Although he’s largely been confined to character roles, Paul Schneider has left a mark in movies ranging from the twisted fable Lars and the Real Girl to Cameron Crowe’s floptastic Elizabethtown, in which he anchored the few scenes that actually rang true. Along with his North Carolina School Of The Arts classmate David Gordon Green, Schneider broke through with George Washington and All the Real Girls, graduating from bit player to lead and co-writer with the latter film and subsequently striking out on his own. Nothing he’s done previously, however has suggested the range demonstrated by the two projects in which he can currently be seen: Jane Campion’s period drama Bright Star and the NBC sitcom Parks And Recreation. Schneider’s Parks part as a chronically low-key civic planner is of a piece with his previous work, but his role as John Keats’ friend and patron Charles Armitage Brown is utterly unexpected. Packing on dozens of pounds and sporting a thick beard and credible Scottish accent, not to mention a fiery temperament at odds with his generally easygoing characters, Schneider is almost unrecognizable, demonstrating that his talents are only beginning to be tapped. Sporting a black Opeth t-shirt (his love of Swedish death-metal bands is evident below), Schneider talked to the A.V. Club about branching out, the hardships of emulating Fugazi and the experience of working with “Orblando Gloom.”
“Charles Armitage Brown,” Bright Star (2009)
The A.V. Club: This doesn’t seem like the kind of role where someone would read the script and go, “You know who would be perfect for this?" How did you end up with the part?
Paul Schneider: What happened is that Jane Campion was on the jury at the Venice Film Festival and saw The Assassination of Jesse James. I’m still not exactly sure how she saw that and thought this, but whatever. Far be it from me to talk myself out of a good job. And my agent called me and said, “Jane Campion wants to get in touch.” And I just don’t… Look, I’ll take that. I’m not going to look that gift horse in the mouth, but it still is a little surreal, you know what I mean? It’s kind of like, “Tomas from Meshuggah just broke his wrist, and they really need a drummer, and they’ve been hearing you play down in your basement, and they thought maybe you could…” It’s hard to wrap your brain around the fact that people that you admire know even who you are, because you make these films, these little things, in this little vacuum. You have a group of people that are out somewhere far away, it’s such an insulated event, and there’s just no way for you to process the distribution of that product that you’ve made. Because by the time it gets out there, you are back at home with your dog, watching either Frontline or America’s Funniest Videos, and you’re back home alone in your little bubble.
So the fact that someone like Jane Campion saw anything that I was in and liked it and thought of me for this, I was taken aback a little bit. But then I read the script and, thankfully, I had ideas all of a sudden. I had opinions, ways that I would do this, that maybe somebody else wouldn’t. I read a fair amount of scripts, and that doesn’t always happen. That’s not a judgment call on the script. Sometimes I can read really fantastic scripts and keep an eye out for the character that I could possibly play, and I just don’t know what I would do with it. There’s no idea that… I just got nothing for you. When I read hers, I did have ideas about Brown, and I just feel really lucky that I was able to do something that was very different, also have the chance to change myself as much as I could. I think it’s a really great thing that some people don’t recognize me in that movie. I feel like for a kid from North Carolina to do that, I’m okay with that. I feel like, especially these days, there’s not acting anymore, there’s just being, you know? You cast a personality, and you plug that personality, unchanging, in this movie and that movie and that movie and that movie. I don’t see people being as ballsy as I think they could be.
AVC: Looking over the directors you’ve worked with, quite a few of them are, like Campion, strong visual stylists, David Gordon Green and Andrew Dominik among them. Does that figure into your choices?
PS: It figures into it a lot for me because I’m really into DPs. I’ve seen Visions Of Light a ton of times. I don’t necessarily like the way Vittorio Storaro talks about his work, but I sure think The Last Emperor looks good. My favorite movies are The Elephant Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and All The President’s Men, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and all these movies that were definitely taking a stand on their visuals. You know, like, “We’re going to do this, and we don’t necessarily think that it’s the only way to do it, but we’re going to definitely do it this way.” Obviously, as an actor, I don’t have a lot of control over that. I can just hope that we’re making something visually arresting. But the thing that you should know is I’m out there trying to get these roles just as much as anybody else is trying to get the roles. The movies that you’re describing are not movies that—I mean, unless I had a hand in actually writing the thing—they weren’t movies that somebody just waltzed up and said, “Do you want to be in this?” I was in the trenches trying to convince somebody that I could be an idiosyncratic addition to their team. The fact that some of those films look really good—like Assassination looks really good, obviously Roger Deakins is no slouch—is just me being super, super lucky that they got guys who knew what they were doing.
