical instruments he’s been waiting for (they do—it’s in a pile which has been set aside for him); the guy at the front desk, who engages him in conversation about the store’s new T-shirts, which are printed with old book covers; even the guy selling the magazines in the alley next to the store, which is on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, who greets him as we arrive and, much, much later, when we leave, laden down with books.
Schwartzman is not so much a regular here as a fixture; he is close friends with the store’s buyer, Tosh Berman, who is the publisher of TamTam books and son of the late Wallace Berman, the assemblage artist who started the mail art publication SEMINA and who was a part of the influential Ferus Gallery scene in L.A. in the late ’50s and early ’60s with Ed Ruscha. (Another book in Schwartzman’s pile is a copy of Ruscha’s new monograph; when Berman gives it to him he opens it to the title page with a mixture of shyness and pride: It is inscribed by the artist to Schwartzman and his wife, Brady Cunningham.) It was Berman who first recommended Wake Up, Sir! a novel by the Brooklyn-based writer Jonathan Ames, to Schwartzman, back in 2006 (the two keep track of what the other is reading on the site Goodreads) and so the man, however inadvertently, can be held responsible for Schwartzman’s leading role in the Ames-penned HBO series Bored to Death, which starts its second season this September. “I have a lot to be grateful to Tosh for,” says Schwartzman, who is standing next to him in the back of the store between the cookbooks and some classic DVDs, which are in a glass case on the wall. Berman, dressed all in black, looks down at his feet, shuffling them a bit. Schwartzman puts his hand on Berman’s shoulder and looks straight at him. “I mean it,” he says.
“THE MOMENT I read Wake Up, Sir! I instantly loved it,” says Schwartzman later in a coffee shop across the street. “And then I bought The Extra Man, another novel by him [the film adaptation, starring Kevin Kline, came out in July], and I loved that. Then I bought everything of his I could get my hands on, and he quickly became one of my favorite living writers.” Bored to Death, which started life as a piece for Esquire but ended up being published by Dave Eggers in McSweeney’s (Ames wrote it at twice the word count requested by Esquire, and didn’t want to cut it down), is the centerpiece of a collection of Ames’s essays and fiction published together in book form as The Double Life is Twice as Good, in 2009. It tells the story of a struggling writer living in Brooklyn who, on a whim, puts an ad on Craigslist offering his help as a private detective. “It was a fantasy, a crazed notion, but I got it into my head that I wanted to play at being a private detective. I wanted to help somebody. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to have an adventure,” Ames writes. Six days later, someone responds and Brooklyn-wide antics ensue. On the TV show the main character, whose name is Jonathan Ames, is aided and abetted in his new line of work by his larger-than-life friends, magazine editor George Christopher and the perpetually stoned comic-book artist Ray Hueston, played by Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis, respectively.
Ames—the writer—originally met with Schwartzman to discuss a potential role in a movie adaptation of Wake Up, Sir!. Even though Schwartzman had requested the meeting after reading the script, the actor was hesitant. “I thought, Why did I do that? This is very foolish,” he says. “I remember, when I was 17 years old, I had a long conversation with someone who was in a band that I deeply admired and we just missed each other on every level. It just fucked the whole situation up. And then I was unable to listen to their music and, to this day, when I hear their music it still stings.” He decided to go through with the meeting anyway. “We met at a deli in Santa Monica, and it became evident within 50 seconds that there was nothing to be nervous about,” he continues. “And within two minutes I realized I could really get my heart broken, in a weird way, because I realized that I really kind of loved this person! I remember I was just so happy. And all of a sudden, it felt like I was on a date. I didn’t want to put my heart out on the line, but I felt like I wanted to basically say, ‘Can I know you forever?’”
Ames says that he envisioned Schwartzman in Wake Up, Sir! after seeing the actor’s performance in the short Hotel Chevalier, directed by Wes Anderson (it screened theatrically immediately before The Darjeeling Limited, the director’s 2007 film in which Schwartzman also starred). “I saw that film and was like, ‘Whoa! This guy should be in Wake Up, Sir! ’” says the writer one morning in a coffee shop in Boreum Hill, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Ames lives here, just a few blocks away, and a scene in an upcoming episode of Bored to Death was shot in this café; much of the action in the series, which is filmed on location, takes place in Brooklyn. “I had watched that film mostly to see Natalie Portman nude. I was intrigued and found the link and watched it online and was just like, ‘Who is this young actor? He’s awfully good. He’s kind of like a young Dustin Hoffman,’” Ames says. He too remembers that first meeting fondly. “We just really hit it off,” he says. “It was an immediate thing: Wow, this is a new friend. You know when you hang out with someone—and I know this seems cheesy—but you just feel like you can talk about anything? And there [was] a certain sympathy there. I’m sure we quickly got onto girls and neuroses and insecurities and what’s going on in our lives. We just immediately opened up. And then at one point he asked me, ‘What else are you working on?’ and I mentioned the private detective thing and his eyes really did light up. He was like, ‘Oh. My. God. I’ve always wanted to play a private detective.’”
