Jonathan Ames as a character in the fiction of Jonathan Ames
Jonathan Ames as portrayed by Jason Schwartzman
In comedy, earnestness is a rare and potentially distracting quality. Too much smiling sincerity can soften the crunch of good humor. So it’s always nice to watch Jason Schwartzman on-screen, acting one notch past deadpan (and two notches past irony) so all the humor in the room evaporates and just hangs in the air like an intoxicating gas. It’s as if you’re simply laughing at his human nature—not because of a joke or a flashy “look at me” maneuver, but because this person’s basic response to the world is funny.
With surprising scope, Schwartzman has demonstrated this natural, easy comedy since he was a teenager. Under the direction of Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, David O. Russell, and Sofia Coppola (his cousin), he’s crafted a variety of eccentric, iconic roles: Rushmore’s precocious Max Fischer (Schwartzman’s first acting role ever); the evil ex-boyfriend in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; Marie Antoinette’s awkward Louis XVI. Schwartzman’s most recent role is for television, as a private eye on Jonathan Ames’s HBO show, Bored to Death. His character—who is also named Jonathan Ames—comes out of a long lineage of hard-boiled private dicks; but unlike the austere loners of film noir, Schwartzman’s character is a fallible, marijuana-loving writer in Brooklyn, unable to finish his second novel.
As a musician, Schwartzman played for nine years with the “California” rock band Phantom Planet, but left the group in 2003 and began releasing solo music as Coconut Records. His two albums under that name recall the songwriting tradition of ’70s folk rock like Harry Nilsson and the understated Brit-pop of the mid-’90s. He sings, plays the whole spectrum of rock instruments, possesses a deep knowledge of pop music from the last fifty years, and wrote the spy-jazz theme for Bored to Death.
Schwartzman and I met in Cobble Hill Park, near his apartment and the streets through which he and Zach Galifianakis often take jaunts on his show. On meeting, Schwartzman was ebullient. His enthusiasm for film, music, and even the art of the interview spilled out of him. He paced with a tea in hand and responded to questions with astonishingly good intentions, always making sure to explore both sides of an argument, continuously insisting that any opinion he holds is ephemeral and likely to change at any minute.
I. WHERE DO YOU GET THESE BAGELS?
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: Is this an article?
THE BELIEVER: It’s a Q&A. It’s just going to be a conversational kind of thing. A transcript.
JS: There’ll be so many uhs and buts and everything. It’s gonna be so…
BLVR: Don’t worry. We’ll edit it. You’ll just be talking smooth.
JS: OK, good. But, um, we should just do an interview where you take out every word but just leave the uhs and buts.
BLVR: All the stops and stutters and half words.
JS: Yeah, yeah. Have a whole interview like that. You could just fill in the blanks. Like a Mad Lib. But what was I gonna say? I’m a very slow reader, and books of interviews are an absolute favorite of mine.
BLVR: Yeah, me, too. Like the directors’ series. Herzog on Herzog.
JS: Oh, those are the best. Those are the best. I can recommend to you, if you love ’em—one of the best ones I’ve ever come across is by a woman named Kristine McKenna. One book is called Book of Changes, and the other book is called Talk to Her. Beautiful, really great interviews, and they span years. Sometimes she’ll get to interview somebody a couple times, so the introduction to an interview will be like, “I first met this person in his hotel in 1986, we then caught up again in 1992, and this is our follow-up from 1999.”And they’re not very long. And what I also like about them is she asks the same questions a lot.
BLVR: Of multiple people?
JS: Yeah. On one hand they’re very specific, but on another hand they’re also impersonal—I mean, some of them are “You did this then”—but then some of them are “Do you believe in this?” And she’ll ask a person like that, and it’s really interesting to see how different people react and who’s open or willing to talk about stuff and who would rather not, who’s kind of angry about the question. It’s interesting.
BLVR: There’re some great interview books. There’s one about Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. It’s, like, nine interviews with Francis Bacon over the course of twenty-five years.
JS: Oh, yeah. It’s absolutely true [writing down name of book]. Uh, Studs Terkel is great, too. And I didn’t realize this, but I bought—I found, whilst hunting—you can actually get the CDs of the interviews. I mean, they’re very short, because they can’t fit ’em all, but it’s six CDs of interviews. They’re all, “We’re here with Leonard Bernstein” or, no— “We’re here with Aaron Copland—Aaron?” And he goes—well, I’m making this up, but he goes, “Aaron, with young composers of today, what is the greatest hurdle they face?” And he’s like, “Well, Studs, the composers of the new generation are more atonal,” and it’s just so great to hear his voice. Do you have an iPod? Do you have iTunes?
