Jason Schwartzman tackles a character you will love to hate

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One thing about Jason Schwartzman: He’s an actor who truly has mixed it up when it comes to the movie roles he’s chosen to do. From his breakout as Max Fischer in “Rushmore” in 1998 to “Slackers” and “I Heart Huckabees,” to his Louis XVI in “Marie Antoinette,” to “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Schwartzman has delivered quite a few memorable, often quirky characters.

With “Listen Up Philip,” the actor again has dived into a role that stands out, in a way far different from how we’ve seen Schwartzman in the past. Frankly, it’s likely the most unlikable character he’s ever played. Schwarzman’s Philip takes the concept of “self-absorbed” to a whole new level! Philip’s first novel was a huge success and we meet him as his second, widely anticipated book is about to be published. “Listen Up Philip” will open at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, on Friday. Schwartzman will be present and conduct a Q&A with the audience following the 6 and 8:30 screenings on Friday evening.

When we spoke recently, the actor stressed that he didn’t tackle the title role in writer and director Alex Ross Perry’s new film to take his career on a new path, “but simply because I was so blown away by the script when I first read it.” The actor shared something he learned from a conversation he had with Perry very early on. The writer-director of “Listen Up Philip,” best known for his acclaimed independent movie “The Color Wheel,” told Schwartzman that this new project delves into the whole concept of success and how that can be very different in different settings.

“Alex noted that in Hollywood success is measured by so many things relating to money — big money with high stakes. It’s all about the box office and those opening weekend numbers. But in New York, where ‘Listen Up Philip’ is set in the world of book publishing and the art world, it’s totally different — even when it comes to filmmaking. In New York, in my world,” said Schwartzman, “you can make a movie that can play for one day, in front of 10 people at a film festival, and — if it’s the right 10 people — it can change your life.”

Yet, beyond all that, Schwartzman did point out that “Listen Up Philip” is also largely about “someone who has a certain life, has some success, and then starts misusing it.”

The film also stars “Mad Men” mainstay Elisabeth Moss, as the very talented photographer girlfriend who Philip constantly berates and belittles. Moss’ Ashley character puts her own career on the backburner in order to pay heed to all of Philip’s whims and demands. Veteran actor Jonathan Pryce plays a key role as one of the few people Philip respects: a noted author who is really an older version of Philip — and perhaps representative of where Philip is headed, if he doesn’t alter his ways.

Schwartzman, who is widely known in Hollywood and New York as a good guy, admitted it was a bit difficult for him to dive into playing the horribly selfish and often mean-spirited Philip.

“Recently I yelled at somebody,” said Schwartzman. “Now, I’m not a man who likes conflict, but for the first time in my life I really kind of laid into somebody. And I think it’s because of this movie. I was shaking afterward. My legs were shaking. I said some stuff to this person that was not nice. I wonder if it’s like some weird muscle memory from having played this role!”

However, Schwartzman chuckled when asked if it was fun to throw some of those horribly demeaning and insulting lines at his fellow actors. “It was the best. It was funny,” said the actor, who explained that when he first got the part he asked Perry if perhaps some of the dialogue was too sharp, too over-the-top.

Working with Perry, Schwartzman attempted to soften his personification of Philip, but “it just didn’t work. … Oddly enough, going for that approach simply made him seem passive-aggressive and it undercut what we were trying to do here.”

Once they had decided not to change the script, it was truly “pedal to the metal” and full-out nastiness. “This thing is constructed in a way that this character is supposed to operate that way,” he added, making a comparison to the music world. After all, Schwartzman was long a drummer with his L.A.-based band Phantom Planet, and more recently has performed and recorded as a solo act.

“There’s some guitars that have like a buzz in them,” said Schwartzman. “You try to get a new cable or a new amp or a different microphone to get rid of that buzz, but you realize you just can’t. It’s simply in it because it’s how it was made. So, you realize you need to make that buzz part of the song.

“That’s sort of what like Philip’s character is all about. He has this annoying buzz in him that you know is flawed, but as an actor you just have to go with it and embrace it. In a way it is cool that he is so direct and has no filter. He can be awfully cruel and rude, but I came to appreciate that was simply what he was all about.”

Schwartzman even came up with another analogy: “I like to also say it’s like drinking champagne or fine wine. It tastes delicious, but it sneaks up on you in the end, if you drink too much. In a way, it can hurt you more in the end.

“But vodka is more astringent and direct. There’s nothing subtle or passive-aggressive about it. It’s pure aggression. It may be harder to taste, but you always know where you stand at all times,” added Schwartzman with a big laugh.

“I kind of like to use that comparison to describe Philip. There is nothing subtle about him!”

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