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Strangeness on a train

No one plays quirky quite like Jason Schwartzman. And with 'Darjeeling,' he's back on track with director Wes Anderson.

September 30, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Jason Schwartzman limped around his friend's sun-dappled Nichols Canyon retreat looking highly apologetic. Frowning at his heels was his chubby French bulldog, Arrow. Schwartzman had broken his toe the day before, and as he made his way to a secluded outdoor table, he tried explaining. "It was like that scene in 'Karate Kid,' " he said, presumably casting himself in the Ralph Macchio role. Everyone was kicking soccer balls around like a bunch of Pel├ęs, he said. So, playing barefoot seemed like a good idea.

The actor's solicitous earnestness was palpable. This hesitant, wide-eyed loopy charm, often employed as the comic relief in sensitive, maudlin films, lands him roles among Hollywood's best. But no one, it seems, is as surprised by his celebrity as he is. In some respects, he's at the white-hot center of young arty Hollywood; yet he sees himself more as a struggling musician and improbable interloper.

"The Darjeeling Limited," opening Friday, is his first movie with Wes Anderson since the writer-director helped make the teenage Schwartzman a star in 1998's "Rushmore." And it's Schwartzman's first screenwriting credit. It's a weird road movie with the typical Anderson flourishes -- the Kinks songs, the melancholic tone, all of it awash in color -- that follows three estranged brothers played by Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson on a spiritual quest by train through India. Schwartzman spent about 18 months writing the script with Anderson and Schwartzman's cousin Roman Coppola.

But before his storytelling began, Schwartzman opened with a disclaimer. "My feelings won't be hurt if you cut me off," he said. "I can be slightly long-winded."

And then Schwartzman unspooled a stream-of-conscious recollection of "Darjeeling" from the first moment Anderson approached him with the idea in Paris, while Roman Coppola and Schwartzman were filming "Marie Antoinette," to the exotic experience of shooting in India, much of it in the crowded compartments of a moving train with weekends spent in his pajamas, watching movies in bed with Anderson. At some point, Arrow began snoring loudly under the table. Schwartzman paused to acknowledge his throbbing toe.

"It's like a ticking clock," he said."I've never done an interview in physical pain before, but it's great." And he was off again, remembering his surprise at Anderson's invitation to co-write the film. "Darjeeling" originated with Anderson's idea -- three brothers on a train in India. They worked out the rest together in Parisian hotel rooms and coffeehouses where Anderson sometimes lives, on long distance conference calls and then, finally in India, until they finished the script.

"I really would describe it as less like painting something or drawing something, less like creating something on a blank space," Schwartzman said. "I think it was more like trying to uncover something like an archeological dig or something. It felt to me like these three brothers were real and the trip they were on was real and we were trying to define it or document it. I remember going to bed every night thinking, 'What are they doing now? Where are those guys?' So, I don't think it was as much, 'OK, what can we create for them now?' as waiting for them; it felt more like they were there and we were trying to uncover it, less than create it. Then we went to India for four or five weeks and really just wrote nonstop. I had to get a whole new long-distance plan."

He paused. "Was that too long-winded?"

It was quiet out on the deck, the silence broken only by the sound of wind in the leaves. The small hillside compound felt exclusive. A windblown Kirsten Dunst lingered out front, as the actor headed into his beautifully appointed quarters for a photo shoot. But apparently, this was a bit out of Schwartzman's milieu.

"I think if I lived here," he said, raising his eyes to the trees, "this would drive me crazy." He pointed down the hill, toward the endless, noisy flats of Hollywood and said, "I live down there."

Schwartzman, 27, grew up in L.A., the older of the two sons of Talia Shire and now deceased producer Jack Schwartzman. He also has two older half-brothers, one of whom, John Schwartzman, is a cinematographer. Francis Ford Coppola is his uncle and Roman, Sofia Coppola and Nicolas Cage are his cousins. His grandfather was award-winning composer Carmine Coppola.

But to hear him talk, Schwartzman grew up in the audience, not on movie sets. He recalls living in his mother's busy orbit, where music was always played at high volume -- Stephen Sondheim or Aaron Copland.

"My mom would be singing and kind of dancing around rooms," he said. "She always was watching movies. So I think that as a young kid maybe just to be close to my mom I would watch movies with her. But I wasn't too invested in it, because usually they were black and white, usually from the 1930s."

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