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Jason Schwartzman was born . . .

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Jason Schwartzman? Who the heck is Jason Schwartzman?

It’s a question that most people are still likely to ask when the name is mentioned, even though Jason Schwartzman made his screen debut twelve years ago, playing a major role in a film that garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim. He also stems from a family rich in Hollywood history, and is currently the star of a series on HBO.

Who is Jason Schwartzman?

He was born Jason Francisco Schwartzman on June 26, 1980. His father, the late Jack Schwartzman, was a film producer who successfully brought Sean Connery back to his signature role of James Bond for a final time in 1983’s Never Say Never Again. His mother is Talia Shire – yes, the same Talia Shire who played Adrian, the shy, bespectacled girlfriend, and ultimately the wife, of Rocky Balboa in all those Sylvester Stallone epics. Shire, as most film buffs know, hails from the House of Coppola, as in Francis Ford Coppola, her brother, director of The Godfather trilogy, as well as Apocalypse Now! Francis Ford Coppola is Jason Schwartzman’s uncle, and Sofia Coppola and Nicolas Cage are his cousins.

With a background like that, success as an actor seems pre-destined, but Schwartzman first entered the public eye as the drummer for Phantom Planet, a rock band for which he was also a songwriter. Schwartzman remembers that as a kid, “I felt different. I felt littler. I was interested in things that were considered dorky, and I liked girls that never liked me back. Not only did they not like me back, they liked people really close to me.

His reaction to feeling different was to make people laugh.  Those feelings probably came in handy when Schwartzman decided to audition for the role of the obnoxious, beret-wearing misfit, Max Fischer, in Wes Anderson’s 1998 indie hit, Rushmore, named after the school at which Fischer is a hyperactive nerd whose failing grades do not prevent him from being a leader of men.

Now, you probably know who Jason Schwartzman is, or at least remember the poster image of a bespectacled Schwartzman, red beret on his head, and arm thrust skyward with clenched fist. Ironically, acting was never one of his goals. He had been on tour with Phantom Planet for nine months, “and to tour in a band has always been my dream, whereas I only auditioned for Rushmore because I thought it would make a cool story to tell my friends.”

It turned out to be a cooler story than even he had anticipated. Despite having no previous acting experience, Schwartzman won the part over dozens of competitors by showing up at the audition wearing a fake Rushmore patch. Such creativity served him well when acting opposite the great Bill Murray, who, in the film, is a patron of the school with eyes for a teacher played by the lovely Olivia Williams. Schwartzman’s Max Fischer has eyes for her, too, and despite his youth, proves to be a wickedly scheming rival.  

Rushmore was one of the most critically praised films of 1998, earning favorable comparisons to 1967’s The Graduate, which made a star of Dustin Hoffman. The Graduate is one of several films his mother recommended he watch before his audition. As he told The Los Angeles Times, he said, “This is the first time a movie has made me feel what music has made me feel like. That kind of warm, ‘Yes, this is what I'm talking about’ kind of thing — like, Rivers Cuomo or Kurt Cobain are screaming and you're, ‘Yes, I know that, I feel this.’”

“Zingy picture is a winner,” Variety observed in its trademark lingo, “shot and performed with a precision and confidence that belie the youth and limited experience of its participants.” The showbiz bible also singled out Schwartzman for praise, calling him “sensational in his film debut as a young guy who refuses to accept that he’s in way over his head.” Even critics who had reservations about the film praised his performance. The Chicago Film Critics Association nominated him as the Most Promising Actor, although Chicago’s most prominent critic, Roger Ebert, thought the film was “torn between conflicting possibilities: It’s structured like a comedy, but there are undertones of darker themes, and I almost wish they’d allowed the plot to lead them into those shadows.”

After Rushmore, Schwartzman wasn’t exactly a star, but he found himself in demand for other roles, more often than not in comedies. He is, as one interviewer observed, “something of a loon,” always looking for a laugh, which sets him apart from Uncle Francis, whose few attempts at comedy fizzled, and mother Talia Shire who is often intense.

In 2002’s Slackers, Schwartzman was once again an outsider, a geek who blackmails some college classmates who have been cheating on exams into helping him win the hand of the school’s most popular girl. To Roger Ebert, it was a “dirty movie. Not a sexy, erotic, steamy or even smutty movie, but a just plain dirty movie.”

Although audiences (the rather small one that bothered to see the film) and critics saw similarities between Ethan of Slackers and Max Fischer of Rushmore, Schwartzman thought there were major differences between the characters. As he told Britain’s The Guardian, “Max is an inspiring leader who people want to be like, while Ethan is a horrible geek. But both have tons of energy and don't know how to focus it, so they pick a completely unattainable girl and obsess over her. Both are outsiders, but Max chooses to turn that into something positive, while Ethan has turned bitter - he's been picked on so much that he's mean to everyone before they're mean to him.”

In Simone, he was very much in the background as Al Pacino took center stage. “I almost play a mute,” he said. “I'm a reporter. I just stand in the back and take notes.” That proved most fortunate for Schwartzman when the picture, one of Pacino’s mercifully rare excursions into comedy, proved a disaster in all respects. 

At around this time, he decided to part ways with Phantom Planet. Eventually, he resumed his musical career, recording under the name of Coconut Records, whose debut album, Nighttiming, was released in 2007.

In the meantime, the acting roles continued to come his way. He was cast alongside Steve Martin and Claire Danes in the dreadful 2005 screen adaptation of Martin’s novel, Shopgirl. For what it’s worth, he held his own with Lili Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman in the oddball I Heart Huckabees. He also appeared as Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette, a film directed by his cousin, Sofia Coppola. His oddest appearance to date may have been as Beatle Ringo Starr in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a comedy in which John C. Reilly played a fictional rock hero.

For now, he’s busy with Bored to Death, an HBO series in which he’s cast as Jonathan Ames, a frustrated novelist who advertises his services as a private detective on Craig’s List. Schwartzman is pleased with the show and the reaction he’s received from its fans. “This guy stopped me on the street the other day and said, 'Hey, I love your show, man.'  'Thank you so much.'  He’s like, 'I don’t know why my best friend doesn’t want to watch it.  He just can’t get into it.'  I was like, 'That’s cool.'  We’re hopefully making a show for people who would like to get something different.”

Writing at DVD Talk, critic Jamie S. Rich notes that Schwartzman has “matured as a screen presence and the Jonathan Ames role suits him perfectly. It gives him the ability to tweak the neurotic gestures that have become his stock in trade, but also to show how charming he is as a comedic leading man.”

Acting may not have been his original goal, but now that he’s into it, he hopes to branch out. Like a lot of actors, he says, “I too would love to write and direct a movie. I want to do a play, too. I want to do it all.” Those ambitions don’t mean he has abandoned music, however. “I always wanted to be a musician and worked really hard at it, then all of a sudden I did this film and it came out first. So then people thought I was like Keanu Reeves and Russell Crowe, doing this side project as a little hobby, which was really frustrating.”

He can get frustrated on set, too. “I will say that when I'm working on set and it's not going well, I wish I could just be alone in my studio.”

And that is Jason Schwartzman.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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