JS: The Museum of the Moving Image, they have a podcast that’s free. They have a thing where it’s probably like sixty interviews of, like, Jim Jarmusch—everyone just going through their careers and talking about it, and it’s the best. I love it. Because I think that, like—how old are you? If you don’t mind me asking?
JS: I’m thirty. So, like, before the internet, when you were young, didn’t you, like, read magazines to learn about stuff?
JS: That’s why I always liked, especially Kurt Cobain interviews. My experience from reading the interviews as a young teenager was that he was giving out lots of information, and he would mention a band, which was so important for me. And that’s what I think is so great about interviews, is when people cite inspirations.
BLVR: I find so many good ideas and recommendations in interviews.
JS: Yeah, exactly. And when someone says, “Oh, I love this book” or “That was the place where I stole this from” or “I was listening to this music, and…” I mean, I would always have a pencil and paper out and just be writing stuff down. Speaking of the art of the interview, by the way, on our show, Bored to Death, these last three days, we’ve been working with Dick Cavett.
BLVR: Classic interviewer.
JS: He was—you can see—he interviews me and he plays Dick Cavett on the show. And the scenes would end and he would ask me… he would just keep going, and you could see how he has a gift for it. Every take was different. Like, I would do something, and it was just like being on Dick Cavett. It was so weird. Let’s say I just put this here [places tea on bench] and I place it and it falls, and he says, “Shaky hand, you have?” He perceives where your plan went to the left and then he pushes it. He nudges you… uh….
BLVR: Out of your comfort zone?
JS: Well, you make the step, and then he sees it, and then he goes with it. It’s not uncomfortable, he’s not pushing you into a place where you’re like, “Oh no, this guy’s cornering me.” And he asks you questions—not to sound cocky—but you go, “Hey, this is actually a pretty good story I have.” I noticed it with everyone on set. He was talking with everyone—everyone—and there were fascinating questions or interviews or discussions happening all over the place. He’d say, “Where do you get these bagels? Oh, from here? Do you make them with water?” He’s amazing. He gets the good stuff out of you.
II. INHABIT SOMEONE
BLVR: In his fiction, Jonathan Ames is different from Jonathan Ames the writer.
BLVR: And there’s a third Jonathan Ames now, which is you, the actor.
BLVR:Where does that Jonathan Ames fit into the trinity? Are you watching him and actually trying to borrow in some biographical way? Or is that not part of the game?
JS: When you say “borrow in some biographical way,” do you mean, like, when we’re not working, just socially, am I observing?
BLVR: Or do you just pick up on things, like a phrase he’ll use or a mannerism he’ll have or the way he acts?
JS: Well, first off, I heard someone ask him, “Why did you name the character in your show ‘Jonathan Ames’?” And he said that whenever he’d write fiction, people would say, “Oh, come on, that’s you.” And then whenever he’d write a nonfiction essay, people would say, “That didn’t happen to you.” So he couldn’t win.
BLVR: His fiction and nonfiction are so interwoven.
JS: Yeah, exactly. So when he came up with this show, he said, “Well, I’m gonna make something that’s fiction, but that uses my name.” So maybe this conversation that we’re having in a park would actually, in a show or in a book of his, take place in a pool.
BLVR: I see.
JS: It’s just kind of moved. So in terms of the show, and in terms of a third Jonathan Ames, well, I knew right off the bat that I wasn’t supposed to be playing him. Like, I wasn’t gonna be doing an imitation or trying to speak like him or move like him. That was something we talked about early on. But I do think—do you have, like, a best friend or anyone—you know how when you’re around someone long enough, you start to share mannerisms, or laugh the same, or whatever? So I’m sure that there are things that have kind of blossomed in my mannerisms just from being around him all the time. The other thing is, he has, to me, a very distinct, well, not only style, but kind of rhythm? And the way the characters ask a question and then move on to another topic—it has a very interesting shape. And it’s funny, but sometimes—like, I remember when I first got the first script of the pilot and I was reading it, and some of the lines, I was like, I don’t know how—I can’t even envision how that would sound. The only way I could envision it was if I heard his voice in my head. It helps with the language. It helps with saying his language.