AVC: In a way, the movies you’re in fall into two categories: those in which you’re the idiosyncratic presence you describe, and those in which you’re the grounding force in an idiosyncratic environment.
PS: Right. Yeah. Obviously, that’s not conscious, you know what I mean? I think a lot of the times, when we’re talking about these films, we’re talking about them all in retrospect. Only then can we ascribe motivations at the time, and isn’t it good that I did this, or it worked out that I did that. The things that you try that were massive failures, thank god, are on the cutting room floor. So you’ve just got to throw as much on the wall and see if it sticks. But what’s interesting is, it reminds me of the Eraserhead/Elephant Man analogy, something that I think about in terms of form and content and what David Lynch did. He has a story in Eraserhead where not a ton happens, and it is just insane. It’s an insane story. And in The Elephant Man, the content is kind of insane enough, so he tells it straight. With Blue Velvet, you have this normal world, which he finds the underbelly of, and then we go crazy with Dennis Hopper, and the drugs, and ears, and fields. I always thought it was so smart of him to, you know, realize the Merrick story is monstrous enough, we can just tell that pretty straight. Obviously it’s monochromatic, he wants to be true to the times and whatever, but I think sometimes if you’ve got a story that’s interesting enough, you don’t need to pour sugar on ice cream. The ice cream is great.
“Paul,” All the Real Girls (2003)
AVC: There’s slightly more narrative in All the Real Girls, although it’s not really what drives the film, which you wrote as well as starred in. The character of Paul is the first in a long line of characters you’ve played with checkered sexual histories, men who seem to be irresistible to the ladies.
PS: It’s just so fascinating to me. I’m very happy to be cast as that, don’t really understand it.
AVC: Where did that character come from?
PS: That character just came from, I lived it, and so David and I wrote about it, and then years later, in a mad stroke of, “What the hell just happened?” we got the financing to make it. I was interested in telling a tragic love story where the guy gets hurt too, you know what I mean? It was interesting to me playing a guy who, obviously he’s not scared to have sex, but he’s scared that this is the first time he’s felt something this powerful, and he’s scared that sex might screw it up like he’s screwed up other things. He doesn’t want to stain it.
Shea Wigham, who was in that movie as well, he was helping me out, because that was sort of… I mean, we’re shooting it in my hometown, I’m playing a guy called Paul who has a very similar experience in the film as I had in real life, and it’s hard to know how to play that. You can’t have a director say, “Just be you”; you have to have an aim. It’s like when you throw darts, you have to know where the bullseye is. You can’t just say, “No no no no no, drop the darts. Just stand. We’re going to film you.” You have to get there indirectly. You have to have me doing something, and then you can get “me.” I felt so lost during the making of that movie because I just didn’t have a lot to hang my character on. It’s supposed to just be you, but how do you just be you?
Whereas in Jane Campion’s film, I had so much to hang my performance on. I had to affect this accent, which means a lot of work, like bookwork, homework. And then I had crazy period clothes on, which were nothing like how I would dress in real life. And she wanted me to get really fat, and grow a beard, and grow my hair, and it was just really helpful to be able to let that kind of work do the work for you. Because of that, you let the performance happen while you’re focusing on other stuff. I think a lot about the editing of the films when we’re making them, partly because I studied that, and partly because if you think about being in love while you’re supposed to be acting in love, there’s nowhere to go. You have to focus on something else and then do what’s being asked, and you might get some semblance of something interesting.
AVC: You and David Green and your friends from North Carolina really created your own universe with George Washington. Was it tough to bring outsiders and professionals into that world for All The Real Girls?
PS: I thought that it was going to be. I don’t remember David having too much trouble. I remember Patty [Clarkson], and Zooey [Deschanel], and Maurice Compte, and Shea, everybody pretty seamlessly worked into what we were doing. Every now and again, you’ll meet an actor who spends a lot of time acting, which is always tough. And God bless them, you’ve got to just sort of let them know that them being there is enough. You don’t have to put too much spin on this. For whatever reason, it wasn’t difficult to integrate those people that had more experience.
