Every so often, as a film fan, you encounter an actor who reaffirms why you are a fan of cinema. Enter Paul Schneider. While he may not be a household name yet, his versatility has been showcased throughout his impressive resume, which includes roles in such critically acclaimed films as All the Real Girls, The Assassination of Jesse James, Lars and the Real Girl and Bright Star. His latest role is no less intriguing as he has teamed up with Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar and Kevin Heffernan for their latest outing, The Babymakers — a role that shows this hard working actor is equally deft playing comedy or drama. Never one to pull punches when it comes to speaking his mind, his openness and honesty, combined with top notch performances, are a breath of fresh air in an often homogenized industry. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Paul Schneider to discuss his unique career path, his latest role in “The Babymakers,” his candid take on the entertainment industry and much more.
We want to give everyone a little background on you. What got you started on your journey into the entertainment industry?
Well, I went to film school in North Carolina after seeing a film called “The Piano” by an Australian director named Jane Campion. I literally had no plan before that! It’s not like I had an inkling of what I wanted to do! I really had no clue and wasn’t necessarily poised for greatness either! [laughs] Unless you consider smoking pot to be a path towards greatness. I went to film school and studied editing. My concentration, as they call it in the art conservatory environment or world or whatever, was editing. I thought I would be editing documentaries because I really like them. While I was in film school, I started acting, not because I felt any great calling but because we literally needed people to act in our projects. I started acting and it wasn’t so much that I got the bug but it was more like this is a great way I can contribute. It’s fun and it’s not like people come to me and tell me that I suck! I seem to have some type of aptitude when it comes to acting.
I just kept doing it and, after film school, my buddies and I made a feature film, “George Washington.” It was all friends from film school, we made that and, in a stroke of luck, it did not get into Sundance but it did get into the Berlin Film Festival. I remember I got my first credit card and my family has been very anti-credit card, pay-as-you-go and generally suspicious of that kind of stuff. I remember talking to my mother on the phone, this is when I was 23 or so. I was working at a video store, landscaping and working for the Parks and Recreation Department of Raleigh, North Carolina for a while. I told my mother I was going to get a credit card because this Berlin thing was never going to happen again. She said, “Go for it!” Strangely enough, we went back to Berlin for the next couple of years in a row!
Obviously, that led to a lot more good things! Your latest on-screen role is in “The Babymakers.” For those who might be unfamiliar with film, what can you tell us about it and your character?
The character is a guy named Tommy Macklin and I think he is sort of blindsided by something that — and I don’t know if a ton of guys worry about their sperm count? But guys in their 30s, I have a feeling what typically happens is you meet a girl, get married and a few years later, you start thinking about having kids. If you run into trouble, that might be the first time you think, “Is there something wrong with my balls?” I think in every guy’s imagination, of course, there is zero wrong with your balls or penis. That’s sorta the lie that keeps you going isn’t it?
Yeah! Pretty much! [laughs]
I guess if you are a normal person you think, “I’m middle of the road on all of that. I am probably above average.” If you are an asshole, you probably think, “I’m the biggest and I’m the best!” He is a guy that starts to worry about all of this and is blindsided when he can’t get his wife pregnant. When he faces the possibility of his marriage disintegrating, he starts to tumble into a series of increasingly ridiculous and asinine plots to save this last batch of sperm which he has discovered still exists at a sperm bank.
What initially attracted you to this project?
On the page, the script is really funny but mostly it was talking to Jay Chandrasekhar. I knew about the Broken Lizard thing and I knew about the “Super Troopers” thing but I hadn’t ever seen it because my college experience, was that by that time, I had quit fooling around, quit drinking and smoking dope because I was in film school. Ya know, we weren’t watching a lot of, can I say low brow comedies with air-off respect?
