'Isle of Dogs' star Jason Schwartzman explains why Wes Anderson films are like a circus — and a family

Jason Schwartzman arrives for a screening of Isle of Dogs in New York on March 20. (Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Jason Schwartzman made his auspicious big-screen debut as precocious prep-schooler Max Fischer in Rushmore, the 1998 sophomore feature from Wes Anderson. It was a creative marriage made in movie heaven, and during the ensuing two decades, the duo have teamed up on five more sterling features: The Darjeeling Limited (which Schwarzman co-wrote), Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and now Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animated affair whose story the actor co-conceived with his cousin Roman Coppola as well as Anderson.

It’s an alternately amusing and moving saga about a young Japanese boy (Koyu Rankin) who goes in search of his beloved pet pooch on Trash Island, where an evil Japanese mayor has quarantined the country’s canines — and where he befriends a group of abandoned dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban, among others). It’s also a uniquely droll work whose strong political undercurrents are paired with a humanistic compassion for exiles and outsiders. As such, it’s yet another triumphant collaboration between the celebrated actor and his favorite director, and on the eve of its theatrical debut (and the morning after its New York City premiere), we sat down with the always charming Schwartzman to discuss the duo’s long-standing partnership.

Yahoo Entertainment: This is your sixth film with Wes Anderson. What is it about your sensibilities that make your collaborations work so well?
Jason Schwartzman:
That’s a really great question, and I don’t know how to answer it. I mean, I can’t believe that I get to work with Wes. In some respects, it’s a nature-versus-nurture question, because I’ve now known him since I was 17, which means I’ve known him for 20 years. I’ve known him three years longer than I’d been alive when I met him. So in many ways, I’ve had two lives, and this one, from age 17 to now, has been with Wes. He came into my life at, I think, a very crucial time. You know, 17 is the end of so many things that have been long-running — high school, leaving your parents, and moving out, starting college. I find it’s a natural time in one’s life when certain things end and new things begin.

For me, he introduced me to a whole world of movies. He was 27, and in a classic sense, he was — and is — like a mentor, and really was the first person to ever show me certain movies that went on to become huge, huge parts of my life, and who I am. We’ve now known each other so long that I feel … I don’t know what it is about us! We’ve seen each other through every strange part of our lives, and I just feel like with Wes, I can be completely myself. I think that’s what makes the work fun; it’s fun to work with your friends, because work can be hard sometimes. But also, because we know each other so well, I’m less afraid to just get started more quickly. I stall less [laughs]. With strangers, I’m like, “Oh, God, when I start, this is going to be terrible.” With Wes, I’m like, “It’s going to be terrible, but let’s just try it.” And I think when you’ve known someone for a long time, they can be like, “C’mon, you’re not focused.” You can call each other out and hold each other accountable more quickly.

I equate the two of you, in a fundamental sense. Do you feel like the De Niro to his Scorsese?
No, I feel like Bill Murray is probably his De Niro. Bill’s been in every one of them except Bottle Rocket, and you know, Bill’s kind of like our spiritual De Niro. I think he’s a symbol, and he’s always there with us. Even in Darjeeling, when we were talking about it, his character appears in the beginning, but in fact that character, and the idea of Bill, was with us as a presence the entire time we were writing and talking about it. So I don’t think I’m the De Niro…

The Joe Pesci, then?
Maybe the Pesci. I’m happy with the Pesci [laughs]. I’m just so grateful to be working with Wes, I’ll take anything. When we work together, it’s the best. It’s so much fun, and it’s so unique. He goes to such great lengths to make the experience wonderful — or, at least, unusual. You know, on most movies, actors all stay in different places — when you’re on location, for instance, everyone stays in different hotels, and one person gets an apartment, and there are trailers, and there’s this system that’s set up in place for how movies are made. You’ve got a trailer, and this person has a trailer. But with Wes, there are no trailers. There’s a green room. And all the actors change and hang out in the green room — there’s magazines and food — and you all live together in the same house. There’s more of a circus feeling.

