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Strangeness on a train

Times Staff Writer

Jason Schwartzman limped around his friend’s sun-dappled Nichols Canyon retreat looking highly apologetic. Frowning at his heels was his chubby French bulldog, Arrow. Schwartzman had broken his toe the day before, and as he made his way to a secluded outdoor table, he tried explaining. “It was like that scene in ‘Karate Kid,’ ” he said, presumably casting himself in the Ralph Macchio role. Everyone was kicking soccer balls around like a bunch of Pelés, he said. So, playing barefoot seemed like a good idea.

The actor’s solicitous earnestness was palpable. This hesitant, wide-eyed loopy charm, often employed as the comic relief in sensitive, maudlin films, lands him roles among Hollywood’s best. But no one, it seems, is as surprised by his celebrity as he is. In some respects, he’s at the white-hot center of young arty Hollywood; yet he sees himself more as a struggling musician and improbable interloper.

“The Darjeeling Limited,” opening Friday, is his first movie with Wes Anderson since the writer-director helped make the teenage Schwartzman a star in 1998’s “Rushmore.” And it’s Schwartzman’s first screenwriting credit. It’s a weird road movie with the typical Anderson flourishes -- the Kinks songs, the melancholic tone, all of it awash in color -- that follows three estranged brothers played by Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson on a spiritual quest by train through India. Schwartzman spent about 18 months writing the script with Anderson and Schwartzman’s cousin Roman Coppola.

But before his storytelling began, Schwartzman opened with a disclaimer. “My feelings won’t be hurt if you cut me off,” he said. “I can be slightly long-winded.”

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And then Schwartzman unspooled a stream-of-conscious recollection of “Darjeeling” from the first moment Anderson approached him with the idea in Paris, while Roman Coppola and Schwartzman were filming “Marie Antoinette,” to the exotic experience of shooting in India, much of it in the crowded compartments of a moving train with weekends spent in his pajamas, watching movies in bed with Anderson. At some point, Arrow began snoring loudly under the table. Schwartzman paused to acknowledge his throbbing toe.

“It’s like a ticking clock,” he said."I’ve never done an interview in physical pain before, but it’s great.” And he was off again, remembering his surprise at Anderson’s invitation to co-write the film. “Darjeeling” originated with Anderson’s idea -- three brothers on a train in India. They worked out the rest together in Parisian hotel rooms and coffeehouses where Anderson sometimes lives, on long distance conference calls and then, finally in India, until they finished the script.

“I really would describe it as less like painting something or drawing something, less like creating something on a blank space,” Schwartzman said. “I think it was more like trying to uncover something like an archeological dig or something. It felt to me like these three brothers were real and the trip they were on was real and we were trying to define it or document it. I remember going to bed every night thinking, ‘What are they doing now? Where are those guys?’ So, I don’t think it was as much, ‘OK, what can we create for them now?’ as waiting for them; it felt more like they were there and we were trying to uncover it, less than create it. Then we went to India for four or five weeks and really just wrote nonstop. I had to get a whole new long-distance plan.”

He paused. “Was that too long-winded?”

It was quiet out on the deck, the silence broken only by the sound of wind in the leaves. The small hillside compound felt exclusive. A windblown Kirsten Dunst lingered out front, as the actor headed into his beautifully appointed quarters for a photo shoot. But apparently, this was a bit out of Schwartzman’s milieu.

“I think if I lived here,” he said, raising his eyes to the trees, “this would drive me crazy.” He pointed down the hill, toward the endless, noisy flats of Hollywood and said, “I live down there.”

Schwartzman, 27, grew up in L.A., the older of the two sons of Talia Shire and now deceased producer Jack Schwartzman. He also has two older half-brothers, one of whom, John Schwartzman, is a cinematographer. Francis Ford Coppola is his uncle and Roman, Sofia Coppola and Nicolas Cage are his cousins. His grandfather was award-winning composer Carmine Coppola.

But to hear him talk, Schwartzman grew up in the audience, not on movie sets. He recalls living in his mother’s busy orbit, where music was always played at high volume -- Stephen Sondheim or Aaron Copland.

“My mom would be singing and kind of dancing around rooms,” he said. “She always was watching movies. So I think that as a young kid maybe just to be close to my mom I would watch movies with her. But I wasn’t too invested in it, because usually they were black and white, usually from the 1930s.”

As an adolescent he acquired his own brand of showmanship, dressing in formal attire for family gatherings, performing lines from movies to entertain his family. He shared the same comic self-possession that made his Max Fischer in “Rushmore” so memorable.

The Schwartzman style

He hasn’t lost that puckish quality, which colored every role that came after, from the overwrought poet-activist in “I ♥ Huckabees” to the scruffy, self-involved font designer in “Shopgirl” to his socially stunted Louis XVI in “Marie Antoinette.” His performances are often as much expression -- the furrowed brow and pursed mouth, the exaggerated gestures -- as timing and delivery, sort of a postmodern Buster Keaton.

“He has a way of moving, the way he uses his hands, his manner is very unique, very interesting and can be very funny,” said Anderson. “He also has a really interesting way of making metaphors that are very unexpected and very pointed.”

