Tribeca Film Festival
You enter with a compliment. This is how professional courtesy works – when you’re entering a room (typically a hotel room, often a nice one, usually stripped of things like beds and dressers, which gives most interview settings the feeling of intended disarray) to interview the talent associated with a film or a book or a television show or whatever it may be, you enter with a compliment. I really enjoyed the book, reading is a cool thing. I loved your performance in the season finale, especially when you died. I liked that scene where you have phone sex while in the same room as the other person. You were so good in this! It’s an icebreaker, and an expected one, and it normally doesn’t lead to anything beyond a pleasant start to a ten-minute chat that is recorded for later use.
This is not what happened with Paul Schneider.
I entered with a compliment – a genuine one – that I hoped would convey to Schneider, who I was interviewing in support of his leading role in Tribeca Film Festival premiere, Angus MacLachlan’s Goodbye to All That, which is charming and funny and just the right amount of sad, that I was a longtime admirer of his work and that I was hoping to chat about more than just his latest feature. It worked, though certainly better than expected.
In person, Schneider is disarming for a few reasons – he’s very handsome, with lively eyes and a smile that definitely falls under the “easy” category, but he’s also candid and open in a way that doesn’t often happen when it comes to celebrity interviews. (And, yes, Schneider is probably the last person who would consider himself a “celebrity” – hell, he even balked at using the word “career” to describe his work.) You just want to talk to him – and, man, does he want to talk to you.
When I mentioned to Schneider how much I like his entire body of work, just as bit of an icebreaker, he didn’t brush off the compliment, he thought about it. “There’s no way for me to fully grasp the way that your image and your work is sort of propagated and sort of beamed out to the world. There’s no way to– maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I don’t want to think about the idea,” the actor wondered aloud. “You work in this little room, in this very isolated, insular environment, and then you do the best you can, and then you leave, and then very possibly a year later you talk about it, and you’re desperately trying to remember what the fuck you were thinking at the time, and then it’s sort of beamed down to the world in a way that I can’t wrap my brain around.”
Schneider gives the distinct impression that he’s somehow thought a lot about his work while simultaneously appearing unpreoccupied with the whole thing, and that might be the key to his current state of something close to zen.
He is also, quite possibly, the only guy in Hollywood who could say something like “I went to film school and I studied editing. I didn’t go to me school to study myself” and not sound like a douchebag or a crazy person. He sounds like means it.
Although Schneider did go to film school – the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which is now churning out talent on the regular – he’s not beholden to his work as is. He likes working and working with people.
“I like the symphonic nature of making films. It reminds me of The A Team – we’ve got like the weapons expert, everyone is a specialist. I don’t believe in hierarchy on set, and I hate when actors use that perceived hierarchy. Maybe I’ve just recently eclipsed it, but it used to be that I’d spent more time in my life PA-ing on sets than I had acting. I’m on a television show now called The Divide, and Nia Long is also on the show, and I was a PA on Third Watch when she was on Third Watch, and I used to get her breakfast,” he shares. “I say all that to say that what I’m interested in is the symphony. I’m not interested in being a soloist.”
In the Goodbye to All That, Schneider’s character, the lovably accident-prone Otto Wall is reeling from the recent surprise that his wife (played by the always lovely Melanie Lynskey) wants a divorce, and reacts to his newfound singledom by belly-flopping back into the dating pool via Facebook. Schneider, however, couldn’t give less of a shit about social media and the trappings that come with it. “I’m not interested in that at all. I don’t have a Facebook page, I feel like, I’m not a commodity. I feel really strongly about that. I’m not here advertise Bushmill’s or Bulgari, I still believe in selling out, and part of the reason why is because I have to live with my own brain,” he says.
Schneider has, however, dipped his toe into the Internet before. In the early years of his career, the actor used his own domain (paulschneider.com) to post various photography projects, his own poetry, and assorted other ephemera. Intended as its own creative outlet, the website was also responsible for the last time Schneider got even close to selling out.
