Paul Schneider (“All the Real Girls,” “Elizabethtown,” “All the Real Girls,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) is hardly the first actor one might think of when it comes to a British period drama about the last years of poet John Keats. But Australian writer-director Jane Campion (“The Piano”), returning after a hiatus of some years, did, and Schneider plays Mr. Brown, Keats’s friend and patron, in “Bright Star.”
In Dallas recently, Schneider reflected on getting the role. “It was so strange,” he said. “There seems to be this idea that offers just come in. But I have to go get jobs just like I had to go get video store jobs when I was a kid.
“What happened was that I got a call from my agent that Jane Campion had gotten in touch with her. I’ve always been big Jane Campion fan as far as ‘Sweetie,’ ‘An Angel at My Table’ and ‘The Piano’ are concerned. My seeing ‘The Piano’ was what sent me to film school—had I not seen it, I would not have gone to film school. Because I didn’t have any great love or any fantastic knowledge of movies before that. I’d seen ‘Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future,’ and there was this crazy weekend when my mom went out of town and my dad rented ‘Eddie Murphy Raw,’ and it just blew my brother’s and my minds.
“But I just was never one of those kids who knew what they were going to do when they grew up. In the business now, you meet directors who just knew when they were eight years old making up these super-8 movies with their brothers, and the whole Steven Spielberg thing—so there are kids who knew that they just always wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to be an actor. And I’m not saying I don’t like it, I’m just saying it had never occurred to me.
“So when I saw ‘The Piano,’ it sort of peeled my eyes back a little bit, and it was also the first time that I felt it was a real marriage of commerce and art.
“So I was told that she called, and I said, bring it on. So we started talking, spoke on the phone for awhile. I think she just wanted a sense of me as a person. And I liked her a lot. And of course it’s a little surreal—like John Bonham calling you up and saying, ‘I heard you play the drums.’
“Then she sent the script, and after I read it, I was so relieved, because I started getting ideas for the character. Sometimes you’ll read a script, and it might be a fantastic script, but nothing sparks for you and you say, ‘Well, it’s great, but I don’t know why you would hire me.’ But with her script, I started to get ideas, and I thought, well, the situation is surreal enough as it is—I’ll just tell her my ideas and see how far this thing goes. And it just kept on going.”
After getting the part, Schneider settled in to prepare. “As always happens, I get these grand ideas at the beginning of a movie and I go and find a bunch of used books on Amazon because I have big ideas about all the research that I’ll do,” he said. “And the books come, and they’re really long, and now I have to work on the accent. And so I probably read five percentage of the reading material that I got. And that’s not because I’m trying to be a slacker. It’s just that the fear of being thought of as an idiot who screwed up his accent and thus screwed up Jane Campion’s first film in however many years was a great motivating factor. So I had all this great research material, but the accent was front and center. You don’t want to be the weak American link in this hotbed of British Isles acting.
“I studied for a month. It’s just like school, with worksheets, and you say things phonetically, and you listen to tapes. It’s like Spanish II in high school, except there was a lot more riding on it. But then when I got to the U.K., Kerry Fox, Abbie Cornish and I were working with a guy…who had this really laid-back, easy way of approaching accents, and he was there the whole time. I worked another month with him, and he was there to be our watchman for the entire filming.
“One thing that he helped me to understand was that you just don’t want to hit this stuff too hard. Otherwise you sound like a cartoon, like Abby Cornish and Ben Whishaw are amazing, sounding beautiful, and then ‘So I Married An Axe Murderer’ comes in. I just didn’t want to be that guy. Mike Myer’s awesome at it, but to a different end.”
Schneider hoped that Campion’s courage in selecting him for “Bright Star” eventually worked to the film’s benefit. “Hopefully it worked in Jane’s favor,” he said. “Because I think, if you’re working with the right people, people respond to you putting confidence in them. So there was her just saying, ‘I think you can do this, and I’m Jane Campion, and I know things’—obviously she didn’t say those words, but there was just that feeling that I got from her. I felt that if she thinks I can do this, then I will. I needed to step it up a little bit and not just do something I already knew how to do, again.
“She surrounds herself with the right people. Janet Patterson, the costume and production designer, has worked with Jane for years, and she’s an extremely intelligent, extremely precise, really fantastic woman who knows what’s she’s doing. And her long-time producer, Jan Chapman, was a woman whose name I first saw on ‘The Piano.’ These are women who’d been working with Jane for twenty-plus years.
“But the reason Jane is so ballsy is that she also hired a thirty-two year old director of photography, Greig Fraser, who’s a genius but didn’t have John Toll’s resume or Roger Deakins’ resume or Vittorio Storaro’s resume. But she put her faith in him because she just trusted his visuals. When the composer, Mark Bradshaw, got the job, he was twenty-five. And after not making films for so long a time, for her to come back and take risks like that with a cast of fantastic actors—at least I know my co-workers are fantastic actors—but she could also have hedged her bets quite a lot, making it a safer outing, with, say, Nicole Kidman or whatever huge names would come to work with Jane because she’s really good at what she does.
“And I thought it was so ballsy, to be putting faith in people like me and this young D.P. and this young composer. And it worked.”
Schneider emphasized that “Bright Star” represents a different kind of film into an increasingly predictable cinematic environment. “I feel that a lot of people are pouring loads of money into one or two movies per year that already have a built-in audience, because it’s based on a franchise and another market,” he said. “I feel like, in a way, the heyday of free-wheeling independent film is over again, because everyone is so scared of the financial climate that it makes for this homogenized movie world. I mean, I don’t relate to superheroes. I don’t read comic books. So what am I supposed to do, except keep watching ‘Front Line’ and ‘America’s Funniest Videos’? That’s all I have.
“That’s why I think it’s so important to go see this movie, because it’s like a great art show that passes through town. And it ain’t gonna come around again. The world that we’re living in is not taking any chances. And here’s this amazingly relevant movie about first love—I’ve never seen a movie that more intimately illustrated how insane it feels to fall in love when you’re that age. And it doesn’t matter how old you are, you always think back on that girl or guy, that moment in your life at the beginning or end of puberty, when everything is so life or death. It’s all or nothing when you’re that age. And I hadn’t seen a movie that captured that so right in a long time. And the fact that it’s a period piece is amazing, it’s beautiful, but honestly the fact that it’s a period piece kind of melted away after awhile, and it’s just, what’s going to happen to these two kids? Even if we know what’s going to happen, getting there is interesting.”