New swinger in town

When Jon Favreau arrived in LA he had no acting work and no girlfriend. Trying to get a date in Hollywood became his obsession, and when he wasn't doing that he was writing a script about it. The script became `Swingers', and suddenly relationships and jobs were the least of his problems. Interview by Ryan Gilbey

"I wanted these guys to act very cool, go to cool clubs, listen to cool music, dress very cool - but underneath they're a bunch of geeks. It's kind of a reaction to all those Generation X films like Clerks, where they all work in a store, wear shitty clothes, listen to crazy rock 'n' roll, and yet they spout this witty, philosophical dialogue. With my characters, they may look cool but they sound like a bunch of schoolgirls."

Jon Favreau is describing himself and some of his closest friends. Well, technically, he's running through the inspiration behind Swingers, the film that he wrote and in which he stars as Mike, a perpetually forlorn, would-be Hollywood hipster who hangs around LA nightclubs and parties with his buddies, each of them struggling to be a somebody. But given that Favreau has made no secret of the fact that he based the screenplay on his own life, you can take most of the things that he says about his "creations" to be a commentary on the former, tragic state of his social life.

Even allowing for comic exaggeration, things must have been pretty tough if Favreau's life bears even a passing resemblance to that of the character he has written for himself. Mike has moved to Los Angeles to find acting work, and to recover from a long-term relationship that recently fell apart. In his gang of friends, he is the obligatory "little guy", the runt that everyone feels sorry for, but is secretly relieved to have around, because if he wasn't there - well, then one of them might have to step into his shoes as the resident laughing-stock. Add to this the fact that Mike simply cannot secure a date - he can't even ask for a woman's telephone number without spilling his heart about his recent emotional trauma - and you have a character who makes George Formby look like Brad Pitt.

Surely the reality can't have been quite that pathetic?

"It was near enough," he chuckles. "But I do totally make fun of myself. I have to. People are willing to root for you if you take the piss out of yourself. Everyone loves Keaton, Chaplin, Woody Allen. Plus there was a characteristic of myself that I was obsessing over at that time - just like Mike, I couldn't get over a relationship. And, no, I couldn't get a date either. So I took that thing that was bugging me about myself, put it in the script, and found that it was therapeutic in some way. But really, I was just writing the script for myself and I knew my friends would read it. Everyone ended up playing themselves, or rather the characters who were versions of themselves. But when I wrote it, it was a joke: I never actually thought that anything would come of it."

The process of writing the screenplay for Swingers seemed at the time nothing more than an inconsequential digression from Favreau's chosen career as an actor. Having been born and raised in New York, he gained theatre experience in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles where he planned to become a star. He waited. He acted a bit, here and there, minor jobs. And then he waited some more. Nothing happened. But you know how the saying goes: you wait all year for your big break and then you get three chances all at once. The most promising was a supporting role in the patriotic drama Rudy - and if you caught the film on its brief release here two years ago, you'll appreciate that this did little to bridge the distance between Favreau and megastardom.

"I thought I was a big movie star when I got the part in Rudy," he says sadly. "I had three films going on at once, and it felt like I really had momentum. Then I was cut out of one, and the other didn't turn out so good. I had enough money to live on, but I was not the movie star they thought I was back home. And I was surrounded by people in the same situation. If you take all the people who are working actors, you'll find that only a sliver of them are as important as the family back home think they are. The rest of us are just getting by.

"And that's when night life becomes a full-time job. You don't have to work because someone's always got a big cheque 'cos their movie is showing on television. You get a few smart second-hand clothes, hit the clubs, and start getting noticed."

As portrayed in Swingers, the clubs and parties are populated by people for whom sincerity and depth are dirty words. In one beautifully played scene, Mike approaches an icy beauty whose first question to him is: "What car do you drive?"

"That isn't much of an exaggeration," Favreau assures me. "In the film, she asks me straight off about my car. In real life, she might see you pull up to the valet, or she might tease the information out in conversation. Whatever, you are sniffed out within the first two minutes of your encounter. And I wasn't used to that. I'd had a girlfriend since college, and dating back then was about getting drunk and pairing up. And now here I am in this very intense, superficial situation. I'm glad to be out of that. I'm in a relationship now, and I get that thrill that a lot of people get chasing girls in clubs from pursuing my career."

Favreau's romantic status isn't the only thing that has changed since Swingers came to fruition. Like his co-stars Vince Vaughn, who was snapped up by Steven Spielberg for The Lost World, and Heather Graham, who is currently filming Lost in Space alongside Gary Oldman, Favreau has apparently been blessed with Swingers' luck.

He's now in demand as a writer, having scripted Leatherheads, about the early days of American Football, for Universal Pictures, as well as The Marshal of Revelation, a Western with a Hassidic gunfighter as its hero ("The budget would have to be so low to justify how uncommercial it is," he confides). And he's just been cast as an astronaut alongside Robert Duvall in Deep Impact, a production by Spielberg's company DreamWorks. Add to that a forthcoming string of guest appearances on Friends as Courtney Cox's millionaire boyfriend, and you have a man who has every right to perform naked cartwheels along La Cienega Boulevard.

But not this swinger. He remains as prudent and sceptical as he was in the days when he was hoarding every cent to make sure the rent got paid.

"I've done every kind of job," he says soberly, "from working on Wall Street to cleaning out parrot cages. I know I could be back there. I know it could all go wrong. I've seen it happen. So let's just say I'm being very ... careful"n

`Swingers' opens tomorrow. See Ryan Gilbey's review, page 8

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