Paul Schneider is having a moment. A double-whammy moment, actually. The 31-year-old actor, who hails from North Carolina and is still pretty new to Los Angeles, gives vibrant, revelatory supporting performances in two fall films — Lars and the Real Girl and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — that just happen to be playing in theaters at the same time. The coincidence seems to wow me more than it does the actor, who spent a good bit of a recent lunch at Los Feliz’s Home restaurant scoffing at the suggestion that Hollywood stardom is headed his way.
“I’m renting a little house near here that’s really nice, nicer than any place I’ve lived in,” he says. “I have a garage with an electronic door opener. This morning I bought some rock T-shirts online and I didn’t have to think too much about the cost. I’m fine. My all-the-time dream is contentment. It’s not fame. Paparazzi? Are you kidding me? That scares me to the core.”
Schneider talks a blue streak, not like a full-of-himself actor, but like a young guy whose mind is abuzz with the things he’s figuring out about himself and the world. He arrives at lunch carrying an earmarked book on Jungian psychology as it relates to the search for love, a passage from which he reads to me within five minutes of sitting down. He also has a small pad on which he’ll eventually write down the names of a couple of books I mention, titles I’m pretty sure he’ll go home and look up. He’s mad to learn, this guy, but though he keeps referring to himself as a “redneck,” Schneider, who graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts, knows plenty already. A mere seven years into his movie career, he’s more than held his own opposite Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, and has just finished directing Billy Crudup and Paul Giamatti in a film he also wrote called Pretty Bird. If big-money Hollywood really does call during this period of his life, Schneider might not answer. He’s editing. He’s reading. He’s busy.
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“After we did All the Real Girls [the 2003 film he starred in and co-wrote with friend and fellow NCSA alum David Gordon Green], some guy asked me how I was going to go to Hollywood and hang on to my indie values,” Schneider says. “ ‘Indie values’? There’s like 18 things wrong with that phrase, but I understood what he meant. If your value system is external to you, then yeah, it can be hard to hold on to. Is it hard to hold on to this glass of water through a typhoon? It absolutely is. But if your value system is in you, like lungs, like blood . . .”
Schneider’s voice trails off for a second, and then he leans in, intent: “My dad’s a nurse, my mom works at the ‘Y.’ I come from a really lovely, really smart family where the only stress was money and employment. It wasn’t violence, it wasn’t drink — it was money. I was a sensitive, runty, rednecky kid, and I absorbed my parents’ stress about that. Now I find myself living in the epicenter of money, trying to define myself against it. I’m having a nice little swing here, but even if they come at me with a big paycheck — and they haven’t, believe me — it won’t fill the void that’ll be created in me if I have to go out and lie to guys like you about loving a movie I’m in that I actually can’t stand. That’s gotta chip away at you.”
In Lars and the Real Girl, Schneider plays Gus, whose brother Lars (Gosling) falls in love with a life-size, anatomically correct doll named Bianca. “I tried to stay away from Bianca and save my reactions for the camera,” Schneider says. “My character is a stand-in for the audience. My job is to call bullshit on this whole doll thing. But listen, even though actors like to talk about the tricks they use, making a good movie is like that ride at Disney World where you’re in a car and you can swerve left or right, but underneath there’s a guide track to keep you from wandering off. The script for Lars was so good that I could go in there and feel like I was individualizing, but I wasn’t really. The central idea is so rigid that I was still in line with it.”
When I ask Schneider if he had a similar experience making Jesse James, in which he plays the outlaw Dick ?Liddil — a man Schneider calls “a damaged, scarred, womanizing, narcissistic bastard” — he shakes his head. “There are so many moving parts to Jesse. It was too big, too sprawling, to get a handle on. After I read the script and decided I’d be a part of it . . .” Schneider stops himself in midsentence, then laughs out loud. Leaning in again, he almost whispers, “It’s more like this: I hear about something, I read it, and then I decide to audition for it along with hundreds of others.” He grins, then eases back in his seat, reminded of the constant vigilance required to tamp down the Hollywood guy within.