Since his breakout role in Wes Anderson’s 1998 film Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman has embodied eccentric loners. In Asteroid City, his familiar persona is given its greatest emotional weight. By Andy Hazel.

Actor Jason Schwartzman

A man in a suit looks behind him as a crowd of photographers take his picture.
Actor and screenwriter Jason Schwartzman.
Credit: Olivier Vigerie / Universal

Directors who have worked with Jason Schwartzman are familiar with what they call the “J roll”. After he completes a take, the 43-year-old will fixate on a prop or inanimate object and ramble on. “He’s never going to end a scene where you’re supposed to,” said Alex Ross Perry, who directed the actor in his 2014 film, Listen Up Philip. “He’s always going to add extra stuff.”

When I meet Schwartzman in a hotel room in Cannes, he sets aside his reason for being there – to promote Wes Anderson’s film Asteroid City – and instead fixates on a coffee cup. “Whose is that?” he asks, pointing at an unfinished glass of sparkling water and a half-empty cup of coffee.

“The glass was Maya Hawke’s and the cup was Bryan Cranston’s,” I tell him, referring to his Asteroid City co-stars.

“Maya’s and Cranston’s?” He seems surprised. “And they just left their stuff here?” He shakes his head in mock disgust.

Schwartzman sits down and fields my question about his time at the festival so far but finds it hard to draw his attention away from the coffee cup.

“Yeah, it’s nice... I feel... it’s a little” he trails off. “Maybe it’s just because...maybe it’s because Bryan Cranston’s here,” he says, a confidence suddenly entering his voice. “And I feel like it’s okay. Whatever happens, just get behind Bryan. He’s very strong. He has a real leadership quality. I’m fascinated by him. I mean I’m literally thinking, ‘what kind of coffee was that?’ ” He gives a shallow, nervous laugh. “Why is there that much left? That’s the first thing I was thinking. Why? I mean, we could start a Bryan Cranston forensic fanclub. I’m going to sweep this room for prints afterwards,” Schwartzman says warmly, as if we are both now in on the joke. Maybe we have reached the end of the “J roll”.

Schwartzman is smiling and hirsute, a slapdash version of ’70s schtick in an aquamarine suit, partly unbuttoned pink shirt and purple socks. Sitting next to him is Jake Ryan, who plays his son in the film and whom he draws into his answers throughout the interview. Ryan mentions he turned 18 on the set of Asteroid City, a revelation that sends Schwartzman back to his origins as an actor. 

“I was exactly your age when I did Rushmore,” he says. “That was an amazing experience. So, I’ve worked with this gentleman, Wes, when I was your age, and now I’m the father to someone your age.” Schwartzman seems briefly bowled over by the revelation.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, surrounded by a sprawling creative family that included Hollywood royalty, acting was never something that sparked interest. Music was always his first love. His former band, Phantom Planet, is best known for their song California, the theme to the television series The O.C. Schwartzman’s first acting role came about by accident.

In 1997, he attended a concert given in honour of his grandfather, the composer Carmine Coppola. A casting agent was lamenting to Schwartzman’s cousin, Sofia Coppola, that it was proving difficult to cast the lead role in Rushmore, a film by a relatively new director, Wes Anderson. The character, a teenage boy, was defined by a very specific collection of eccentricities. Coppola pointed toward her cousin – dressed in a tuxedo and tails, holding a cane and flirting with a much older woman – and the search was over.

Twenty-five years later it still holds true that if a director wants to cast a well-dressed and unconventionally flawed high-status character searching for a sense of purpose, Schwartzman’s name is likely to be at the top of the list. These are qualities he’s brought to King Louis XVI of France, whom he played in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, the comically passive-aggressive antagonist Gideon Graves in the 2010 cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and hapless detective Jonathan Ames in the television series Bored to Death.

Despite a trail of arthouse successes as both an actor and screenwriter, the forthcoming 12 months is set to be his biggest yet. In addition to Asteroid City, Schwartzman will continue his voice work in the acclaimed Spider-Verse series and star in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. He will also appear alongside his mother, Talia Shire, in the science fiction epic Megalopolis, which will be directed by his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. When we speak, he is taking time out from filming Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ romantic period drama Queer. This workaholic pace suits his attention span and is a sharp contrast to Anderson’s meticulous work ethic. 

“[Anderson] is like an orchestra conductor,” Schwartzman says. “But he hears things other people don’t hear. Like an arranger that hears a melody on a guitar and puts it on the bass. He sees things in people that they don’t know they possess.”

Anderson, Schwartzman explains, prepares each of his films by making a basic animated version in which he sketches all the shots and voices all the parts himself.

It takes less than a second for even the most casual filmgoer to identify the results: symmetrical wide shots flooded with light, sharp focus, pastel colours and characters with their top shirt buttons fastened, facing the camera to deliver their lines. It’s an often-imitated style that has seen his films translate effortlessly to video-driven social media and seen him embraced by a younger generation of cinephiles. The critical and commercial success of Asteroid City surprised many and it now ranks among Anderson’s most acclaimed films, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. They too, starred Schwartzman.

