Jason Schwartzman has been one of our favorite actors since he made his big screen debut in Wes Anderson's Rushmore over a decade ago. Since then, he's consistently surfaced in excellent films, including the joyously existential I Heart Huckabees, MTV in the 18th century costume-fest Marie Antoinette, the criminally underrated The Darjeeling Limited, and new cult classics like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He also spent three years as the star of the beloved Brooklyn HBO comedy, Bored To Death.
His latest film is the off-putting and uproarious film Listen Up Philip, a portrait of the young literary artist as an asshole by director Alex Ross Perry. Despite being a very literary, Philip Roth-influenced film—with three different narrators reflecting on its well-drawn and often obnoxious characters—it's been getting rave reviews. We talked with Schwartzman about the genesis of the film, the extreme reactions to it, and what it was like playing such a prick.
I was reading some early reviews of the film, and I saw that Phillip was described as, among other things, an unrepentant prick, an egocentric, and a spoiled only child. Did my mom say that?
What was it like playing such an asshole? It was great. I mean, it was two things. It was stressful, but I felt that the script was so great, and obviously Alex was wonderful, and the cast was so wonderful. But yeah, honestly I felt a little stressed because I felt that, you know, if it goes too far in any direction, it could be too much. Or too little. And I just wanted to do the best that I could. Like picking and choosing the spots with Alex—picking and choosing the spots to let rays of sunshine through, or rays of darkness through. To be aware of it, and make sure someone was keeping track of the numbers.
So that was stressful, but it was also so much fun, because I don't know about you, but it's not really in my nature to let it rip so overtly and be so in the face of people that are disappointing you. This character has very high expectations of people, and is easily disappointed, and is in a phase of his life where if he's disappointed he's not afraid to say something. For sure I was nervous to do the movie—when Alex and I first spoke about it, I said I was nervous. I actually thought he should do it, because after seeing [Perry's previous feature] The Color Wheel and reading the dialogue I thought it would be perfectly tailored to his speaking style. But he insisted that he did not want to do it, he wanted to focus on the directing.
In the beginning, the two of us were talking about plotting it out—if we're gonna do this right, do we need to have these elements that are redeeming? Should we take lines out, should we add things that make it more sympathetic? Alex was firmly against it, but we looked into it for a little while, and it became clear that the more we tried that, the more it made the character passive-aggressive. And it made it worse. That's the worst, passive-aggressiveness, and I think it really did the movie a disservice.
It became pretty clear that this movie is designed this way, it's set up this way, and we just have to make the decision to really kind of rip out the brakes and push this car over the hill. Let it roll and pick up speed, and see what it crashes into and what it does. And it's just part of the risk of it.
So that's sort of what we did. But it was fun. It was fun to lay into people.
Did that rub off on you in real life at all? Did you suddenly feel like, maybe you should be brutally honest with people more often? I think that you can't just say what you want all the time, I know people that are this way a little, and it's fine for them, it's not exactly... it's not the kind of way I was raised, it's not natural for me. But oddly enough, I have gotten into verbal altercations or confrontations with people this year, and never in my life has that happened before. So I don't know if that's just a coincidence or what, but for sure it's happened now. I'll have it out with someone in an intense manner in a way that I never have before.
In that sense, is there a part of Phillip's brutal honesty that's almost brave or commendable? Yeah, I definitely think that after trying to experiment with taking the foot off the gas in other areas, it was just doing the character a disservice. At least it became one thing you could count on, that this character was just going to say it. Call it like it was from his perspective. He could be totally wrong—he's often wrong—but he'll definitely tell you what's happening. I found that was admirable.
I know it's being a baby, part of it is you just can't act that way. 'You can't do that Phillip, you've gotta grow up.' But on the other hand, it's pretty cool to think... who has to grow up? Maybe it's good that he's letting it go. I said to Alex, it was kind of like most people with red wine and champagne, with their anger and their dose of honesty. It's tastier but then later it catches up to you and you're sick, you feel hungover, and you don't really know where you are. Whereas with vodka and gin, it's much harsher, much more harsh, you drink less but it's more powerful. But you know exactly where you are. I sort of feel like Phillip's vodka. Like it's just more powerful, higher alcohol content.
Do you think that his artistic abilities, his writing, justifies how he treats other people? Do you think in general that one's artistry makes up for how they behave? That's a very complicated question, and I don't really have a firm grip on that answer. You know, you hear about people's daily regimens, or creative habits, throughout history, and they seem sometimes downright cruel to the people around them. And yet the outcome, or the result of the work is so meaningful to society. It's a real puzzle. I'm a parent and stuff, so I definitely can't imagine neglecting my family for the good of... to make something...
To follow your muse? Yeah. I just don't think I could. It would be too reckless. But at the same time, I think that there's a certain sacrifice and there's certain times when this line of work especially—acting—you do have to sacrifice certain things like time to make something. I think about it a lot with directors—if a director was crazy or violent, but the movies were incredible... I don't think you should have rules, you should just sort of play it by ear. Just as long as you feel like you're not putting anybody else in danger, I think that it's okay to follow things. I just think you need to be careful. But it's the age old question.
