Jason Schwartzman is a nice guy. He is friendly to interviewers, and by all accounts pleasant to work with. This is important to know because in Listen Up Philip, he plays a snippy, insufferable jerk, a neurotic author whose sudden success has gone to his head. The film was written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, whose dark comedy The Color Wheel made waves on the festival circuit a few years ago. With the well-reviewed Listen Up Philip hitting theaters today and VOD next week, Perry could be poised for bigger success. And Schwartzman will undoubtedly agree. Complex talked to the actor about working with the up-and-coming director, sympathizing with an awful character, and being a rock star.
How did you come to be involved with this project?
I got involved with this through the usual, the most common channel, which is my agent sent me the script. And I read it, and I was definitely taken aback by it. It was funny, but definitely so extreme. It had an odd—I don't know if this makes sense, I guess I've never actually tried to make this type of analogy—but when you're reading a script, you feel like reading it is the equivalent of driving, and the plot is like the road and the land. Usually it goes up, then down, then up, very hilly. Whereas this was flat, and sometimes downhill, but always turning right and left. But not like, left-right-left-right, but like the whole thing would turn 80 degrees to the right, meaning you're with it, you're with it, you're with it—and then.
That was kind of exciting to me, that it felt like a different thing. I felt like I was reading something ... that felt more uncommon as a type of set-up or design for something.
The main thing I wanted to do was to be near Alex [ross perry], not because he's the character, but because he is the movie. He's everything.
Was there anything about it that made you wary? This filmmaker wants to shoot on 16 millimeter, and it has a narrator. There's such a fine line between that being good, as this turns out to be, and being a pretentious Sundance throwaway, which it could have been.
When I first read it, I didn't really know anything about how they were gonna do 16 millimeter. The narrator, I didn't really think about it, only because so many of the movies that I like have narrators. It was good because it wasn't [just] a voice-over thing. It wasn't Philip's voice saying, "I felt so sad because..." This was a third-party narrator that was not involved, and we never meet him.
It's like a novel, this omniscient narrator.
Yeah, that didn't really throw me. What threw me was that it was ambitious. "Execution-dependent" is maybe the wrong way of saying it, but I didn't think "pretentious Sundance throwaway." I was thinking that this was a really good script that, if I was in this, could easily be bad. To play a character who's saying this kind of prickly stuff, I was thinking, "How much of this can someone take?" Certainly reading it was so claustrophobic, but there was something about it that was so funny and had a real vitality to it.
When I met Alex, I didn't know if I was one of 50 people he was meeting. But my hope was that when I did meet him, we have some kind of rapport and exchange, because I can't do this on my own. I don't have a skill set that could get me through a movie like this without someone guiding me who wrote it. It would be so challenging to keep it all straight because though this character's arc isn't a traditional arc, there are subtle things in the script that my character does that got me thinking, "Someone's got to be micromanaging this."
Also when I met Alex, it wasn't like, 'Oh, here's the man who will keep it from going off the rails." I just felt like, well, everything is an adventure. I'd rather try and be terrible and at least fail with this guy. I liked him, so I felt like, let's get on this ship, maybe it's gonna work.
How do you approach a character like this? Are there things about the character that you admire or sympathize with?
I was talking to Alex about it, and we were like, "Do you have to like someone? What are the rules here on sympathy?" There was a great Buster Keaton line that I wasn't thinking about specifically with this movie, but he said, "You felt sympathy for every one of my characters, but I never asked for it." Which I thought was pretty good.
In the beginning of working with Alex, I was like, "Do we want to lighten the load here in some places?" And any time we flirted with it, it only seemed to make my character passive-aggressive. It made him worse. It was so clear that he was feeling the way he was feeling, and then you put a smile on it, it's like, "What a dick." This is a character who is just gonna tell you what he's feeling, and he's not apologetic, and I came to really admire that.
I actually came to New York a month early, and it was to be near Alex and to be in the world of the movie. One of things that we did was we gave ourselves a month to meet every day to go through the script. And I think it's one of those things where—I used to be in a band, and when my band was on tour, we would have these inside jokes, like we would roll our R's. "Forrrmer mayorrr Rrrrricharrrd Rrrriordan." We'd do these weird things.
Weird things you do with friends, right.
Yeah, and then I got off tour and I did that for someone and they didn't laugh. I realized at that point, "Oh, I'm talking in a different way than the rest of these people, and they didn't understand that." It wasn't on purpose. So spending that month with Alex, of course things are going to happen [to get us on the same wavelength].
It was funny because Elisabeth Moss came about two weeks before we started shooting, and while we were talking about our characters, she said, "The fact that Philip would do this to her..." And I was like, "Well, you didn't exactly make it easy on him!" We basically had this strange disagreement about our characters. I was laughing and I said to her, "I cannot believe that I am defending this behavior. But I am!" And she was like, "You aren't saying if you think this is okay to do." And I said, "Well, it is. That's just the way it is."
The main thing I wanted to do was to be near Alex, not because he's the character, but because he is the movie. He's everything.
Like Philip, you got famous at a young age, and were highly praised for your work. Do you ever get tired of people telling you how great Rushmore is?
Oh, I don't. I love that movie so much and it just holds the deepest, most special-est place in my body because it was my first time doing anything like this. It's like your virginity. You don't compare it with anything!
What did you do to avoid turning out like Philip? How did you not get a swollen head like that?
I don't really know. I don't have an answer.
You come from a show-business family, so you'd been around this idea of "fame" and whatnot.
Well, Philip, for whatever reason, has so much venom in him, and it says early on in the movie that this kind of lashing out is new to him, which gives me the feeling he's felt a lot of it before but he's always been more reserved about it. He's just experimenting with it. I have venom in me too, but I just don't know what happens when someone goes there.
When I talked to Alex about it, he was saying that after The Color Wheel started to go to these film festivals, he would be in conversation with directors he loved, who meant so much to him. Then he'd come back to Brooklyn and talk to people who are trying to get things done, or being cocky about getting nothing done. And he said, "There was 1.0001 percent of me that [wanted to say], 'Well, I don't know about you, fuck you, I just met my hero, I made it happen.'" Because he worked in a video store for a long time, and all these people were going to film school, and he said, "I'm gonna make this happen." And people would be like, "No you're not."
Alex was like, "I felt that on this little level, and I obviously subdued it—you can't just be a dick—but what would that movie be like, if a guy just totally mishandles [success]?" That just appealed to me.
You were in Phantom Planet before you acted, but there was some overlap where you were still with the band while you started to do some movies. Was there a point where you had to choose between them? Was that a crossroads?
No, not at all, actually. It was not that intellectual. It was, "I don't think that being in a band right now is going to be the best thing for me." It was all kinds of reasons. It wasn't selfish, like, "OK, I got what I need from this, goodbye." Obviously, the band kept going for a while, so they clearly wanted to keep doing it. It just was what it was, it just happened.
And you'll always be the guy who wrote the theme song from The O.C.
[Laughs.] I guess so.
Eric D. Snider is a contributing film critic and comedy writer. He tweets here.