Unlike the earlier films, Asteroid City is about storytelling, specifically the urge to organise life in times of grief. In the film, Cranston plays a po-faced, gravelly-voiced television narrator who introduces the “apocryphal fabrication” of an off-Broadway show, Asteroid City. Key cast members play actors playing actors, moving between artificial worlds. These proscenium arches allow Anderson’s style to become thematically purposeful. Theatrical scenes are filmed in black and white while the bulk of the film is set in the burnt-ochre hues of the American desert and explosive pastels of 1950s modernism.

Over the course of several days, young science enthusiasts and their lonely parents congregate at a Junior Stargazer convention and an alien visitation forces everyone to reassess their place in the universe. Schwartzman plays Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer struggling with the recent death of his wife, whose passing he is yet to divulge to his three young daughters and teenage son, Woodrow, played by Ryan. Schwartzman’s deadpan delivery and sense of loss is given weight by Anderson’s meticulous attention to detail and the spacious and bright dioramas in which he is situated.

Asteroid City marks Anderson and Schwartzman’s eighth collaboration, though the first in which Schwartzman plays two characters. When asked about other ways in which Asteroid City differs from his prior work with Anderson, Schwartzman pauses.

“Besides playing a father, there were little things that I observed,” he says. “I noticed when we were working on this movie, Wes waited longer to say ‘cut’. The scene would go on and then he would just...” Schwartzman freezes, as if watching a scene.

Ryan fills the silence. “It’s just that anticipation.”

Schwartzman remains frozen for another five seconds. “ ‘...cut’. I clocked it immediately; it was like he was waiting for something to happen. There’s always been a feeling of curiosity and welcoming the unknown with Wes. And then...” he pauses and glances at my phone, which is recording our interview. “Can I just take up eight gigabytes of memory with my next answer?” 

I nod.

“So, I’ve worked with Wes in many different capacities, but this was the first time he said, ‘Augie is a character, but there’s something you could do as Jason. An accent or prosthetics, maybe.’ I was so excited about it, and obviously scared. I’ve never done anything like that before. What did he mean? Botox?”

Among other things, Anderson asked Schwartzman to work on his voice. Schwartzman describes the two of them going back and forth for months, trying different voices or accents. Schwartzman began working with a dialect coach, using Stanley Kubrick’s New York accent as a reference point.

“I’m not at all sounding like Stanley Kubrick,” Schwartzman says of his performance, “but there was something about the way he talked, something about the cadence, the feel. My dialect coach said, ‘the way that he speaks relies heavily on the fact that his face doesn’t move when he talks’.”

Using a facial clay mask belonging to his wife, fashion designer Brady Cunningham, Schwartzman learnt to speak without moving his face. He also “retuned” his speaking voice from B-flat to a lower G and adjusted how he used his mouth with dental prosthetics. Finally, Anderson said to Schwartzman, “I think we’re onto something.”

This was to create a character who acts as the sorrowful centre of a buoyant narrative. As Augie, Schwartzman embodies uncertainty about being a father, specifically his difficulty in connecting with his son’s scientific genius. He quickly falls for Scarlett Johansson’s haunted and lost Hollywood actress, Midge Campbell, and forms a rich relationship with his overbearing and equally grief-stricken father-in-law, played by Tom Hanks.

“My wife isn’t there, but she is there through my son and through our daughters and through [Hanks’s] character,” he says. “Combined, they make her. It was such an interesting pain that Hanks had and whatever he was clinging onto, he brought something to it. A possessiveness, almost, of the daughter and the family, but out of love. I don’t know, it was heartbreaking,” Schwartzman turns to Ryan. “How did you feel when we were working?”

“I remember there was one scene we all shared. I was in awe of you guys,” he says. “Oh, the walking one?” Schwartzman says, referring to a scene in which his, Hanks’s and Ryan’s characters walk through the town, discussing what to do with the Tupperware container that holds the ashes of the woman they all loved. “You were great in that scene.”

“Likewise,” Ryan replies, “but it was more so just watching you guys work. Like you were saying before, there was a real sense of anticipating something with Wes. We could tell that it was a very special moment.”

“Yeah,” says Schwartzman, smiling at the memory. “I’ll tell you a silly story. We were shooting a scene where we’re all in the car, with Tom in the front seat and the daughters in the back, and one of them said, ‘Hey, aren’t you the guy who does Woody from Toy Story? I heard from my dad that you do Woody.’

“And Tom was like, ‘Oh, did you want me to do the voice?’ And she said, ‘Yeah!’ and the girls go, ‘Yeah!’ So he says, ‘Okay, close your eyes’ and he waits until their eyes are all closed and says, ‘Hey guys, it’s me, Woody!’ in the voice. And he’s beaming, waiting for them to respond. And then one of them said, ‘That doesn’t sound like him. That’s not him.’ I mean...” Schwartzman sighs comically. “They didn’t believe.” He shakes his head. “They were just not impressed at all.”

From an adjacent room a publicist arrives, smiling and full of thanks, a clear indication my time is up. I look at Schwartzman, who is looking at Ryan. Ryan stares at the coffee cup and the glass on the table and back to Schwartzman.

“I mean,” Ryan frowns. “Are we giving it back to them, or is it for the forensics?”

Schwartzman shakes his head. “No,” he says, seriously. “We shouldn’t leave it there.” He picks up the cup and the glass, nods farewell and takes them with him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Rolling with it".

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