Jason Schwartzman is one of those actors who arrived in his first film, his persona apparently fully-formed, and since that appearance, he's just continued to refine this great, quirky identity of his, working with great filmmakers, working with great actors, and making the sorts of choices and enjoying the sorts of opportunities that would make any other actor jealous.
Right now, HBO is airing the second season of "Bored To Death," the eccentric comedy-noir created by Jonathan Ames. The series details the adventures of Jonathan Ames (Schwartzman), an author living in New York who likes to moonlight as an unlicensed private detective. He ends up dragging in magazine publisher George Christopher (Ted Danson) and best buddy/cartoonist Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis) most of the time, and the show also details the complicated love lives of these characters with painfully wry observational wit. It's a hard show to describe, genre-wise, and it's only getting more eccentric and enjoyable as it unfolds.
This week, Schwartzman called me bright and early one morning, and we ended up talking for a little over a half-hour about his show, his work, and my favorite overlooked film of the year.
Yes… we're going to discuss "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" again. Brace yourself.
This weekend's episode of "Bored To Death" marks a major sea change for the series, and for one character in particular. So far, much of the series has been fun and silly and crazy, but this episode, "The Gowanas Canal Has Gonorrhea," suddenly adds the idea that there are stakes for these characters that haven't been suggested until now.
"That's one thing I really like about the show. I don't know about you, but does your taste change constantly?" I told him I'm sort of a rock. "Wow, I'm always contradicting myself and my own tastes I think it's obviously a very tricky balance. I love the show because we get these half hours to make these strange little movies, you know what I mean? And on the show, we get to show all the moments that maybe would have been cut out of a movie. If there was a movie about a young private detective from Brooklyn, I feel like a lot of our episodes probably would have just been cut out of the movie because they're obscure or they're just impressions or they're ramble about something that might seem insignificant. Then all of a sudden something absurd happens, or something strange or dangerous and I like that, and our characters are free to speak their minds and say, 'I'm afraid of this or I don't want to move back in with my parents' and even if those moments are gone quickly, at least they were said, you know? So hopefully we're smuggling in some things that are of great importance to the characters without beating it over anyone’s head."
Schwartzman, who is one of those guys who sounds excited by his own ideas as he talks, continued, "There is an ethereal quality about it and certainly the landscape is a combination of real Brooklyn and modern Brooklyn, making all these popular references, and at the same time it’s sort of not real Brooklyn. It’s like this weird collage-daydream version of Brooklyn that the real-life Jonathan Ames has chosen to write about. He’ll be at a place in Brooklyn and say, 'I want to have Ted here at this bar. This would be amazing.' And he kind of works back from there and begin to paint it. And then, yes, there’s all of this happening and these three characters are struggling to find some kind of a force to knock them out of their various ruts, financial or spiritual or whatever, or even just as maybe mundane to just be trying to be happy. Then this week, Ted finds out what he finds out and it is like whoa, this is a real thing. This is a real problem. And I remember when Jonathan told me about it, I was so excited because, you know, that’s sort of what you hope or the luxury that you have of a second season. The first season, so much of it is about laying ground work."
For me as a viewer, so much of the first season of a show is just deciding whether or not I like these characters and the world. I need to know what it is before I can start appreciating the riffs and digressions. I explained that, and Schwartzman agreed. "Exactly. Hopefully if you can get a second season, which we did, you can try and settle in and say, 'Okay, we’ve introduced these characters slowly and showing you this person and this person and this person.' So when Jonathan brought it up, I was, like, 'Good. This is what I’m talking about. We can slightly raise the stakes more. That’s what’s fun to me and I think what’s cool and something to note is that, you know, the show in my mind is coming out a year later. But Jonathan explained to me that in his mind this second season really is only taking place two months after last season. That was kind of liberating because I had this fear going into it like, 'Oh, no, second season. I’ve got to be changed. How am I different? What else is going on? How could I have grown? How could I have changed?' And he’s like, 'I don’t want it to be like that much has changed. I want it to just be a continuation and then slightly the troubles get more extreme.' I like that pace with which it’s unfolding, and then of course Ted’s news is a wonderful way to kick it into another gear."
Since he brought up Ted Danson, I told him just how impressed I am by Danson's work on the show in general, and how impressive his career's been since "Cheers." Not everyone is able to follow up a gigantic hit with a career as cool as Danson's, and if anything, he seems to get cooler with each passing year. His work as George Christopher is pure, unfiltered impulse, and it's a delight, every single week. "I agree," said Jason, "and I'll tell you… Ted is such an amazing human being. He is able to… not shape-shift. That might sound negative… but he is in one moment Ted Danson, the man who was on all of these shows, who’s been in Hollywood for years, who has a real history here and can give great advice about things. And then in another moment, he’s asking for advice about something or doesn’t know something and is confused by something. I feel like a lot of people who have had the success that Ted has had could say, 'I’m going to do it my way. I know what works.' He could have that 'Sit down, kid' kind of an attitude. What I love about Ted is like he comes at each day with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for what is possible and what is new. And he shares that with his character in real-life. I was living in Brooklyn while we were doing the show, and he’s like, 'I’ve never been to Brooklyn. Can I come to Brooklyn?' I was, like, 'Ted, of course you can go to Brooklyn.' 'How do I get there?' I was like, 'You get on a taxi or the train and you just come.' He was, like, 'Great.' So he came to dinner with me and Zach and Jonathan. And he’s, like, 'I love it here. This is amazing. This is a whole new world.' He’s very wide-eyed but not in a false way."
