Interview: Jason Schwartzman Talks Jonathan Ames, The Modern Day Hero

By  · Published on October 10th, 2010

Jonathan Ames is a lot cooler than some may think. He’s a man who gets the job done, a smooth talker, and is also a ladies man. In season one of Bored to Death, Ames started out with a girlfriend played by Olivia Thirlby and ended up hooking up with a client played by Parker Posey; he’s a ladies’ man in all sense of the phrase. All women treat him kindly, including the femme fatales. He may not be the ‘ol hard-boiled detective we all know, but instead he’s the soft and cuddly kind.

Jason Schwartzman is someone that’s no stranger to the awkward and sometimes not-so-smooth side of humanity in terms of past roles, but Ames is different. On the outside, you’d say he’s just that. But he’s not. As stated above, he’s probably one of the coolest and most reliant heroes currently on the small screen. If it came down to picking Jack Bauer or Jonathan Ames to solve a case, it’d be best to go with the latter.

Bored to Death just started its second season and this time around it’s topping itself in nearly every category: the stakes are higher, it’s playing up its noir roots, and much, much more.

Here’s what Schwartzman had to say about Bored to Death, the style of the world, and playing a modern day hero:

Based on the first four new episodes, would you say this season is raising the stakes and consequences a bit more?

I would say that it’s true, hopefully. That was one thing Jonathan [Ames] was hoping to do, you know, advancing the level of danger or upping the ante. Basically, I think that’s the great thing about being able to have a second season is that in a lot of the first season you’re trying to, of course, make it standalone as its own work. Had we not gotten a second season the hope is that you made a first season that feels complete. The first season is a lot about laying groundwork; information, and saying this person is this person and that person is that person, and these two are friends. You’re trying to advance the story, but also give information and an introduction to people.

Now that we’ve done that, of course, the first couple of episodes in this season you must be reacquainted and have a certain amount of information being laid out, but lesser so. Hopefully, because of the first season, we’ll be able to get more quickly into the cases and get more into the action. It’s funny because, yes, it’s a year later from when the last season took place, but in our minds it’s really only three months after the last season ended. There’s not a whole lot that has to have changed, but three months as a private detective is a good amount of time. Therefore, I think I’m getting, not better, but a little bit more comfortable with it.

I am getting cases that are a little more dangerous physically and mentally a lot more threatening. It’s also more fun because the three of us have spent a lot more time together. It’s definitely fun to act and do, and I think it’s fun for maybe people to see Zach, Ted, and I acting together more with our plot lines interweaving.

How about playing up the idea that Jonathan is heroic?

Hopefully. The main thing that I love is that the show isn’t ironic. It’s not like, “Haha, he’s a writer and a terrible detective!” He is trying his best to help people. One thing that I love about Jonathan Ames, the real one, is that all of the characters in his books are not goody two shoes types of people. They’re morally ambiguous and are generally coming from a bad place and they say to themselves, “Okay, I’m going to do better now and that’s behind me,” and then they do their best but weaken and fuck up. In the process they hurt some people around them and make a mess of things, and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from.

I find it to be the same in the show. I’m not morally Mr. Righteous. I smoke pot, drink wine, and I possibly could get involved in any sex or drugs if I felt like, “Why not?” You never know, I’m a good person, but I don’t think I’m like a principle. At the same time, I am trying to do better and trying to be a better man. When I’m a detective I am trying to help people and I do kind of mess it up, but I do alright. To me, that’s one of the fun things about the show: Jonathan wants to be more of a man of action. In the first season, his girlfriend doesn’t think he’s living life to the fullest or is doing anything. A part of his movie to become a detective or do something is to kind of give his whole system a shock and to become a man of action and heroic in some way, or at least try. He gets a great sense of pleasure and happiness being so psychical with running from people, beating people up, or banging on a door; it’s almost like a costume he wears.

