Ben Schwartz's story seems like a comic creation in itself: The actor behind one of television's most indelibly obnoxious sidekicks wins an Emmy for writing for the Academy Awards and lands in a movie with Jane Fonda. The sidekick in question is Jean-Ralphio, the goony, small-town playa who Schwartz goes ham on in NBC's Parks and Recreation. "I wanted to make him be that guy who's trying too hard, but you want to root for him," says Schwartz. "He's always positive. If he got an STD, he'd go up to someone and say, ‘I'm having sex! How cool is that?' instead of, ‘I have a terrible disease.' "
The 32-year-old Schwartz is a veteran of New York and L.A.'s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the comedy hot spots that often serve as a training ground for sitcoms, late-night shows, and Saturday Night Live. In Schwartz's case, it helped lead him to Parks, short films, screenwriting deals—he's written three scripts that are wending their way toward production, including a remake of 1991's cult comedy Soapdish called El Fuego Caliente—and the writing gig on the 2009 Academy Awards, where he was part of the team that scripted Hugh Jackman's musical opening number. He's also put in three seasons appearing on Showtime's business-ethics dark comedy House of Lies, playing opposite Don Cheadle as part of a quartet of unscrupulous management consultants. "I feel so fortunate that I'm nervous," says Schwartz of the role. "I don't want it to stop. I'm scared."
Schwartz grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the son of a schoolteacher mother and social-worker father. He spent sleepless years after college freelance-writing for the Late Show With David Letterman, doing improv, and making short films. A decade later, he's playing a rabbi nicknamed Boner who presides over a funeral attended by Fonda, Tina Fey, and Jason Bateman in one of fall's most anticipated big-screen comedies, This Is Where I Leave You. "Jane Fonda is amazing," he gushes. "The most fun was in between scenes, when she would talk to you about anything. She has no filter. She's had so many lives. You just want to hear her talk forever."
Next up for Schwartz is Robert Zemeckis's film about the man who tightrope walked between the Twin Towers in 1974, which is set to be released next year. For each one of his projects, Schwartz's enthusiasm is boundless. "To be good at this, you have to love it so much, you have to be saturated by it," says Schwartz. "As soon as you realize the people that you idolize love this so much, and are as excited about it as my stupid Muppet face is, that makes it easier."
Cameron Monaghan's year has been hectic. Apparently, though, that's just the way the 20-year-old actor likes it. He's coming off the most tumultuous season of Shameless yet (and that's saying something), and he has two new movies out this month: the big-budget novel adaptation The Giver, and Jamie Marks is Dead, a chilling indie about a guilty teenager seeing the ghost of a deceased classmate.
Charming and boyish, with a perpetually mischievous smirk, and then alternately wise and introverted, Monaghan's portrayals give due complexity to the roles he's taken thus far. What's remarkable about these performances is their honesty. Even as Ian on Shameless, who is gay and biopolar-two things Monaghan is not-the actor rarely plays too far outside himself. Monaghan calls it putting "facets of yourself into those characters," and there's an impressive range of empathy to his often troubled roles.
On Shameless, Ian is the third child of William H. Macy's drunk and disorderly non-parent, Frank Gallagher, and he's an openly gay army hopeful battling a mental illness inherited from his absentee mother. Season Four saw Ian go AWOL from Army Basic Training, and in Monaghan's words, essentially "he's kind of losing it." In The Giver, Monaghan plays Asher, the goofy best friend of Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites) who's asked to make hard, unemotional choices in the cold utopian world they live in. His character Adam McCormick in Jamie Marks is Dead is the polar opposite of Asher. Shy and angsty, Adam's world spins when a bullied classmate dies and his ghost takes up residence in Adam's bedroom.
We recently spoke to Cameron about his hyperactive childhood, acting alongside Meryl Streep, and the time he broke a wall with Brenton Thwaites.
KENZI ABOU-SABE: Tell me a little about getting the role of Asher in The Giver? Did you know already that Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges had signed on?