"Gus," Lars And The Real Girl (2007)
AVC: Your part in Lars And The Real Girl is small, but it’s really your character that makes the movie work. His awkwardness and social unease make the more extreme form embodied by his brother, played by Ryan Gosling believable.
PS: Yeah, but I mean, if you don’t have a guy calling bullshit, then you have Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
AVC: There’s a moment in the film when you and Gosling are attempting to talk to each other, and you both just stare at the kitchen table and pick at the placemats.
PS: Well, brothers are weird, you know what I mean? I spoke with the director about the fact that he wanted me to break down in front of Ryan, and I was pushing for breaking down in front of Emily [Mortimer]. I think you break down in front of your wife way more than you break down in front of your brother. It’s like this dude-dude thing that happens that sort of blocks you all up. It was important for there to be a character saying no, saying no to this shiny happy world. For me that movie worked because of the time Emily and I spent just hanging out and rehearsing our butts off and really wanting to make sure that our fictional marriage worked and was believable, because you had to have something to bounce Ryan off of… to make him be the photo negative of what our photograph is.
AVC: Otherwise the movie would be what a number of people accused it of being anyway.
PS: Yeah. Irritatingly sweet or something like that or, “These people are just dopey and idiotic for letting this happen.”
AVC: It was obvious that some critics were just repulsed by the idea of Gosling’s character and made up their minds before they watched the film.
PS: But if you think that it’s possible in the world for a neighbor to bring a Tupperware of food over to your house when someone died, if you think that’s possible in the world, then you probably don’t have much problem with it. I remember speaking to people who thought, “Well this town is just crazy.” I was like, “Well, you grew up in a place where nobody’s bringing food to your house. You don’t know your neighbors.” There’s no sense of community or whatever. I mean lots of wacky things happen in communities, but I was just happy that they made a movie that was a really sentimental movie but without being maudlin or saccharine or too much like Chewels gum. I don’t want to be involved in a movie that’s too much like a piece of Chewels.
AVC: You should put that in your CV.
PS: I know. The truth of the matter is I don’t have anything to do with it. You can just go in there and hit the mark and say the lines and just hope that they want the movie to be as good as you want it to be.
AVC: As you point out, actors have a very circumscribed role in the final product. The shape of an actor’s career has as much if not more to do with the projects they sign onto as the performances they give.
PS: Absolutely. The rule that I have for myself is that there is this very oppressive, Fugazi-like doctrine that you have to take on. In a way, it’s very oppressive to use Fugazi as your model of art-making because, you know, those guys are just like slaves to this monkish anti-corporate ethos, which I believe. But also you have to make enough money to eat. I think what’s helped me is I know a Maserati is not going to make me feel any better about myself. So if you get okay with being poor, and by poor I mean in this instance just not mega-rich, then right now I have a really great little life. I have plenty of stuff. I have tons of Criterion DVDs. And if your expectations are reasonable then you can meet them. When I got the job on Parks And Recreation, I celebrated by buying $100 of rock and roll t-shirts.
What the entertainment industry can do is tempt you into making stupid mistakes, but the only tool that they have to tempt you is money. So if you’re okay saying no to money then you can say no to a lot of things that you might be embarrassed of later. I always thought to myself, if I went to a Fugazi show backstage and I went to Ian McKaye and I said, “Oh man, that was such a great show. I loved your version of ‘Repeater’ tonight” and he looked at me and said, “You sell the Samsung phones on television, don’t you?” and I would say, “Yeah, I did a commercial campaign for Samsung,” I would just feel like a total idiot. So for me like the golden rule is if you get backstage at one of your favorite band’s shows, you can’t have anything on your resume that they’re going to be like, “Wait, you’re the friend in Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, weren’t you?” You would have to say, “Yes I was.” And you’d feel like a real loser.
AVC: What Would Fugazi Do? is a tough benchmark.
PS: It is a tough benchmark but hey, all the world’s religions are tough benchmarks. If it was easy we’d all be doing it. I mean, Fugazi wouldn’t be here. Fugazi wouldn’t even talk to the Onion. Which is a tragedy, but if I was slavishly married to the Fugazi benchmark then I would only be speaking to high school newspapers.
AVC: Nobody’s perfect.
PS: Nobody’s perfect. But at least I am helping to make sure that Bright Star gets seen by more than just students at a high school.
