Q&A: Jason Schwartzman continues ‘Bored to Death,’ excitedly
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‘I hope I can can get three or four or five seasons,’ Jason Schwartzman told me in September, just before the start of the second season of ‘Bored to Death,’ in which he stars with Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis as a version of its creator, novelist Jonathan Ames. His desire will be at least partly gratified: A third season has just been ordered by HBO, and in celebration of this glad tiding — the story of a struggling writer cum unlicensed private eye, it’s one of my favorite shows on television — I present the outtakes from our earlier interview.
Schwartzman, known on the big screen for films including ‘Rushmore,’ ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,’ is also the artist known as Coconut Records, under which name he has recorded two fine albums of living-room pop, and that dual pursuit is part of the conversation here. (He was previously the drummer in the band Phantom Planet.) For purposes of understanding the following, it should be also pointed out that he’s the son of actress Talia Shire, the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and the cousin of Sofia Coppola.
The sixth episode of the current season, ‘The Case of the Grievous Clerical Error,’ premieres at 10 Sunday night on HBO.
Jason Schwartzman: I just love working on the show. I’ve been in situations where it really just feels terrible when you’re there. Forget the product, the process is so ... you feel like you’re getting sick, just being there. This is not that. It somehow ended up where the three actors really get along and also know how to give each other space: We like to go home and eat dinner and watch movies alone. Everyone loves each other, but no one ever bugs each other.
And I get to be around Jonathan Ames a lot, which I like. And get to live in New York. I’ve always wanted to live there. My dad is from Brooklyn — in fact, two blocks away from where Jonathan’s dad grew up, in the same generation, one year apart. But when I first got the part I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, so I moved there six or seven weeks early and just tailed Ames — not like a detective, but I shadowed him. I wanted to know his restaurants, went out with his friends. None of it really ends up in the show, but I wanted to feel that I lived there and knew the land. And because I like movies, and New York is in a lot of movies, when I walk around I feel like I’m in a movie, and that lends itself to the work. I put on some jazz music and walk to get a coffee and I’m narrating the walk, and maybe maybe in some way that’s in the character too. New York is like a set, at least at this point in my life.
Do you see any connection between what you do as a musician and what you do as an actor?
JS: I don’t really know. I’m in a bit of a period where I’m just trying to think about stuff, and the problem with an interview is that you think out loud and it turns into a statement. But I’m an interview fan; I think they’re exciting. I’ve had some instances where I’ve been misquoted, and it’s a drag, but I found out about so much music from people who were really generous with their information in interviews. I’m 13, 14, 15 and Kurt Cobain is saying, ‘Oh this band was big for me,’ I’m writing it all down.
Right now I’m in a place — not of low self-confidence but a bit dumbfounded. ‘Bored to Death’ was on a few nights ago and I saw three seconds of it, and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God. I gotta ... take some classes.’ [Laughs.] I will say that when I’m working on set and it’s not going well, I wish I could just be alone in my studio. When a director says, ‘This is not working,’ my immediate instinct is, ‘Yes, it is — you’re wrong.’ I just want to run and hide in the studio and go, ‘No one can tell me what’s wrong, except me!’ But when I’m in the studio and it just sounds so lame, I go, ‘I should just go on set and say someone’s lines and be an interpreter. I shouldn’t create anything from scratch. I’m terrible.’
I’m so lucky that I get to do these two jobs. Like, I was always the fifth-funniest person of my friends. There was Amos, he was like the No. 1 funny guy, and there was a pecking order, and I was five. When I’m on the set and someone asks, ‘What do you think, Jason?,’ I’m like, ‘I should text my friend from high school, ‘cause he would know the real funny. I’m just doing the five funny.’ That haunts me, that I don’t know what I’m doing.
I don’t really have a lot of answers, but I’ll say that the thing that I love about being on a set is looking around and seeing 30-plus people who are all doing their job really hard and really well to make one thing — we’re going to make this show. I love that we’re all collaborating, I love the community of it. I think I’m naturally a collaborative person. If I go to a restaurant I don’t want to tell the waiter what I want, I want to ask him what he thinks is good and tell him what I’m in the mood for — maybe we could figure it out together. One of the things I love with Jonathan is he’ll send me the script and I’ll get on the phone give him, like, 20 terrible ideas, like, ‘Maybe I would hold a spoon?’ ‘No, no, no, no.’ ‘Maybe I’m wearing these shoes.’ ‘OK.’