CAMERON MONAGHAN: They've been trying to get the movie made for like, 18 years now. I think I heard about The Giver being made from when I was 11 or 12 years old. When I got the audition for this movie, I already knew that Meryl Streep was attached to it, and Jeff Bridges, obviously. I was in London at the time, so I read the script and thought it was amazing, I read the book that it's based off of and thought that was pretty incredible as well, and then taped my audition. They responded to it, so I Skyped the director Phillip [Noyce], and discussed the character a little bit. Came to L.A., went over to Phillip's house and had a little bit further conversation, and then I had a chemistry read with Brenton [Thwaites], who was attached to play Jonas. [laughs] Let me tell you the story. In the scene that we were using for the audition, well, one of the scenes, we have a little bit of a physical confrontation. I kind of shove Jonas a little bit, and he shoves me back. He pushes me to the floor, and obviously I'm not going to go to the floor in the room, so I was throwing myself against the wall and kind of playing the scene like that. So we did it a few times, and each time we did the scene it would escalate a little bit, where I would push him, he would push me back, we'd kind of get emotional or whatever. I pushed him really hard and he pushes me back, and I fling myself into the wall but I keep going, and I go through the wall. So I finished the scene, but there was a little hole in the wall in the shape of my torso, and I pulled myself out of it and was like, "I'll pay for that! I'm really sorry about that, don't hold this against me," but I guess they didn't.
ABOU-SABE: I'm sure they appreciated the dedication. I was just thinking actually, you kind of get punched a lot. You get punched in The Giver, you get punched in Jamie Marks is Dead, you get punched probably multiple times in Shameless...
MONAGHAN: Yeah it seems like the requirements for my characters are that I have to be either mentally ill or disturbed in some way, or I have to be physically beaten. It's in my contract.
ABOU-SABE: It's a marketable skill, I guess. So did you read The Giver growing up, or when you signed on was that the first time you read it?
MONAGHAN: No, I had never read it. I had heard of it before, but no. I mean, it's taught in most schools in America; I don't know how I actually got away with not reading it for that long.
ABOU-SABE: Talk to me about filming your scene with Meryl Streep in The Giver.
MONAGHAN: I had never really heard of her before. Someone told me she was an actress and she'd been in a few things, but I said, you know, whatever. She showed up and she seemed somewhat inexperienced, so I gave her a few pointers, and I think she has a decent career ahead of her. It's always hard to tell these things in Hollywood, but I do think that she has some talent under there. I think she's a diamond in the rough. [laughs] Yeah, it was one of those things where you admire and respect a person, and you watch them for almost your entire life—and she was definitely one of those people that inspired me throughout my career. Having a chance to have a scene with her was pretty unreal. To work with anyone you admire and respect, and have for a very long time, is a surreal thing. It was really exciting. I'm still excited that I got to do scenes with her.
ABOU-SABE: If you lived in the Communities, like in The Giver, which profession would you have been assigned to? Asher was a pilot, but what would Cameron have been?
MONAGHAN: I don't know. I mean, it's so weird, because I come from a creative background, and everything I enjoy is entertaining or playing music for people, which is the exact thing the Community restricts and opposes. Well, Asher's job in the book is the Head of Recreation, and I could see myself doing that. At least still playing games with the kids and being active, not completely awful.
ABOU-SABE: You've been acting for a very long time. Was there a particular movie or actor that made you say, "I want to be an actor," at such a young age?
MONAGHAN: I don't think there was just one. I was very, very young when I first started acting. My first movie role I was in, I was eight years old at the time. My mom got me involved in community theater stuff when I was like five or six years old. How I learned to read was by reading the captions on TV, and I grew up from a really young age watching tons of movies and television. Also, at the same time, I was a pretty hyperactive kid, kind of ADD. I couldn't really stay sitting in my chair, so my kindergarten teacher would have me standing at the back of the room, because I couldn't sit for more than five minutes. My mom needed some positive way to focus my energy and I said I wanted to be an actor, so she was like, "Well, we'll roll with it and see how you respond to it," and I loved it. It was something I could instantly focus my attention to. So it was less to do with a specific performer or movie, and more to do with the idea itself.