“A few months before we met, I was with a friend and we were talking about the future and he asked me if I was going to be working on a movie any time soon,” says Schwartzman. “And I said, ‘No, I am really struggling to find something that I can relate to.’ And he said, ‘Well what would you relate to? What one thing have you always wanted to do?’ And I immediately thought of the movie Stolen Kisses.” In the classic 1968 film, an episodic romantic comedy which is the third installment in director François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays Doinel, falls into a job at a private detective agency. “I always thought, Being a private detective, that’s a great thing,” says Schwartzman. “Putting your hand on a car with no one in it and saying, ‘This engine is still hot.’” (Later, as I am driving around Hollywood and Schwartzman is in the passenger seat navigating, he points to the car in front of us, which is turning left onto Santa Monica Boulevard, and says, apparently unwittingly, “Follow that Volvo.” It takes a beat for him to realize the joke.)
“So there I am sitting with my favorite writer,” Schwartzman continues in the coffee shop, “and he tells me he’s in Los Angeles to meet with HBO about Bored To Death, which they want to make into a pilot. And I asked him what it was about and he said, ‘A writer who becomes a private detective,’ and the minute the words left his mouth, I just imploded. I’m there realizing that this is incredible. This is fucking amazing.” The following day, Ames returned to New York and sent Schwartzman the story, who, unable to read it on his computer, printed it out at Kinko’s. “It was like, $1 a page. So it was the most expensive short story I’d ever purchased,” he says. On the way back from Kinko’s he asked Cunningham, then his girlfriend, to read the story aloud to him as he drove. “It was raining, and she says, ‘The problem started because I was bored’ [the first sentence] and she read two more sentences and before you know it I’ve pulled over and I’m just sitting there in the rain, and she’s reading it to me and it’s so...” he trails off, shaking his head. “It’s just the best.” Not long after that, on his birthday in June 2008, Schwartzman and Ames met with HBO. After the project was greenlit, Schwartzman and Berman went around to used bookstores throughout L.A. tracking down classic detective novels—Chandler, Goodes, Hammet. When Schwartzman moved to New York to begin filming, he sent a box of beaten-up paperbacks ahead of him.
THE ROLE OF Ames is a perfect fit for Schwartzman, who inhabits the sports coats and gloomy bars and leafy streets as if he had lived in them all his life. Danson, Galifianakis, and Schwartzman (who are bolstered by a supporting cast which has included Olivia Thirlby and Heather Burns and, this season, will include Zoe Kazan, Kevin Bacon, and Kristen Wiig) make for a triptych which seems to operate just outside the current conventions of on-screen comedy. “Comic actors come in three flavors,” wrote Tad Friend in a recent profile of Steve Carell in The New Yorker. “The wild man who creates chaos (Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen); the straight man who tries to repress it (Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd); and the devil-may-care man who savors it (Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn).” But in Bored to Death, although the humor is facilitated with familiar devices and relies a lot on sheer silliness, there is a self-awareness that is missing from a lot of contemporary comedy. In a scene from the new season, Schwartzman’s character is being held for ransom by two thugs in a warehouse and his friends—both stoned out of their minds—stage an elaborate rescue attempt. The denouement sees Schwartzman’s father paying the criminals off, then asking them about the pros and cons of the Zipcar they’ve used to get to his house in New Jersey. The funny moments, which are frequently hilarious and often ridiculous, are interspersed with tinges of sadness (in the first episode of season two, Galifianakis’s character Ray goes to his ex-girlfriend’s house only to find her in bed with another man. After that man has run away—naked—down the street, Ray sits down on the stoop with his ex, Leah, and gives her a mix CD). As the show has gone on, so Ames’s writing has developed to best utilize his all-star cast; the result manages to be both subtle and over-the-top, often at the same time. Somewhere, you imagine, Judd Apatow is taking notes.