“Mark Brendanawicz,” Parks And Recreation (2009 - )
AVC: Your character on Parks And Recreation is another of those grounding forces. He and Rashida Jones’ character are the normal ones in a menagerie of people who are are all nuts in one way or another. It’s almost not a comic performance. The timing is there, but he’s very much a regular guy.
PS: It’s hard because sometimes when I get home I go, “Did I nail it?” It’s hard to know when you nail setting someone else up. You don’t hear that very satisfying swoosh from the back of the net when you drain a 3-pointer, not that I ever play basketball. But the stuff that’s written for me on that television show, it’s not the crazy flashy stuff. I feel like I’m still learning the ropes of how television works. Obviously I have good folks surrounding me on that television show. It’s funny because sometimes in film I’m sort of the third guy to the left, you can be as insane as you want to be as that guy. Oftentimes the lead in a film is, someone called it the “stand and deliver” part, where you’re sort of this vacuous empty center. Only Jack Lemmon knew how to be a lead in a film and make it fascinatingly interesting and funny. I have to look harder to find that really satisfying moment for Mark Brendanawicz because the most instantly gratifying thing that you can do on a movie set or a television set is make someone laugh. You know you’ve hit a bullseye if you say something and someone yells cut and everyone laughs. But with Mark the bullseye is more of a moving target.
AVC: You’re holding the dartboard.
PS: Yeah. I know. It’s like I’m being very encouraging to the people who are playing darts. “That was great that you did just then.”
AVC: How different is just the process of making a network sitcom from what you’ve done previously?
PS: It’s just so fast. One of the things I’m learning from Amy [Poehler] is just to throw stuff out there. It’s like a great brainstorming session. You just can’t be scared to do things that you think are mistakes. But the speed at which we’re making this thing is just insane to me. I’m making these like little handmade films that hopefully people will go see, and then we’re cranking out these episodes. I think it’s helpful for me in a way to, I don’t want to say invest less, but not worry so much about getting it absolutely correct. Just throw stuff out there and see what works. A show like that is so heavily edited. You just want to give them as many flavors as possible because you don’t know what they might or might not use. I feel like it’s one of those things where after —hopefully —a few years at Parks And Recreation, I’ll have that side of my acting toolbox filled up.
I remember it was really striking to me to learn that there were more lines to learn the next week. Because usually on a film I’ll have the script for a couple months, and there’s this long process of learning my lines and memorizing all this crap and writing out longhand all the crap that I’m going to say. And of course by crap I mean well-constructed, beautiful pieces of literary genius. But then once you learn your lines you’re done with learning the lines. So then I did my first episode of Parks And Rec and, you know, learn the lines and put that out, and then the next week I got a new script and I was like, “Oh yeah, there’s more stuff I gotta say this week.”
“Dick Liddil,” The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
PS: I watched that movie at Toronto with another of the actors, Garret Dillahunt, who’s a good buddy of mine. It was the first time that I had seen the movie and the fact that I was involved in it didn’t ruin the experience for me. Remember when you, like, hear a friend’s band? Your friend would have a band and they’d play you a tape of stuff that they’d done and it’s like, “That’s pretty good,” but in the back of your mind you’re like, “That’s not real music,” because it’s your friend’s music. It’s a garage band. It’s not real music. There’s gotta be some stamp of validity on it and that stamp of validity means that it is made by adults who live far away from you. So that’s how I felt about the first few movies that my friends and I had all made. I thought, “Well these are good movies, but they’re not real movies because people you know made them. And you don’t know any big directors.”
And all of a sudden I saw Assassination Of Jesse James and I thought, “Wow, this is like a real movie and I’m a part of it somehow.” It’s still this strange and crazy learning process of feeling like I’m a part of this and that it’s actually the real thing. It’s not just us fooling around until we need to get real jobs.
AVC: What was that shoot like? You see something that visually elaborate and you think of a big shoot and lots of time setting up shots. Is that how it was?
PS: It was a lot of time. We shot for like five months. Up to that point and maybe still it’s the largest film experience of my life. The most volume. I was really lucky, and I’m sure this is a line that everyone repeats, but I was really lucky that among our group of actors, there was not a lot of cockfighting. Sometimes you get insecure people together, often males between the ages of 30 and 40, put like six dudes together, and it’s a lot of sideways glances and wondering what he’s doing, and there’s a lot of strange competition. I remember feeling that ill vibe on a set in the past, and by the time I got to Jesse James I was like, “You know what? I’m going to do my job and I don’t care if I’m not friends with anybody. I don’t need to be best friends with all my co-workers to do a good job.” And it just so happened that the group of people, Brad included, all of us got together and all of us really got along, each doing their own thing, but more importantly confident about the thing that they were doing. So everyone felt reasonably confident and everyone felt reasonably secure in what they were adding to the movie, that their flavor, their ingredient was an important ingredient. At that point, you’d just kind of hunkered down with these guys who had become your friends, and the crew, and stayed far away from home for long periods of time. And doing cowboy stuff, which was totally ridiculous. That was totally crazy.
