YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A true labor of [heart]

In 'Huckabees,' Jason Schwartzman Takes An 'inner Bliss Meets Inner Gangsta' Ride.

September 12, 2004|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

Jason SCHWARTZMAN is overdressed. Out on the patio of Le Pain Quotidien in the angular shadow of the Pacific Design Center, the 24-year-old actor sits ramrod straight, powering down glass after glass of iced coffee amid the lunchtime clatter and mannered cool of young Hollywood.

Despite early September heat, Schwartzman looks impeccable, buttoned down in a navy blue suit with peaked lapels and a crisp cotton shirt. With his etiquette school manners, it would be easy to mistake this mop-topped nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage for some kind of visiting college lecturer rather than one of the most gainfully employed character actors of his generation. October will see Schwartzman star in David O. Russell's surrealist serio-comedy "I [Heart] Huckabees" alongside an all-star ensemble that includes Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law and Naomi Watts.

Over Christmas he wrapped Steve Martin's movie adaptation of his comedic novel "Shopgirl," opposite Claire Danes. Just last week, Schwartzman began work on Nora Ephron's big budget, big screen adaptation of "Bewitched" starring Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman. Then, next February in France, he will portray King Louis XVI for his cousin Sofia Coppola's stylized biopic, "Marie-Antoinette."


Out of obscurity

Since launching out of obscurity at age 15, playing the overachieving prep school ne'er-do-well Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's 1998 cult classic, "Rushmore," the actor has been at the vanguard of the current wave of "geek chic." He attributes his career bloom to a combination of serendipity and intuition.

"I think the worst thing you can do is know what you want," Schwartzman says. "The majority of life-changing things that have happened to me were unexpected. To anticipate anything would be kind of an error on my part."

That laissez faire attitude paid dividends after an earlier project with Russell, the ambitious indie auteur whose sporadic output has included "Three Kings" and "Flirting With Disaster," flamed out in 2002. The writer-director promised to put him in his next film and went on to write a character in "Huckabees" especially for Schwartzman. The part turned out to be the movie's central character, a shambling poet-environmentalist who employs a husband-and-wife team of existential detectives (played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to help him make sense of his life after he experiences a series of perplexing coincidences.

"It was unlike any other film I've ever worked on," he says. "Like going down a wormhole at hyperspeed. But in a good way."

The movie is a talky, philosophical rol- ler coaster propelled by the characters' self-help soliloquies -- and epiphanies -- and wacky physical humor. To get the actors into the proper head space, Russell handed out professor Robert Thurman's Buddhist tract "The Jewel Tree of Tibet" on tape.

"I suppose on most movies, people roll up to the set in their Cadillac Escalades blasting some Miami remix of a remix," he says. "But on this movie, people rolled in blasting, 'Now close your eyes

For his soul-searching part, the actor was counseled to mine a decidedly karma-negative source of inspiration. "There is a level of rage and frustration you see in the character, and David had this one thing he kept saying that was really helpful," he recalls. "He would tell me, 'Keep it more gangsta!' Bring it!' "

The diminutive Schwartzman has often been compared with a "Graduate"-era Hoffman. Perhaps owing to his outsize personality and a certain youthful attentiveness, directors such as Anderson and Russell as well as costars including "Rushmore's" Bill Murray, Martin and Hoffman have invariably taken Schwartzman under their wing, offering career advice and pointers on how to play a scene. For his part, Schwartzman accepts their wisdom with an almost scholastic zeal.

"I like the discovery of treasure," he says, solemnly. In one of "Huckabees' " more emotionally charged sequences, his character confronts his mother to uncover the cause of a long-simmering psychological malaise. For the scene, he acted opposite his real-life mother, actress Talia Shire (of "Rocky" and "The Godfather" fame), an experience he calls "positive" before going curiously mute.

But it wasn't the first time the actor mixed family and business. In 2001, Schwartzman took the flamboyant role as a whacked-out B-movie director in his cousin Roman Coppola's 2001 debut feature, "CQ."

"He's one of the best directors I ever worked with. Sick. Sickly good," he says. "And I could understand more quickly what he was saying to me -- if you know someone long enough, you create a personal vernacular."


He had to 'lickety-split'

Schwartzman is looking forward to appearing in cousin Sofia's upcoming period drama, but "just because they're your family guarantees nothing. But in this case it could really help us. We have a lot of similar references and I spend so much time with her."

Los Angeles Times Articles