“So…Andrei Tarkovsky!” Paul Schneider said when I sat down to talk with him. I wasn’t really prepared to discuss the merits of the Russian auteur, but then neither was he — it was the just the kind of disarming introduction you’d expect from Schneider, who’s made a career of playing guys you’d want to have a beer with in films like “All the Real Girls” and “Elizabethtown.” Schneider can currently be seen working his low-key charms on the Amy Poehler sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” and serving as a much-needed leavening agent in Jane Campion’s period romance “Bright Star.”
In the film, Schneider plays once again, the best friend — Charles Armitage Brown, the colleague and confidant of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and unlikely rival to seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) for Keats’ attention. While Whishaw and Cornish tug at the heart, Schneider’s turn as the sharp-tongued Scot who attempts to come between the two is even more likable. Schneider got the role by sending in an audition tape showing off the brogue he picked up by watching “Trainspotting,” and, with not a speck of false modesty, still seems slightly perplexed to have worked with one of his heroes.
So how did it feel to make a film with Jane Campion?
I was really affected by “The Piano.” Had I not seen that movie, I wouldn’t have gone to film school. I [took] a long, circuitous route, which got me into acting. So it was a really strange thing to hear from my agent that she wanted to get in touch and talk about this new film that she was making. Obviously, I’m going to go along with it, even if it’s some horribly distasteful joke. And it turned out that it was real.
It’s this strange process, understanding that your heroes are real people. It sounds stupid to say, because of course they’re real people, but when I was growing up, I didn’t know anybody in the arts. I have fantastic people in my life, but the idea that you could make a living making art is still very new to me. I’m still in this mode of thinking that well, I’ll do this acting thing until I wake from this dream and have got to go do a crappy job.
In the past, you’ve usually played well-intentioned characters. Did it feel any different to play a bit of a spoiler?
I hope that I played Brown like a well-intentioned guy. I was surprised when I saw the final product, how much havoc he had caused in this story. I don’t remember causing that much havoc. [laughs] I was very focused on the fact that my relationship with my best friend is changing because of the intrusion of this girl, and the idea that the work we were doing was more important. I was feeling very protective of Ben as John.
It’s like the indirect effect — if you shoot for something, you’ll miss it, so just don’t shoot for it and you might hit it. With Brown, there was a lot of me listening and being adoring to Ben, and because I think he’s a really fantastic actor, I could just sit across from him and as Paul, just admire his acting, but it looked like Brown was admiring Keats’ poetry.
I tried to make corollaries between how I feel about things and how Brown feels about things. I didn’t go into “Bright Star” knowing much about poetry — what I needed to find were the things that I loved in the same way that Brown loved poetry. During a conversation Ben and Jane and I had, we talked about the fact that these young romantic poets were like the punk rock kids of their day. They had a following, people waited for their new poems to come out, they were definitely choosing against the mainstream. They were doing only what they loved, polite society be damned. Once we made that connection, I was able to say oh, the way Brown feels about poetry is the way I feel about Black Sabbath.
I would guess acting in a costume drama would have different pressures than a contemporary one, but once you got on set, was it easy to fit in?
Yeah, it has an intimate quality, whereas the Merchant Ivory films, a lot of which I love, had a very distancing effect — this movie feels very close to me. The language was stripped down, we’re not spouting iambic pentameter. It’s authentic to the time period, but it’s not rococo dialogue. Also, they used so much handheld camera, [the idea it] was a period piece melts away. To me, it’s about how insane it is to be in love for the first time, and how crazy you feel, like you’re going to die. No matter how old you get, you always go back to those one or two experiences.
It was a real testament to the fact that the actors got along so well. If the actors aren’t really close, I don’t think you can fake that kind of intimacy — when you’re acting with someone you consider a friend, you have a ton more freedom than with someone you’re wondering whether or not it’s okay to do this or that with. I’m never so lost in a character that I feel like I can do anything to this other human being that I’m working with. I’m always very aware that we’re making a movie.
Your directorial debut “Pretty Bird” got its share of attention when it premiered at Sundance last year, but it left without a distribution deal. What’s going on with it now?
I wish I knew. I don’t know what the status is, but it makes me wonder whether the current film marketplace isn’t one with really sharp elbows, and if there are going to be places for small films that are off the beaten path. I don’t know if the current marketplace is gambling on small films that much anymore.
“Bright Star” is currently open in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand into limited release on September 25th.
[Additional photo: On the set of “Pretty Bird,” Two Lane Pictures, 2008]