JASON SCHWARTZMAN IN SPIN
MAY THE SCHWARTZ BE WITH YOU
by Dana Shapiro | Photographs by Anthony Mandler
It's been two years since he made his indelible mark as the chess club-heading, dead language-loving, beekeeping mad playwright Max Fischer in Rushmore. But Jason Schwartzman - whose new movie opens imminently - doesn't know if he deserves the cult-heo mantle. Or if he even wants it.
Fans of the fringe tend to wear their hearts on their T-shirts. And because the inner circle is rarely as tight as one thinks, the hopelessly devoted often find themselves in similar outfits. Twenty-year-old Jason Schwartzman, best known for playing the indefatigable Max Fischer in 1998's Rushmore, soon to be seen as Cool Ethan in the tentatively titled Hooking Up Ethan, says, "Oh, I don't know" when asked if he's become a cult hero. "The word cult is never in my head. Ever. I just think people rock or they don't."
There's a skull and crossbones, black, in the upper-right corner of Schwartzman's blue shirt, likely a size medium - he stands an even 5'5". His seat belt fastened, the son of Rocky actress Talia Shire (and nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage and Sofia Coppola) is driving his Chevy Blazer through Hollywood, on his way to the frame store to pick up a black-and-white photo of the Who playing Woodstock in 1969. Schwartzman, who's hoping to get the role of Keith Moon in an upcoming biopic, sings along to the latest Radiohead CD, then the Stooges and the Apples in Stereo. Then he plays a song from his own pop-rock band, Phantom Planet (he's the drummer; their '98 debut was released on Geffen). Between songs, he says he's never seen anyone wearing a T-shirt with his face on it, but that Max, with his crested blazer and glasses, has been an inspiration for trick-or-treaters. "I've seen a lot of 'em as Halloween costumes," he says. "So I guess that is sort of cultish."
Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore and 1996's Bottle Rocket, has also seen his share of Max costumes, and he's seen posters of the lovesick over-achiever tacked to walls in college dorm rooms. And while he recognizes the fervent following for his nostalgic tale of a renaissance boy's battles with a childlike man for the affections of a first-grade teacher, he doesn't consider Rushmore a cult film. "It's a cult movie if you have that kind of devotion and nobody went to see it," he says. (Released by Disney, gushed over by critics, Rushmore made a modest $17 million at the box office.)
"The great thing about Rushmore is that it's as cool as can be, and it's not dark and cynical," says Dewey Nicks, who directed Schwartzman's latest release, a black comedy about a young boy (Schwartzman) who's totally infatuated (see initials shaved into his chest hair) with a pretty girl (see model James King). "Some people used to call Caddyshack a cult film," says Bill Murray, who played Herman Blume, Max's good friend/mortal enemy in Rushmore. "I never thought there was a cult, but it just touched certain people - like the characer Jason plays in Rushmore."
At the fram store, Schwartzman seems touched by the Who picture. "This is kickass - it's big, it's good," he says of the chunky black border surrounding Pete Townshend on his knees. He stands back, pleased, admiring the handiwork. "Woodstock, 1969 - the year the '60s died," Schwartzman says rhetorically. "What was it like in '69?" he asks the framer, and older guy with a beret and a beard who looks like he's seen his share of midnight movies.
"I was so busy making posters then," says the man. "I made, like 60 posters. They're collector's items now."
Schwartzman smiles. "It's pretty cool to make something and then have it become a collector's item."
On the way to Schwartzman's favorite place for hickory burgers, root beer, and pecan pie, we drive by a Dumpster packed full of dented pumpkins. "Sometimes I feel like that," he says, and then the conversation turns to the Peanuts Halloween special and how Charlie Brown was an inspiration for Max Fischer. Asked if he's sentimental about the past, Schwartzman says, "Yeah, but I'm nostalgic. Like, little words will come up - you'll say things like, let's book. Or you'll remember things like T&C Surf, or, like, when Cacus Cooler was really huge. Or when there was a feart that you could get kidnapped. Or, like, getting lice is something I used to get checked for. Having your shoes untied, Tab, diet Rite....
"Yeah! Jinx - can't say your name!"
Owen Wilson [cowriter of Rushmore] mentioned petrified wood.
