Adored by Parks and Recreation devotees as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, Pawnee’s favorite trust-fund deadbeat, comedian Ben Schwartz makes a foray into drama with a critical role in Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You. The film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s beloved novel unites a cast of unparalleled heavyweights (Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Rose Byrne, the list goes on) as a bereaved family in the midst of a weeklong shiva imposed upon them by Schwartz’s character, a youthful rabbi with a hint of Jean-Ralphio desperation. The Upright Citizens Brigade veteran currently stars on Showtime’s House of Lies and will continue making inroads into drama with The Walk, a recently wrapped, Robert Zemeckis biopic about Philippe Petit’s famed high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Vulture spoke to Schwartz about becoming a “hip” rabbi, getting Jane Fonda to try improv, and bidding adieu to his Jean-Ralphio hair.
I just saw this movie and loved it. Was it a concerted effort, taking this part, to move past strictly comedic roles, or did it happen more organically?
The way that I’ve always played it is I try and put myself around the people that I really admire. So from Parks and Rec to House of Lies, to be around Don Cheadle, I figured if I was around him I’d get better at what I do. And then same with Shawn Levy and then Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Those are the opportunities where the second you see them if there’s a chance you just jump on it like crazy. But there’s always that joy that you get when you try to do something a little bit different. Like, House of Lies is a little bit more dramatic, and then The Walk was definitely more dramatic, and this was a step in the right direction as well. To flex different muscles is such an exciting thing for me because I do just come from a very comedic background.
This Is Where I Leave You has such an incredible cast. Was there anyone in particular that you were super excited to be working with?
It was crazy because I’m a huge Arrested Development fan, and Bateman, who I’d met once or twice, I find him so incredibly funny. Then you have Tina Fey and then slowly you saw who else was getting in the movie. I remember when we did the table read, it was just hilarious to me that you look around the room and every single person was someone you recognized — not only recognized but admired. And then Jane Fonda. You know, these legends of what we do. So it was just one of those perfect, perfect casts. It’s very rare that you get so many people and everybody was kind. If you’ve seen the movie, you see a lot of it takes place in one house. There’s a bunch of scenes that take place in one house. And we were just hanging out in that house for weeks and that was, you know if you have a cool cast and everyone’s a genuine, nice human being it become a lovely experience. I never went to sleep-away camp, but I assume that’s what sleep-away camp feels like.
That’d be a fun sleep-away camp.
Yeah, that would be the funniest sleep-away camp in the world.
Was there a lot of humor on set between takes with so many comedy gods?
Yeah, we all did bits and we all played around and messed around with each other. There was a lot of joking. When you get a bunch of funny human beings together, I think there’s always going to be silly bits or whatever no matter what the thing is. I think it really helped that we kept playing with each other the whole time, because I’m supposed to be best friends with all of them and they’re supposed to be a tightly knit family so the more we play around, the closer we get, the more you see it onscreen.
I’ve never seen a real rabbi that’s anything like your character.
I was hoping for some reason that you were going to be like I’ve never seen a movie before. How does that work? Are they all 90 minutes?
Start with the basics. No, I’d love to hear about what tips Shawn Levy gave you, if you have any experiences in your life with rabbis that helped formulate this unorthodox character.
I went and I asked around, I wanted to find a very young rabbi. I’m Jewish but as people go on they find out that there are more and more atheists in the world and I’m always interested to see how a younger rabbi would tackle the question of this generation, why they doubt religion or whatever it is. I wanted to find one of those guys because my guy thinks he’s a hip, cool rabbi. He’s the man — it’s like the lamer version of a gospel church priest. He’s on top of it, he thinks he’s really cool. So I tried to find someone and I asked him all the questions that I’ve heard other people ask and I just wanted to see their answers. And that was just research to put myself in the mind-set. Also, because there’s improv on set, I wanted to have the knowledge to answer any questions in a way that someone who that’s their actual job does, so you have that background and you can play with that. Shawn comes from a Jewish family and knows all about shiva, knows all about that stuff so he knew everything as well. And Jonathan Tropper was on set a bunch so we had all those resources to go to.
One thing that I thought was interesting is that Jonathan Tropper was actually born in Riverdale, New York, which is where you grew up.
And his books really focus on the Westchester-y, suburban dynamics. Did you feel a connection to that based on your upbringing?
That’s so funny. So I came from Riverdale, which is a very Jewish part of the Northern Bronx, right, and then we both moved to a part of Westchester, which is up north maybe 20, 25 minutes from Riverdale. It was funny because when we first met each other after I had been cast, we made those connections. Anybody that I meet from Riverdale or that went to my high school or especially that went to my college because I went to a college in upstate New York, you feel like a little bit of a brotherhood with them. You feel a little bit of a connection with them because they know exactly what you went through your first year in college or they know the exact diners you went to when you were in Riverdale or they know the exact challah bread they use at this place and stuff like that. But I remember when I found out, because I didn’t know about any of that until we met and it was such a fun thing to find out. So it does give you a little bit of a connection, but it wasn’t a connection we made until after we had already started filming.
It’s cool because the movie has a real sense of place, a lot of the themes are around where you grew up and growing up in a small town.
It’s absolutely true. It’s that funny feeling when you go back to your hometown. When I see my parents, that world is still there. Nothing in that world has changed. You get up and there’s still the three places you love to eat and that’s it. I think that you get a big sense of that coming home feeling when you watch this film. I think it’s something that everybody will be able to connect with, where it’s that idea of when you come home, home is always there, home is there to either receive you with open arms or to scare you.