There's a great book I love, called Daily Rituals. Have you ever seen this book? It's a sort of anthology—not an anthology of people's work, but it's almost like a little encyclopedia of writers, architects, actors, directors, painters, musicians. They're little one page things on their work habits. It's totally fascinating, and you see so many different styles of working. Some people work at night, some people work in the day, some people take drugs, some people abhor drugs... it's amazing, you should look at it. I wouldn't know how to fit into this book. Mine would be: 'he loves to go walk the dog.'
I love having dogs around. It forces me out of my apartment when I'm writing, forces me to spend some time outside. It puts me on a much better schedule than what I have on my own. I know, I have a dog that's 10 years old, and I think it's the best thing that ever could have happened. It's not like I was the kind of person who would have gone off the rails or partied, but the fact that from when I was 23 or 24, someone's counting on you to feed them and walk them, I think it's a great thing.
And I definitely hear you about getting out. Recently my cousin and I have been working on this television show and writing episodes, and my wife and kids are out of town, so no dog and stuff. We went to this apartment where we were staying on the Friday at 3 p.m. We didn't leave the apartment until Monday at 11. We didn't step outside of it. And it's such a weird feeling, it was such a terrible feeling. I know what you mean, about that kind of nice little break that having a dog will give you, just going for that walk is so nice. I think more and more, it's good to balance vices and being healthy.
There were times when I was watching the movie, in terms of my immediate visceral reaction, where I felt like I was watching the origin story of a literary supervillain. I find that the more I think about the movie since seeing it, the more I like it. But at the time, certain parts and certain things that Philip said, the way that he and Ike acted, I found so despicable in the moment that I couldn't separate the humor out of it. The more I think about it, the funnier I think it was. Well, that's interesting, because that was my feeling reading it. When I received the script, I read it and I felt the same. I had a really hard time getting through it. Because I just felt that some of the stuff was despicable, or just so abrasive. And just hard industrial metallic shrill music. But it kept me in, because I kept reading it. I would put it down and then pick it up. I was putting it down, kind of making my way through it. And once it was done, four hours later, it began to shift, and like you were saying—your reaction to seeing it was exactly my reaction to first reading it.
Did you worry at all about the audience? The other movie that it made me think of at times was Greenberg, which also had a very hard-to-like main character. I didn't see Greenberg, stupidly. But I was nervous, in that beginning period I was mentioning. I basically wanted to make sure, even though Alex was so smart, I said, "You get what we're doing or what we're about to... Your hope isn't that people see this guy and forgive him?" He said, "No, I think we just tell this movie like this, we just do this."
This is a very real character to me, and I know this type of person. I have friends that are like this guy. Alex was talking about how, after The Color Wheel had played at festivals and was getting good word of mouth, he was able to meet some people that he really admired. He said there was a moment where he came back to his apartment in Brooklyn, and he was with his friends, and all of a sudden he could feel this little side of himself, like 1% of him, feeling like, 'well, I've just done all this stuff, what have you guys done?' He obviously put the kibosh on that feeling, but he said, 'what if we made a movie about a guy doing that? Take it as far as it can go,' and I think that was kind of interesting to the both of us.
So that's what I was nervous about, what I meant earlier. Once we agreed we were going to go for it...were we going to try to go for any moments where you really feel nice? That are overtly sympathetic? No, we should just not. And the script is written this way, let's just do it this way. There's no doubt, it's not like we made a movie and then people say he's a prick, and we're like, "What?! We didn't try to make him a prick." Like obviously, this is about these guys. Alex said to me early on, "You're not playing a writer, you're playing an asshole." And I think that once we kind of made friends with that, it was fun and interesting, and it was risky.
The movie's not for everyone, we definitely want people to like it. So the fact that anyone finds pleasure and joy in it is exciting and kind of thrilling, and maybe there's some deeper thing that we're laughing at. Even though it's so painful to watch him say some of the stuff, it's shocking. But it's not coming from a place that's like, "I'm gonna shock you." The movie was written with this real sincerity, that I really admire.
Besides Jonathan Ames, were you familiar at all with any novelists or literary circles going into this? Very, very peripherally. Because of Ames and Bored To Death, I was curious about it, and he'd tell me stories about readings and different people. Through him, we had John Hodgman on our show, we had Sarah Vowell on our show, and I would just kind of eavesdrop on their conversations. "Are you going to this reading?" "No, I'm going away to write." You know, like looking at two musicians talking shop, "I got a new guitar." So just in that way, but no other way.
How familiar were you with the works of Phillip Roth? Have you read him? Very unfamiliar. In fact, I'm such a slow reader, I said to Alex I wouldn't be able to pull off reading all these books he recommended to me. But I bought them and had them near me. There were two big ones, one was a thousand page book I couldn't get through because I didn't have time, but The Recognitions, which is this William Gaddis book, was an influence on Alex. Because it's a thousand page book were the main character is an art forger. And after the first 200 pages of the book, he disappears for 500 or whatever, then comes back. That was an inspiration.