I do have that funny bone inside of me but that funny bone isn’t something you necessarily exercise or get to tickle in film school! At film school we are sitting there watching polish cinema or Frederick Wiseman, Jean Vigo or whatever it is we are watching. The main thing about this project was just Jay. I really found him to be, obviously, a competent director and the fact that the director is also an actor is always a great thing for me. Not that any job is any harder than any other job but there are moments where acting can be a little more stressful, at least for me, as I wasn’t born dying to perform in front of people! [laughs] I don’t necessarily have that bug that makes me have to get out in front of a whole audience and show them what I’ve got. Having someone who has acted before is always such a help because they know what it is like to be in strange situations like sex scenes or scenes where you are baring your soul a little bit. Mostly, I found Jay to be a great guy to chat with and also a calm presence. That calming presence might not sound like something that would exist on the set of a crazy, sperm comedy but it was there! That was helpful for me and I am sure it was for a lot of other people. These guys take it easy. Obviously, they work very hard. For example, Kevin [Heffernan] is an executive producer as well as an actor in the film. A lot of people don’t know this but Kevin is a lawyer! He passed the bar, ya know? He’s not Farva [his character from “Super Troopers”]. He is an actor and he is acting like Farva. These guys do work really hard but they do take it easy and it is a generally relaxed set. Good movie or bad movie, in the end, I just want to have good experiences with nice people. I would much rather be in a movie that is less critically successful and have a good time with nice folks than be in “The Exorcist” and have a horrible time with a horrible director who treats people like shit and ends up making a great film but hurts feeling all along the way and of course breaks Ellen Burstyn’s back. I am not interested in that shit.
That is something I want to touch on. Being a fan of your work, I have seen plenty of interviews with you through the years. I have always dug your candidness. I find it refreshing in this day and age and I am sure a lot of people are on the same page. Does that ever get you in hot water?
Thankfully, I am off the radar enough, I think, if I say something strange or true, [laughs] I don’t think I am high enough on people’s to-do list to come after. Obviously, I like talking about film and I want to promote the films of people I really enjoy working with but, at the end of the day, the press element of my job is something I might feel slightly different about than other actors. I mean, I like talking to people who love film — people like yourself and a few other guys that are on my list today. I am not dying to stick my face in front of a camera for “Entertainment Tonight”. I am not dying to become a major star. I am dying to do good work and to keep my head down in-between jobs. I would love to be the Fugazi of actors. [laughter] But you also have to be realistic and make your rent payments. You know what I mean? I don’t think I am really offending anybody. I am just telling people how I feel. It’s like high school, ya know what I mean? The guy that really spurned you on because he was such a jerk and he was a bully to you — he had his guy. He had the guy that really spurned him on and he was bullied by some other joker. I mean, everybody has their gripes and everyone has their strong feelings about the business. It’s a very strange world. They ask you to be extremely sensitive when you are acting in a film. Every emotion has to wash across your face in such a way that even people in the back of the theater can understand what you are thinking and going through but you can’t be over the top but you have to be extremely sensitive! Then you go for a certain amount of months auditioning or not getting jobs and you aren’t supposed to be sensitive about that at all! “Let it wash off your back. Don’t worry about it. Keep moving forward,” they say. Then you go and do press and you are supposed to say that every experience was amazing, every director is fantastic, every costar was a delight to work with and of course that’s not true. But in this case, it was!
It seems you have been pretty selective in the roles you have taken and those choices turned out to be good ones. How hard is it to find a good script in Hollywood these days? I am sure you go through a mountain of stuff.
Ya know, I wish I could tell you that was true but it’s not really. There is not a mountain of stuff out there. Thank God I have folks like you and a few other folks who like what I do. If you guys weren’t there, I would be doing something else. Acting is not something you want to keep doing if you are not feeling you are getting somewhere with it. It is too hard and it is too much of a pain in the ass. It leaves you without any autonomy. Unless I am directing a film, producing a film or writing my own film, which are things I have done in the past, every time you need a job you are still walking in with your hat in your hands and trying to convince somebody that you are a good deal. There is not a mountain of scripts because I don’t think there is a mountain of good scripts out there. The good scripts that I do see, I am working my ass off to get those, I can’t say as much as everybody else, because I remember when I hadn’t done anything. At least now, people can look at a resume or a few of the things I have done and get an idea what I am about. I hope what they see I am about is actually acting — actually trying to change from one role to the next. Obviously a role like Tommy Macklin is not a role like Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown [in “My Left Foot”]. There is not much to hide and it is not a character that you can hide yourself in necessarily because he is a leading man, a specific character and, more often than not, these characters are straight men. The real character is the insane plot that unravels around them.