Every now and then, Schwartzman performs around town as a solo artist called Coconut Records. A video of a recent gig posted on his MySpace page shows him wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a T-shirt, shooting incongruent gestures into the crowd. His lyrics are inaudible over the cheers.

“There’s a very endearing quality about him,” said Brody. “He’s very honest and open and I think that’s very lovable.”

The summer he was 16, Schwartzman played Otis Ormonde in his cousin Sofia’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a small stage production Francis coordinated for the kids at the homestead in Northern California. Around that time, his mother rented three classic 1960s-'70s films for him: “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Harold and Maude” and “The Graduate.”

“That was the first time that the feeling I got from music, I got from a movie,” he said. “I just knew that whatever I do with my life, I hope that I can make something that makes me feel -- makes someone else feel -- the way I feel when I’m really enjoying these things.”

At a party later that year, Sofia’s friend Davia Nelson told her she was helping cast the lead role in “Rushmore.” Sofia waved over Schwartzman, who was wearing tails and carrying a cane. He listened to Nelson’s pitch and tried to talk his way out of it.

“Growing up in L.A.,” said Schwartzman, “there are kid actors and you see like little headshots -- you know what I mean -- you go into places and see like a little kid dressed like an astronaut or something, showing all the things he’s capable of looking like. And I remember thinking, I’m just not that person.”

‘It didn’t seem scary.’

But then he read Wilson and Anderson’s “Rushmore” script -- the first he’d ever read -- and decided to give it his best shot. He wore khakis, a blazer with a homemade school emblem on the lapel and slicked back his hair and was devastated to find that every other candidate for the role had worn the same thing.

Then he met Anderson. “He was so young!” said Schwartzman. “He had Converse sandals on and I was wearing New Balance shoes. And we started talking about each other’s footwear. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this guy seems like he would like music.’ It didn’t seem scary.”

Even after that phenomenal debut, Schwartzman toured as the drummer of Phantom Planet, a band whose song “California” became the theme to the hit Fox show “The O.C.” But touring proved too much and Schwartzman decided to focus on acting and songwriting.

“He has a lot of heart,” said Roman Coppola. “He doesn’t make choices in any kind of cynical way. He’s very curious and committed. When he gets involved in something, he gives it his all.”

Schwartzman had spent the morning recording. Last spring, he released an album of pop songs from his own small label, Young Baby Records, his first since he left Phantom Planet about three years ago. He’s considering writing another screenplay. Next spring, he costars with Ben Stiller as the title character in “The Marc Pease Experiment, a comedy about a once-great high school musical-theater star turned limo driver. “It’s got some sad, nice moments,” he said.

A week after Schwartzman’s toe injury, Anderson called from Paris with a more succinct take on writing “Darjeeling.”

“Our goal,” he said, “was to make it too personal.”

Anderson, who earned much acclaim for “Rushmore” and a screenwriting Oscar nomination for “The Royal Tenenbaums” -- both of which he co-wrote with Wilson -- seemed to stumble with the big budget of “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” With “Darjeeling,” the consensus among early viewers is that it’s more fun than “Aquatic,” but lacks the depth of “Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore.” Then again, Anderson’s films -- and Schwartzman for that matter -- aren’t designed for mass appeal. To some, they’re just too precious, even self-indulgent. For others, though, they capture something layered and emotional about 1970s childhoods.

Schwartzman’s character in “Darjeeling,” Jack, is a writer and hopeless romantic who is inexplicably barefoot at all times. He tries to heal his broken heart with lusty encounters with the train’s lovely young hostess while obsessively checking his ex-girlfriend’s voice mail because he still has the access code. He writes short stories that he says are fiction, but are actually taken verbatim from his life.

Brody’s character, Peter is expecting a baby with a woman he expected to have divorced and wears his recently dead father’s old prescription glasses everywhere. Wilson’s character, Francis, seizes his brothers’ passports to ensure they don’t abandon the spiritual journey, a quest inspired after his near-death motorcycle “accident.”

“Each guy is really just the three of us kind of spread out,” said Schwartzman. “Shards of the three of us.”

The “Darjeeling” shoot was an intimate one. Mornings, Wilson cooked Brody and Schwartzman oatmeal that he’d brought from L.A. Then they each donned their suits, fixed their own hair and makeup and by 7, they were jumping on a train which became their traveling set. For about 14 hours each weekday, everyone packed into those tiny compartments. “You have no place to hide,” said Schwartzman. “And I think that really helped. We really were forced to be there for each other.”

There’s no mention of Wilson’s state of mind during the shoot, or the fact that a year after the film wrapped, he apparently attempted suicide. When asked about Wilson’s August hospitalization, Schwartzman demurred.

But Schwartzman quickly retrieves the thread of conversation, turning it back to the film, his admiration for his co-stars, his struggles with self-confidence. He said he gets so star-struck on film sets, it can be crippling. Despite Dustin Hoffman’s casual, kind way, for example, Schwartzman said he was never totally comfortable with him on the set of “I ♥Huckabees.” And on “Darjeeling,” the idea of filming opposite Wilson and Oscar-winner Brody was so unnerving, Schwartzman said, he arrived to the set in India seven weeks early.

“Maybe this is always how it will be,” he said. “I feel like I’m learning. I feel like I’m just starting out.”


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