BLVR: Sometimes I’ll go to see a writer read, and it’ll forever affect their fiction to me. Just in the way they’re inflecting it.
JS: Oh yeah, oh yeah—absolutely. On iTunes, you can get the essential Kurt Vonnegut interviews.
BLVR: Oh, yeah?
JS:There’s a great quote that he says when he’s talking about this idea of an author—he was saying that an author’s personality goes a long way, and it helps you in reading the book. He’s saying, when you read The Great Gatsby, you’re thinking about Fitzgerald on some level—and that’s why very few good movies have ever been made of a book, because they always leave out one important character, which is the author. He’s like, if they made a Hemingway movie, the way you should do it is to have the movie, but then in the corner have a bubble pop up with Hemingway’s picture in it, and just leave it there for half an hour.
BLVR: Your show pulls that off in a way by inserting the writer into the show. You’re aware that the writer’s there the whole time. He’s not trying to be invisible.
JS: I think that Jonathan and I have become, like, best friends. I mean, he’s my best friend. We share a lot with each other, and we talk every day or every other day, or whenever. When you develop that sort of relationship, especially with someone who’s writing stuff that you’re going to perform, things sort of seep in. I’ll be reading a script and I’ll be like, “I said that—we talked about this! We had this exact conversation!” So it’s kinda nice how it’s kind of blended into a—I think that there’s him in fiction, there’s him in this, and this other him that’s him and me as a dot in one circle.
BLVR: Sort of like a Venn diagram.
JS: I notice that I say “Manhatt-an,” which I didn’t used to do. That’s how he says it.
BLVR: Is that a Brooklyn way of saying it?
JS: I guess. He just says “Manhatt-an.” And then I also, like—Jonathan said this thing where, uh—he has a hurt finger that’s kind of going like this [crooks his finger], from writing or something, I don’t know—
BLVR: From writing?
JS: Or… I don’t know. But he’s always pushing it up, and I’ve noticed that in this entire new season we’re shooting, I’m always pushing up my finger, and he said that, uh, that was weird.
JS: In a good way. But I admire the actors that truly can impersonate someone—become someone, inhabit someone. It’s amazing when you see it done.
III. I FUCKING LOVE THIS CHORUS
BLVR: Ames is a part of this tradition of writers like Bukowski and Miller, where autobiography and fiction become this blurry, nebulous mass, and that’s what’s fun about it, because you feel like you’re getting to know the writer, but some kind of constructed version of the writer. Songwriters do this, too—writing a song from the point of view of a character, and embodying that character in the song. Not all songwriters do this, but there are some who do it so well.
JS: Randy Newman. And Harry Nilsson sometimes. All the old-timey guys. Cole Porter.
BLVR: Right. All the musicals and stuff have that feeling, as well.
JS: Nick Cave? Rufus Wainwright? Bob Dylan.
BLVR: Bob Dylan is one of the greatest examples of someone who seems to inhabit a series of characters. The John Wesley Harding album—it doesn’t even sound like him.
JS: It doesn’t sound like him at all, I know. He changed his voice. He’s not just writing about country and western music, he’s actually transforming himself. You know who was a modern version of that? Beck. In Sea Change he totally changed his voice.
BLVR: And even the other albums. Randy Newman is such a good example, too. He really connects a different, fictional persona with every song. It’s like the marriage of fiction, music, and acting. Does that interest you in songwriting?
JS: Yeah, but I don’t really do that. First of all, for the record, my opinions change constantly, so—
BLVR: That’s good.
JS: See, it all kind of swirls in such a weird way, because one could argue that even though you think you are writing as a character, it’s some part of you anyway. But when you read an interview like this, the tendency is to think, Well, that’s what that person believes. But it’s not what you believe. It’s your instant, reflexive answer to a question that you just heard for the first time.
BLVR: It’s capturing a moment.
JS:Yeah, so for this moment, on this day, in this park—maybe we can make a note of that in the beginning. We’ll say, “These aren’t lifelong opinions. This is how he felt in this moment.” But no, I don’t really write as characters.
BLVR: Is it a lyrical thing?