ABOU-SABE: You said you like playing music as well; did you ever consider pursuing that?
MONAGHAN: You know, I've never really considered it. Right now, that's kind of a thing for me; it's my little secret. You put so much of yourself out there as an actor. You show the many facets of who you are when you're performing—or who you could be— you show yourself angry, upset, sad, vulnerable. The one thing I keep as my own private secret is the music, at least right now.
ABOU-SABE: What's the single best advice you've ever received from either Meryl, or William H. Macy, or Jeff Bridges, or really any of the amazingly talented actors you've gotten to work with thus far?
MONAGHAN: Bill has said, and I don't think I can quote him verbatim, but he's said many times before to not buy into the hype, the Hollywood appeal. To find yourself as a person, as a family man, to find your own happiness, and not to allow your ego to get in the way of your work. That's something I see in Jeff, in Meryl, in most successful actors, most quality actors in general. A lack of ego or self-centeredness that impedes your ability to perform. I think that's the best advice that I've ever gotten.
ABOU-SABE: Are you the kind of person that has a game plan, in terms of the scripts and roles that you want to be taking? Or do you sort of take them as they come?
MONAGHAN: Yes and no. [laughs] Yes in that I seek a diverse spectrum of roles. If I just was in a large-budget feature for a younger audience, then I want to find a smaller, more character-driven piece that might be for a more mature audience. Or if I'm playing a goofier character, then maybe I want to go play a serious, psychopathic character. But at the same time, it's usually a case-by-case basis where I'm judging the merit of a role by the script I'm given, and it usually has less to do with the larger framework and more to do with how the part personally appeals to me in that moment.
ABOU-SABE: So what drew you to the role of Adam McCormick in Jamie Marks is Dead?
MONAGHAN: I enjoyed that it was this odd mix of coming-of-age, of horror, of suspense, of almost romance. These kind of disparate elements that for some reason blend really nicely into this quiet story. And I like that the scope of the film is very intimately focused. It's just these few young characters that really drive the story. It's really fascinating and I didn't quite get the script at first, and I liked that, it made me want to keep thinking about it.
ABOU-SABE: Carter Smith is famous for his fashion photography, and is obviously very visual. Was it very different working with him as a director, compared to other directors you've worked with?
MONAGHAN: You know, you'd think so. Don't get me wrong, Carter is an insanely talented photographer, but as a director he approached it more from a story standpoint. He definitely had an interest in communicating the text and the characters first, and he allowed his cinematographer Darren Lew to really find the visuals—of course, he worked with him throughout the entire movie, it was a collaborative effort. While the movie is very visually beautiful, in my opinion, very visually striking, Carter was definitely approaching it from a performance standpoint first.
ABOU-SABE: What gave you that impression?
MONAGHAN: From the rehearsal period in New York City a couple weeks before we started filming it, he wanted to sit down with the actors, to A: make us comfortable with each other, and B: also discuss the film. I gave my notes on the script and on my character and we discussed a lot about the arc and how we were going to communicate it. You know, where this character was going and how we were going to physically manifest and show it. I think with a director who's solely visually focused, he wouldn't have been giving such attention to the actor and his process, and figuring out the character moments.
ABOU-SABE: Both Jamie Marks is Dead and The Giver are visually quite stunning, but on totally opposite scales. How was it different shooting The Giver?
MONAGHAN: There were obvious budgetary and time constraint differences. With Jamie Marks, we were operating on a pretty small finance level. We only had three or four weeks to get it done, and we were staying in a Days Inn in upstate New York in the middle of winter, snowed in together. So it was definitely run-and-gun, 16-hour days, every day. I would come back, and I was so exhausted I would fall asleep in my clothes. Obviously, with The Giver we had a little bit more time to take the full three months. So that was different, but in both there was still a creative environment, and by that I mean that it was still collaborative, performance was still valued, and it wasn't lost in the money. Sometimes I think that can happen. Large-budget movies start to lose focus on the story and the actors, and it becomes purely about the visual, or CGI, or framing with the cranes, or whatever it may be.