That seems to be a great quality to be able to preserve in yourself as a person. "Oh, it's crazy. When we’re on-set, he’ll whisper, 'Does this feel alright? Or is this just boring what I’m doing? Do you have any ideas? Do you have any ideas for me?' He just wants to do a good job and when he walks on the set, he makes everyone smile, you know? He has a real charisma and effervescence. He’s in great shape. He tries to eat well and he has a life energy that is very vibrant and he just wants to work. He loves to work and he works hard. He knows all of his lines. It’s amazing. He’s unwilling to settle in any certain way, which to me is what makes him so incredible."
In a recent piece on the show, I remarked at how strange it is to only know an author from a show in which he's a character or a film like "The Extra Man" adapted from his work. I asked Jason how much of the character on "Bored To Death" is the real Jonathan Ames, and how much of it is a creation of Jason's, and how much is simply a goof that they've agreed on. "I think that it’s all of it. I think that I’m by no means playing the real Jonathan Ames. Of course this is something that I asked when I got the part. 'Is this you? Do you want me to be playing you or what would you like?' It’s not him at all. I think it’s funny because his writing career is split, which is that he’s written novels where he is talking about characters and then he has books and books of essays which are about him and he speaks from the first person. He was telling me that whenever someone would read the essays, people would say that didn’t really happen. But then when people would read the novels, they would say, come on, that’s you. That’s not a character, that’s you. So finally he said, 'Why don’t I just do a piece of complete fiction but use my name?' He was telling me how he was lying in bed one night, reading a Phillip Marlowe book, wishing that he was a man of action, and he did seriously think about putting an ad up on Craigslist just to have another night life, a double life with adventure and stuff. He didn’t end up doing it. He wrote a story about it, though, so there are certainly lots of things about the real Jonathan Ames in it."
One of the things that is most distinct about Schwartzman is his rhythm as an actor. He's always had a great knack for finding the music in his dialogue, and when I asked him about pinning down the way his version of Ames sounds, he replied, "I noticed that there are certain lines, especially when I got the pilot script, and I would read these lines and… I don’t know about other actors, but you’re reading the script and then you come across a line and you say, 'How the hell am I supposed to say that and make it sound like it’s coming out of a human?' Then I would ask Jonathan and he would say, 'Which line?' And he would really quickly read it to himself and hearing him say it, I’d go, 'Okay.' There’s a cadence to his voice. There’s a certain way that he speaks that I have found useful to adapt to my own speaking rhythms. With certain lines, there is a Jonathan Ames tempo and meter that I sort have put into my own voice when I speak as the character. A lot of it too is me. Sometimes, I think about my life and, like, if someone attacked me or my wife, could I… would I… how would I react? Or if someone came into my house, what would I do? Or if someone said, 'Hey, I can’t find this person, can you help me find them?' You ask yourself how would I do in situations where I was called to help someone? It’s exciting because my character becomes a private detective like it’s almost like a costume. Like he puts on the outfit and he’s playing the private detective, kind of like how Don Quixote reads all these books about knights and then in his mind he becomes a knight."
Struck by the way Jason described Ted Danson, I told him that it was almost like he was describing what I loved about Michael Cera's performance as Scott Pilgrim, and we took a moment to mourn the box-office reaction to the film. "What I liked about Michael’s version of it is that he could have been played meek, like someone who is very self-deprecating. But he played it with a cockiness and a swagger that was so funny to me." We talked about the potential for the film to find an audience on video, and Jason agreed that he feels like the film's going to build in reputation over time, and that he's already starting to see it happen.
While I agree it's funny, I also think there's something enormously appealing about George Christopher or Scott Pilgrim as characters because they are these wide-open receptors, simply hungry for experience. "Bored To Death" is a shaggy dog story each week, and that's part of why it works. The stories don't make easy thematic points. They don't wrap things up with a bow. Things are rarely A, B, C on the show in terms of plot, and instead, it's more about how these characters open themselves up to whatever happens. "Thank you," said Jason as I made the point. "Do you mind if I use that? Because that's it. What I was saying before about being hit over the head… some shows, it's like how hard do you want it? What I like about the show is that it’s not saying, 'I don’t have money and this might happen and I could get sick and I could die' and making it dire terms about that. I think that people who are feeling these things have these exchanges where they kind of let things seep out but then they go back to life. We’re given a half hour to make these absurd strange shows that don’t have be A, B and C because the other shows are A, B, and C, so let’s make it D, F, and T and have it be strange. And don’t even have those letters in the same episode. The hard thing about making the show is, you know… what is funny? I mean, who knows? That’s the secret to the universe. What is funny? That’s why there are so many less funny movies, to me, than dramas. I feel I could find so many more movies that are serious or dramatic that affect me and a handful of movies that really kill me, you know, with laughter."