JS: I tend not to listen to the lyrics first. I’m more interested in the idea, in what they were intending to do. Like, “OK, it’s a sound. Ah, it’s a nice sound. They wanted it to be very big.” I’m more a fan of demos and sketches. Like, you go to a museum and you see a sketch for the thing. I love to do that, because I love all the “So, at what point did it become this? And how long did it take?” Kind of dreaming up the process of the whole thing. That’s why these interview books are great, because you’re looking for some—not a trick—but you want to read about how people did things. I even like reading books about movies I’ve never even seen. Or reading a book about a record I haven’t heard, because you can dream it up and think about it. I like hearing about the making of it. Which might be a thing of my—and our—generation. Because when we were younger, there wasn’t as much “making-of” stuff.
BLVR: Yeah, every DVD now—
JS: Yeah, everything is “how we did it” and commentary and all that stuff. But I’m interested. I mean, I love the Beatles’ Anthology, and I just love demos. But my friend hates them. He won’t listen to them. He’s like, “I just want to hear the finished thing. ”
BLVR: The purist’s point of view.
JS: When I listen to an album, I think about that, and I think about the chords, and what they were listening to, wondering, What music do they like? You know what I mean? What can I tell that they like, based on the kinds of chords they’re using? Then I listen to the words, and then really just a combination. What I love about lyrics is that they don’t have to be very complicated. A good sentence over a great chord with a good melody—all you need is that one moment, you know? Even the George Harrison song “Isn’t It a Pity?” He says, “Some things take so long, but how do I explain?” It’s a great line, but it’s not necessarily poetic. Like, if I was driving and I was listening to this line, “How do I explain?,” it might not seem like something someone would just say, but it’s beautiful over the music. He nails it.
BLVR: So there are these two kind of categories: the song as the embodiment of a character, like in “Sail Away,” where you’re singing from the perspective of a slave driver, versus self-expression—stuff that you write that you feel is probably more intuitive and personal.
JS: I don’t know if it’s growing up—or this is just how I’m feeling today in this park—
BLVR: We’ll clarify every sentence.
JS: Yeah, we’ll clarify. Everything is just this park.
BLVR: Every sentence will have a little asterisk next to it, with a disclaimer and a footnote.
JS: With the songwriters I really like, there’s kind of a sentence-by-sentence approach.
BLVR: Like who would that be?
JS:Some lyrics I really love are the lyrics to “Dig a Pony.” He’s like, “You can syndicate any boat you row….” I like these kind of sentences that are like, “What the fuck is that?”
BLVR: Little aphorisms.
JS: Yeah, or just an image. You know, like, that’s a really great sentence. Whereas when someone’s effective at creating a character, like Harry Nilsson—do you know the song “Well in 1941, a happy father had a son…”? That is a song that is a great story. When someone can do it, it’s amazing. But personally, I’ve never invested myself properly in trying to write stories. When I write lyrics, mostly I write each sentence separately on an index card and then I lay them out and I just mix them up.
BLVR: Thom Yorke did something like that for Kid A. Sort of a Dada technique, where he put a bunch of sentences in a hat and picked them out at random.
JS: Really? Oh, wow, I didn’t know that. But yeah, because words have a sound. Like, you’ll be singing, and maybe one sentence is better, but it just sounds terrible. Like, it’s not a singable word. Some words are just more singable. Like the Beach Boys, for instance. A lot of those songs, there’s not as much of a story as just a feeling. The ultimate example, for me, of a Beach Boys song that has that is a song called “I Went to Sleep.” Do you know that song? It’s just about him going to a park and lying down and falling asleep. One line is like [singing], “Again at the park, on a nice summer day… high up above me, the trees gently sway. A bird flew away. And I went to sleep.” And then there’s a part where he says, “The sprinklers went on. They watered the lawn. And I went to sleep.” It’s just kind of like, you’re feeling like you’re half-asleep.
BLVR: If the lyrics were too complex, they wouldn’t really convey that same feeling.
JS: And the music’s kind of already complicated enough.
BLVR: There’s that Tom Petty line “Think of me what you will, I’ve got a little space to fill.” I always think that’s great, because, truly, he’s probably just filling space.
JS: “You Don’t Know How It Feels”? [Singing] “Let me get to the point: let’s roll another joint.” Another great example of simple.
JS: Probably it’s also a generational thing, but I don’t really crave—I don’t need an artist to be amazing all the time, or I don’t even need an entire song to be good. I can literally just like a chorus and be like, I fucking love this chorus. You know, like, it really doesn’t matter. Honestly, I think this emphasis on everything having to be really good all the time—it’s just not interesting to me.
BLVR: Stresses you out.
