“He’s very gifted—sort of annoyingly so. He’s an incredible writer,” said Mr. Dillahunt of Mr. Schneider. He told the story of how at one point during the filming of Jesse James, Mr. Dominik instructed some of the cast, off-handedly, to come up with some stuff for the following day’s scene. “This immediately paralyzed us,” said Mr. Dillahunt. “And immediately we all began writing scenes … starring ourselves. Ultimately, we went to Paul’s room and made him write it all.” Mr. Dillahunt would go on to costar with Paul Giamatti and Billy Crudup in Mr. Schneider’s directorial debut, Pretty Bird, which made it to Sundance in 2008 (if not multiplexes). “Paul’s just so funny. His humor is so scatological and bizarre and out of left field. It makes me feel the same way as when I watch a good dancer—it makes me feel earthbound and klutzy. It’s the same intellectually as when I’m with Paul.”
Jane Campion saw Jesse James as a juror at the Venice Film Festival and was impressed. “My agent told me and I was like, ‘Give me a break,’” said Mr. Schneider. “I freaked out. It felt like a lot of responsibility to work for someone I admired so much but also to give her and everyone else a reason why they didn’t just hire a brilliant Scottish actor who was the size they wanted and had a beard already and spoke with a perfect accent.” Mr. Schneider worked hard (“It’s not rocket science; you wake up every day and you study—a lot”); gained weight to appear large, the shaggy dog to Ben Whishaw’s delicate feline beauty (consuming lots of Nutella and milk); and thought a lot about his character. “I thought about Yoko coming into the Beatles. Like, what’s Ringo going to do without Lennon? What’s Ringo going to do? Charles Brown felt like Ringo to me … like if this thing breaks up, I’m screwed.”
Mr. Schneider could not say enough positive things about his director, co-stars, production team or the film itself (“I love Bright Star. It’s strange to say that about something I’m associated with because I’ve trained myself over the years to be like, if I’m associated with it, it can’t be a real movie”). He’s currently based in Los Angeles, working on the NBC show Parks and Recreation. “It’s a much different world than I’m used to,” he said. “It’s far more fun to act on a television show than it is to P.A. on one.”
“There hasn’t been a particular moment or project in my life, ever, that has crystallized anything,” he said in response to being asked if he could pinpoint when he knew he was, in fact, an actor. “It’s such a weird thing to find myself in a Jane Campion film because there was no great crossroads. I run into people and I don’t know if they’re lying or what, but they say, ‘I’ve wanted to do this really specific thing since I was little.’ I sometimes feel jealous of that kind of conviction … but then I wonder if that wouldn’t be a scary place, too, because what if you just want to play the viola for the NY Philharmonic and that’s all you want to do? And then they hire the best 18-year-old prodigy from Hungary. Then you’re just screwed.”
He embarked on a long analogy comparing his career path to sleeping while floating down a river.
“You wake up and you’re like, hey, Memphis, Tennessee! Then you float and go, wow, Louisiana! There was no great moment. … I went where things took me.” It’s worked out pretty well, The Observer said. “Well, I’m also not an idiot. It’s not like I fell asleep in the river and woke up and was a fool.” He laughed. “I don’t mean to say it’s not me at all, but I also don’t want to say it’s not life at all. I think it’s a mix of the two. I’m interested in so much other stuff, too, I guess I’m not scared of it ending. I feel like what’s kept me a little bit sane is my interest in things that have nothing to do with film—I’ve done enough weird jobs my whole life, I’m not scared of my ability to make rent and enough money to eat.”
When The Observer pointed out that this made the actor decidedly less neurotic than the majority of the industry he worked in, Mr. Schneider squawked in protest that no, he really was, in fact, neurotic. But do neurotic people trust in the current of a river? He laughed. “O.K. Well, I feel like I’m floating down the river … but I also bitch to myself about the cold.”