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Paul Schneider: Bright Star's Lonely American

Hey, it's that guy on NBC's Parks and Charles Armitage Brown, the Scottish poet, ripping and roaring through Jane Campion's Bright Star! We talk with the wonderfully verbal actor about his latest role.


Paul Schneider is one of those actors who regularly spins gold from what could be utterly thankless roles. While he's currently appearing on NBC's Amy Poehler comedy Parks and Recreation, he's carved out a lovely niche on screen as a supporting actor in films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (where he plays a character that's particularly...randy, providing laughs amongst all the levity), Lars and the Real Girl (where he's Ryan Gosling's brother), and this year's Away We Go. He first drew notice with a starring role and co-writer credit for the romantic indie All the Real Girls (2003), directed by his fellow North Carolina School for the Arts alum David Gordon Green.

Over the years, Schneider has continued to develop as an actor and writer, and he made his directing debut with the 2008 Sundance flick Pretty Bird, which he also wrote. In Jane Campion's Bright Star, he's nearly unrecognizable as poet John Keats' best friend and fellow poet, Charles Armitage Brown. Physically imposing, clad in goofy plaid pants, hiding behind facial hair, he rips and roars as a man who simply won't lose his best friend to a relationship. Brown's intentions regarding Keats' relationship with Fanny Brawn can be read a number of ways, and Schneider makes the character into someone flawed and real and full of contradictions.

During the Bright Star roundtable, Schneider was kind of a superstar. (He also has impeccable manners, taking a moment to shake everybody's hand and introducing himself, a rare occurence in these sort of events.) He speaks in beautiful paragraphs, slowly and thoughtfully, his subtle southern drawl on full display. He's certainly one to root for in Hollywood.

With the relationship between Brown and Keats, where did that protectiveness come from? How did you read it?

Paul Schneider:
I thought a lot about Antonio Salieri and his relationship to Mozart, I thought a lot about how Ringo must've felt when Yoko started hanging around, and I thought a lot about what if you loved playing guitar and grew up next door to Jimi Hendrix? What if you're like me, who really wanted to be a great drummer, and I have friends who are the best drummers in the world.

For Brown, I think there's a sense of real dissatisfaction with himself. He's desperately trying to be something that he's not. And part of my pitch to Jane—she called me up and we talked about Brown after I read the script—I said, I think Brown, the way that he writes should be very athletic, very laborious. He has to punch his way through a poem, like a guy, like a dude, he wants to punch his way through problems.

And what does that mean? It means when he's writing, there's crumpled papers on the desk, there's ink all over his fingers, it means that when he writes he's growling to himself—(he growls)—he's trying to get this stuff out. And of course that's a massive contrast to beautiful Ben, and he's Keats, and he carelessly drags this chair out under a tree and sits underneath it—

In his really gorgeous handwriting, I mean [Whishaw] really learned to use a quill, that's all his handwriting in the movie, and he won't tell you that, but he spent all this time learning to use the quill. He just goes out under a tree and carelessly farts out the greatest poems of the 19th century. I felt like Brown should be a contrast to that. In that way, I guess that's the way that Brown's dissatisfaction is physicalized.

It doesn't matter what ideas you have, you have to film these ideas, they have to appear and be physical in some way. I think Brown's sort of great benefit and curse was being alive at the same time Keats was, and wanting to do the same thing.


How did you find your way to this film?

PS: What I heard was that Jane saw The Assassination of Jesse James at the Venice Film Festival and when she was preparing to do this movie, she called my agent. I had been a really big fan of hers—The Piano kind of changed my life a little bit, and so I talked to her. I can tell you that I was kind of blown away by talking to her, I can tell you it felt very surreal to me, I'm scared and nervous and these are my heroes I'm working with but the truth of the matter is that I'm not going to be able to tell you how I felt about any of this stuff, or working with someone I admire so much, or being included as part of the team until five years from now.

It's like a really great movie, someone says, what do you think? And I'm like, I don't know, you're going to have to talk to me in a couple of days. And in this case, it's like, you're going to have to talk to me in a couple of years. It was a big thing for my brain, because I grew up in North Carolina and I listened to Led Zepplin and Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and I think oh, these people that make this great stuff I love are very very far away, I'm never going to be like them, they're very far away. There's this huge distance. Hollywood sells you on the fact that there's a difference between you and actors. Actors are different than you, they're beautiful and they're rich and they're different than you. And you don't grow up thinking, wait, I'm beautiful and I'm rich and I need to be involved in this—well if you're me, you don't.

