Jason Schwartzman turns off the nice in 'Listen Up Philip'

Jason Schwartzman in 'Listen Up Philip'

Jason Schwartzman in 'Listen Up Philip' (October 20, 2014)

In my experience, “Listen Up Philip” star Jason Schwartzman is an accommodating, easygoing guy. Ask him what he’s been listening to, and he’ll go look at his music library (answer: Steve Gunn, Television, Ultravox and Caribou). Ask him to tell a joke, and he will: “How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A fish.” When I interviewed him in 2010 about “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” he spent most of the time kneeling on the floor, saying that’s more comfortable for him.

In “Listen Up Philip,” opening Friday, Philip’s (Schwartzman) demeanor is nothing like this. He’s spiteful and prickly, rude to his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) and difficult to work with. With his second novel on the way, he makes life miserable for photographers and says he refuses to do any press or interviews to promote a work that could use the publicity. It’s a character that might have made the movie unwatchable, but Schwartzman, who recently spoke to RedEye by phone, turns Philip into something fascinating, revealing, talkable and oddly funny.

Note: Schwartzman will participate in post-film Q&As following screenings at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Friday at Music Box.

Philip is not the easiest person to get along with. What tips do you have for people to deal with someone like that?
Be as honest as possible at all times. Because I think this character has very high expectations, and the best way to manage someone like that is to always be frank.

So if you don’t like the person’s behavior, just say, “You’re being kind of a dick right now”?
Um, that might be a bit more antagonistic. Maybe just walk away. Or just cut ‘em off—they kind of want that, maybe. That’s a good question; I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. You got me on that one. I only know how to argue for the prosecution.

It’s interesting that he’s an asshole but knows he is. How much do you think all assholes are aware of that?
Gosh, these are all really good questions. How much do I think assholes are aware that they’re being assholes? I don’t know. It’s hard to make a general thing, but I’m sure there’s a bunch of different variations of it and there are the ones that don’t know they’re being assholes. Which are probably worse. ‘Cause they just think they’re being normal.

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“Some muscles got activated in my body, specifically around my mouth where Philip would kind of just let loose on people. I don’t know if it’s any coincidence but since I’ve done this movie I’ve had two verbal altercations with people. And I had never had any before … I’m sure for us acting-wise, getting to say some of these lines without real consequence in the real world was kind of fun to do. To be able to say something like this and truly not care what people think about you was kind of liberating.”

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The Hollywood Reporter said, “Critics will embrace; audiences will steer clear.” What does that say about the notion of critics and audiences? I thought that was an unfortunate statement.
You’re really bringing out the big guns. In terms of in the larger sense what do I think about that in general or in the case of this movie?

This being a specific example of a general perception.
Yeah, well, you know, it’s tough, why people like things or why audiences go see things. Sometimes it seems like it can be predictable; other times it seems like no one knows what’s going to happen, even people with huge portions of their company trying to predict it. As to a schism between critics and audiences, I don’t really know, especially as it seems like everyone’s sort of a critic these days. It gets a little bit blurred in the sense that they are able to voice their opinion. To be honest I really don’t pay much attention to it, and I think that in the case of this movie it really does mean a lot of if someone likes [it]. A critic, they do have a platform, and a really smart critic, a well-written [piece] can definitely help a movie. People that we respect have taken to the movie and have written about it in a really thoughtful way. I think that’s great.

I hope that people will go see it, and I feel that anyone who does see it will feel rewarded because it’s so atypical in a great way. It’s hard to find a comedy or a movie comedy with this much happening in it. Also centered around characters that are so extreme. So many times the character they have to complete so many levels before the end of the movie so that by the end they have a little bag filled with this thing that I learned and this thing that I learned and this thing that I learned, but in this movie this character doesn’t have a bag. He has all of his luggage and he’s walking down the street with nowhere to go with it. So I think it’s interesting and funny.

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“The movie opens with Philip really laying into his ex-girlfriend for being a little bit late, and that tied together with the narration in the movie sets up a feeling that this is sort of new for him, and then goes right to another scene where he kind of rips an old college friend of his to shreds a little. And then he comes home bounding with joy like Tigger in ‘Winnie the Pooh’ at their pain, so perhaps there is some kind of rush from it. Because there is something probably that is a rush. Specifically when I recently got into a fight with this guy, my legs got heavy, my head got lightheaded, for a second I thought I was going to faint, then when it was over I felt really kind of exhilarated, so maybe it’s tied into that.”

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I hope that people have interest in things that are different and challenging. You of course have done a good job of doing those movies in your career. Every Wes Anderson film fits that bill. “Philip” might be asking more patience of the audience, but it’s a movie I’d want to tell people about and say “Watch out” but not “Run away.”

Yeah. I feel for sure when you make a movie that--it was so well-written, the script, but it also was so execution-dependent. It’s got so much going on it that it’s a testament to the directing and his writing and conception of it that it’s all figured out. It was such a strange feeling to watch it for the first time at Sundance. To have a room full of people laugh at something that is by so many accounts not typically funny but it is so extreme and abrasive that you do kind of—that’s a [fascinating] response. It’s just weird. It’s like being punched and smiling after ‘cause you just can’t believe the person just hit you.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at 11:30 a.m. on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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