As far as selectivity is concerned, it is such a strange thing because I want to keep working, keep making good films and keep working with great filmmakers. My goal is to try to work with as many of the film heroes as I had in film school as I can before I quit acting. There are just so few opportunities to attempt something unique or to attempt something artful. I am not sure Criterion is going to put “The Babymakers” out on DVD or Blu-ray but at the same time, that is me trying to really swing for the fences in a specific genre of comedy. I haven’t done that before. I did it a little bit with “Live Free or Die” and there are comedic moments in “Elizabethtown,” stuff I have sorta veered towards but this was something I really hadn’t done before. And again, the chance to work with Kevin, Jay and Nat [Faxon] was terrific. It was great to see a bunch of friends working in the unique way that they do work. The selectivity question — it might be because I don’t have a Ferrari payment I need to keep up with and I have a lot of different interests to keep me busy while I am not making films. If there is nothing to do, I don’t want to stick my face out there just to stick my face out there. It might be because I didn’t grow up dying to act. I grew up where in the end of my teen years, I started to really love film. If there is nothing to do, there is no good reason to stick my face out there for a project I don’t believe in. You know how it is — we all wanted to be musicians anyway! [laughs]
It’s true. It’s true!
Yeah, you know what I mean. We all wanted to be in Led Zeppelin and it just didn’t work out. [laughs]
Very well said! Since you had such a unique career path and you are so refreshingly honest, what is the best piece of advice you can pass along to others looking to make their way in the entertainment industry?
At the risk of sounding like I have any fucking clue what I am doing or that I have any handle on this business — I can’t necessarily give advice but I would tell somebody what I, myself, am trying to do and that might be helpful. What I am trying to do is to get up every morning and write. It’s hard. I am not saying you necessarily have to write a screenplay to lock in for writing a pilot for your favorite TV show. Write in a journal or write a play or anything else like a short story or prose. It could be a nonfiction piece about an old guy down the road from you who may or may not have an amazing story. The thing I am really trying to work on is just to say disciplined and learn to cultivate that self-discipline it takes to be selective and not burn yourself out on a bunch of bullshit movies, television or television commercials. If you really want to work with great filmmakers, I don’t know if this is the right thing or the wrong thing, but the Roy Andersons, The Dardenne Brothers and even some of the people I have worked with like Christophe Honoré, these guys are looking for great films. They are looking for their actors in great films. Burning yourself out on “Pretty Little Liars” or whatever the latest vampire series is out there, and it depends on what your goals are, but burning yourself out on that shit isn’t where it’s at. I think a lot of times those networks can pay you a shitload of money and that’s great but a few years later, I really hope you saved some of that money because they chew you up and spit you out. There aren’t a lot of options out there after that.
I know you have a schedule to keep, so I will let you get to it. We appreciate your time and you have some really interesting stuff to say.
Well, that is only because I don’t talk to enough people! [laughs]
I hope you keep up the trend, man. It really has been a pleasure. I have to ask, is there a good place for people to catch up with you online? Are you into Twitter at all…
Thank God, I don’t! I don’t have a Facebook page. I don’t Twitter. I shut down my website just because I didn’t feel like I had anything interesting to say, ya know? The folks that want to keep up with me, if they feel like keeping up with me, hopefully there will be some new product out there soon. I have a film called “Beloved” which is a French musical coming out. Other than that, there should be a few things coming out which I have written. As far as keeping people up to date in a daily way, as far as my thoughts and feelings are concerned, I wouldn’t lay that on my worst enemy!
We will keep them informed. Again, it has been a pleasure!
No sweat, Jason. Hopefully, I will talk to you again next time around! Take care.