Jason Schwartzman: Rebel without a pause

As one of the Coppola clan, Jason Schwartzman was bound to be in film. But his eccentric career owes as much to hard work as it does to his family connections, says Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Online

Jason Schwartzman is not your typical leading man. He plays extreme characters who are not immediately likeable. In Marie Antoinette, Rushmore and I Í Huckabees, he plays men who have no sense of humour and are obsessive to the point of being avoided by other characters. When directors need a quirky anti-hero, they turn to Schwartzman. The thing I really didn't get until I met him was that, more often than not, he would also be the love interest. His latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, stars Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson as fraternal rivals, yet it's Schwartzman who gets all the girls. As soon as I sat down with the actor I realised I'd done his looks a huge disservice. The 27-year-old has hypnotic features: green eyes, a huge Roman nose, high cheekbones and silky hair that droops asymmetrically over the left side of his face. As we start chatting, his foot brushes my leg under the table and I joke that he should stop playing footsie with me. He then bashfully sits with his legs crossed like a Yogi on the dining table chair.

Schwartzman is also one of the writers and producers on the film. The genesis of The Darjeeling Limited was when director Wes Anderson called him up with an idea to make a film about three brothers on a train in India. Schwartzman jumped at the opportunity to work once again with a director famed for his irrelevant asides and idiosyncratic humour. They first worked together on Rushmore back in 1998 when Schwartzman made his movie debut, and they've remained fast friends ever since.

What the Los Angeles-born star liked about Anderson's premise was that it provided an opportunity to portray a family. He is the fourth of five children, and it's hard to avoid talking about families with him since he comes from Hollywood royalty. His father is the producer Jack Schwartzman, who died of cancer in 1994, and his mother is Talia Shire, most famous for her roles in Rocky and The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola is his uncle and Coppola's son, fellow Darjeeling Limited producer and writer Roman Coppola, directed him in CQ; Sofia Coppola, another of the clan, directed Schwartzman as Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette. The only family member it seems he hasn't worked with is his cousin Nicolas Cage.

However, mention of the Coppola family makes Schwartzman wince, as if he wants to play down the connection. He says: "Family seems to be this thing that must be maintained. Without maintenance it can get messed up very quickly." He then explains how being a member of the Coppola clan didn't have a huge impact on his upbringing: "I don't even think I even saw Rocky until I was in my double digits. When I was born, my mom made this real effort and she stopped working, I think maybe she did Rocky III when I was born, and obviously IV and V, but I think that was only because they were a part of a series that had already begun. I feel lucky in that I had a mum who loved movies and who loved music and she obviously is a good actress, but at the same time she wasn't Hollywood hungry. These days, actors have their kids around them all the time and I don't think it was like that for me growing up. My experience wasn't that of a jet-set child by any means."

We're on happier ground when conversation returns to his acting career. Talk turns to Hotel Chevalier, the short film that accompanies The Darjeeling Limited. It is a two-hander with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, which takes place in a hotel room in Paris two weeks before the events depicted in the feature. Full of quirky asides and great dialogue, its killer moment is provided when Schwartzman plays Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)" in anticipation of Portman's arrival. It's the set-up for a belly laugh moment in The Darjeeling Limited. "That was Wes's idea and that song inspired the whole short," says Schwartzman. "We had already begun working on the feature film but we didn't have any scenes written. We just had three brothers on a train in India, and some loose plot ideas. Wes called me on the phone and all of a sudden he started to play the song and he said we should make something from it."

Thankfully Anderson didn't play the Right Said Fred version, but Schwartzman is genuinely excited to hear that the British troupe has done a cover of Sarstedt's classic. Indeed, any mention of music brings Schwartzman alive. Conversation goes from staccato responses to operettas. As a child, he wanted to be a rock star rather than an actor. Schwartzman became the drummer in the band Phantom Planet at the age of 14. He quit to concentrate on his acting career but the pull of music has been too strong. His latest venture goes by the name of Coconut Records. He says: "I made the solo album because I've been writing songs since I left my band. I was a bit directionless, because I was writing all these songs but I didn't know what I was supposed to do with them, I just loved writing them and that was enough. At a certain point I was, like, 'should I be recording these?' So I created a home studio and recorded the whole thing in eight days, playing all the instruments. It's kind of sloppy if you listen to it, but it was fun nonetheless."

To sell the albums he started his own record label called Young Baby Records. "If you go to the Young Baby Records website you get a copy of the CD and a Polaroid that I've taken because I don't have enough money to produce one of these crazy flip-out, fold-out cover layouts. This way it's more personal and everyone gets their own special one-time thing." The desire to be individual is typical of Schwartzman, and it's these attributes that he brings to his on-screen characters. I'm struck by how earnest he seems in everything he says. Musically, he was inspired by Nirvana, and when I tell him that I saw them play he gets visibly excited and begins asking me more questions than I'm throwing at him.

Keeping to the music theme, after The Darjeeling Limited we'll be seeing him play Ringo Starr in the Judd Apatow-produced spoof of music biopics, Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story. It will be unusual to see the actor on screen so soon, as his work rate since his Rushmore debut has gone at a snail's pace – he's appeared in just nine feature films. He says of his indolent work-rate: "I'm very adamant about trying to maintain something and trying to do good work, and I'm casual when it comes to the idea that you have to make a movie for the sake of making a movie, because I don't believe in that at all.

"I don't have an expensive life. I'm much happier not working on a film and making a record or just writing a song. It just seems kind of weird to do something I don't love. I definitely don't fault actors for taking work because they need the money. But I'm not really good at waiting around and that is why I have my Coconut Records and things, because it just means I can keep going all the time. I'd rather be slow and continuous than working [on a film] and taking eight months off. Time off is something I don't understand."

As for the characters he plays, my time with Schwartzman has me convinced that he's far too nonchalant to be like the oddballs he depicts. Schwartzman begs to differ: "There is an element of me in them. I can definitely get focused on things and a little bit blind to what is around me. I can literally sit in front of a stereo and listen to the same record all day long. But the characters I've played also fit into the types of movies that the people I want to work with are making, which are not normally like Hollywood films and are more custom-made. The movies that they make seem to be more character-driven. Then that definitely leads to a character who is on the brink of something rather than a character who is doing nothing."

As for Schwartzman, he's on the brink of being one hugely successful actor.

'The Darjeeling Limited' opens nationwide on 23 November