May the Schwartzman be with you

There’s an old saying about how it’s often better never to meet your heroes, and it’s one to which Jason Schwartzman can relate. The actor (Rushmore), screenwriter (The Darjeeling Limited) and musician (he was the drummer in Phantom Planet) once met the lead singer of a band he idolised as a teenager and what ensued was, in Schwartzman’s words, “one of the worst conversations I’ve ever had with another human being”.

“Every joke I made bombed, every band I said I liked he said he hated – it was just bad,” he recalls with a laugh. “And it spoiled it. To this day, if someone talks about that band or a song of theirs comes on in someone’s car, my heart just sinks.”

With that ugly encounter in mind, it’s perhaps easy to understand why Schwartzman would want to back out of a meeting with the man he describes as “my favourite living novelist”, Jonathan Ames. A year and a half after devouring every book by the New York writer (including I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man and the one Schwartzman calls his “gateway drug”, Wake Up Sir) , he discovered that Ames was adapting Wake Up Sir into a screenplay.

“I was so excited about this, not only because I loved the idea of the book becoming a film but I loved the idea that he would have a whole new audience, that he would meet the world through this whole different medium,” says Schwartzman. “I enquired about his whereabouts and if he’d ever be inclined to get together and talk about Wake Up Sir, and I found out a couple of days later that Jonathan was coming to L.A. and open to the idea of meeting me.”

Sounds great, right? “I instantly regretted it!” laughed Schwartzman, flashing back to that ill-fated meeting with his musical hero. “I was terrified! Here was an opportunity to meet someone whose work I loved, and I was so afraid of what would happen if I met Jonathan Ames and it went poorly.”

Faking the flu in an effort to dodge the meeting didn’t pan out, and the meeting between Schwartzman and Ames eventually took place. “And within three seconds I was not afraid anymore,” says Schwartzman. “It was like a first date with someone you might in fall in love with: ‘I really like this person, I hope they like me back, I don’t want to blow this’. We ended up having a five-hour meeting and it was so amazing, so productive and wonderful. He’s a teacher as well, so he was recommending books I should read and telling me tricks to beat writer’s block. I was thinking ‘Where have you been all my life?’”

the happy couple

Schwartzman and Ames, together at last (that's Schwartzman on the right)

Just when you thought this story couldn’t any sweeter, there’s more! But we’ll let Schwartzman, who frequently and charmingly apologises for talking too much, elaborate.

“Flash back a couple of months and I was having lunch with my friend, saying how stressed I was, how difficult it was to connect to material – all the stuff I was connecting with, other actors had been hired to do – and how tough it was being an actor,” he says. “My friend said, ‘In a perfect world, if you could play any kind of character, what would it be?’ And I said: ‘Private detective’.”
It just so happens that three hours or so into their conversation, Ames made mention that one of his short stories, ‘Bored to Death’, had been bought by pay-TV network HBO in the hope of turning it into a series. The story was about a New York writer named Jonathan Ames (hmmm…) who, wrestling with ennui and heartbreak after being dumped by his girlfriend, offered his services online as an unlicensed private detective.

“My favourite writer and my favourite character!” laughs Schwartzman. “But I felt so conflicted because I didn’t want to say ‘Oh, can we talk about that too?’ We were there talking about Wake Up Sir and I didn’t want to be like the kid on Christmas morning who opens his present and then looks over to see what his brother’s opening and decides he wants that as well. But after our meeting, we began this correspondence and Jonathan eventually emailed me the ‘Bored to Death’ short story and I absolutely loved it. So I asked if I could read his script, his adaptation, and within one sentence I knew I had to do whatever it took to be a part of this. I’m usually not that aggressive, especially when it comes to work. But I knew if I watched this with another actor in it, and I hadn’t done everything I could to be in it, I would feel bad for a very long time. So I did everything I could.”

And that brings us, in a roundabout way, to why we’re here. Bored to Death is now a droll, witty eight-part series (coming soon to DVD!) penned by Ames and starring Schwartzman in the lead role, The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis as his best friend, underachieving cartoonist Ray, and a marvellously funny Ted Danson as his boss, high-powered magazine publisher George. Together, the trio traipse around New York, getting into scrapes and misadventures involving women, marijuana, chic new restaurants, boxing, snooty book critics, Russian mobsters, white wine and sperm donation…but mostly their own neuroses.

Danson, Galifianakis and Schwartzman in Bored to Death

But how much of it is based on the exploits of the actual Jonathan Ames? “He doesn’t make it easy by calling the main character Jonathan Ames!” agrees Schwartzman. “You know the shape of a double helix, the diagram of DNA? I’d say Jonathan Ames in Bored to Death is a double-helix combination of Jonathan’s real life and Jonathan’s imagined life. It’s a very personal character in very personal stories but it’s not 100 per cent true. But it all stems from things that are very real to him.

“Many of the things that happen actually happen in his life but they’re kind of exaggerated or heightened or blurred or smudged to make it work. A lot of Bored to Death is littered with references from his other work as well. I will say that the real-life Jonathan isn’t as neurotic or manic as I portray him in the show. And in terms of what I bring to the show, I really can’t say anything other than I love what he does and I don’t want to blow it.”

Schwartzman’s relationship with Ames is not dissimilar to the one he shares with filmmaker Wes Anderson. The two have collaborated on four of the films Anderson has directed, with Schwartzman making his acting debut as Max Fischer, the unforgettable central character in Anderson’s second movie Rushmore, and co-writing and starring in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. Most recently, he lent his voice to the character of Ash in the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr Fox.

(Again, that's Schwartzman on the right.)

“Wes is my mentor, and I’m glad to say that he is,” says Schwartzman. “He was the first person older than me who took me seriously. Well, other than my mom. He asked me what I thought about this record or this movie, and he listened to me. I had low self-esteem when I was a teenager and he was the first person to talk to me about what I was thinking about. And he turned me on to great movies and books and music. He really nurtured me and continues to nurture me. It’s gone beyond a friendship; it’s more like a brotherhood now. It’s a similar thing with Jonathan, the only difference being that I met Jonathan when I was an adult. But it’s a connection, a true bond, and one that I hope lasts forever.”

ITEM! Bored to Death will be returning to your screens soon, and here’s a sneak preview.

2 Responses to May the Schwartzman be with you

  1. DCR says:

    Hey, I remember subbing this! One of my favourite features we’ve published. The first season *must* be coming out on DVD here soon, right? I hope it’s got a lot of special features. It took a couple of episodes for me to get into it (like most HBO TV series), and then it was over in a flash (unlike most HBO TV series).

  2. Guy Davis says:

    Thanks to the magic of HTML or whatever the heck it’s called, there’s a link in the story that’ll take you to where you can buy the upcoming DVD, Dan! (I too am hoping for special features.)

    And credit where credit is due, folks: both the Schwartzman and Wright stories first appeared in the pages of Street Press Australia, where they were edited to perfection by DCR.

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