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Interview: Jason Schwartzman defends his cruel 'Listen Up Philip' character (sort of)

Jason Schwartzman defends his "Listen Up Philip" character — a novelist who decides to be cruel and burn bridges —if up to a point.

Jason Schwartzman attends a screening of "Listen Up Philip" in Locarno, Switzerland. Credit: Getty Images Jason Schwartzman attends a screening of "Listen Up Philip" in Locarno, Switzerland.
Credit: Getty Images

When he received the script for “Listen Up Philip,” Jason Schwartzman was taken aback by both the material — in which he wound up playing a young novelist who consciously decides to be more of an asshole, including to his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) — and the size of the script. It was as big as a phone book.

“Most scripts are 1100 pages. This was 160, 170,” Schwartzman recalls. “And it was very well-written — which I admire, because a lot of scripts aren’t. They’re just blueprints, just to get simple ideas across. But Alex’s read like you could just read it and not have to see the movie, in a weird way. The pleasure of reading it was nice, but very uncomfortable.”

That’s a good thing too since Schwartzman wound up re-reading it often. Jeff Goldblum, his fellow “The Grand Budapest Hotel” ensemble cast member, gave him some advice. “He told me when he gets a job, he reads the script every day, from start to finish. That could be 40 times he might read a script. I decided I wanted to try that, to read the Jeff Goldblum way,” he says. Part of that was out of necessity. “It’s so dense, there’s so much dialogue. It’s only going to work if you know it and can say it fast.”

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He still had to contend with playing a character who, for most people, will be unlikable — who is rude and dismissive and insulting to most of the characters, who burns bridges because he feel he can, who idolizes a miserable, Philip Roth-y hero (Jonathan Pryce). But softening him, Schwartzman argues, would make him worse.

“Every time we’d experiment with making him more likable, we’d make him more unlikable, because he became passive-aggressive — which I feel is the worst. If you’re passive-aggressive, that’s the lowest,” Schwartzman says. “It became great that Philip was so direct and clear. You kind of always knew where you stood with him. There’s something fun about that. If the character was saying mean things only here and there, it’d be a different movie. But it’s so extreme, it’s in the red. You just had to say ‘F— it, this is gong to be in the red. Let’s just play it loud.’”

Jason Schwartzman (drinking scotch with Jonathan Pryce) plays a jerkish novelist in "Listen Up Philip." Credit: Tribeca Film Jason Schwartzman (drinking scotch with Jonathan Pryce) plays a jerkish novelist in "Listen Up Philip."
Credit: Tribeca Film

Not that his better half is all that better. Moss told Schwartzman that she wanted to play her character, Ashley, like a version of Philip. “They’re not that different. Even though she’s sweeter, she too is self-consumed. She wouldn’t be an easy person to date,” he says. By the time they were on-set they’re were arguing, almost in character. “I was sticking up for Philip, whose actions are sometimes just terrible. And I said, ‘Look, you don’t exactly make it easy.’ I only saw it from his point of view.”

If Philip has any redeeming qualities it’s that he wasn’t always this way. “Alex and I talked about him as a guy who was drinking a little bit, then drinking a little bit more, and then drinking a little bit more, and before you knew it he was addicted,” reveals Schwartzman. “Maybe in the beginning he’s experimenting with being so brutally mean and cruel, and it slowly overtakes him before he realizes he’s lost touch.”

Perry would say that the film is about “mishandling success.” “He was saying he had been at some film festivals and he would come back and he had met his heroes. He thought, what if a guy came back and was just like a d— to some of his friends? And slowly he became more and more detached from his world. What would that movie be?” Schwartzman says. “That’s’ what this is — someone who got some success from his first book, and his hero likes him and he’s written about. And he just severs all ties.”

Read our interviews with "Listen Up Philip" costar Elisabeth Mossand directorAlex Ross Perry.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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