The long-time collaborator and star of Wes Anderson's Asteroid City speaks on their enduring friendship, Stanley Kubrick, and learning to talk without moving your mouth.
In 1998 Wes Anderson cast Jason Schwartzman as precocious high schooler Max Fischer in his breakout comedy Rushmore. Twenty-five years later, after remaining firm friends and constant collaborators, they reunite for Asteroid City, in which Schwartzman plays the dual role of Augie Steenbeck, a grieving husband and slightly harried father, and Jones Hall, a James Dean-esque young actor.
LWLies: Wes wrote Asteroid City with you in mind. Can you tell me about the first time he told you he was working on it, and how the film developed from there?
Schwartzman: It would’ve been July 2019 that he mentioned he was working on something with Roman [Coppola] that he had me in mind for. He didn’t say much about it at that point, but he was excited. Maybe a month or two later – I was reading a book about Elia Kazan, and he wrote me an email saying, ‘I can’t say much, but look into Kazan.’ And I said, ‘That’s crazy, I have a book about him right here next to my bed!’ And then I was in Chicago, reading a book about Stanley Kubrick, and Wes said, ‘Think about Kubrick now, not Kazan,’ and I said, ‘That’s even crazier! I have a book about him right here.’ So there was an odd synchronicity with the references, but I still had no idea. I was like, ‘Am I going to play a director?’
Then later that year, he sent me the script, and just said, ‘Here it is! This is what we’ve been working on. Your character’s Augie.’ It does mean so much because not only have I been working with Wes now for a number of years in an acting capacity, but I’ve also joined him on a few of the writing adventures, so I know how hard he works on scripts, and how the script itself is meant to be an artefact on its own. There’s different kinds of scripts, some can be very vague or maybe more useful just to the director, but Wes’s are very specific and unique to him, in that they’re very detailed and exactly the movie that he’s going to make. So much effort goes into the wording and just making it a wonderful reading experience as well.
What kind of a collaborator is Wes?
Knowing what kind of work he puts into his scripts, just before I even opened it, I felt this overwhelming moment of excitement and gratitude. Reading it as a fan is one thing, and reading it from the perspective of, ‘I’m going to play a part in this movie,’ trying to absorb it on that level as well, was just such a thrill. I thought it was just so beautiful and unique and wonderful, and I was laughing so hard at it. I could just imagine Wes and Roman writing it. Though it was also really nerve wracking because it’s a great role in a great story, and immediately I’m trying not to get too panicked about doing the best job I can. Knowing and working with Wes so long, it really has become like we’re brothers. And brothers can call each other out and they know when the other person is not going all the way they can go.
That can be hard, having that level of perception from a collaborator and knowing that they’re going to make you work harder than you have in your entire life.
Exactly. You know when kids play in sports teams, but their dad is the coach? I always wonder what that experience is like, having to ride to work with the coach, and call them dad, and then when you get to practise you call them Coach, and they maybe call you by your family name. From what I saw growing up, all the players on the team are held to a certain level. Another reason is it’s such an enjoyable experience to get to work on these movies because you see that every department is being challenged in this way. Everyone has a new set of things that they’re trying to accomplish and achieve. This feeling of being responsible is something that everyone who works with Wes feels.
Cinematographer Bob Yeoman said that you had a whole creative process and mantra when it came to the role of Augie, especially with the Kubrick influence.
Wes and I were trying to figure out what it was about Kubrick that we were so taken with. Is it his physicality? Is it the sound of his voice? I was trying to find the ‘thing’ that Wes was responding to. There was something about the way that Kubrick speaks that reminded me a lot of my father, who was also from New York at a similar time. It’s like a rhythm. Immediately I tried to find audio cassettes and old family videos where he’s talking from behind the camera. I was trying to hear the same Kubrick sound.