And then also this book, Young Hearts Crying, it's a Richard Yates novel, exploring the decay of this relationship. And it's a really moving, beautiful book. And we listened to a lot of stuff, we talked about a lot of writers. I like Ben Marcus a lot, we were talking about him and young writers now while trying to figure out what kind of writer Phillip would be, what camp he would be in. It was really fun, but it's just hard for me, I can consume music like eight times faster than I can consume a book. I can walk around, I can listen to a record anywhere I go. For reading, I'm terrible. I'm the worst. I'm the worst reader. So slow. And it was definitely the most challenging aspect, trying to rip through some of these books.
I think it was an interesting decision not to give viewers any real indication of what Philip's writing is like. Yes, absolutely. A couple of things we didn't want to do were get into the thing where we see him struggling. The struggling writer—I've even played the struggling writer—we didn't want to have him sitting at the typewriter like, "What now?" So we had this idea that he was coming out of this book just being released, and he was not having writers block, filling up these notebooks with ideas even though he thinks they're crap.
The idea was: let's not show what he's working on, although Alex and I kind of knew what it was. We were talking about what his first book would be like. In the movie for instance, he says to Josephine's character that his parents died when he was young, and she's taken aback by that. And for me, when I read that in the script, I was like, "Aha. That's a clue." Because I feel like if he was a certain kind of writer, that would be the name of the book, that would be the theme of it. But he is a different type of writer who's not so overtly autobiographical as to include such things. Then we realized, 'oh maybe he's the kind of writer who would have numbers and diagrams in his books.' You know, that kind of very conceptual, sort of like Georges Perec. You open up those books and you look in them and there's little diagrams. That kind of author.
The part when he talks to her about his parents, when I was watching it, there was part of me that felt like "Oh this is this big admission, this is something we've been building towards." But at the same time, it felt like it was an attack against her. For sure. I felt the same thing when I was reading it. I was like "Okay, here we go. He's going to kind of..." And it does do a trick in some way, you do feel for him. But he says, 'I'm telling you this because I want you to put it in context.' And he's really just... I feel like this is a story that he doesn't want to tell, but he knows what it does, he knows the effect of the story, and he uses it.
It made me feel like in a way, he's not well-adjusted, he's too adjusted. That is a great way of saying it. Another way of saying it that's less beautiful than that is in the beginning of this movie, he's sort of messing around with being cold, and being the guy who's going to say all this nasty honest stuff. And by the end of the movie it's overtaken him, and he's an addict without even realizing it. He's completely adjusted his life to that. And in a way it's the same thing with his parents. It just becomes this weird part of your life and it hurts, but you don't even realize it in a weird way. He's perfectly adjusted.
Have you ever thought about writing a novel yourself? I've never thought about it, because I think it's like asking me have you ever thought about making a sculpture, in the style of Rodin. I would try to write the novel or make a sculpture for the pleasure of learning how to do it, but I don't think that... I think it's just too, it's too beautiful to mess with. I've talked to Jonathan about it. Obviously when you read a book you read a sentence and it's just the greatest thing in the world. It's like hearing the perfect song, a great sentence, a beautiful painting... those things that are kind of life-affirming.
You have written screenplays though. Yes, but I just haven't read enough to even be able to consider writing a novel. It would be naive for me to write a book. If I had read as much as Alex has read I would be able to entertain the idea. But I don't even know what I don't know.
What is the status of the Bored To Death movie right now? Well right now, there is a script, like a draft of a script that Jonathan wrote. It's incredible. But everything's sort of on pause right now, because Jonathan's doing a show with Seth MacFarlane.
Are you involved with that at all? I'm not. But the idea of doing a Bored To Death movie for all of us is just the greatest thing. Because there was so much we didn't get to do in the show. We had intimate knowledge of what the fourth season was going to be, so when the possibility was taken away it was sad, we knew what there was left to give. So if we could do a movie that would be amazing, a lot of these ideas would get to come out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Additional editing by Jessica Warriner
Listen Up Philip opens in select theaters on Friday, and nationwide on October 24th. Schwartzman and Perry are doing Q&As in NYC following the 7 p.m. screening at IFC Center on Thursday, October 16; the 7:50 p.m. screening at IFC Center on Friday, October 17th and the 5:25 p.m. and 7:50 p.m. screenings at IFC Center on Saturday, October 18.
They will also will be doing Q&As following the 8 p.m. screening at the Walter Reade Theater on Thursday, October 16th and the 6:25 p.m. screening at Walter Reade Theater on Friday, October 17th (which will be moderated by author Sam Lipsyte) and the 6:25 p.m. screening at Walter Reade Theater on Saturday, October 18th (moderated by Paul Schrader).