“My friend bought me that domain sort of as a joke. I have felt a little stuck in the middle in the sense that my buddies back in North Carolina are like, okay, Hollywood! and you’re sort of caught between that and also not really feeling part of the establishment, or what you perceive as the establishment, in Hollywood. Sort of stuck in the middle somewhere, so I had that, and I thought that it was an interesting outlet for this weird photography series I was doing about knives. I thought it was funny to put a knife in a baby’s stroller and take a picture of it, obviously without a baby in there. Or put a knife on a slide on a playground and take a really nice picture of it,” Schneider remembers.
But after Schneider’s turn in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, which earned him some major acting accolades, the publicity firm tasked with launching a For Your Consideration campaign to get Schneider an Oscar nomination – “this is going to sound very high-falutin’,” he awkwardly laughs when recalling the details – for the role caught wind of the page and freaked out. “They were terrified,” he says. They subsequently asked him to take down the page, or at least scrub some of the weirder stuff.
“At that moment, I hadn’t done much on the website recently and it was not a battle I needed to fight necessarily, and I haven’t done anything on it since. And since, I actually, I’ve lightened up a little, I guess. I was a lot angrier back then,” Schneider shares. “I feel that a part of that website was me saying, fuck you, Hollywood! I’m not part of this, I’m not part of this! And I think there’s still some truth in that, but I feel like it was a ‘fuck you’ born of fear and low self-esteem and constantly feeling you’re sitting in first class with a coach ticket, and you’re just waiting to be found out. And the flight attendant is making her way down the line with her clipboard. I’m the kind of personality that, even before she’d get to me, I would just be like, ‘you know what! I’m in coach!’”
“But now I just don’t feel that way. I have my place at the table, I’ve worked with some of my heroes. It took a few years of experience, but what can you do besides show up on time and know your lines and have a good attitude and do your best and see what happens,” the actor says.
Part of earning that place at the table? Spending five years in Los Angeles. Schneider did his time in LA (including a stint on Parks and Recreation before beloved sitcom found its footing), but living it up in Hollywood is clearly not something he’s interested in. “It was a terrible time in my life. If you want to think in these terms, it was good for my ‘career,’” he says. “It was probably good for my career. It just wasn’t good for my brain. To me, it was a very isolating city and I was gone a lot, which was probably good. I think I made some of the films there that I was most excited about being involved in, like The Family Stone and Assassination [of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford] and Lars and the Real Girl and Bright Star.”
Schneider has since decamped for Brooklyn, simply because it makes him happy. “I work so infrequently that, I need to be in a place that, Monday through Friday, I’m mostly happy, because I know that eight months out of the year, I’m going to be at home, not at work,” he says.
One of the reasons why he’s got so much time to spend at home is because Schneider doesn’t get a lot of offers for roles. “I very rarely get an offer. I’m mostly auditioning like everybody else,” he shares. But there is one kind of offer he’ll turn down flat: romantic comedies. “I say no to them,” Schneider immediately answered when asked if they get offered up a lot. “My taste is not middle of the road. I don’t want to be in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. I’d rather fist a dead person than be in that movie.” (A movie he laughingly admits he’s never seen.)
He’s laidback about his work, and he thinks that his relatively relaxed attitude is part of it, “I don’t feel desperate to do it. I think the lack of desperation that I feel has probably also helped me in the acting I’m not suggesting that I’m hot shit, but I feel like every now and again, I’ll get a job based on the fact that I just really want the job, but I don’t need the job.”
There was, however, one job he did need back in the day.
When Schneider landed his supporting role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, as Orlando Bloom’s wild but well-meaning cousin, even he couldn’t help but think this could be his big break. He got the news that he landed the part in Elizabethtown while at home with his parents in North Carolina: “I got off the phone and my head was spinning. And I was so like, it’s really happening, I can’t believe it. This was like my first big job and I remember, I went out on their back porch, and I was looking out over the mountains where they live, and I was stunned and amazed,” he remembers.
“And I think I was smoking a cigarette and drinking Coca Cola, and I went and spit off the deck, and I was like, man, this is unbelievable, I could really maybe make something of this, maybe this could be my life. And I look down, and I had spit all over my, like it hadn’t made it really past my chin, and it was all over my chest. And I was like, well, you know, movies or not, I’m still Paul, and God is still laughing at me.”