In the new Disney movie, "Saving Mr. Banks," Jason Schwartzman plays one of the songwriting brothers tasked with charming P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into giving up the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney.
Schwartzman got the chance to meet his real-life counterpart, Richard M. Sherman, whose sunny optimism (along with Walt Disney's) persevered over Travers's fierce negativity. (His brother, Robert Sherman, played in the film by B.J. Novak, passed away in 2012.)
The actor talked candidly with Moviefone about how in awe he is of Thompson, despite the trick she played on him when they first met; how making this movie may have changed him forever; and why -- despite coming from one of the most famous film dynasties in Hollywood -- he's so nervous about meeting other actors.
Moviefone: This movie was so much fun. I imagine making it was a lot of fun as well.
Jason Schwartzman: Yes, for me, the shooting of it was amazing and getting to know Richard was equally amazing. But yeah, the making of it was nuts. Like, getting to go to work every day with Emma is... she's... she's just the coolest. B.J. and I and Colin, who I didn't really work with, but we've been hanging out the last couple of days, and we all seem to be finding ourselves like five feet behind her, going, [whispers] "Wow, she's so cool. She's so f*ckin' awesome. She's incredible, right?" There's no other way to say it, other than she's just incredible to be around.
B.J. told me that she actually apologized for being so awful to you when the cameras were rolling.
She did, yeah, she did. Yeah, she's intimidating and can be scary when she's acting. She is beautiful and kind in between takes. But on the first day of rehearsals, there was construction on the freeway I was on and I was 20 minutes late. When I walked in, she said, [coolly] "Hello." And she was upset. She said, "You know, the least you could have done was be on time. I've flown in from across the Atlantic." She just kind of laid into me for my lack of respect for about five minutes and my ears were burning and it was heartbreaking. And then she just started laughing and it was just a big joke. B.J. and all of them had said to just come down on me about it. The way that I felt when she did that, that's what I used for the rest of the movie. I had sense memory about that moment. I never forgot it.
How did you get along with Richard?
I talk a lot, and when Richard and I got together, it was really fun because I felt like, "Oh, we talk the same." Richard is so optimistic in a way that I never encountered before. I don't know if it's a god-given trait but he's truly optimistic. In the beginning, I was like "What's the dark side? Is there a Dorian Gray of optimism happening?" And there isn't. When I got to his house, I remember thinking about "Saving Mr. Banks" and being nervous and doing a good job for him. And I remember leaving his house three hours later not even thinking about the movie, but just what a beautiful day it was and how lucky we are to be alive. He goes bigger, you know what I'm saying?
Was that hard, to play someone so positive in the face of such criticism?
He has a positive view about everything and enthusiasm for songs and entertainment and life and it really affected me deeply, actually. Because having to sing aloud was something that was really nerve-wracking for me. I used to play drums in a band. I feel comfortable playing drums, but to sing in public is something that I'm not very comfortable doing. Richard says, "Aww, I'm not a singer," but he means what he sings and he believes in it so much and he's unafraid. [He would say], "When you sing, just love it," and "You're demonstrating these songs, so mean it." It's cheesy to say, but this movie really kind of forced me, 12 hours a day, to sing in front of a crew of about 50 people. It was a really nice thing to have done. I mean, I'm not playing a show anytime soon -- I'm not a singer now -- but that affected me greatly, too. Playing Richard and his optimism really affected me in a positive way, I think for the rest of my life.
When you talked to Richard about what it was really like going up against P.L. Travers day after day, was he ever discouraged?
Yeah, I asked him what it was like in the room and he said you would have seen that if Bob was upset, he was visibly upset and he would say, "That isn't going to work." Whereas Richard's attitude was, even if he thought it wouldn't work, he'd say, "OK, we'll try that." You can hear him on the demos, he'll be singing a song and she'll say, "Well, about about this word?" and he'll try to work it into the song, even though it's not even close to working. He said, "I smiled and I tried and I wanted everything to be harmonious." There were days he was frustrated, but he said, "My job was to try to make it work."
Have you ever encountered anyone like P.L. Travers?
The only thing I can think of in my own life was in high school, I had a teacher who was quite tough and I would raise my hand and ask a question and she would say, "That doesn't make any sense." I didn't ask that question again for another month. I don't know if I would have had Richard's innate ability to press on. But I guess I would have had to if Walt Disney was my boss. But that's the type of person that Richard is.
Growing up, was "Mary Poppins" one of your favorite movies?
Oh yeah, that was big. It was one of the ones that I really loved. I didn't say it at the press conference, because I was nervous to sit next to Tom Hanks, but when I watched the movie, I was amazed at some of the scenes I'd forgotten. It was weird how I hadn't forgotten any of the songs. I didn't know all the words, but there wasn't a single one that I didn't think, "Oh yeah, this song." They really were a part of me.
Do you know all the words now?
No. I did when we made the movie. If I had to sing them all right now, I couldn't do it. But I learned to play them all and it was nuts.
How did this project come to you in the first place?
It came to me in a really bizarre way: I was at the "Moonrise Kingdom" premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and I was sitting next to the composer, Alexandre Desplat. And he told me, "Oh, I was in a meeting recently about 'Saving Mr. Banks' and your name came up to play one of the Sherman Brothers." And then the movie started and I was like, "What?"
My brother, John, shot ["Saving Mr. Banks"], and I got home that night from the ["Kingdom"] premiere and there was an email from him that said, "Hey, bro. I'm doing a movie with John Lee Hancock called 'Saving Mr. Banks.' He's going to contact you soon. It's a great script, you're going to love it. It would be really fun if we could maybe work together." But then it was another week before John Lee Hancock got in touch with me. I describe it as "you will be visited by three ghosts..." I was like, "When is it gonna happen?" But when I read it, I was so interested in it because I love "Mary Poppins" and I love anything that's the "making of" in the creative process. And I loved [Hancock's previous film] "The Rookie," which my brother had shot and told me John Lee Hancock was so nice. So when I went to meet him, I felt comfortable with him.
I guess it surprises me that you're so nervous about meeting other actors and directors when your whole family is in movie business. That doesn't make a difference for you?
I don't know if it's a natural thing or what. I don't get starstruck, It's like... I just get nervous. I am a fan of things, genuinely, and I don't want to say something dumb. When I was 18 or 19, Brian Wilson played the Roxy and I wanted to get my CD signed. I waited in this long line and I was the next person up and I asked myself, "What am I doing? I shouldn't meet him." And so I just left. Bradley [Whitford] made fun of me during the press conference because I told him, "Oh God, I'm sitting next to Tom Hanks!" I just get nervous and there's no reason to be nervous but it's just there sometimes.
But Tom Hanks is the nicest guy in the world, right?
Yeah, no. I just get like that. I just had the chance to meet Arcade Fire and I was like ...[pretends to walk towards the door]. I'd met them before. It's not fear. I don't want to bug anybody. Maybe I'm just shy.
"Saving Mr. Banks" opens in limited release on Friday, December 13, and nationwide December 20.