The Other Star of Bright Star

This Friday, audiences at the Toronto Film Festival will get to see Bright Star, the latest from writer-director Jane Campion, a breathtakingly beautiful film about the doomed love affair between 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, the outspoken girl next door. Undoubtedly, the already-buzzy chatter about the film, building since its premiere and positive notices at Cannes, will turn to its Oscar chances (as Labor Day inevitably marks the time to stow away the white pants, so too does it spur inane Academy Award predictions)—and all this before it arrives in theaters on Sept 16.

Many of the accolades will be heaped (deservingly) on Ms. Campion—this film is her finest since 1993’s The Piano, filled with sensory-overload-gorgeous cinematography and featuring two very fine leads, Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish. But don’t overlook the man playing Charles Brown, Keats’ friend and protector and ethically ambiguous romantic foil, a big bear of a man with a grizzled beard speaking in a furry-tongued Scottish burr, an actor you’d be forgiven for not recognizing as Paul Schneider, chameleon indie player, who’s quietly been shining in films such as All the Real Girls (which he co-wrote), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Lars and the Real Girl and Away We Go.

On a recent sunny afternoon, in the quiet before the promotional storm of Bright Star, the 33-year-old was decidedly low key in a faded baseball cap and T-shirt, just a good-looking dude with a lilting Southern accent (he hails from North Carolina) who tends to use “rock” as a verb (“I can always go back and watch The Elephant Man and think, man, John Hurt rocked it”), and who switches from one conversational topic to the next (Ron Howard’s Parenthood, the artist Gerhardt Richter, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) with intelligent, dizzying speed. Working on a Jane Campion film, Mr. Schneider has come full circle, since it was The Piano—the poster of which he still has framed—that ultimately led Mr. Schneider to acting in the first place.

“I saw The Piano when I was 17, when it came to Ashville, North Carolina,” he said. “My parents, who are awesome and have great taste in movies, took me to see it.” He cited a specific scene from the film, one in which Holly Hunter’s character lies floating in deep, blue-green waters, foot tied, hoop skirt billowing in the current.

“I remember it just being the first time I saw film as art. You know? Like there was no more distinction of, well, this is a Mark Rothko, it goes on the wall at MoMA, and this is Back to the Future.” He stopped, grinned. “And Back to the Future is awesome. But you know what I mean? Up to that point, I hadn’t appreciated movies for their artistic qualities; I had only appreciated movies for their entertainment qualities. And there’s not a better or best, ’cause frankly, I think there’s a special genius in making The Goonies so enjoyable. The Piano hit me right at that sweet spot, like an album that just gets you at the right time.”

After seeing The Piano, Mr. Schneider decided to go to film school. “I applied to one college, and got into one college, and went to North Carolina School of the Arts.” 

At school, Mr. Schneider concentrated not on acting, but on film editing. “I needed to leave film school with a trade and some way to make money,” he said. He acted in student films when friends asked him to, one of them by fellow student David Gordon Green. The two did a couple of shorts together, then 2001’s George Washington, which was followed by All the Real Girls, a script they wrote together; Mr. Schneider co-starred with current indie twee-heart Zooey Deschanel. The film made it to Sundance; critics swooned; and it won a special jury prize. Before you knew it, Mr. Schneider started showing up in small parts in films such as Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and The Family Stone. He was one of those hey-look-it’s-that-guy actors, always good, always can’t-put-my-finger-on-it different in appearance.

 

IN 2007, Mr. Schneider was featured in both the charming Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling, and the woefully underappreciated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, from writer-director Andrew Dominik. Brad Pitt may be the lead of that film, but the supporting characters form a roster of serious, talented actors on the verge: Mr. Schneider, of course, but also Sam Rockwell, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Garret Dillahunt, who became a good friend.