“Have you seen the show?” asked Jason Schwartzman, via phone from his home in Los Angeles late last week. “I haven’t yet, not really. I’m just sitting here in a cocoon … not of anticipation … what would you call it? I’m feeling right now that something is in the oven and I’ve been cooking it all day. I set it out on the table and you’ve eaten it but I haven’t even tasted it yet.” He was speaking of Bored to Death, the new HBO show in which he stars that will premiere on Sunday, Sept. 20.
Yes, The Observer had seen the first three episodes—didn’t it strike him as unfair that he hadn’t?
“Oh, no, it’s not unfair. It’s the law of the chef! And I’ve seen some cuts of it, so of course I put my fingers in it to make sure the sauce is right. So … now you’re eating it and I’m looking at your face wondering, ‘Is it O.K.’?”
Bored to Death is an almost too-perfect storm of literary and precious elements: It was created, executive-produced and written by Brooklyn author Jonathan Ames (Wake up, Sir!, What’s Not to Love?, I Love You More Than You Know), and is about a young Brooklyn writer named—yes!—Jonathan Ames, who is feeling lost thanks to a recent breakup and the looming pressure to deliver his second novel. He has a needy, pot-smoking magazine editor boss (a white-haired Ted Danson); a wacky graphic-artist best friend (a hot–off–The Hangover Zach Galifianakis); and, after an impulsive posting on Craigslist, a blooming side career as a private detective. Mr. Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames as a white-wine–swilling, dreamy and deadpan neurotic, walking immaculate brownstone Brooklyn streets and having coffee with his buddy (where, appropriately enough, the sidewalk is crowded with Bugaboo strollers, though the F train he is often seen on is suspiciously spacious and shiny, and apparently timely). The writing is witty and deliberately offbeat, the situations quirky. Guest stars include Jim Jarmusch, Kirsten Wiig, Parker Posey, Oliver Platt, Denis O’Hare and Patton Oswalt. Jaded New Yorkers might find themselves fighting a reflexive eye roll—after all, isn’t it all just too-too? Too literary, too consciously cute, too meta, too hip, etc.?
The answer (as it is with most things) is yes and no and well-wait-a-minute-not-so-fast. By its third episode, Bored to Death settles into itself—which is pretty quick if you think about the history of good television—and becomes the thing it’s straining so hard to be: charming. Mr. Schwartzman can take a lion’s share of credit— and isn’t this an actor who could be charged with carrying the same heavy load of too-too-ness himself? After all, this is the 29-year-old who started his career playing Max Fisher in Wes Anderson’s breakthrough, Rushmore. He would go on to collaborate with the ultimate-in-twee director again on The Darjeeling Limited—which he co-wrote—and to lend his voice on Mr. Anderson’s upcoming animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, too. He’s also popped up repeatedly in the Judd Apatow universe (appearances in Freaks and Geeks, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Funny People); survived David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees; and played Louis XVI in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. He used to be in a band (he released a single with Evan Dando and Ben Lee in 2002) and composed music for Funny People, Cloverfield and The O.C., and even helped perform Bored to Death’s opening theme, which he co-wrote with Mr. Ames (the writer, not the character). And did we mention that he’s a Coppola, too (Mom is Talia Shire, sister to Francis Ford)?
In fact, if one tries to imagine everything that’s cool and hip and oh-so-darling, Jason Schwartzman is standing somewhere very near the center of the Venn diagram. But here’s the thing: He’s just so damn likable! It is simply unimaginable to think of Mr. Schwartzman being a douche to a waiter, or blowing off a fan (bloggy chatter from Fort Greene, where Bored to Death was filmed, seems to comment mainly on the actor’s friendliness, and his interest in passing dogs). He is exuberantly open (though never once mentioning to The Observer that news would break later that afternoon that he had quietly married his long-term girlfriend, designer Brady Cunningham, on July 11), and metaphor-ific on topics such as how difficult it is for all the pieces of a puzzle to come together to make a movie (“it’s like how a Boeing 747 takes off—it’s kind of a miracle”); real friendship (“it’s like a cat. They don’t really come to you. They come over and play with you and rub against your leg a little bit and you’re like, ‘You like me!’ and they leave”); or picking projects (“it’s like a Rubik’s Cube … it just has to click and so it’s difficult. It’s like dating. That’s why there’s eHarmony—it’s not easy!”).
‘He’s just one of those people that are sort of filled with honey.’—Jonathan Ames on Jason Schwartzman
Mr. Schwartzman demurred when The Observer suggested his place in the epicenter of cool. “I don’t know about that. The truth is, I have more options than some people but less options than most.” He was a huge fan of Mr. Ames’s work before even meeting the writer, he said. He’d heard about a film adaptation of the novel Wake Up, Sir! and was passionate about getting involved. The two met at Izzy’s in Santa Monica and spent more than four hours in a meeting in which both men later described having felt an instant sense of connection. Mr. Schwartzman said he had lately been feeling adrift. “Just, like, ‘What is out there? What’s next for me?’ A friend asked what would be my dream, and I said it was to be a private detective because Stolen Kisses by Francois Truffaut and The Long Goodbye are two of my favorites.” When Mr. Ames mentioned the short story “Bored to Death” and that he was planning on adapting it for HBO, “I had this feeling like a jealous lover,” Mr. Schwartzman said. “It was just too good to be true.”
“After the first meeting with Jason, I wanted him for both my movie and my TV show,” emailed Jonathan Ames. “He’s just one of those people that are sort of filled with honey. I have a cousin like that. You just feel good in their presence. Also, Jason is a humble person. He had some rough times growing up, and I think this has made him something of an old-soul. He’s a mixture of childlike sweetness and old-soul wise.”
Mr. Schwartzman sighed happily thinking about Bored to Death. “How cool is HBO to recognize Jonathan Ames? Like, we’re going to let this guy make a show … we’re going to let this bohemian, beautiful, poetic, incredibly talented writer with a real voice make a show! That’s what they’re about. I think it’s pretty cool.” Continuing his earlier metaphor of finding the right project being like dating, he added: “That’s why when I read Bored to Death it was like falling in love with someone and wondering if you are going to get your heart broken. Right now we’re in the stage where we’ve been dating and we’ve asked America to marry us. We’re waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen to say I do.”