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Paul Schneider is a 'Bright Star' who prefers a low profile

He is a rare actor -- one who doesn't seek fame.

September 17, 2009|Sam Adams

Although he's collected plenty of critical acclaim for his roles in such movies as "Lars and the Real Girl" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Paul Schneider is still far from a household name. Even now, the raves for his role as John Keats' friend and patron Charles Brown in Jane Campion's understated period drama "Bright Star" -- a chorus that began at Cannes and escalated with its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last week -- are unlikely to catapult him into the national spotlight.

But Schneider, fresh off a day of shooting the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation," is worried just the same. "I am in a real pickle here," he says. "I'm the kind of person who is an actor and who doesn't like attention."

Schneider is hardly the first actor to claim discomfort with the briar patch of celebrity, but his anxieties are more well-developed than most.

"Everyone around you -- or, if you're me, the couple of people around you -- starts saying, 'Get ready. Your life's going to change,' " he says. "And then you start thinking, 'If this movie's big, my life might change.' And then you start thinking, 'Is it going to change in ways I despise?' I've been lucky a couple of times where the movie is critically acclaimed and not seen, which in my twisted world is the bull's-eye. That means I can keep making movies and not feel weird at the store."

The part of the portly, bearded Charles Brown, a man so enthralled with and protective of Keats that he actively tries to keep the poet's new love at bay, is a significant departure from Schneider's previous roles, and even he is at something of a loss to explain why Campion cast him, especially since the catalyst was his role as an outlaw lady killer in "Assassination." "I don't know if she had the final product in her head or not, but if she did, it was pretty crazy," he says, "since that character wasn't at all like this dude. Or, hopefully, he wasn't."

"It is a bit of a mystery," says Campion, a few hours before the film's Toronto premiere. She was planning to cast the role of Brown with a British actor when she saw "Assas- sination" and was impressed by the range between that character and the fumbling cad Schneider played in 2003's "All the Real Girls" with Zooey Deschanel. "I thought, 'Jeez, he's really versatile,' " Campion says, "and I really liked his atmosphere. It really drew me."

After their experience on "Bright Star," which opens Friday, Campion believes Schneider's talents are only beginning to be explored. "I feel like he's a kind of Jack Nicholson-like actor," she says. "He can do really wild things -- and he's smart. It's crazy but cogent."

Schneider's eccentric approach is illustrated by his unlikely role models for Charles Brown. Remembered almost exclusively for his relationship with the celebrated Romantic poet -- his biography, from which he disappears for pages at a time, is titled "The Friend of Keats" -- Brown was something of a historical cipher, and Schneider in any case had little interest in trying to re-create a man long dead.

Instead, he drew an analogy to the world of music, likening Brown to Roger Daltrey and Dave Gahan, the lead singers of, respectively, the Who and Depeche Mode. Overshadowed (at least in Schneider's account) by the guitarists who write the bulk of their bands' songs, those men had to resign themselves to realizing someone else's vision rather than creating their own.

"I relate to that in a way," he says. "I relate to not being the guy."

Schneider's first films were made with a group of friends from the North Carolina School of the Arts, including the director David Gordon Green.

But even though he co-wrote and starred in Green's "All the Real Girls," he still lacked the self-assurance to strike out on his own. It wasn't until Cameron Crowe tapped him for the part of Orlando Bloom's rock-dad cousin in 2005's "Elizabethtown" that Schneider felt he might have something to offer on his own.

"I'm sort of always going to be indebted to Cameron Crowe," he says, "because he was the first one who said, 'I like you. Let's go. You can do this alone.' And if he thought I could do it, then I thought I could do it too. In a way, he sort of made sure I wasn't going to grow up to be Charles Brown. I can grow up to be Paul Schneider and that's not such a terrible thing."

Although "Parks and Recreation" has struggled in the ratings, its audience still surpasses that of Schneider's films and logically ought to provoke greater concerns about losing his anonymity.

But it's "Bright Star" that worries him, perhaps because the characteristically understated actor has been singled out for praise. No doubt the physical transformation has much to do with that, and it has other compensations as well.

"When somebody like Jane is brave enough to let you be different, it helps you so much," he says. And, he notes, "It helps you in the grocery store years later. If all the people end up being right about this thing changing your life, at least you have a few levels of [physical] difference, because you can shed the weight and shave and cut your hair."

In addition to Schneider's range, Campion says it was his "bright and original" feedback on the script that helped him win the role.

But Schneider admits his penchant for processing is not always so useful. "Life is a really complex thing if you think as much about it as I do," he says, "and I'm not saying that like I think about it in a beneficial way. I'm just saying a lot. I'm not talking quality. I'm talking quantity."

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