“Let’s fucking trade BB-8 pictures,” Ben Schwartz insists one morning over bacon and eggs at the Bowery Hotel. To be clear, he’s the one currently pouring ketchup over his eggs, as I pull out my phone to search for photographic evidence of the number of BB-8s I own. (It’s a lot.) As I scroll through years of personal photos and memes saved in perpetuity, the 38-year-old comedian reaches into his pocket to show me his own BB-8 memory: a behind-the-scenes video from Star Wars: The Force Awakens where Schwartz was tasked with giving the galaxy’s cutest new droid a voice. “It’s me yelling at him because we couldn’t figure it out,” he says. He continues to scroll. “Oh, this is me as a stormtrooper.”
For years, Schwartz has been quietly carving out one of the most diverse resumes in Hollywood — from a scene-stealing performance as Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation to lending his voice to the DuckTales revival (in addition to one-half of BB-8) to a leading role in an indie dramedy alongside one of his comedy heroes, Billy Crystal. This weekend, he’s voicing the titular Sonic the Hedgehog in Paramount’s big-screen adaptation of the beloved video game. He recently wrapped filming Netflix’s anticipated comedy, Space Force, starring Steve Carell, and he’s currently working on another project for him and his buddy Sam Rockwell. There’s also countless other things — a Disney animated show here, an improv special with Thomas Middleditch there, and the occasional opportunity to punch-up some of the jokes in a Star Wars movie — leading one to wonder, “Is 2020 the Year of Ben Schwartz?”
MTV News talked to the multi-hyphenate about his busy year, his dramatic turn in Standing Up, Falling Down, what he loves so much about improv, and what he wants to do next.
MTV News: You have a lot of diverse projects this year — an indie film, a studio film, a Netflix show, and an improv tour. What does it feel like when you have all of these projects happening at once?
Ben Schwartz: It’s very surreal because also the breadth of how big each project is, for me at least, kind of big. So Sonic is like a $100 million movie, or $90 million, whatever it is. And I get to be the lead voice of that, which is exciting. And then right after that I did a movie with Billy Crystal, and it comes out. And then all these comedy specials. So I think we’re going to release three comedy specials at the same time on a pretty big platform. And then right after that is Space Force. I don’t know quite when it ends, but all this crazy stuff that I worked on, that means a lot to me, and I worked really hard. I’m not ashamed of anything coming out, I’m really excited for people to see it.
MTV News: Obviously, given your background in improv, you’re very comfortable on a stage. But is that where you’re most comfortable?
Schwartz: I kind of like it all. There’s certain stages, like when we perform [Middleditch & Schwartz] at Largo, which we perform at every month. It used to be like UCB in LA, although I haven’t played there in a little bit, but you feel like you’re on home court. It’s almost like when you’re watching basketball, if the Knicks are at MSG. So that feels good. But there are moments where if you’re with the right actors and you’re acting and something is just going, it’s heaven. It’s like the reason why you do it all, to have that nice flow. With Billy Crystal, this movie was so fun. So it changes, but in terms of stepping onto the court, those Largo shows, or having a really good tour show is pretty exciting. Because that’s the thing I’ve been doing for so long, before anything else. So to get a little bit of validation, and sell out that 3,000-person venue in Philly. That was crazy.
MTV News: For your film with Billy Crystal, Standing Up, Falling Down…
Schwartz: I like how you memorized the title. Crystal, I’m very impressed. You haven’t looked down once yet.
MTV News: Thank you. Obviously, it’s a slightly more dramatic turn for you, which must have been really exciting for you. Is that part of why you wanted to take on a role that’s a little more grounded and perhaps even broken?
Schwartz: Well, the biggest thing was Billy Crystal was attached, and then, yeah, he had chosen me as the person to act with him. So it almost didn’t even matter what the script was, because it was Billy Crystal. Then after I saw the script, this guy Peter Hoare wrote it, who’s wonderful. And he was open to changes, so me and Billy helped rewrite a little bit, which was amazing. So I got to work with an idol of mine. To play with him is bananas. But the idea that I get to be dramatic in it is big. It’s like a lot of those indie movies that I pick now are because I get to do things that I don’t usually get to do. Outside In was a Lynn Shelton movie where I had a very emotional scene with Jay Duplass and Edie Falco. And this one I get to work with my idol, but also you’re right, I’m broken, I’m not a good — I’m learning how to be a better person and stuff like that.
MTV News: I feel like comedic actors don’t always get the same acting recognition that dramatic actors do.
Schwartz: It’s interesting. I find that whenever I meet a dramatic actor they always say that, “Comedy’s impossible, I can’t do that.” And then when you meet comedians they’re like, “Drama’s harder than comedy.” But it’s different. Comedic timing is such an interesting thing that you work on for fucking ever. I wonder if you can just grab a person off the street who’s never done comedy before, and if they can have perfect comedic timing. But it’s the same with drama. I think it’s just the grass is greener. But those people that can do them both are amazing. Did you see [Adam] Sandler in Uncut Gems? He’s amazing. He’s incredible. There’s so many comedians now that are doing really cool stuff. But Billy was one of those people that did drama while he was doing comedy. Sam Rockwell can do both, which is fucking insane. Better than anybody in the universe.
MTV News: Do you view dramatic acting as a challenge?
