In the new HBO series Bored to Death—an adaptation of author Jonathan Ames’ short story—Jason Schwartzman plays a New York scribe, also named Jonathan Ames, who’s struggling to write his second novel and win back his ex-girlfriend. He places an ad on Craigslist as an unlicensed private detective, looking for something to fill the now-girlfriendless time he spends avoiding writing. Throughout the bizarre adventures that follow, Ames confronts both his and others’ neuroses in the awkwardness of everyday interaction.
Before landing the lead role, Schwartzman was a little listless himself. “I felt a bit adrift, struggling to connect to something,” he says. A friend asked him what his dream role would be. “Private detective,” the 29-year-old actor/musician replied, having always loved François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. “The archetype of the private detective, so cool … but also just a guy struggling with love and life, just being human—that kind of combination was just so sincere, funny and great.”
A month after expressing this desire, Schwartzman met with the real-life Ames to discuss a part in the movie adaptation of the author’s novel Wake Up, Sir! Despite Schwartzman’s own acclaim and success in Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited and rock band Phantom Planet, he was nervous to meet his favorite living writer. “It’s a self-centered way to think, but it’s kinda like, ‘What if it goes badly? What if he doesn’t like me? What if I say the wrong thing?’” Instead, the pair made an instant connection, and coffee at a deli turned into a five-hour conversation that included Ames giving Schwartzman a book list, “a syllabus for my life.” The friendship evolved to the point where, earlier this year, Ames officiated Schwartzman’s marriage ceremony.
At the fateful deli meeting, Ames revealed that HBO had purchased the rights to “Bored to Death”—a short story he’d written for McSweeney’s—and that he’d been tapped to write and produce the show. As he described the premise of a modern detective series, Schwartzman started to feel like a “jealous lover”: there to discuss one role, now envious of another. After tracking down and reading the story, he aggressively pursued the part—“lots of jumping up and down like someone on a deserted island trying to get a helicopter’s attention.”
The actor related to the contradictions in the character—trying to be strong and tough but ending up “basically inactive” as he struggles to write. “When Jonathan told me that the show was,” Schwartzman says, “I really felt like—I don’t know, I felt crazy inside and ravenous. … It was so funny. I really connected with this material.”
We’re trained by decades of Woody Allen and his disciples to think of self-conscious, lovelorn, neurotic artist types as profoundly narcissistic, but Ames (the character) is a post-postmodern neurotic—struggling to find connection, to help others, to uncover meaning. He is as conscious of the lives of others as he is of his own inner turmoil. Beneath the nods to gumshoe detectives, the zany stories and the quirky characters with their uncomfortable interactions is a battle between postmodernism and Ames’ quest for something more.
“He’s so depressed,” Schwartzman explains. “Rearranging his apartment, he rediscovers these Raymond Chandler books. … He wants that kind of strength and it’s really just about him wanting to help people, to be a hero—of some kind.”
The earnest writer lives as an open book, constantly sharing his life and inviting others to reciprocate, but cynicism confronts him at every turn—he usually finds that they’re happy to talk about themselves but are uninterested in him. As he opens up to a neighbor asking about his breakup, she literally turns her back on him to look after her kids. Trying to help a client (played with expert timing by Kristen Wiig), he recounts a personal story, but she cuts him off—“I’m sorry, I don’t care about your girlfriend or your dad.” His publisher, George (Ted Danson, fresh from revitalizing his career in Damages) tells him, “Nobody’s really loved for themselves. All love is projection. I’m in your movie, and you’re in mine.”
The show’s central battleground is over the possibility of change. Ames’ girlfriend left him because he won’t stop drinking and smoking pot, but she still attends Al-Anon meetings; his best friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis) complains that his own girlfriend is too demanding. “I’m not going to change,” he tells Ames. “Change is impossible.” When Ames tells a psychoanalyst that his chance to rewrite a Jim Jarmusch screenplay will change his life, the therapist replies, “Seems like an illusion to me. Lives don’t change. We simply become more comfortable with our core misery, which is a form of happiness.”
Despite intellectual assent to postmodern credos, each of these characters fights the same battle as Ames. They struggle for connection, seek to contribute and attempt to change despite themselves—even though things usually go comically awry. This essential humanity is what drew Schwartzman to the role. A self-aware modern-detective story could be rife with the perils of ironic detachment and coy condescension, but Schwartzman loves that Ames’ story is “not ever winking at the camera, making fun of the genre of mystery.” It’s what he adores about all of Ames’ works. “He has no ability as a human being to detect irony. He doesn’t write his books from a place of mean or sarcastic humor. What I love is that his characters are always trying to do the right thing. They just keep fucking it up and end up hurting people, but it’s never intended.”
Schwartzman says his character is never, “‘Hey doll, why don’t you come over here and have a cigarette?’ It’s not a sketch. …It’s the right cocktail, the right way to do a modern detective piece without being too new and losing what is so cool about the old stuff … but at the same time without being an annotation or photocopy of it.”
Nonetheless, Schwartzman’s biggest challenge in playing the role was avoiding that obvious caricature. “There’s a riptide effect,” he explains. “You get to dress up in a trench coat, interviewing someone, and before I know it, I’m 60 yards south of the private detective I wanted to be.” But he also calls that the joy of acting. “My favorite part of working is when it’s not working, and you’re trying to figure out why, and then you have those moments of clarity—just the puzzle-solving.”
So, at the end of all of this, is change possible? Does Ames evolve? “Slowly,” Schwartzman says. There are no neat bows at the end of episodes, but Ames does grow up a little and his wayward detective work actually helps people. “You see him getting some clarity. It gets really complicated and kind of emotionally intense.”