Today: Paul Schneider
Take One: Shining bright in the background
Schneider is the epitome of faded rakishness as Charles Armitage Brown, the somewhat disarmingly oily, though tender, poet pal and occasional gooseberry orbiting around both Ben Whishaw’s Keats and Abbie Cornish’s Fanny in Jane Campion's excellent Bright Star (2009). He is the film's third, understated star – his character is a gem of a role for an actor more averse to playing contemporary slackers.
Fanny on his mind. Schneider as Brown in Bright Star
Some found his Scottish accent a bit wavering, but I didn't notice anything odd about it (though it’s possible he may well have watched Billy Connelly clips as practice). The way he instills Brown with a larger-than-life robustness was endearing and playful; it was a sheer pleasure to watch him jauntily thrust himself front and centre into all social situations, talking up his game a mile-a-minute to everyone around him.
Schneider played Brown as a man open to all adventure – someone who wholly encourages the pleasures of the day ahead. But there was a brewing sadness hovering around the edges of his character. An unforeseen and hidden emotion spills out of him at one particularly crucial moment in the film. Schneider masters his line delivery whilst desperately attempting to swallow down a life's worth of sorrow. He was truly amazing in this scene and indeed every minute of his screen time. Just where was that Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, Eh?
Take Two: Not just Like Jesse James.
In addition to main star Brad Pitt The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) was dutifully backed up by a coterie of acting talent from some of today’s best male stock. All the support cast had established fine careers beforehand, but where the likes of Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck went on to noticeably higher profile leading roles recently (with The Hurt Locker, Moon and The Killer Inside Me respectively), Schneider has continued to graft away in supporting parts (Ditto Jesse James’ other hidden supporting gem Garret Dillahunt). His key role will come. But in the meantime he gets to add his own slice a slippery menace to Andrew Dominik's painterly version of the James myth.
He plays Dick Liddil: Lothario, braggart and rough-hewn gang member – essentially a turn-of-the-century male slut with a holster and a wry glint in his eye. He’s admired by some James gang members, despised by others, but keeps himself in check with wily panache and plenty of arrogant smirks.
The gang's all here: Schneider - second from left, top row.
His slightly heightened vocal inflections – which give Schneider’s voice a cleverly subtle whiny lilt – are almost sing-song, but insinuating. Schneider displays Dick’s unsettling bravado best in the scene where Ford (Affleck) bathes in a tub outside whilst Dick questions his true intentions, before pointing a gun to his face and saying, “I’ll look you up. I’ll knock on your door, and I’ll be as mad as a hornet. And I will be hard.” His temper and disposition flit between carefree and insidious. It’s a real about-turn from moments where he’s relaxed or turning on the lowly charm – like when he’s seducing his conquests in outhouses. (Oddly, his best work here is often delivered in scenes featuring external WCs.) Schneider seduces us too – and he's the best of a 'bad' bunch.
Take Three: Paul, the real guy?
Schneider’s career emerged alongside director David Gordon Green’s – who cast him in two early shorts (Pleasant Grove, Physical Pinball) and his first two features: 2000's George Washington and 2003’s All the Real Girls. It was his role as Paul, the Southern small town womaniser who flounders in the face of real love (with Zooey Deschanel), in the latter film which thrust him into the indie spotlight and set his career off to a gloriously groovy start. It’s not quite an alt version of the Scorsese & DeNiro-style team-up, but the promise was there.
Schneider and Zooey Deschanel apart in All the Real Girls
Schneider's was a role could've easily sailed close to indulgent wallowing – an actor too familiar may have jarred with the film’s overall perfectly parochial tone, an actor too over-rehearsed may have laid it on thick – but Schneider’s rookie affability (a characteristic the actor gladly hasn’t yet lost) and natural ease ensure that Paul’s arc is realistically and affectingly conveyed. The whole film can be seen as a portrait of a guy on the cusp of being a lifelong loser, but who holds off long enough to strive for something else, some kind of miniature personal redemption. It's given simple style and performance assurance by Schneider.
Schneider and Zooey Deschanel together in All the Real Girls
The desire to feel half irritated at Paul’s slovenly, cocksure mannerisms and half intrigued by his wayward, unfocused lifestyle constantly pulls at the audience's sympathies. Paul’s a familiar enough type, who most people have likely met, but Schneider blends together a variety of internal emotions, tics and instances of accurate woeful male heartbreak and lets them out in a surprisingly layered, truthful way. Looking at the film again now, it’s a pleasant surprise just how confident a performance it is. Schneider had the smarts from early on.
Three more key films for the taking: George Washington (2000), Elizabethtown (2005), Lars and the Real Girl (2007)