I asked him about fan reaction to the show and what sort of feedback he's had. "This guy stopped me on the street the other day and said, 'Hey, I love your show, man.' 'Thank you so much.' He’s like, 'I don’t know why my best friend doesn’t want to watch it. He just can’t get into it.' I was like, 'That’s cool.' What I love about making these types of shows is that when you’re not doing A, B, C and D, you have a whole other audience that I think are hungry for something more. We’re hopefully making a show for people who would like to get something different. That’s why now there’s On Demand and everyone can watch all the shows anytime they want and that’s exciting to me."
We talked about how many options there are at any given moment for entertainment now, and how it's totally different than we were young. I'm older than Jason by at least a decade, but he's definitely old enough to remember when choices were far more limited and entertainment seemed to aim right down the middle on a more regular basis. We talked about raising kids with that many options, and he told me that he's excited about having his first child in December. "It's a lot to deal with. I feel like when I was young, the equivalent to media today would have been sugar. Some parents would be like, 'I don’t want it in my house,' but then it’s like, 'Well, how do we handle it if he goes to a friend’s house?' How do you handle what they’re going to see and not see? And how do you help them filter out the noise to get to things they might like, that might actually be good for them?"
I told him that I think entertainment today is at its best when it doesn't aim for the broad audience, and that the smartest work is the work that aims at the specific, the authentic. We're in an age where 99% of everything is a remake or a sequel or an adaptation or something pre-digested in some way, a widget, a product. And even the good stuff like that is still plastic in some basic way. When you run into something that has an authentic energy to it, that's exciting. It's not even the subject matter that attracts me to something… it's the honesty. "I appreciate you saying that. I think about this a lot," Jason said. I read this really interesting article by that singer, Noah Lennox? He goes by the name Panda Bear? He was talking about how he judges music when he hears stuff and he said something that stayed with me. When he’s listening to music he also incorporates the intention of the person into his reaction to it. He said, 'There’s lots of music that’s come out that I don’t really like the music, but I love the idea. And I love that they tried to do it and therefore, to me, it’s a success. And I’ll recommend it to people.' I can’t say how many times I’ll go see a movie and afterwards I’ll walk out and someone will say, 'Did you like it?' And I’ll say, 'I don’t know if I personally liked it but I’m so happy that that movie got made.' I’ve never been in a movie that’s made a lot of money. I’m happy people saw them but I’ve never been in a movie that made $200 million or whatever. I don’t know what that feeling is like. The main thing you can focus on is like what are we intending to do and what is the spirit with which we’re making this? And the spirit with which we make it is we really want people to just be entertained and Jonathan sincerely loves these characters. We all love the guys that we play and we don’t judge them and we’re not making fun of detectives or the genre or writers. I think what Zach and Ted and I have all talked about that we love is that our characters aren’t goody-two shoes. They’re good people who are trying to get better and keep messing up a little bit and causing havoc. I feel like that has its place in the world because there’s a lot of sarcasm or cynicism or irony in lots of shows and I think our show maybe fits into the place about three non-ironic people who get into a lot of trouble."
As I've said in print several times, the thing I respond to the most in films and television these days, and something that's become more important to me as I've gotten older, is honesty. I just want to recognize human behavior in the things I watch. I want something that reflects the world I know or the world out there that I haven't had a chance to experience yet, but that seems sincere. I explained that to Jason and he thanked me. "I appreciate that. That’s the other tricky thing is this idea. What is real? What is real? And I like our show because it can be real in one moment and then it can be so absurd that it’s such a joy to do. Lots of my friends do lots of insane movements with their hands. Drop something on the ground and you’d think that that is just not believable. Like if someone saw that, that wouldn’t happen. And those are the moments that I highlight and the moments that I love in my life. They’re real but they are turned up all the way to the edge of not being believable. But they happened. That’s why I love getting the scripts each week, because I know it’s going to be somewhat real, somewhat quiet and also somewhat like a car that’s falling apart at 100 miles an hour because it’s not sturdy, you know what I mean? Like it’s falling apart and that’s why I love it because it has a spirit of the momentum of just like freedom and joy and insanity."
I wished him luck with season two, he wished me luck with "all those babies," and he hung up with a hearty "Rock and roll!" As in every previous conversation, Schwartzman struck me as a guy who never made the decision to put up all the armor that most actors wear into interviews, and it makes for a great conversation every time. He brings that same enthusiasm to his work, and it's well worth tuning into "Bored To Death" this season to see him at his best.
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