That said, it takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of steps and ... clearance, you have to constantly be getting clearance to progress. Whereas with music, if you have a keyboard in your house and GarageBand on your computer, what you can do by yourself is astonishing. The way that I make music, I’m making it at home by myself, or with friends.
Given the creative pursuits of your family, did you feel fated to joint them? Did you ever want to be, like, a cowboy?
JS: Well, I can tell you that I definitely thought that being part of the movie industry was out.
JS: I didn’t grow up in a very — I was telling my wife I saw the Hollywood sign for the first time at 16.
Where did you grow up?
JS: Westwood. But we just never went east — or west. We just kind of stayed in Westwood. Once I was born, my mom really didn’t work. A lot of actors bring their kids to the sets, but I only went on a set once or twice that I can remember. It’s not a part of my life. But what is a part of my life is observing my mom — my mom loves music and movies and books, she’s very much into that side of the brain. Growing up, there were books in every room half opened, you could hear where my mom was in the house because there was music blasting, or, ‘Oh, she’s in that room watching a movie.’ I realized at a young age that there was more to art, and movies, than it being entertaining. I saw them nourish someone.
Michael Cera, who I love so much, said that he saw ‘Ghostbusters’ and said, ‘I want to do that.’ But I never thought I could. I would enjoy doing the lines to movies and trying to make my dad laugh, I enjoyed that element. But music, that I really got. It was more doable. And then especially as I get into my early teenage years, what they’re singing about — Nirvana was the big one for me, and all the bands they were talking about, Sonic Youth and all that. And then Weezer was big, and that’s really singing about girls, about struggling with girls, so I could really get behind that. Records made me feel not so alone.
Then when I was 17, I was at a party and there was a casting director and she said, ‘Excuse me, are you an actor?’ I said no. ‘Well, I’m casting a movie for a gentleman named Wes Anderson.’ And thus began this process of auditioning for ‘Rushmore.’
You know, in high school you get some girls and some you don’t. But I was also in a band with extremely handsome guys who really were just cleaning house. And a lot of the girls I liked liked them. So when she said, ‘Are you an actor?’ I was, you know, like, ‘You’ve got the wrong person.’ You’re used to being kind of ... not the guy. So it was a weird thing.
So you never acted at all before then?
JS: I auditioned for a school play. I didn’t get in, but they needed some people in the background, so I was in the background. But I did like theater — I wanted to be a playwright. I wanted to write.
So I read the script for ‘Rushmore.’ It was the first script I ever read and I instantly felt, ‘This is what I find funny. Whoever gets this is going to have a great time.’ I didn’t think I could honestly get it. I gave it to my mom and said, ‘Could you read this? Is there any insight you might have?’ And she read it and said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ And she went out to the video store and came back with ‘The Graduate,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Harold and Maude.’ And the second ‘The Graduate’ came on, I remember feeling, ‘This is the first time a movie has made me feel what music has made me feel like.’ That kind of warm, ‘Yes, this is what I’m talking about’ kind of thing — like, Rivers Cuomo or Kurt Cobain are screaming and you’re, ‘Yes, I know that, I feel this.’
I miss the guys in movies where it’s like, you are the musician in the movie — like Hoagy Carmichael saying, ‘Yes, I saw her there.’ Just the guy tinkling away on an instrument, telling you something. We should get that into ‘Bored to Death.’ ‘Yeah, I think I saw her.’ Some guy sweeping up the bar, it’s late. ‘Hey, Jonathan.’
I’m so into the [television] format. In a movie you work maybe for three months with the same person whereas in a show every week there’s a new director, there are always new guest stars, and everyone works differently. Every week you’re basically starting again, figuring out how to do it with this person. This director likes to do tons of takes, this one only does two. This guest star can’t remember any of his lines, what are we going to do? I don’t know any television — I never have seen ‘The Simpsons,’ I’ve never seen ‘Seinfeld,’ never watched it growing up. ‘Cosby,’ I missed it all. It’s only until recently I started watching stuff. I like movies, I come from movies. But you only have 100 minutes or 90 minutes do something in a film, and it’s very focused. But with a series you can have all these strange mini-arcs. And I love that, ‘cause I love short stories — they start and end in weird places. TV shows can be like that.
— Robert Lloyd