Jason Schwartzman: "Bored to Death" is not ironic

The actor talks to Salon about the HBO show's new season — and writer Jonathan Ames' "sarcasm deafness"

Published October 7, 2011 7:58PM (EDT)

 Jason Scwartzman
Jason Scwartzman

The third season of Jonathan Ames' "noir-otic" HBO comedy, "Bored to Death" — which starts this coming Monday — is a familiar mix of Brooklyn, N.Y., picaresque and stoner misadventure, with perhaps an extra jot of soul-searching on the part of its main character (Jason Schwartzman) and his decidedly neurotic pals (Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis). But whatever else you might think about it, Schwartzman is keen to stress one thing: It's not supposed to be ironic.

In a phone interview, Schwartzman chatted with me about the coming season's preoccupations (fatherhood, for one), writer Ames' "sarcasm deafness," and what it's like to play a fictional incarnation of your closest friend. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

I’ve read that you got involved with “Bored to Death” because you emailed writer Jonathan Ames — whose work you loved — and told him how much you wanted to join the project. Is that really how this all started for you?

Well, that was sort of like the very, very first — the first beginning. And I guess the prelude to the first beginning was that I was given Jonathan’s book “Wake Up, Sir” years prior, and I loved it — so I was a fan of his books.

The longer story is that Jonathan had adapted “Wake Up, Sir” into a script, and I read that script, and I thought it was really great. Then his manager, Stephanie Davis, who’s also now a producer on our show ... I met her, and then the first thing I really remember is that she put a phone to my ear and Jonathan was on the the other end of it, and we talked for 10 minutes. Well, a) I was excited to be talking to him — I don’t mean this to sound like it could have been anybody; I was blown away that I was talking to him — but I was also thinking: This is crazy, I’ve never actually spoken to a writer, a novelist. And then we exchanged information, and then we were able to coordinate, and we made a plan to meet up. And that was the beginning.

And do you think the changing nature of your relationship with him — you now often speak of him as your best friend — has come across over the course of the show’s three seasons? The way you play the character, which is not exactly him, but some incarnation of him, has that changed as you’ve become closer to him in real life?

I think everything has changed over the course of the three years, but there’s probably so much that has a hand in that. I’ve never worked on anything for three years with the same people [before], first of all. So it’s tough to say, because I don’t have any other example of this in my life. You know, who knows if we ever get a fourth season, but for these three seasons, it’s been amazing for me go to work as the weeks have gone on — because you do start to feel more comfortable. And by more comfortable, I mean less embarrassed.

I think probably there are some actors who don’t feel this way, but for me, it’s scary in the beginning when you’re working on a new set, because you’re saying these lines in front of a roomful of strangers. In this case, as the years go on, it’s so nice, because everybody has seen you at your worst — you’ve messed up, or you can’t remember your lines, whatever (and I’ve seen other people mess up at every position, every job). Over the course of that time, everyone’s sort of messed up, and it’s just nice because then you don’t really worry anymore about being judged by the people around you; you just can go to work more quickly. And so that’s just one thing.

I’m sure that over the course of the three years it’s changed, because we all — I think we’re all feeling very comfortable around each other now. I don’t think it makes you a lazier worker; I think you actually get more work done, because there’s less pussyfooting. You can really cut to the chase.

You mentioned the possibility of a fourth season. Some shows that get renewed again and again are seriously plot-driven; as you’ve said yourself, that’s not always true of “Bored to Death.” Do you think that this kind of show could work for four, five, six seasons?

Well, I think it’s already evolved. To me, I think that it could go on for a while, because already I’ve found that it hasn’t really stuck to a formula, in a lot of ways. In the beginning, you know, I was getting these cases — every episode was a case — but already in three seasons, it’s evolved to the point where it’s not like that; episodes are not called “The Case of the Missing Pigeon” or whatever. We kind of elongate things a bit. And now, I think what’s happened is the characters have gotten stronger, and Ted and Zach’s characters [have grown] — so I don’t think you need a case to power an episode. I believe the characters are strong enough, and funny enough, and strange enough that they are kind of running the episodes; it’s their own stories, combined with mysteries.

That’s interesting, in particular because it seems to me that this season is preoccupied with questions of identity. There are impersonators, pretenders, cases of mistaken ID ... people wondering who they really are, and where they come from. Why do you think all of this is coming to a point now?

Gosh, I don’t know. I think that this show — you know, it means everything to me; I love going to work on it, and so I speak about it super-seriously — but also keep in mind that I do love it because it can be absurd and strange.