"Petrified wood wasn't relly big for me."
Have you ever been punched in the face?
"Well, there was this one kid, but I didn't fight back because he was bigger than me, and he had a ducktail. There was this huge spiderweb in my elementary school, and he goes, 'Look at that spider!' and just pushed me right into it. I really hated him for it."
Did you have a favorite Dr. Seuss book?
"Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
"Because it's optimistic."
In addition to avoiding boys with ducktails, Schwartzman, like Max, spent much of his adolescence writing and directing plays. But unlike Max, who was a barber's son and staged his productions in school auditoriums, Schwartzman's works were produced at the Coppola creativity camp, a loosely structured event designed to encourage artistic hunches and royal-family bonding. There were affectionate audiences, willing mentors, access to a soundstage, a prop warehouse, even dry ice. "It was really great," Schwartzman says. "It was the first time I remember being taken really seriously. I had actors who were, like, 40, and I was directing them."
Schwartzman says the play he's most proud of writing is called The True Confessions of Wade Suss, which he sescribes as "sort of like a Eugene O'Neill thing." He's always been an avid reader and says there was always music in his house growing up. He went to a small, private high school and for the time being has decided against college. He says he's a patriotic but that he'd rather have fought in a Viking standoff than any of the great wars. His favorite Rocky movie is the original. He's half-Jewish, half-Roman Catholic, hasn't had a bar mitzvah, and doesn't want to talk about that stuff because he says he doesn't know what he's talking about. His dad, Jack, a movie producer, died when Jason was 14.
"I had a really good dad," he says, "and it's important to really try not to forget. The ironic thing is that I have all these videos he made, but I don't have videos of him. You just sort of hear his voice off-camera, giving me directions like, 'Stand up, Jason; sit down.'"
"I always forget that Jason is so young," says his 29-year-old cousin Sofia Coppola (director of The Virgin Suicides and wife of Spike Jonze). "I guess some people just look at the world differently."
After finally seeing the 25th anniversary release of The Godfather in 1997 (his mom played Don Corleone's daughter), Schwartzman started viewing his career goals differently. "That was the first time I thought that maybe I would like to act. And then four months later I got Rushmore."
It was the second role he ever tried out for (he didn't get the part of the little boy, Jonas, in Sleepless in Seattle). After an exhaustive and unsuccessful search of three countries and 1,800 potential Maxes, Wes Anderson (who wrote Max as a pale, skinny kid with swept-back hair) almost canceled the project altogether. And then one night at a party at Francis Ford Coppola's house, Anderson's frustrated casting director found a sympathetic ear in Sofia, who said her 17-year-old cousin Jason would be perfect as a horny high school kid with a penchant for playwriting and older women.
Schwartzman's latest role as Cool Ethan treads slightly on Max's turf, but the actor says he's not worried about being shadowed by his breakthrough character. "I definitely went through a period where I felt pressure, but to try to find another Rushmore would be like shooting myself in the foot," he says. (He'll appear in the next film by Three Kings director David O. Russell and the upcoming Simone, starring Al Pacino.) "I think Rushmore was a very special thing, and something like that will never be duplicated, by me or by Wes."
After finishing the burgers and pie, Schwartzman agrees to go to a store called Psychic for a palm and face reading. Inside, the lights are fluorescent, the furniture is gold-plated and fringy, and the fortune-teller seems a little too into her part. "Can you wait outside?" she asks me. "I'm picking up your signal."
According to Schwartzman, her powers of insight skewed toward the more general side of soul-gazing: Something's bothering you; you're not getting everything you want; pursue your dreams. Then she really betrayed the crystal college by asking this recent darling of the movie media what he does for a living.
"I'm an actor," he said.
"What were you in?" she asked.
She paused. "Never heard of it."
The idea of a psychic never having heard of Rushmore brings us back to the whole cult-hero thing, and Schwartzman takes the opportunity to lay the semantics to rest. "You know, cult sometimes has this connotation of being like, an anger movement, or a misunderstood movement," he says. "But I don't think so at all. I think it's all so personal. Like , have you ever seen My Bodyguard? The yound kid in that [Chris Makepeace] is like a cult hero to me. But I don't know. Maybe cult is just a section at Blockbuster."