Interview: Elisabeth Moss talks 'Listen Up Philip' and playing bad relationships
"Listen Up Philip" star Elisabeth Moss discusses playing someone who's dating a guy who's become a jerk and acting in a really low budget film.
The script for “Listen Up Philip” grabbed Elisabeth Moss from the opening scene. It starts with its titular young novelist (played in the film by Jason Schwartzman) blowing up on a reliably late ex-girlfriend. Moss’ character, Ashley, isn’t immune to his hostility; she’s his girlfriend, and she’s taken aback when he suddenly, thanks to his new book, ups his assholishness and dumps her. The experience wasn’t itself unpleasant; she’s already reunited with writer-director Alex Ross Perry for the thriller “Queen of Earth,” which just wrapped.
So much of the press for this has involved what a jerk Philip is. But Schwatzman gives him at least notes of vulnerability.
I knew Jason would bring humor and humanity. He wanted him to be somebody you wanted to watch. He couldn’t be so miserable that you didn’t want to watch him. I remember saying to Jason, “I don’t know how to describe this to you, but you’re going to be fine. [Laughs] You’re so interesting to watch, and he’s such an interesting character. People are going to want to watch you do this.”
Still, it’s not like your character is just a doormat. She has issues too.
We asked, “How are these two people together?” We don’t really show them happy. We only show them when they’re not doing well. Then we started filming and we realized there’s so much of Philip in Ashley: the way she can isolate herself, she’s independent and strong-willed. She can be grumpy too. That’s probably what drew them together in the first place. The only difference is Ashley doesn’t carry that into her relationship. Philip does.
She’s able to realize he’s just a jerk.
I loved the idea of this woman going, “Wait a second, you’re an a—hole, and I don’t want to be treated like that.” She wakes up and goes, “You’re just not a nice person.” [Laughs]
He’s still hard for her to shake, even after he’s been unbelievably terrible to her.
That’s the nature of relationships. Even if you’re with someone you shouldn’t be, you still love them. You still have an attachment to them.
Though Philip wasn’t always this cruel, it’s hard imagining him ever been nice.
He becomes more of an asshole as he gets successful. It brings out the worst in him. But his misanthropic nature was probably attractive in the beginning. Because he is funny. He’s an a—hole but not just in a d—y way. He’s quite smart about it. That attracted her to him at first. And then it turns on her. She’s like, “It was funny when you were talking about other people, but now that you’re talking about me, this no longer works for me.” [Laughs]
A—holishness can be attractive.
Exactly. Sometimes the things that attract you to someone are the things that make you break up with them. [Laughs] “This was super-cute at first, but you’re just a d—.”
Perry shot this on Super 16mm, and the camera is often pushed into people’s faces.
Alex and Sean Price Williams [the cinematorgrapher] wanted it to be very mobile. They wanted it to look like “Husbands and Wives,” the Woody Allen film. There the camera constantly moves and the actors are constantly moving. Sometimes the camera stays on an actor who’s not talking, on someone who’s listening while people speak in another room. It really affected how we did those fight scenes. They’re constantly in movement, going from one room to the next, talking and walking.
Was Williams like another actor in a way?
He happens to be 6’4”, so he’s not exactly a man who can blend into the scenery easily. You’d be surprised by how he can just shrink behind the wall. Sometimes we would bump into furniture. It was really fun and different. Movies aren’t made like that anymore.
Perry’s “Queen of Earth” sounds quite different.
It’s very different from “Listen Up Philip,” but it’s still a story about miserable people, an element that Alex likes to make films about. But this is two miserable women, and it’s much more Polanski. It will be a strange movie. I joke that if you thought “Listen Up Philip” was a comedy…” [Laughs] The idea of “Listen Up Philip” being a comedy is already questionable, and then he went and made a movie that’s not funny at all.
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