Schwartzman is no stranger to the comedy Olympus, where Apatow, Carey, Carell, Ferrell, Sandler, and Stiller preside over acolytes including Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, and Galifianakis. He was, after all, in Funny People (he also scored the film, with Mike Andrews), but, for Schwartzman, comedy isn’t the apotheosis of his craft. It’s a few weeks after our first meeting, and we’re walking down Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, near his wife’s boutique, Tenoversix, which stocks carefully edited designer clothes (Acne, Band of Outsiders, Alexander Wang), art (Massimo Vitali editions hang on the wall), and jewelry; there are two pop-up shops in Tenoversix, one by Book Soup, curated each month by Berman, and one by Future Perfect, the interior design store in Brooklyn. (Cunningham also works as a stylist, and dressed Schwartzman for this shoot.) We pause by a pond filled with at least 50 turtles, of all different sizes (“Oh my God, I love seeing these! I come every day to look at them!”). Schwartzman seems more reflective now than he did when I last saw him, and we’ve spent much of the day talking about acting, comedy, and where he fits into it all. “There are people like Judd, or even Jonah or Seth Rogen... they’re real comedy students,” he says, adding considerable emphasis to ‘students.’
“They’ll be talking, like on [the set of] Funny People, and be like, ‘Oh my God, have you seen that thing of that guy doing that thing....’ Some Tim & Eric part, or something. I’m so not a part of that world. I’m not a student of it in that way.” He pauses, noticing a particularly cute turtle at the back of the pond (“look at that little one up there! And he’s not even the smallest one!”). “I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m a nerd on the level of those guys,” he continues. “I suppose I’m just more interested in listening to people talk.”
Rather than the slapstick comedy of Stiller, et al., Schwartzman subscribes to the Bill Murray school of acting. “Being in Bill Murray’s presence there’s a sense as if I was walking down the street with a quadruple black belt in karate,” Schwartzman says. “And we are walking down an alley with a bunch of shady looking people, but I am with this karate master, so I feel safe. I feel that way, artistically and creatively, around Bill. I can’t really describe it, but when I’ve done press conferences with him, I feel like I’m sitting next to someone who can protect me. He knows what to say, how to make people laugh. He’s not just funny, he’s trying to improve people’s lives. I’ve seen him do a Q & A and someone will ask him a question and he’ll say something that is truly beautiful. It’s like a haiku, or a Buddhist koan, or a Pablo Neruda stanza, just gorgeous. It just stuns people, and they laugh for a second but then they quiet down because they realize they’re getting a lesson from someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about.” He stops for a moment. “I feel like I’m never going to get that black belt that I’m looking for. But it’s a good way to kill time. It’s better than doing drugs or something.” Another pause. “Better than killing animals.”
“Jason is a bit of an outsider. There is this quality of an old soul to him. As much of a charmed life as he’s had,” Ames says, referring to Schwartzman’s family connections—he is the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and his cousins include Nicolas Cage and Roman and Sofia Coppola—“he’s also had some major blows—he lost his dad to cancer [in 1994]. He’s tried to deal with those things in the best way possible, and I think that gives him a certain depth. It might seem like he’s this cool guy, and all of that, but inside he’s an outsider. He probably doesn’t feel like he quite fits in anywhere.”
Schwartzman attests to this, bringing up the time he was the drummer for the band Phantom Planet when he was a teenager, when 800 people would turn out to see them play on the weekends, but at the parties afterward no one would talk to him. “It was this weird combination of self confidence and total non self confidence,” he says. He was a musician first (he still records, as Coconut Records; his brother, Robert, is the lead singer for the band Rooney), and says that for a long time the only thing that mattered to him was music. “I remember Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and I loved so deeply the sound of his yelling and screaming—it was so beautiful to me, and I really could relate to it,” he says. Schwartzman who is an avid maker of mix CDs, says he looks at 10 music blogs daily and is constantly finding new obsessions. His latest is Grapefruit, a little-known band from the north of England that released music on the Beatles’ Apple label in the ’60s. Schwartzman has a CD of Grapefruit’s BBC sessions that he has brought to play in the car as we’re driving around. “When Weezer came out, a lot of it was about girls, and that was perfect timing for me, because Nirvana was pre-girls and I hadn’t gone through puberty, but then Weezer was girls and I was like, ‘Oh, I can get with this.’ Movies never made me feel that way.” When he was approached by a casting agent for Rushmore, it took Schwartzman, who was used to getting pushed out of photo shoots with his band, by surprise.
“I showed the script to my mom [Talia Shire, best known as Adrian Pennino in the Rocky films], and she read it and said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ then went to the video store—this is a week before my audition— and came back with three films, The Graduate, Dog Day Afternoon, and Harold and Maude. I had never heard of any of them.”