Thank you! I heard that Jane Fonda came to your UCB show and took part in it. How did you negotiate to get her there? Did she approach you?
I’ve been doing UCB, Upright Citizens Brigade, for about 11 years now, and one of the shows I do, which is my favorite one, is called Snowpants. It’s me and a bunch of old-school improvisers, people who’ve been doing it for at least ten years, so it’s usually me, Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley, Horatio Sanz from SNL, Zach Woods from The Office, so some arrangement of the four of us and then I get two guest stars who have never done improv before. And one of them usually has a background in comedy in some way and the other one, is someone who literally has never done improv before. So, I was doing This Is Where I Leave You and I was talking to Corey Stoll about it because Corey, who’s amazing in the movie and an amazing actor, did end up doing my show and I was talking to him and then Jane had heard about it and she talked to me about it. When I told her what the show was, she goes, “I would like to do that.” And I seriously was like, “really?!” She had the best line. I don’t know how old she is, she looks like she’s frickin’ only 45, which is insane because I know she’s older than that, but she said, “At my age, you can’t get comfortable with things, you have to do things that scare you, that push you or what’s the reason of doing stuff?” And I was like, “oh my God, that’s so brilliant and smart.” And she goes, “this scares me and it sounds like fun and I would love to try it.”
This was one of the easiest people to ask to do the show because she was so into it and then once she got there she was backstage and she said she was nervous but she wanted to do it. I mean, the woman has accomplished everything. She’s written a million books, she’s been an icon, she’s acted, she’s produced, she’s won every award, and it’s pretty extraordinary that she, because it’s not filmed, it’s for a 100-person, punk-rock-type comedy venue and she just wanted to push herself, she just wanted to try something that she’d never done before and that made her a little bit scared and what a cool mantra for life. Man, what a cool moment when I introduce Jane Fonda and you’re unsure if the audience — who is mostly 20-year-olds or early 30-year-olds and a very cool comedy crowd that understands improv — how they’re going to receive her and she comes out and they go bananas. And they appreciate her, they love her, they cheer for her when she through these big moves and she took risks onstage and they all paid off.
That’s a great one. If there’s anyone who could be stagnant and be fine it would be Jane Fonda, so it’s pretty impressive that she’s pushing it.
Oh my God, yeah. What a cool thing. An easy sell for the show now is like Don Cheadle’s done, J.J. Abrams has done it, Helen Hunt has done it, Blake Griffin from the Clippers has done it twice, all these big people have done it. So when they [prospective talents] see that those people have done it they’re like, “oh, ok. If these people with this caliber of talent have done it then it might be a fun thing to do.” So, it’s pretty cool and I actually want to make that show into a TV show. I actually did a special for Showtime and I may actually start selling it out someplace.
What was that like?
I did a Showtime special and what I did is, instead of my Snowpants show, what I did is I got the whole cast of House of Lies, so it was me, Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Josh Lawson, and then we got the guest stars Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gall, Eugene Cordero, and we did an improv show. Long-form has really only been on TV a couple times and it went great and the ratings were great and it was so exciting for me because it’s a passion of mine. I’ve been very busy but my hope is to maybe put together a show like that when I have some more time. It was this cool moment of running your own thing, which was really fun. But yeah, how much fun would that be to have a long-form improv show? They don’t have that; nothing exists.
Is there anyone that you’re dying to book for Snowpants?
It’s kind of sad, but I wanted Robin Williams to do it. I’d improvised with him once before and he’s an idol of mine. I did get lucky enough where I got to perform with him once. He’s a genius who I just miss. That was someone I really wanted, but Bill Murray and Tom Hanks are the top two people. How crazy would that be if Tom Hanks or Bill Murray came out onstage? I don’t know how we’d continue doing shows after that. I’ve had some very awesome people come very close to doing it but their schedules couldn’t do it and they’re still on the list and doing it, so I can’t wait to bring those people out. But man, Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, it would be so fun.
So, Parks and Recreation’s final season is coming up. How do you feel about it wrapping up?
That is so sad, I can’t even tell you. Because I’m a lead on House of Lies, I can only do a certain amount of episodes of Parks every year and I’ve already done one of them. When I did it and I finished, I realized that there is a very finite amount of time that I’m going to do this show again and it bummed me out, man. It was really sad because that’s the show that gave me any recognition. People really connected with that character or just thought it was bananas or whatever it was. That one will be tough. I know when I film my last scene as Jean-Ralphio, I will probably get emotional and get sad. I’ve been there for a very long time and that character means a lot to me just because of how funny it is and all those people are so talented so that will be a tough one, man, that will be a tough one to say good=bye to. To never have an excuse to grow my hair that big ever again will be very strange.
That’s so sad!
Isn’t it sad? And I think it’s just a 13-episode season, so they’ve got be probably a third or a fourth of the way done filming. I can’t even imagine what those people who’ve been there since day one and worked every day on it, their emotions must be going bananas right now. That’s a family over there. Everybody’s so close and so nice, everyone’s found so much success. I mean, Chris Pratt is one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now and he’s still the same amazing, lovable guy I met a bunch of years ago. He’s just extraordinary. You would have no idea that he was just in the biggest movie of the year because everybody’s just a family and everybody just plays around with each other there. It’s a very special set. House of Lies is like that also. The four of us, man, we are best friends. It’s weird when it ends. This city is very strange, where when you have a job you’re with people and you’re with them every day and if they’re nice and you connect with them, you really become close to them and you care about them. Then when the show is over you don’t see them every day anymore. You have your own lives and it’s a very weird thing to deal with.