When your mother is Talia (“Rocky”) Shire, your uncle is Francis (“The Godfather”) Coppola and your cousins are Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage and filmmaker Sofia Coppola, a future in the movies might seem a foregone conclusion.
Not so, says Jason Schwartzman.
“For most of my childhood I never thought of acting as a career,” Schwartzman, 30, said in a recent phone conversation to publicize “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
“Yes, I knew I came from a movie family. But when I was little I didn’t think I could be one of those people. Maybe I didn’t have that sort of weird self-esteem that it requires. In any case, I didn’t watch movies and say to myself, ‘That’s gonna be me some day.’ It all seemed so distant.”
Instead of dreaming of thespian triumphs, Schwartzman found an outlet in music.
“When you’re young, music is much more approachable. Acting means working with lots of other people. But I could play music at home in my bedroom. I could be alone and still do it.”
He didn’t stay alone for long. With several friends Schwartzman founded the alternative rock band Phantom Planet in 1994. He was the group’s drummer through 2004, performing on three albums and on the hit single “California,” which was chosen as the theme song of the Fox TV series “The O.C.”
Success in the music world gave him the confidence to look more seriously at acting, Schwartzman said. That and just growing up.
“I’ve always loved the movies, but it wasn’t until I was about 16 that I discovered movies that were more emotionally relatable to myself. I’d see ‘The Graduate’ or ‘Harold and Maude’ and realize that while movies could be entertaining, they could also be a lot more.
“Up to that point I’d been like a kid who only eats grilled cheese sandwiches. And then one day somebody brings in this gourmet meal and your head explodes because you never realized it could be this good.”
Schwartzman has never taken an acting class. But he started reading books about acting, and when he heard that filmmaker Wes Anderson was making a movie about a hustling high school overachiever, he requested an audition.
Result: He got the lead role in “Rushmore” and instantaneous recognition as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors.
Nevertheless, Schwartzman says he takes nothing for granted. In director Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim” he performs opposite Michael Cera, who in the title role can win the girl of his dreams only by defeating her “seven evil exes.”
Schwartzman is the last and most formidable of these opponents.
“I was majorly insecure coming in,” Schwartzman said. “I was the last person cast, and I came in at the end of shooting, and I was terrified that my performance would be out of sync with the tone they’d been working on for weeks.
“I very much felt that this movie was mine to destroy. What if Michael and all the other actors had set up this perfect pass to the end zone ... and I drop it?”
Being a musician gave him a way to approach the situation.
“What if I was a musician going into a recording session to play, say, the flute part? You can’t just come in and just do your own thing. You have to ask, ‘What key are we in? What’s the tempo?’
“The director of the movie is like the conductor. I listen to what’s been recorded so far—in this case the rough edit of the movie — and then ask, ‘How do you want me to play this part so as to fit in with the harmonies you’ve already established?’ “
Wright offered Schwartzman the key piece to the puzzle. “He said this character was passive — aggressive, that he smiles a lot but you can never be sure he’s sincere.
“So we’d shoot each scene maybe 10 times, and over time it would shift from nice guy to bad guy to worse guy.
“That gave Edgar lots to work with in the editing room.”
Schwartzman continues to pursue music with his new band, Coconut Records. Has he found the right balance between music and film?
“Nope. No balance at all.
“It’s funny because in my personal life I’m really predictable. I eat at the same time at the same restaurant every night. And I eat pretty much the same stuff. I always go see movies at a certain time of day.
“But when I’m working I’ll try anything. I’m compelled to change my approach to acting. I just enjoy that. Any time I’ve hung on to a certain way of doing things, I’ve ended up unhappy.
“So if I want to be happy, I have to keep messing with it.”