Jason Schwartzman tells Salon why he feels like a teenager

The "Grand Budapest Hotel" actor dishes on his new film, "Teenage"

Published March 13, 2014 2:40PM (EDT)

Jason Schwartzman      (AP/Victoria Will)
Jason Schwartzman (AP/Victoria Will)

Jason Schwartzman is down with teenagers -- and not least because one of his most memorable roles was as a thwarted teen in "Rushmore." The actor has just produced a new film, "Teenage" (due out March 14), based on writer Jon Savage's cultural history of teenagers.

The film uses voice-over and found footage to put together a narrative of teenagers through the 20th century, a time during which it could be argued that the teenager was effectively created. We see teenagers dutifully heading off to war in the 1940s and metabolizing its effects, as well as discovering, for the first time, culture explicitly market to them in the 1960s.

For his part, Schwartzman got involved thanks to a friendship with director Matt Wolf and a desire to move a bit beyond the acting game, where he's had recent successes including "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Saving Mr. Banks."  "There are actors like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, they can get money to get things made. I'm not on that level. But I've met people I love and want to collaborate with," said Schwartzman. As for his fame as a former teen, Schwartzman, now 33, told Salon, "Kids who weren't born when it was made, now they come up to me and say hi." He likes it!

How'd you get interested in this? 

What happened was I had seen "Wild Combination" -- it was really weird, I bought it on DVD, I watched it and when it was over I thought it was so great. I couldn't wait to show it to my friends. I got it on Thursday, and by Sunday I had shown it to all of my friends. By Sunday night I showed it to my friend Umberto, we had dinner, and when the credits rolled -- "Matt Wolf," he said, "that's a friend of mine!" It was the eighth time I'd watched it.

Umberto owns a clothing store called Opening Ceremony, and maybe four months later he called me to tell me they were opening a store in Japan and they were pairing actors and directors to promote the opening. He wanted Matt Wolfe and me to work on something. Matt and I spent the day together working, shooting this thing, and I instantly felt like we got along. We laughed about the same things. He's so smart, and interested in so many things. I asked what he was working on. He said he was working on a documentary based on Jon Savage's book "Teenage." I love Jon Savage! I couldn't believe it. I knew the book; I love Mojo magazine, and Jon Savage is a major contributor, he's a legend. So many rock documentaries are because of Jon Savage, he's always saying the most intelligent thing. I was so excited these people I loved so much were collaborating. They were going to make a movie about the history of teenagers, and going to use archival footage blended with new footage.

Maybe two years later I called Matt and I was trying in my own way to be making things ... trying to become more involved in the making of things as opposed to being at the whim of casting directors. I said, "Maybe there's a movie we can do together." I asked when "Teenage" was coming out, and he said it hadn't gotten going yet. I didn't want to come to the party late, but I ended up helping out. The other producers did all the work but I'd been trying to do my part.

What was life like for you as a teenager?

For me, I was like -- you know, obviously being a teenager has its own challenges, hormonally ... you're full of hot emotions and mood swings. I was a standard teenager in that way -- moody and temperamental, though not extremely. My mom might disagree; she said I was the worst.

I was not an outsider in the sense of angry and listening to aggressive music or looking interested -- I didn't have a thing in me that was rebellious, but I felt like a misfit, kind of. Kind of into movies and music that were sane, compared to what my friends liked. I dressed kind of differently. I wasn't pissing people off. I was more the class clown.

When I read the book and watched the movie -- the last thing a teenager wants to hear is, however they articulate it, what you're feeling is nothing new. This is normal behavior, and many people have felt this way throughout history. But that's the last thing you want to hear. Everyone's experience is slightly unique. It was nice, though, retrospectively, to realize that there's a period of years in someone's life where they really are between being an adult and a kid. There's something comforting about knowing that it is a standard. There's something beautiful about that. It's trite or cheesy, but we're all bonded by these years and these feelings. It's amazing to see -- and amazing to see how adults deal with it.

Do you feel any connection to the teenager you were?

I think that I don't feel like a teenager and I think I still do. I'd be kidding myself -- the technology has really gone so fast. I don't have social media, really. I didn't get left in the dust. I wanted to get left in the dust. I feel like teenagers doing social stuff, drawings and games -- I don't do that at all. They'd say I'm out of it. But I feel connected to the idea of feeling like an idiot, feeling out of control, feeling reckless. It's something I relate to. I don't feel above teenagers. When I see a bunch of teenagers, I feel like they're going to make fun of me. But that happens with every age; it happened when I walked by a group of 7-year-olds recently. I was scared they were going to make fun of me!

And you played one of the most iconic teenagers in recent memory in the movie "Rushmore." 

I was in the same generation as teenagers who saw "Rushmore." But kids who weren't born when it was made, now they come up to me and say hi. I'm thrilled whenever people recognize me -- it feels like we're related.

Does it bother you that you're still so closely associated with the role?

It was the moment my life changed -- I was not an actor, then I was acting. I got to meet Wes, and we've collaborated, now, for years.

What's next for you? Do you want to move away from acting?

My feeling is that producing on a really high level -- I don't know how to do that yet, but I want to learn. The answer is yes. There are actors like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, they can get money to get things made. I'm not on that level. But I've met people I love and want to collaborate with. Maybe there's a way -- I know when I respond to something. Maybe me and my enthusiasm and their enthusiasm -- we can make something. That's my hope. I know I want to work with Matt Wolf again. Maybe me plus him and another person and another person ... But shit, it's hard enough, even huge directors can't get things made. But maybe I can be one number in the equation.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Jason Schwartzman Jon Savage Rushmore Teenage