JS: Yeah. Some albums, I don’t even love ’em, but I’m really glad that I bought ’em, and kind of enjoy and get something from them, even if I’m not into what they did on that particular album, because you could tell that they had an idea about something, and were trying to do something. Maybe I don’t love the album, but I love that they were trying to make a record that had this sound about it, and had these strange chopped-up parts or whatever.
BLVR: Even if it’s a supposedly bad record, that’s not the point anymore. It’s the act of following the artist that’s important.
JS:And that’s also a thing that is so cool about ’60s music, is how often it was coming out. You could just try one thing. But now bands take so long between records that sometimes I feel like there’s too much importance. And I’m sure there was importance then, but… I don’t know. This friend and I kind of have a different belief system—like, my friend believes you should only put out the ten best things you have. But I think it’s good to get stuff out there, because I have to make a mess before I clean up a room. Some people can just clean up a room and they’re very tidy. So it’s just a different way you do it. There’s just no wrong way. It’s like a Reese’s peanut butter cup.
Honestly, I was watching this great—actually, terrible—Beach Boys documentary, but there was a great sentence from someone, I think it was Graham Nash. He said, “The bridge to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’—a songwriter would just kill to have that be like something he accomplished in his life ever.” Just the bridge to that song. And it’s so true. So when people say, “Oh, they only made this one album,” I don’t care. I just need, like, one great sentence, one great melody.
IV. ACTING FOR RECORDED MEDIUMS
BLVR: Have you ever done stand-up comedy before?
BLVR: You’re willing to perform in that context of an onstage performer as a musician, and you’re willing to explore comedy as an actor, but the area in between…
JS: First off, it’s like a full-time craft that you have to be constantly working on. I don’t think that it’s something you can just go do. But maybe it’s because I don’t have a mind that thinks of things like, Oh, I can make a little nugget out of that.
BLVR: Nugget jokes.
JS: Yeah, like I don’t, but I think that I probably would if I did it. Because I kind of believe that on some level if I, you know, wanna really get good at something, if I just did it, it starts to become a habit. Just like checking your emails. You get good at checking emails.
BLVR: So how is your brain different then?
JS: I don’t know. Well, one thing is that when I’m acting, what I like about it is that I’m being directed, and I like that I’m working with other people. I like the experience of acting for film or television. Like, I think it would be really fun to do a play, and really amazing to do a play, but what I’m conditioned to do, or what I really like, is this idea of going in and we’re just gonna do this scene now, over and over again, and we’re going to talk about it after each take.
BLVR: Just refine every moment.
JS: What I really enjoy about acting for recorded mediums is just that everyone is working together on the same thing. One person is the master of the lights. One person is the master of electricity. Everyone is like, “We’re all here helping out.” I really like that feeling, and of, you know, “OK, so, what do you think we should go do in the movie? Go do this.” And talking about it, then going in and trying it and failing. And, “Fuck, that sucked, go back out,” and, “Why didn’t it work?” I don’t have any problem with doing things in pieces.
BLVR: Right. Quick takes, getting a single expression.
JS: Yeah. Some actors feel this desire to get the whole take.
BLVR: That seems more theatrical.
JS: Yeah, I don’t feel like my brain—maybe it’s from recording music, and you can go in and just get that one little phrase. When we’re shooting, I’m like, OK, I know that we have everything we need. ’Cause it’s being edited anyway. And there are so many factors involved in making a scene in a movie work—that it’s not about the acting completely. It’s about the music and the costumes and the color of it.
BLVR: And the angle and the lighting.
JS: You’re just one part of it, and so I feel like as long as the director feels like we have each thing that we need, or if the director’s like, “Can we just go back and get that one, that little…” You know, they call it a pickup—“Let’s just pick up.” Some actors are like, “I don’t want to pick up. ”
BLVR: It’s a purity thing?
JS: Yeah, like if the thing that they need to pick up is in the middle of it. Not because they need to rev up, it’s more like they want to go back and do the whole thing and get it in one take. It’s like the old-school days where you go out and it’s “We got to hit this one take! Everybody hit it!” But these days, with home recording, with music, it’s not about that anymore.
But all the things I’m saying are not in opposition to the other way. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with, like, the Steve Albini idea of “I’m not a producer, I’m a sound documentarian,” or whatever. “I just document what’s happening.” I love that, too. I like it all, kind of.
BLVR: You’re so agreeable.
JS: As an actor, you kind of have to be.
Illustration by Charles Burns
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