How did you approach the accent? That's part of the reason I didn't recognize you. Did it help or hinder?

I think it helped, because it's far better to have something to do than just to—it's like when you're anxious, and feel some crazy anxiety coming on, and you don't just want to sit around and wait until the train comes. You need to go out and go jogging, you need to start sweating, you need something physical to focus on.

I think what was helpful to me was two things: I'd done a couple of films and I felt like this was probably an okay challenge. It was a big challenge. Also Jane apparently thought I could do it. I'm still not sure why, but it's helpful when the people you admire say, yeah, yeah, you can do this, and then all of a sudden you think you can even before you think you can? It was helpful to get out of my head and focus on the accent. The accent scared the hell out of me—I've done southern accents before but I can do that. This one scared me.

I was also the only American over there and I didn't want to be the clunker who ruins this movie. They'd spent all this money on me and they could've gotten great Scottish actors right up the street. Every night when I went to bed, you're just so fearful that you're going to let down this great filmmaker that you have admire. That fear was a great motivator. That Scottish accent was like a loaded .45 on the nightstand. It's pointed right at you and you can't hide and you can't focus on how Brown feels when Fanny comes over for poetry—that doesn't matter, it doesn't matter as much if you sound like you're from North Carolina in 1818 London.

I say all that to say it was really nice to have something specific to focus on. Accent work is very much like homework, like learning another language, Spanish 2 in high school. You have worksheets, you have a teacher that you trust, you basically just put the hours in. It's not mysterious.

Do you think you were cast to be "an other" of sorts in the film?

PS: I think so. Someone I was speaking to recently was saying I think they cast you because they needed someone without an automatic reverence to these romantic poets, you know?

They needed someone with an I don't give a shit attitude to come in and say I don't know from poets, but I do know what it feels like when your best friend starts dating someone you don't like. I don't know about poets, but I do know what it feels like when you and your friend are doing something and he's succeeding and you're failing. I don't know from poets, but I do know what it's like to try very hard at something and fail.

It's not that I don't have a reverence or respect, but I think this person was saying the British education nails into you a reverence that you can't shake off, this was this person's theory about why I might have been cast. It reminded me this great thing Nestor Alemendros said in that movie Visions of Light (a documentary about cinematography), when he's talking about shooting Days of Heaven for Terrence Malick. He said, if someone is making a movie about America, don't hire an American cinematographer, hire a foreigner to shoot America. They're going to see things you don't see because you're steeped in this thing and you take it for granted. I wonder if that has something to do with my casting, but I'm just hypothesizing.

Like Paris, Texas.

PS: You need this German to show you America. To show you Texas.


You had such a burly physical presence in the movie. Was it simply due to the plaid pants?

PS: It's not the fact that they were plaid, it's the fact that they were wool.

What sort of work were you doing to be a bull in a china shop?

PS: Sadly, not very much. I like to tell people that I really worked hard to gain weight. The truth is if I'm not trying all the time to lose weight, I'll just gain it without doing much of anything. So you always want to sell people on this line that you prepared and worked very hard—I just ate a crapload of Nutella. I ate the way I wanted to eat. I will just become Jabba the Hut.

In a way, there is a natural part of me that wants to fuck shit up when it gets too polite. I think in English society, in southern American society, there's sometimes people being very quiet and very polite and not really telling people how they feel, and hiding things and lying, and I tend not to wanna play that shit. To my own detriment.

I'm always putting my foot in my mouth and leaving a party and saying why did I say that that's so stupid, I should've been cool and quiet and wore black like all these fucking fashionistas here this week. I'm going to hide behind this thing and I don't tend to do that very well. 'Course then I go home and beat myself up about it so don't think that's not a cost, but I think that part of me was probably on display for Brown because in a way, he did have that kind of trickster attitude. If I see something I don't agree with, I'm not just going to turn and walk away, I'm going to break it, and then turn and walk away.

What are you doing next? Are you going to direct again? (Schneider's debut, Pretty Bird, played Sundance in 2008)

Parks and Recreation right now and beyond that, I don't know. What's next for me is the next filmmaker that I feel like I can learn something from. [As for directing] I don't know. It's like asking someone if they're going to fall in love ever again. If you meet the right girl, wel,l then something will happen. I feel like there's something inside of me but then it's hard to pull that stuff out. If you pull it out too early, the brownies are soft in the middle.

Bright Star
is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. Read our interview with Jane Campion and stars Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw.


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