Exclusive Q&A: Jason Schwartzman Is Crafty as a Fox

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Fantastic Mr. Fox, a children’s story about an artful poultry-stealing gentleman fox, was written by Roald Dahl in 1970. 39 years later, indie director Wes Anderson brings Mr. Fox and his brethren to the silver screen with minutely detailed stop-motion animation and trademark Anderson quirk.

Jason Schwartzman, the voice of Ash Fox, describes this new venture in storytelling as “familiar, but on some new trip,” and he would know. Though he’s worked with Anderson, his self-professed “best friend,” on two previous movies and one short film, Fantastic Mr. Fox presented new challenges in movie-making: imagine, for example, the core characters gathering on a farm in Connecticut to record dialogue in real time, complete with howling, digging in the dirt, and wind whistling through trees. The result, a surprising and thoroughly delightful romp through a literary English countryside, is a new tableau to which Anderson has applied his singular, curated vision.

We sat down with Schwartzman to talk BFFs, script vetting, and his experience with not getting the girl.

On Working with Director Wes Anderson

Each time I’ve worked with Wes it’s been so completely different. In Rushmore I was 17 years old and it was my first time ever acting. He was 27. Darjeeling Limited, we wrote the movie together over two-and-a-half years, and we shot it on a real moving train in India. All of the actors living together in one house, that was a bizarre, beautiful, and unique experience. With this movie, there were no cameras. Just the actors, Wes, and the sound guy, Stuart.

There’s something familiar about working with Wes all these years, I mean, he’s my best friend and we have such a shared experience. There’s a lot we have in common, so there’s a bit of shorthand. But each time we work together the situation is so different that it doesn’t make the work any easier. It’s like a science experiment: the movie or location is the variable, and we’re the constant. The one thing you know will be true with Wes is that it’s going to be unorthodox, and it’s going to be an adventure.

On Hollywood

The movie industry is amazing but totally mysterious in that things come about in every weird way you can imagine. Especially when you read old books about Hollywood, like ’70s American movies. In my case, it’s not an easy thing; I’m not an actor who can be like ‘I want that, and I want that, and that.’ There are certain actors who can order a role like a pizza: ‘I want to be in that, bring it to me.’ For me to be in a movie, I read a lot of scripts and try to know everything that’s out there, at all costs.

On Vetting Scripts

I like to work with writer/directors a lot. What I’m looking for is whether the writer knows what he wants. Is there a clear idea? Is it well written? Is this going to be a good movie? And I can tell in the first five pages.

On Being an Awkward Adolescent

When I read this character, I thought twelve-year-old, thirteen-year-old kid who wants to be a better athlete, really likes a girl who doesn’t like him back, and she likes someone very close to him that he in fact lives with. His dad is an incredible figure. He’s different – he wears a cape! Except for the dad part, because I had a very good relationship with my dad… I didn’t feel like I was a great athlete, or hit a growth spurt until later. I liked a lot of girls who didn’t like me back, and all of that was a very real experience. So in doing the movie it wasn’t hard to tap into [those feelings]. The main difference is I never went grumpy with it; I tried harder and harder to be funny, like pull a chair out from under me and you’re on the ground and everyone’s laughing and you think they must like me! You become a clown and do a lot of things to your own detriment that get you big laughs. But Ash doesn’t want laughs, he just wants to be liked. He’s grumpy and he spits. He’s more of a misfit. He’s angrier. I was probably angry on the inside but you would never have known that.

On Movies, Bad vs. Good

It’s weird to talk about acting in print because then you could be in a bad movie and someone calls you out on something you said two years ago. You try your best to make a good film and sometimes it just works out to be not what you thought. But I have to real interest in acting, not just to do something crazy and wear a straitjacket and spit on people. I’m more interested in being part of a good movie, part of a movie that I would want to go see, for the sake of telling a larger story.

On Playing Characters Who Are Loveable Oddballs with Trouble Getting the Girl

It’s not like I’m writing the script, the characters are already there and coincidentally it’s what these characters are going through. But find that I like characters who are on an edge. They’re dissatisfied. In life, I like people who don’t know everything that’s going to happen. I’m nervous around people who know exactly what they want to do with their lives: everything’s great, I’m set, I’m in school, got the kids… I’m fascinated by people who are open about being happy, but wanting more.

On the Bored to Death Theme Song

Jonathan Ames asked one night if I would – ‘Oh my God, Jason, you should write the music.’ And I was so excited, as long as I wasn’t taking someone else’s job. I didn’t want it to be a power trip thing. I did it under the condition of, if no one likes this, by no means are my feelings going to be hurt.

On Back Pain

I’m going to do all the rest of my interviews on the ground.

Mr. Schwartzman, in one of our favorite ad campaigns by Band of Outsiders, for its Fall 2009 collection.

Bonus: Fox Searchlight is hosting free screenings of Fantastic Mr. Fox on theaters nationwide November 23 and 24. RSVP here.