For instance, with Jeff Goldblum — I realized last night I’ve been seeing Jeff for many years, and I hug him and talk to him, but I’ve never actually worked with him. By which I mean, I’ve never been in a scene with him. Like during Grand Budapest, we were both there at the same time, we just didn’t work on the same days — and we had days off together, and we just spent time together. That’s a unique thing. That’s kind of what Wes’s whole thing is — it’s more like a reunion.

At the Isle of Dogs New York City premiere after-party, from left,  Jeff Goldblum, Matthew Greenfield, David Greenbaum, Wes Anderson, Steve Gilula, and Jason Schwartzman. (Photo: Getty Images)

Is that part of what’s so appealing about working on his films — the experience of spending time, and collaborating, with so many other great actors?
It’s true. On this, it was animated, so it was a little different. And yet, although I wasn’t there for it, Wes had the main alpha dogs all together for days of recording — which is highly unusual. Last night we had the premiere, and just from watching the TV or Internet of other animated movies, a lot of times the actors talk about how much they can’t wait to meet the other actors they worked with. And that’s fine; I understand that process, and that totally works for that type of film. But last night, I was noticing the camaraderie amongst all the actors, and it’s because they all worked together, and they all know each other. It’s not so separate. When you work with Wes, that is what’s appealing — and it’s all in an effort to make it like a family.

For Isle of Dogs, you helped craft the story. How did that process work, and did it differ from the other films you’ve written with Wes, given that this one is animated?
Well, first, it’s totally different, because with Darjeeling, I know Wes is going to create a specific version of India, but I still know roughly what it’s going to look like because India is India [laughs]. But this is a movie where everything is going to be fabricated. It’s like when you’re a kid, and someone’s telling you a story — I’m imagining something totally different than what the kid next to me is. We all have slightly different takes. So it was interesting in the writing process, when we were talking about these characters and this world and playing out these scenes — I couldn’t be certain that we were all envisioning the same thing. This occurred to me halfway through, while we were working. I said, “I realize that every scene I’m doing in my mind, it’s nighttime.” And they’re like, “No, it’s daytime” [laughs].

The first big thing is when you hear the actors do it, and you go, “Whoa. Now this is happening.” And then you see the sets. I remember the first time I saw the set of the opening shot — it was pretty thrilling, because for years, we had been talking about something that I had never seen. Only Wes had kind of seen it — he’s the filmmaker, so he has the idea. It was such an anticipated, exciting moment. And then to see the dogs, finally, and see things like the spot that we figured out on his fur. We talked and described these things so thoroughly, but there’s nothing like seeing it for the first time. It’s just unbelievable.

Did you ever have a desire to voice one of the film’s characters?
We didn’t even really talk about it. Wes invited me to work on this thing, and I just go from there. In Hollywood in general, it’s so mysterious that you just can’t assume anything. So when I’m working with Wes and we’re writing the script, there’s no part of me that’s thinking about being a character; I’m just working on the script. That’s my devotion. I just want to help figure out what the movie is.

But I will say, I was doing an interview with Wes, and someone said, “How come Jason’s not doing a voice?” And Wes said, “Well, I don’t want anyone who was in Fantastic Mr. Fox doing voices.” But then we started to realize there were many people who are in Fantastic Mr. Fox who do voices. So there’s no real alibi on Wes’s behalf.

Still, last night at the premiere, lots of people came up to me and said, “You were great in the movie. You were so funny!” It’s like when someone calls your kid the wrong name — I don’t know if I should say, “No, it’s actually Henry; it’s not Henri.” I didn’t know what to say [laughs].

Do you have a favorite Wes Anderson film?
The Life Aquatic. I just like its maxed-out, total…

Wes-iness?
I like when Wes combines himself with a real place. Like Italy, but via Wes. And I just think Bill is incredible in it. It’s a beautiful movie.

Isle of Dogs hits theaters March 23.

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