Schwartz: For me, the biggest test was in the last year. I did a lot of leading roles. I was the lead of a pilot for J. J. Abrams, and then I was lead of this movie. So the biggest test for me was, can you work every single day of a movie, work every day, almost every single scene, and not get sick? That was the biggest test, and the thing that I was most afraid of. But I wasn’t scared of any of the dramatic scenes. I was really excited to get into it. The second I knew that I worked with Billy, and we worked really well together, that pressure kind of goes away. But there are those scenes, like if you’re doing a scene where you’re crying, you cry like you think that character would cry, where it’s like tears are coming up, but he’s holding it in, he doesn’t want everybody to see him. So it’s fun to do stuff like that, which I’ve watched actors I’ve admired my entire life do.
MTV News: You do play a standup comedian in this one. And he’s struggling, he’s had a few rough sets. You did standup very early on, right?
Schwartz: I did a little bit of standup. When I was a page at Letterman, I was writing jokes for Letterman, freelancing. And then I tried standup, which I found very difficult, and I found very lonely. When I succeeded it was an incredible feeling, [but] when I failed it hurt so bad because I was the only one on stage. And I felt very lonely.
MTV News: Your character bombs a few sets. Did you write those jokes yourself?
Schwartz: A bunch of jokes were taken from my Twitter. They’re old, one-liner tweets from a long time ago. Because at the beginning all my guy does is say little one-liners. And then Billy Crystal is like, “You got to talk about stuff that’s real.”
Director Matt Ratner (left) with actors Schwartz (center) and Crystal (right) at the 31st Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in January 2020
MTV News: So you’re like, “Let me fire up my Twitter account.”
Schwartz: There were three or four of them that were just terrible old jokes that I wrote 10 years ago. It is very scary. You have no idea.
MTV News: Do you like to work with art that is malleable and living and breathing like improv, versus sticking to the page and being word-perfect?
Schwartz: I like both. I’ve sold five or six scripts to studios, and I’ve punched up like a billion scripts. I’m writing a movie for me and Sam Rockwell now for a cool studio. So I love writing. I mean, when you’re in the process of it it’s the worst. It sucks. I hate it more than anything in the world. But coming up with the idea, pitching the idea, selling the idea is very exciting. And then writing your first draft is pretty exciting. And then finally you get to a place that hopefully people will make it. I do like the idea that there is something that you can play with and mold a little bit. But I would love if a Sorkin script came my way. Word-perfect to me is a little bit nerve-wracking because in my head I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be worrying about if I said “I am” or “I’m,” as opposed to just being myself.” But it’s a challenge that I’ve done in the past and will do again. And I love the idea of watching something and it just feels like a camera’s there and it happens to be picking up the performance. Marriage Story had pieces of that that I really liked.
MTV News: And then you have Sonic coming out, which is a very different kind of film altogether. For example, there’s a Baby Sonic. I can’t believe Baby Sonic managed to steal the spotlight from Baby Yoda.
Schwartz: They’re friends, you know they’re friends. They’re good, close friends. But it’s been fun because the fans are excited about the movie now. Even before, when people were unsure about the design at the beginning, they were so supportive of me as the voice of it.
MTV News: This is a big studio movie for you, which is exciting. And Jim Carrey’s in it. Another thing to check off.
Schwartz: I’ve only met him twice. My hope is that when we do big press that I get to hang out with him just to listen to him. I’ve watched Dumb and Dumber maybe a billion times. Ace Ventura, The Mask, that whole run of his. Talking about comedians who do drama, then he does Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], and he’s just incredible. So to me, I would love to just talk to him. It’s like talking to Zemeckis about Back to the Future. Same type of thing. A movie that really shaped me and you get to talk to the person who made it, so it’s crazy. That I’m in a movie with him is insane.
MTV News: There’s a lot of secrecy around Space Force. What can you tell me?
Schwartz: The thing that was announced is that it’s another branch of government, the Space Force. And what happens with that group of people that are trying to run that is the premise. I play the media manager called Fuck Tony Scarapiducci. F. Tony for short, if you will. I feel so lucky to be on that show. And also I love Netflix. We’re doing my specials for Netflix, and maybe a cartoon show for Netflix, and then this for Netflix. So it’s like, I love Netflix.
MTV News: I feel like you’re really good in ensemble casts. And you’ve been part of some memorable ones.
Schwartz: It might be the improv stuff, too. The idea of just having six people together and being able to play and just enjoying it so much. But I think [this] will be good. I haven’t seen a frame of it. There are some scenes in that fucking TV show that [Steve] Carell is so funny in. And I just want to see what they look like. I have no idea what they look like, I’ve just read the script, because I wasn’t in the room when he did that scene. So I cannot wait.
MTV News: OK, so you obviously have a lot the first half of 2020. What do you want the latter half of 2020 to look like for you?
Schwartz: There’s a Disney movie that’s going to come out called Flora & Ulysses that I did. That’s in the can also. And then I really want people to dig these specials we did. Middleditch & Schwartz, it’s a big deal for long-form improv to get the opportunity to have a comedy special. And we did it in a big venue, and I really want that to translate because I’ve loved long-form improv for so long, I would love it. And people who may have never seen it before are able to be like, “Oh my God, what’s this? I want to do this.” I’m writing this movie for Rockwell and I, which they’ll announce soon. And I might be directing a movie that I wrote a bunch of years ago. So I’m trying to figure out. The first half of this year is a lot of press and a lot of writing. The next half I want to jump in some fun shit. Does that make sense?
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