Exclusive: Jason Schwartzman On How to Be a Drunk Drifter
A champagne cork flies off the bottle and interrupts Jason Schwartzman just as he begins to answer my first question for him. He pauses wide-eyed, and chooses to ask me a question instead. “Do you think that will be on your recording?” he asks me, genuinely curious. “I hope it is,” he continued, “that would be so nice. A nice omen to get things started.”
We’ve met in the green room of the Rooftop Films Summer Series, the locale for the New York premiere of his new film 7 Chinese Brothers where I have come to glean a little insight into his experience making it, but where I learned first and foremost that he is one of the most conspicuously witty people I’ve ever met, a characteristic nigh impossible to convey in a single article. “My doctor recently told me that I eat carrots too much because my hands were turning orange,” he tells me when I ask about his snack of choice, a pile of which is gathered neatly on a paper towel in front of him. He stares pensively down at them, meticulously turning them over in his fingers. “It’s not like bright orange though, just more of a tint,” he clarifies, beginning to shred off slivers of carrot as he collects his thoughts.
You expect a certain degree of quirkiness from a man who has appeared in five of Wes Anderson’s feature length productions, not to mention two shorts, but contrary to what one would expect, Schwartzman presents an air of finesse and refinement that far surpasses a simple branding of ‘quirk.’ Currently sporting an impenetrably thick beard and a slick white jacket, he has a natural ability to exude both measured calm and uninhibited excitement.
This quality was one that the film’s director, Bob Byington, told me encapsulated the experience of filming 7 Chinese Brothers, a dry-witted, melancholic dramedy that is carried from start to finish by Schwartzman’s nuanced performance. “You’ve got to see it to believe it,” he said of his star, “When everybody started to wilt after eight hours of shooting, Jason would carry us into hour 12 or 13 just from the force of his upbeat attitude.” One would think being raised around the craft of filmmaking his entire life (his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola and his cousin is Sofia Coppola) might dull the furor of a film set, but Schwartzman has a rare, true passion for his craft. “I love being there,” he says of the feeling he gets being on set, “I love looking around and seeing everybody…working! ‘Moved’ doesn’t seem like quite the right word, but I’m moved by whatever that feeling is whenever I’m at work.”
Yet for his performance in the film, Schwartzman had to completely dispel his natural inclination for passionate behavior. He plays the role of Larry, a forlorn man struggling to keep a job and embittered by constant drinking and pill-popping as a means of suppressing anything resembling ‘feeling.’ The role proved a surprising challenge for Schwartzman, who knew that his character was not a “drunk-drunk per se,” but a man left numb by living itself. “It was really hard for me. He’s not as frustrated. Other characters I’ve played are frustrated because they have something they can’t get, and this guy is too lazy. He doesn’t have a ‘super goal’ or any specific thing that motivates him. He’s just…drifting.”
Though hey may be drifting, Schwartzman’s Larry goes through a journey of some kind, be it through nurturing his grandmother (Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis), picking up-or failing to pick up-women with his friend Norwood (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe), or simply learning how to properly scrub a car. “I wrote the script a long time ago,” said Byington, “I was starting to look at the distance between being in my 20’s and being in my 30’s. This movie has something to do with waking up in real life and realizing the things we do in our 20’s don’t really fly in our 30’s.” But the film is also inherently about loss and the ways in which melancholy can often dictate the natural flow of events. “It’s very difficult to understand and process when someone leaves our life,” Byington continued, “Some people ease more gracefully into that transition than others, but the movie’s meant to be there for those who struggle more with that transition.”
The emotional weight of the film never comes on too heavy, all thanks to the unlikeliest of co-stars—Schwartzman’s real life dog Arrow, who he was insistent that I refer to in print by his newly christened name, Arrow Joel Schwartzman. Having his French bulldog as a scene partner proved beneficial for all involved, despite his incurable laziness. “If it was another animal the film would have to be remade,” said Schwartzman, “So many of our scenes involve him laying down and looking at me as I pace around, and if he was a more athletic dog the shots would have been ruined. And it’s nice…you don’t always relate to the animal you’re stuck working with.”
Maintaining the emotional continuity set in place from its opening shots, the film ends with a similar level of ambiguity. “At the end of the day, I’d have to say he’s at peace,” Schwartzman says of his character. “He doesn’t want anything, and he doesn’t get anything, so you could say that he ends up all right in the end. Even if he’s as lazy as his dog.” It was a role that seems to stand in complete contrast to the parts that have made Schwartzman an iconoclast of the cult film world, such as his debut performance as the manically precocious Max Fischer in Rushmore. “Jason’s a rare actor,” Byington told me, “he can handle just about anything you throw at him and still bring the same level of talent and confidence when culling from his own choices.”
As our discussion comes to a close there is a veritable mountain of carrot shreds sitting on the table in front of Schwartzman. He managed to mutilate nearly an entire catering platter’s worth of carrot sticks throughout our conversation. I asked him if he had gotten nervous chatting about his work but he simply shrugged. “I just get excited, especially when I’m talking about work.” The magic of 7 Chinese Brothers it would seem, is his ability to erase this quality from his persona entirely, a task he had yet to undertake before accepting the role. As we turn to leave he asks me what I’m going to title this interview. I jokingly suggest ‘Jason Likes Carrots,’ but he only nods seriously. “That’s it,” he says, “at least that’s what it should be.”
Jason Schwartzman and Bob Byington photographed exclusively for Milk Made by Andrew Boyle
‘7 Chinese Brothers’ is in theaters this September
Visit the film’s Facebook page here
Check out some of the other films in the Rooftop Films Summer Series here