Then the joyous experience was working with this dialect coach called Tanera Marshall. I had met her on Fargo – where she had been working on that with Jessie Buckley and Ben Whishaw, and I was just blown away by the work that they were doing and the approach to creating a voice and how it informs the whole character. So before we even had a start date, I said to Tanera, ‘I can’t even tell you anything really about the movie yet, but what is it about Kubrick’s voice that makes him talk like this?’ Without even having a script she was trying to break down his voice, and we started experimenting. I would get a few parts of the script and work on them with Tanera and then record them and send them to Wes and be like, ‘What do you think of this?’, because Wes has never asked me to do a voice, so immediately off the bat that was a whole new territory for us. So the thing we landed upon is this: Tanera said, ‘Stanley Kubrick had this thing about how he didn’t move his face a lot.’ And I move my face a lot – like a lot a lot.
“I like the way you can bring your own personal history to these movies without it having to be the whole thing”
Watching his videos, I started to notice, his mouth moves but nothing else is moving at times. And what is that? How’s he doing that? So I tried all these different exercises – it was nuts. But then one time I was sitting at my house and my wife had put on a clay facial mask thing and was like, ‘I can’t talk right now because my face is hardening,’ and I thought, ‘Holy smokes! I wonder if that would be helpful.’ So I took the most intense clay mask I could find and put it all over my face and let it harden, then when it hardened I had no idea how to move the muscles in my face anymore. I was totally still, and it all of a sudden clicked.
So I sent Wes a video of my face with clay all over and said, ‘Don’t look at the clay obviously, but the sounds – I think that this might be it, this feels great.’ After a while of searching, I felt like I was onto something, getting close to what Wes wanted. And also my skin felt so nice afterwards, side note. So Wes agreed, he thought it was really good, so I was trying with Tanera and she was like, ‘You can achieve this through your exercises,’ but I was like, ‘Jeez, I’m struggling without the clay, what am I gonna do? Is there a way to freeze my face?’
Botox! Or Novocaine or… what can I do? And our incredible make up department had this idea, they said, ‘We can try to get things made for your teeth that kinda keep your jaw closed.’ And we were like, ‘Let’s try it.’ It was kind of a long shot but I went and I got these things made for my teeth that you put sorta where your molars are – it’s like an Invisalign with a top and a bottom, so your back jaw in the left and the right is basically locked, so you can’t open it completely. And it worked – it was really helpful. It just totally changed the whole thing, not having to open my mouth completely. I mean a really great actor could’ve done it without dental assistance I’m sure, but…
This is the first time you’ve played a father since you had kids of your own, right?
Yeah, but it’s crazy because I have a teenage son – that one I’ve never experienced before! Jake Ryan, who plays my son in the movie, is as old as I was when I was doing Rushmore.
Did that feel surreal?
So surreal. But it was wonderful, particularly playing a father during a certain era in a made-up time, in a play that’s not real. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the laws of this world were and trying to adhere to them. I’d say I brought some of what I’ve learnt about being a father to it just inherently, but it’s a different kind of dad. I, for instance, probably wouldn’t have waited for so long to tell my children that their mother was dead.
Would’ve led with that, maybe?
Yeah I think they would’ve known it was gonna happen. But another incredible similarity that I noticed reading the script is that when my father’s mother passed away, his dad did not tell them until like a month after, and they’d moved to Brooklyn from LA. And only then did he tell them! And truly Wes did not know that. I was like, ‘Do you know that this was exactly what had happened in my family?’
All the best bits of Wes Anderson are those that seem absurd, but you as a viewer or, in this case, acting in the film, you know that it’s so much closer to home than a lot of people think.
Yeah, there’s none of this that felt far away. Even doing this voice which reminded me of how my dad talked, it was so personal. That’s the wonderful thing about Wes’s movies – I like the way you can bring your own life experience and personal history to these movies without it having to be the whole thing. It’s about bringing these pieces of you – and everyone in the movie is bringing these pieces. It’s like if someone said, ‘Go to your house and look through all the drawers, and find five things that fit these measurements,’ and everyone would bring something different, like a bottle cap, and a photo, and a piece of lace, and their broken glasses, or whatever, and it’s like that all gets glued together to become the movie.
Little White Lies is committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them.
Published 23 Jun 2023
By Simon Bland
The actor recalls how a chance encounter with Wes Anderson launched his career.
The maestro returns, the patented formula tweaked to blissful perfection in this witty and deeply moving exploration of the tools that we produce to help us see beyond our everyday vision.