The films turned out to be an epiphany for Schwartzman. “It was the equivalent of listening to Nirvana or the Pixies for the first time,” he says. We’ve come to get some lunch at M café, a macrobiotic joint on Melrose, which is one of his favorite restaurants in the city (he is for all intents and purposes a vegan, but says he’s “not militant” about it). Schwartzman is wearing gym shorts, running shoes, and a gray Built by Wendy hoody with a drawing of Gilda Radner on it. “I put on The Graduate and it just hit me and I went ‘Holy shit.’ Then I put on Harold and Maude and went, ‘Hollllllyy shiiit.’ Then Dog Day Afternoon; I was just floored. And I remember my basic feeling in that moment was that I have to do something with my life that makes me feel this way. You know what I mean?” He landed the part of Max Fisher in Rushmore, of course, and so began a friendship with that film’s director, Wes Anderson, that has lasted to this day. “That film was the perfect thing for me, because it introduced me to Wes, who became my mentor—who is my mentor—and who began to show me the way in terms of film. I got to Houston [where Anderson sometimes lives], and he screened Day for Night and all these movies, and I went from loving What About Bob? and Ghostbusters to watching this whole different level of films that were actually speaking to me on a real, emotional level. I remember a feeling of wanting to get into the TV, wanting to smoke cigarettes like them.”
Now, Schwartzman says he tries to watch a movie a day. “I want to have my own style, I don’t want to disintegrate,” he says. “I almost feel like I want to be like a session musician, but who has a style.” He endlessly studies film and television, and in conversation delivers a constant stream of references, from Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (“I liked the way she held this certain cup, it was such a great detail, very Southern, very true”), to Jake on The Bachelor (“I watched it last night and he did this weird thing with his mouth—it was so intense, so crazy—and I kept rewinding it, watching it in slow motion like, How did he do that?!”). Schwartzman says if he can’t watch a movie or listen to music for a few days he gets a feeling “like the world is dried up; I just don’t see any color in it anymore. It just becomes a dead vegetable.”
This August, Schwartzman also stars in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, an adaptation of the popular comic book series, which is directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). Schwartzman plays Gideon Graves, the seventh and most maniacal of the seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends which Pilgrim, played by Michael Cera, must defeat in order to date the girl of his dreams. It’s an incredibly fun movie—part video-game, part comic book, part straight-up action flick. The effects (Lichtenstein-esque pows and bams punctuate the meticulously choreographed fight sequences) are front and center and the action comes thick and fast. “I felt like I had no business being around such awesome people,” says Schwartzman of the experience. “And the scope of it is just so huge, but Edgar kept everything so intimate.”
IN THE TWO years since Schwartzman was last on the cover of this magazine, he got married. To watch him interact with his wife is touching—the two stand so close to one another they seem in constant danger of tripping the other up. “I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve been in relationships with great, great women, people that I’m still friends with,” he says as we’re sitting in the car in the parking lot behind Book Soup, where we’ve ended up again. He pauses, sensing the opportunity for a joke. “I’ve loved many women,” he says, grinning. He’s quickly back on track: “But when I met my wife, it was exciting because I really felt, I’m going to marry this person.” When they decided to tie the knot, Schwartzman and Cunningham agreed they didn’t want a stranger to officiate. “I wanted someone I loved to do it,” Schwartzman says. He asked Ames, who duly got ordained and, last summer, married them in their backyard.
“As I said my vows, I all of a sudden felt the roots of those words dig into my body and my whole being—you’ve heard those words a million times and seen the movies, but as you’re actually saying them you begin to really feel them inside of you,” says Schwartzman, quietly. “It was very powerful.”
In Ames’s speech—written at the last minute when he found out Schwartzman didn’t have the text he had promised to prepare—he quoted the famous Kerouac line from On The Road, which seems to sum up Schwartzman’s passionately omnivorous nature: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” He also quoted the Donovan song “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”: “Lord, kiss me once more / Fill me with song / Allah, kiss me once more / That I may / Wear my love like heaven.” Unbeknownst to Ames, the song was the first track on the first mixtape Schwartzman ever made for Cunningham.
THE SUN IS beginning to sink over L.A., which stretches out below us in a dusky haze. We take off our sunglasses, putting them on the dashboard. Schwartzman, whose energy is often slightly frenetic, seems calm, relaxed. “Am I an actor with a capital A?” he asks, referencing a question I asked a few hours earlier. “I don’t know. I guess the point is that I really just love being a part of the experience. Trying to amuse, entertain, off-put, on-put people. I don’t know if I have the voice in me that says I want to really show people how real something is, where I know this feeling and I’m going to show it to them and I’m going to cry and spit and they’re going to think it’s real. I’m less interested in that.” We open the doors of the car, and walk up to Book Soup. Schwartzman greets the guy selling magazines, and we stop outside the store. “Are you getting good stuff?” he asks me. “Have I been making sense? The thing is, I love reading about acting and watching interviews on YouTube and things, but I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to being able to talk about it yet. I’m still learning, is my point.” Someone walks out of the shop and says hi to Schwartzman, who returns the greeting, smiling widely. He turns back. The cars on Sunset whiz by. He brushes some hair from his eyes. “I think I’m just searching for an- swers, and some kind of direction,” he says. “I guess I always have been.”