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Jason Schwartzman on His Roman Coppola Movie, Girls, and Parks and Rec

In Roman Coppola’s off-kilter A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Jason Schwartzman plays a bon vivant who tries to cheer up his lovelorn, cool-guy best friend (Charlie Sheen). The charismatic Schwartzman does a valiant job stealing most scenes he’s in, thanks in big part to his thrift-store Fellini wardrobe, which includes an unforgettable Star of David–festooned cowboy getup. Vulture sat down with the actor, who geeked out over frequent co-star Bill Murray (who also appears in Swan), Girls’ Lena Dunham, and working with the cast of Parks and Recreation.

What was the inspiration for your insane wardrobe in this movie?
Roman sent me a folder with all of these images of inspiration. Like, there were images of David Geffen from the seventies, Martin Scorsese ... The really fun thing was that we only had 23 days to shoot on a very small budget — we were shooting it at Roman’s house. He bought most of the costumes himself on eBay. With a movie with a little more time and money, all day long you’ll be in [the same] outfit. But on a movie like this, you’re shooting so much in one day. So, like, in the morning, I’m dressed as Carmen Miranda, putting this thing [on my head] and putting on heels, then I’m dressed like Liberace and they’re shoving pie in my face, then I’m dressed as a cowboy.

Were your beard and ’fro real?
The beard was real. The hair was a wig. We were shooting on Halloween day last year in Hollywood. And I went to go meet my wife and kid for food, walking on the street. And these vampires and Frankensteins walked by me, and I hear someone say, “That motherfucker thinks he’s Jeff Lynne” — who’s the singer from ELO. I was like, Don’t judge me!

Is Charlie Sheen as eccentric in real life as he would seem?
He’s awesome. He’s supersmart — he has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies! He’s very casual and easy to be around. He’s a big part of my life growing up in the eighties: Platoon, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Wall Street. I can’t speak for the other life of things he’s done, but when he came to work, he was so focused. Not to say people have forgotten that, but there’s a lot of other things on his Wikipedia page now. And I think [his work ethic] should be the first thing.

What was it like filming scenes with Charlie and Bill together?
There’s this race-car game when you’re in the arcade. You can be driving, and you can push these different buttons, and it changes your point of view. Like, you can be in the car, outside the car, above the car, and then really, really high above the car. I was having those sort of POV switches while we were shooting. I would be working with them in the scene, and then all of a sudden I’d zoom out of my body and go, “Jason, what are you doing in a car with Bill Murray and Charlie Sheen right now?” And they got along great.

You’ve worked with Bill many times now. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from him?
He’s a very sensitive man in that he always wants everyone to have a crack at the moment. He has a really good sense of harmony. Not singing harmony. But like, “Hey that person hasn’t talked in a while — what are you thinking about right now?” Even in conversation, he wants everyone to be equally involved. He just loosens up a room and gets everyone excited. He really knows how to get in there and shake up your jelly.

And your work with him on Rushmore paved the way for your second-ever role: playing a kid who sold fake I.D.'s on Freaks and Geeks. Did you ever have one growing up?
I never had a fake I.D. I’m too afraid of the law and breaking the rules. I’m not a do-gooder, but I constantly got in trouble in high school. I have a combo of, like, I want older people and authority figures to like me and to trust me. But at the same time, I have a part of myself that hates those people.

You sound like your Rushmore character.
Yeah. If I found out that a person in power is misusing their power or being mean to people, it makes me just wanna, like, become rebellious toward them.

Would you ever work with Judd Apatow on TV again? Can you please do a stint on Girls, which he produces?
I would love to be on that show. I think Lena Dunham is incredible. I would totally do it. Judd and I don’t have any plans, but we are always talking, sending e-mails and links to things that we like. Like, I just got a link from him to Keith Moon’s final interview.

Your next TV appearance will be on Parks and Recreation playing a video-store owner in peril.
My favorite kind of humor does not come from making fun of people. It comes from people trying to do the right thing, or they are genuinely doing something and their plans get thwarted and they fuck up in some way. That’s what I love about that show. The humor really doesn’t come from a mean place, and yet it’s not soft and gushy. It’s so precise. I know a lot of people who work in record stores and video stores, and when I first talked to [creator] Michael Schur about it, I just said, “All I wanna do is make sure the vibe is not to come in and mock a video-store guy.” I don’t watch a lot of television, but that show is really near and dear to me.

You’ve done a few films with Aubrey Plaza — is that how you met Michael Schur?
No. I met him a long time ago before the show. We were trying to collaborate on something together, but it didn’t end up happening. It was a movie — I can’t tell you more. Maybe one day it can happen. But we remained friends. And I know Aubrey, of course, and Rashida. I swore I would never be the guy who petitions, “Can I be in your thing?” But honestly, there came a point where every time I would see one of them, I’d be like, “Can I please be a part of the show?” For years. And I got a call just before Christmas. But then it’s nerve-racking because you care so much you don’t wanna be terrible.

Despite your sorta-famous upbringing, did you ever have any jobs growing up?
Well, I started really young, at 13, playing in clubs in L.A. That’s how I made money. A lot of the clubs in L.A., you get your hand stamped so it says, like, “I can’t drink.” We played the Viper Room a lot, and before you played, you had to wait outside because you’re not legally allowed in there. When the band before you ends, you run in and play — then run out again.

I noticed you’re doing a voice in Trolls, a kids film. As a father to a 2-year-old, does having a child affect the roles you choose?
It does make me think about, for sure, my kid and how things the I do … I don’t wanna put something too negative out in the world. But I’m not gonna let that kid get in the way of my fun.

Photo: CLINT SPAULDING/Patrick McMullan