But I do think the show is honing this idea of duality, and having a “double life.” Ray has it with his superhero character; Ted has it with being — I’m just thinking about the first season now — he has it because he runs this magazine, but then he wants to go get high, and you know he’s kind of fractured and debauched. And then there’s me becoming this private detective, and almost having a superhero costume of my own. I think it all really hovers around that zone. And it’s really hardcore in the third season, with these issues of finding out that maybe I’m not the biological son of the man who raised me.

So [as my character] I'm wondering, “Who am I?” And I always thought about it too like, “Who am I? Am I from New York?” When I look out the window, I’m wondering, “Where’s my dad? Am I from Brooklyn? Am I from New York? Am I from New Jersey?” It’s “Where am I?” — with an invisible “from” at the end of it.

That’s an interesting way to see it.

That’s something that Jonathan writes about a lot in all his books. And one thing that I really loved and was taken by when I read his books was that all of his characters were trying so hard to be better people. They made all these new statements — “I’m not drinking anymore (except on the weekends),” “I’m not doing this anymore — I’m gonna do this” — but then they’d mess up. But they’re not evil people — and they’re not goody-two-shoes either. In the show, we’re all trying to be good people, but then we mess up, and in the messing up — and in our flailing — we hurt a lot of people. And then something else saves all of us — or we save all of us. And I think that’s really funny; to me, that’s where a lot of the comedy comes in.

You know, some people are color-blind, or tone-deaf; Jonathan almost has a sarcasm deafness. He really can’t perceive it in people — and he acknowledges this. Like when people go, “Oh, man, I haven’t slept in days,” he’s like, “Really? You haven’t slept in days?” And knowing that, to me it gives the show something really unique. Because sarcasm and irony have a lot to do with our culture. Maybe less so than the '90s — but on par. I’m saying that all these characters really are being sincere, and that is just how insane the show is, that some of the stuff that you think is ironic is actually not.

So it is coming from a really good place. Sometimes, when I read about the show, and people say it’s ironic, or we’re making fun of people, I wish I could just call them up and let them know it’s actually serious.

That’s interesting — because I’m not sure I would have always seen it that way myself. One thing I’ve liked about past roles of yours — Louis XVI in “Marie Antoinette,” say — is what I thought was a certain semi-self-consciousness on your part. But maybe I’m reading it wrong!

I don’t know. Maybe specifically in that movie, I was uncomfortable. I had gained a lot of weight for the part, and I felt like — well, you know, I’m this American person playing the king of France. And we’re doing it in our own voices. In the beginning, I’d walk on the set, and there was this French crew, and in my head, I’d hear their voices saying, “Who the f*ck are you?” But I was thinking, that’s probably how the real king felt! So I’m going to go with that. I’m going to wrestle that.

I have found that I’m fascinated, in my own life, by watching people in moments of hyper-focus on something. Like — have you ever had a friend who just can’t get over somebody? And they’re so locked in on that person that they really can’t see all the other stuff that’s happening? And thus they’re doing all kinds of strange stuff — and some of it’s funny, and some of it’s sad? When I see that in my own life, or recognize that amongst my friends, it’s something that really affects me, and I think that when I read something, I tend to gravitate toward it — to people who are in a place in their life where something really big is happening, or about to happen. And it’s all they can think about — much to their own detriment. But I’m not winking at the camera.

I guess much of the self-consciousness, in this particular show, at least, is actually suggested by the plot. For instance, you don’t play a detective — you play someone who’s playing a detective. So the character himself is self-conscious.

Well, I’ll tell you the hardest thing about playing a detective — because my character, especially in the first season, and as it goes on, is a fan of detectives. Or actually, a fan of detectives in literature. And me, I’m a fan of stuff too. I’m a fan of music, and I’m a fan of movies; I watch movies and I go, “Oh, man, I wish I could be in that movie — I wish I could move like that; I wish I could wear that jacket.” And I fantasize — I think, “Oh, God, that’d be insane!” And so when it came time to do this show — I had already loved detective movies anyway, especially “Stolen Kisses,” the Truffaut film, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as a private detective (that one and “The Long Goodbye” are kind of like my North Stars on this) — [I took special notice of] hard-boiled acting. I’ll see something and go, “I would love to reference that in our show.” And it’s funny because I’ll try a take, and I’ll do some move that I saw — you know, cut and paste, sort of — and it always seems like I’m making fun of it.

But you’re not trying to.

But I’m not trying to. So we have to pull back, we’ve found. If you try too hard to be hard-boiled, it seems like you’re doing a parody of it.

And even though this is comedy, that’s not the goal?