It’s like how Don Quixote reads about Knights and sort of becomes one and enjoys it, so does my character. It’s funny because me as a person there is where my character and I sort of become fused when I’m in detective mode. I really have as much fun doing it as my character probably does. I love being so physical and when Jonathan says, “This is where you beat up some guys in the woods,” I say, “Fun, because I probably would never get to do that in my normal day life.” I’m enjoying it simultaneously with my character.

It was briefly said at one point that Jonathan is a fan of detective novels; do you think that’s where he possibly got this delusional feeling and detective outlook from?

I mean, I want to find another word to go on top of delusional. I think maybe because he’s a writer and has a tendency to daydream the voice in his head is probably sometimes very strong. I think he’s looking for help, and that’s why Ray and George are so important to him because they can give him advice. He’s looking for answers to help him become a man and to grow up a little bit. I think the whole idea of emulation or how he puts on this coat is somewhat, I don’t know about delusional, but it’s like he’s become a character. It’s like becoming a method actor in your real life. He’s kind of like a super dreamer and trying to force his body and mind to become someone else, so I guess he’s delusional. I keep saying the word delusional the more I try not to.

Could you possibly argue he also does this to feel manly in a sad way? He gets right into it right after being dumped.

Oh, yeah. You know all those lyrics of the song Beast of Burden? I think that all of those things he definitely thinks about. Initially in the pilot script his neighbor said to him, “You know what you need to do? You need to rebound fast,” and Jonathan responds how he’s disinterested and loves her and then the neighbor said, “Look, go on Craigslist. That’s where people are meeting. Go put up an ad and meet a girl.” He goes on Craigslist thinking maybe his neighbor is right, but he doesn’t have the heart to do it but just instead makes the decision to post himself up as a private detective and then he gets the hit.

Do you recall why that scene was cut out?

No, I don’t. I think that when we watched it we just felt like we could lose it and it’d still make sense. We could just cut to the part where he puts the ad up on Craigslist and hopefully that it plays. He’s doing it on a whim saying fuck it.

How would you describe the world of Bored to Death? It’s not heightened like most noir, but it has some aspects of it.

Well, I would say to you that I think that the real life Jonathan Ames has an amazing level of sensitivity and awareness to the world around him. He has really powerful observation skills that aren’t forced. I don’t even think he really thinks about it, but we’ll have dinner and he’ll notice something that not anyone else or I would’ve noticed. The other day we were having breakfast and when I was in the middle of talking he said, “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt you, but do you see the way the roof of that church looks up at the blue sky and how sharp that line is? Isn’t that amazing?” I had to look down the street to see where the church was and it was not something that was easily noticeable. With a moment like that, Jonathan would maybe remember and think it’d be fun to have a scene where I’m running along that roof.

It’s taking place in real time in the real world, but at the same time something I love about the show is that it’s absurdist, which is my favorite type of thing. It’s these moments that are kind of real, but also heightened or strange or totally fake seeming for a second. That is, to me, also the way I perceive a lot of things in the world. It’s the moments you’d never believe would happen, and I feel like those are the moments that I remember and that most people remember. Think of when you ask someone about how their day went and they go, “The craziest thing happened. An elephant walked through 7–11, why?” I just feel like that is what our show is: the moments we’re unusual.

Hopefully that’s the world of our show and the world of our show is one where it’s not very sarcastic or ironic. It’s trying to be grounded, I said this earlier, but the characters aren’t winking or making fun of themselves. I feel like my character is struggling for a little money, which is something we try to put in every now and then without hitting it over the head, but he did hand in a book this season where it was rejected and now the publishing company wants the money back. He is thinking, “I’m thirty years old, my second book has been rejected, I have no real job, and I need money,” and that’s all very sincere. I think my character is trying to figure things out and to be a detective, but to not make fun of it. They’re all trying to be good people, and that’s something I like. All the men on our show are very sensitive and you don’t see that a lot.

The show never makes fun of them either.