ABOU-SABE: So between Ian, Asher, and Adam, whom could you personally relate most to?
MONAGHAN: I mean, that's always difficult because with every character you play you're always trying to put facets of yourself into those characters. I think Asher, at the beginning of The Giver, when he's goofy and a little bit of a rule-breaker, a little bit of a jokester, I align with him. But then he kind of transforms throughout the movie and becomes someone I don't necessarily relate to. I relate to Adam McCormick's sensitivity. He's more quiet and introverted, and I definitely have those moments as well. I don't know, I didn't really answer your question. [laughs]
ABOU-SABE: So are you guys are filming Season Five of Shameless now?
MONAGHAN: Yeah, we're currently moving on to our fourth episode.
ABOU-SABE: What's been the most challenging arc for you to film on the show so far?
MONAGHAN: I think that what we're filming right now is definitely difficult in this fifth season. Watching, in many ways, not only an evolution of a character, but a descent. We're watching him tear himself apart, to hopefully rebuild himself in a better way, but in the process he's—without giving anything away—he's kind of losing it. It's been tricky to find ways to play it without pushing it over the top, so it's not exploitative of mental illness. That's something I've been talking to the writers about being conscientious of.
ABOU-SABE: Did the writers ever tell you that Ian was going to go in the direction he has, or was it a total surprise to you?
MONAGHAN: That was a surprise when I got the script in the fourth season. Surprise! Your character is now bipolar. But it's been a lot of fun so far to get to explore.
ABOU-SABE: Is there anything you can tell us about what's next on the show? As cryptic as it may be.
MONAGHAN: It's a summer season, so the Gallaghers are active, they're out of the house, everything is a little bit higher energy. We're bringing a lot of the community focus back into the show after the heaviness of last season. They're doing some really fun stuff and playing around with the storytelling too. We had our first dream sequence that we've ever shot on the show. We have one episode involving flashbacks for Frank. There's a lot of interesting experimentation to keep it fresh.
ABOU-SABE: TV versus film?
MONAGHAN: It's hard to pick a preference. Obviously, TV is longer form, and that's sometimes a positive, and sometimes a more challenging thing. As an actor, you want to be able to have your character develop or transform in some way. When you're acting on a show over the course of multiple seasons, you get to watch a character really grow and change, and go from one place to an entirely other place. At the same time, on film, it's really nice to see that transformation from the beginning, reading the script, to know where he starts and where he ends, and be able to plan for that. I like both for different reasons, and I think I always plan to do both if I can.
ABOU-SABE: This industry has been almost your whole life. Are there any other roles within it that you want to explore?
MONAGHAN: I love to write, so I think writing would be the next natural step. And if I'm making something that I'm writing, it would also probably make sense to be a producer and have some creative input from that perspective as well. Eventually, I do want to direct, but I want to get comfortable in those two jobs [first]. I want to dip my foot into this pool before I dive in I guess.
ABOU-SABE: You had four projects, plus Shameless, come out in 2014. Was there time when you weren't filming?
MONAGHAN: I've had a few breaks between filming here and there, but honestly, I go crazy if I'm not working. I find it harder to have down time. I don't know what to do with myself. I need to be working on this job otherwise I go insane.
ABOU-SABE: What's your favorite place you've travelled for a movie?
MONAGHAN: I haven't filmed there, but I traveled to Berlin promoting something a few years back, and Berlin is absolutely my favorite city I've ever been to. I want desperately to film something there. I think that my favorite place I've filmed something so far is London. It's a really fantastic city, and so much fun.
ABOU-SABE: What's been the best part of this past year?
MONAGHAN: Oh man, I don't know. I'd say about right now is pretty great. I'm getting to promote a couple movies that are coming out this month that I'm really proud of. I'm working on a show that I'm really proud of. It's just been a really good few days.