I found myself in so many situations preparing for that movie: riding a horse on 20,000 acres of land, learning how to ride a horse at the foot of the Canadian Rockies, dressed up like a cowboy with real guns in my holster, and I’m looking around for the guys I grew up with in North Carolina, like, “Where the hell is my witness for this surreal moment?” And you just don’t get the witness. You go back home, you tell all these stories, you end up sounding like an asshole. “And you can’t believe what happened and then we were herding these cattle and Brad Pitt was there!” There’s no way not to sound like a jerkoff. You have to just sit and look out the window and smile and know that it happened.
Your friends back home, the friends that used to validate everything that you used to do… You know, you had sex with a girl when you were young, you told your friend, and then it kind of happened. Then we sealed the deal. This thing happened because it happened and then I told my best friend. A lot of my most recent film experiences, Bright Star definitely included, you find yourself in these really surreal, fantastic situations that you never thought would happen to you. There’s no one around. There’s no one around from your childhood to say, “Can you believe this?” And that sucks.
“Jesse Naylor,” Elizabethtown (2005)
AVC: What was it like working on Elizabethtown?
PS: With Orblando Gloom? What made that film great was hanging out with Nate Mooney and Gailard Sartain and Loudon Wainwright, and definitely Paula Deen. Paula Deen was definitely one of my most favorite people. There was like this Kentucky contingent of that movie, and we all got to be such good buddies. Everybody dragged their chairs together when we weren’t shooting, and we all smoked cigarettes together and gabbed on about whatever was happening that day. It was important to make those friends. But I definitely did not feel myself connecting with some of the other folks who were in that movie.
“Courtney,” Away We Go (2009)
AVC: Maybe that lack of connection shows in the final product. Your scene in Away We Go is striking because the tone is so different from the rest of the movie. It’s the only time the film really lets its guard down. Did have a sense of how your scene fit into the greater context?
PS: I didn’t know that. That was another one of those strange situations where somebody who’s this internationally noteworthy director who’s spent a lot of time in the British theater scene doing some pretty fancy stuff gets in touch with you. I went to go meet him and we talked a lot about football—soccer—Premiere League Football, the British Premiere League, and I ended up doing that movie right after I finished up Bright Star. It’s a very strange experience going from a movie like Bright Star: small crew; we shot 80 percent in one location at this gorgeous estate, all of us were there together, a month of rehearsal beforehand and then we started shooting, where it’s just like caravan experience. We were definitely like a troupe of people going off to do this thing collectively.
And then for Away We Go, they shot in so many different locations. It was like a vignette-y movie and, you know, you have your Allison Janney moment and then she’s gone. You have your Melanie Lynskey moment and then she’s gone. And then I came in at the end. It’s always difficult coming in at the end of a movie, because this crew has gelled in their own way and they’re dead tired. But I got in there and did the best I could because I wanted to make a mark with that character, but also I didn’t want to hit it so hard that it felt like I was trying to big-up my screen time. It was very clear to me that I am just an ingredient in this movie. I’m a cog, and happily, in this larger machine. There was some crazy emotional stuff I had to do in that scene and I just wanted to make sure that it didn’t call the wrong kind of attention to itself. Because again, you’re dealing with brothers.
“William Henry Harrison,” Drunk History (2007)
PS: That was really fun to do. It’s funny getting snakes thrown on me. I can’t remember the guy’s name but the actual drunk man who tells that story, he’s the hero. I don’t drink anymore, and I remember what it was like with the spins and the throwing up and the craziness, and those guys, everyone who does the Drunk History, are obliterated. It’s not fake. It’s absolutely very smart people obliterated. I filled in for a day and I did what I could, but the real hero of that is the gentleman who told the story. And I don’t know what he was drinking but it’s a lot.
AVC: Drunks are the real heroes.
PS: Drunks are the real heroes. And: scene.