It doesn’t make fun of them. We love the characters that we play and we have so much fun doing it. I think we can all relate to the various things are characters are talking about, on some level. Even when my character says something he felt, I maybe felt that on a certain level too. It’s fun to put exclamation points behind different emotions that I feel maybe less so or more so or whatever.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think as the show goes on it gets more and more further noir-ish, at least here and there. I think it’s tricky, because… I continue to read a lot of Hammett and Raymond Chandler and whenever I read about certain movements that characters do like walking into a bar a certain way or giving a specific look, I’ll highlight that and use it. But when I go to shoot and try it, it feels like I’m making fun of it. It’s a really weird balance of trying to pay tribute. My character in real time is also trying to pay tribute. It’s not just the show, but my character is aware of it. If you do too much shadows, or too much hard-boiled, it seems unbelievable.

People are aware in the show when clients meet me that I’m not a normal detective. They’re aware of it, but they’re also saying, “Okay, at least he’s going to try.” If I come in with a hat and cigar it’ll seem like I’m making fun of my clients, and they’d just think this guy is fucking insane and I’m not hiring him. Show over. It’s trying to make it have the spirit or feeling of it, but without being overt because then I would seem to be delusional. It’s like I’m normal, but there’s a little hint of it. And I’m nervous, my character is nervous about being a private detective and he is aware of the danger.

There are certain looks he gives here and there that give off that he’s trying very hard to be cool.

That’s the editors and stuff; we’re always trying to sprinkle stuff in. We have a lot of work to do because the scripts are very dense. A lot of shows, not all of them, aren’t shot on location and are shot in studios. For a majority of the week, we’re shooting outside on streets dealing with light and natural elements. The days go about sixteen to twenty hours and everyday is chalked full. We’re trying to get everything that we can. I’ll tell you even with that workload you still can go, “Can I try one more thing?” To me, the greatest thing I love about doing show is that it’s about making a lot of mistakes but having them be captured on camera and maybe five of the mistakes add up in a series of cuts to something that works, and I like that.

Structurally, would you say the show is deconstructing or even satirizing the genre?

Sure, but I think that’s more of a question for Jonathan. I think that it deconstructs as far that it’s more patch work-y instead of complete noir. There are elements that are very spread out from one and another that are very related, so perhaps. Hopefully not simultaneously, I think that, and this is going to sound like such a stupid metaphor, but you know when you walk by like a house under construction? Sometimes when I look at it I cant tell if it’s being torn down or built, and that’s how I think the show should feel. Is Jonathan becoming better, or worse? It’s not ambiguous, but hopefully a hope of whether or not it’s deconstructed or getting deconstructed. I like that it’s open for interpretation.

I gotta be honest with you, that’s what I love about movies and all this stuff in general. Everyone can have a different opinion. You can talk to someone on the street where they say, “Hey, I saw the show. I don’t, I don’t get. My friend loves it, but I just don’t.” I’ll say thanks, and then we’ll talk for a second and that’s cool. That’s why we do this. That’s why I am happy to have this job. I sucked at school and I hated teachers saying, “A, B, C, D,” and I thought I had to find a line of work where if someone said they didn’t like something I could say, “Well, he liked it!” (Laughs) That’s what I enjoy.

Lastly, as a fan of The Darjeeling Limited, are you writing anything right now?

Thanks. I’m always trying to write something, but I don’t have a specific script I’m writing. You know, I found that with music… I have garage band on mac computer and I found that if you stopped writing for more than a week or at least making terrible sounds or songs, it gets harder and harder to do. I just keep working everyday for an hour, even if it’s terrible. The same goes for writing; even if I sit down and it’s terrible I’ll just keep writing. You know, at least you’re doing it. So, yes, I’d say that I’m always writing and also, no, I’m not writing anything in particular (laughs).

Bored to Death airs on Sundays at 10:00 p.m. on HBO.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.