Well, you can kind of get carried away by the fun of doing it — you know, because it is funny. Me, Jason and the character, Jonathan — when we’re in detective mode, we are the same. I’m getting the same kick out of it that he is. So I’m just me, so excited to be, like, breaking down a door. Because part of the thing that I related to in the beginning, when I first read the script and when Jonathan was talking about it, was this idea of your own masculinity: Am I strong? Could I save someone? Would I break down a door? All that stuff is stuff that I was already kind of thinking about just as a man of my age at the time: Gosh, you know, would I even take up the opportunity to be a hero if there was a problem in front of me? And so I’m getting to kind of play out the fun of that. My character’s saying he’s just going to do it, so I’m kind of doing that too.

You clearly love the detective part of the role. In this new season, when a lot of personal stuff invades — all the characters face some sort of parenting dilemma, for instance — does that make it any less fun for you? Or is it still the same?

It’s still the same, because I’m still getting to do it. And I mean, even though it’s character-driven, there are still these amazing whammies being thrown at me that are so juicy. To really go back to your first, first thing, Jonathan and I are so close now; after we’ve talked for all this time, the stuff just finds its way in. I recently, in my own life, became a father, and [in a way] this whole season is about fatherhood: What does it mean? Am I going to be good? It’s so nice that it all does drip into the stuff.

Would you ever do a longer, more conventional prime-time TV project — kind of like Zooey Deschanel is doing with “New Girl”? “Bored to Death” seems sort of movie-like to me — it’s very glossy; each episode is a short, slick little package. Do you think you’d ever do a major network show, with seasons that could have twice, three times as many episodes?

Well, on your point about this being like a movie — let me tell you, that’s so hard to do (in a great way, though). Because it really is like making a movie. We have a lot of locations, and that’s one thing that I think makes the show really fun to watch: We’re really out in Brooklyn and New York, walking the streets ... Every year, when we find out we can go back to the show, one of the things that’s so exciting to me is: “I wonder where we’re going to shoot this year?”

Jonathan sometimes works backwards from a visual image; he’ll see something — he’ll have almost like a flash, and say, “I can see Ted there, doing that — how do I get him there?” — and then it all starts to happen. What’s cool is that we will actually go back and shoot in the place where the idea happened, which I like; if you read the scripts, they’ll always reference the places by name. It’s a particular coffee place, instead of just “Coffee Shop, New York.” They’re not general; they’re very specific places.

Do you think that means something to people who don’t live in Brooklyn? Is it richer if that’s where you’re from?

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t live in Brooklyn; I don’t live in New York (except when we work there). I get excited about it just because I want to learn about it. But I know because I’ve met some people from Brooklyn that they think it’s really fun to see the places that are right down the street from their house.

But in terms of doing a longer show -- I wish we could do more “Bored to Death,” just because it’s so much fun. I’m sure this isn’t an original thought, but one could think, “Well, it’s not a movie because it’s only a half hour.” But in truth, you know, eight episodes is longer than a movie. With the show, you’re able to look under different pieces of furniture for stuff that wouldn’t be in a movie. Things that aren’t necessarily relevant to the story.

I’m a fan of freedom; I like people who think in strange ways. But there’s always something so impressive and truly beautiful about someone who can do something very precisely, in a very small amount of time. The song “Waterloo Sunset” is a great example. I’m sure music is different for everyone, and different songs affect people in different ways, but to me, I listen to that song and think, “How is this happening that this song is so emotional and beautiful and nostalgic and all these things — and it’s two minutes long! How does he do that? How do you cram all that in there?” And a movie is incredible too; there are some movies that are 87 minutes long — that’s not a very long amount of time — and they can do so much in 87 minutes that it’s truly a beautiful thing. Really a work of art. But 90 minutes is also a short amount of time to hold a lot of stuff — and a lot of structure and plot and character goes into that. Sometimes it’s almost too much for a movie; it’s unfair in a lot of ways, that they have to have so much in them. What I like about our show is that we get to do these little miniature movies with their little first, second and third act-type things — and they can be smaller first, second and third acts, but if you look at them over the course of the season, you have more time and less pressure to try to slip all that stuff into 90 minutes.

What if there were not eight episodes, but 20-plus? Would that be too much? Or would you be open to that?

I’m open to anything. The nature, it seems, of any business right now, is sort of mysterious [laughs] — but there is something [particularly] capricious about this industry, how one gets work. And so, it’s like asking you, “Would you ever consider writing a piece on X?” It’s all so strange how it happens, that I really think it would be silly of me to be like, “No, I wouldn’t do that” or “Yeah, I really want to do that.” I mean, if we truly have that much say in the way it’s gonna go, then I don’t think I’m the person I think I am!

"Bored to Death" airs Mondays at 9 pm on HBO, starting Oct. 10.

By Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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