When Jason Schwartzman shot Wes Anderson’s 1998 breakthrough comedy Rushmore, his very first on-screen performance, the actor was just 17 years old. Playing Max Fischer, a precocious teen who struggles at an elite private school as he mourns his late mother, Schwartzman delivered a wry performance that bounced expertly off the surly surrogate father figure played by Bill Murray, who was 47 at the time.
In the new film Asteroid City, Schwartzman’s seventh collaboration with Anderson, the now 42-year-old actor finds himself playing the on-screen father this time, starring as Augie, a jaded war photographer in 1950s Texas who struggles with telling his four children that their mother has died. On paper, this seems like the perfect kind of full-circle moment for the actor. But Schwartzman himself doesn’t quite see it that way.
“Full circle, I don’t know, but may I use a metaphor?” Schwartzman says over the phone. “I was standing in a long line recently, it felt like it was never moving. But then I realized that there were people behind me, and more people had come along, and they had certainly moved further ahead. I just couldn’t perceive it myself. I tend to not really think about where I am, where I was.”
The actor did, though, feel the faintest futz of a lightbulb go off when he realized that Jake Ryan, the actor playing his son in Asteroid City, was 17 during production. And Ryan – appearing in his third Anderson film – was also beginning to develop the kind of collaborative relationship that Schwartzman started with his director a quarter-century ago.
“It was piecing little things together and realizing that, wow, I now get to access a whole other level of characters that I haven’t been able to do before, in Wes’s movies,” Schwartzman says. “I appreciate that it’s this new space.”
Augie is not only a new kind of character for Schwartzman, but an immensely challenging one, given the meta-contextual conceit of Asteroid City. On the surface, the film follows a group of families attending a Junior Stargazer convention in the middle of nowhere, including Augie’s brood. But those events are actually taking place within a play written by a legendary author (played by Edward Norton) whose development process is being chronicled by a Playhouse 90-like television show. So not only is Schwartzman playing grieving father Augie, but also Jones, the actor playing Augie.
“As I’ve been talking with other actors and listening to them do press, so many start by saying that they were playing their ‘actor’ character first and then their ‘Asteroid City’ character. I just don’t say anything because I’m like, jeez, I should have done it that way,” Schwartzman says with a laugh. “My thing was, in the beginning Augie was real to me. Not a meta-character. And then I worked backward.”
As is typical for Schwartzman’s work with Anderson, the actor embarked on a heavy period of preparation, one filled with trial and error. Basing Augie’s mannerisms and appearance on Stanley Kubrick – down to the beard – Schwartzman went about as deep as the famed 2001 director would on his own films, finding a vintage camera on eBay and even building his own dark room in his home, as Augie might.
“I spent a lot of July trying to find out where the light was leaking in from,” Schwartzman recalls. “I tried to study photography, reading about [war photographer] Robert Capa. Every time Augie is taking a photograph in the movie, that’s really me with a working camera and a roll of film. I don’t want to develop them, though, because I don’t want to see them. Wes loves that kind of thing, though. He’s very encouraging.”
While Anderson’s style has certainly matured and become refined over the years – Asteroid City is both cut from the same immaculately tailored cloth as Rushmore while being a richer, more layered fit for the director’s singular aesthetic – the way he works with his cast, according to Schwartzman, has remained largely the same.
“We try to commiserate every night after shooting, get all the people there together, because it helps with the work, it makes it more challenging and more fun,” he says. “The only thing I really noticed this time: He waits a little bit longer now to say, ‘cut.’ Though I’m not sure what that really means.”
While maintaining close ties with Anderson, Schwartzman has also been able to align himself with a wealth of other marquee comedy names over the course of his career, including Judd Apatow (Funny People), Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Jonathan Ames (HBO’s Bored to Death). But this year may be the actor’s biggest yet. Not only does he have a pivotal role in Asteroid City – the lead, really, edging out an Oscars telecast worth of co-stars, including Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks and Norton – but juicy parts in both megafranchises (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the coming Hunger Games prequel) and highly anticipated indie fare (his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s long-in-the-works Megalopolis).
Still, perhaps Schwartzman values his collaboration with Anderson more than any other working relationship.
“Looking back, wow, Wes was only 27 when he directed Rushmore,” Schwartzman says. “So maybe it is hard for me to tell the difference now – you know that thing where someone who is two grades above you will always feel two grades above you? Things remain the same. In my mind, he’s always been doing it right.”
Asteroid City opens in theatres June 23.