Marie Antoinette: Unexpected King–Jason Schwartzman

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Just as Sofia Coppola envisioned Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, she had a similar picture in her mind of Jason Schwartzman as King Louis XVI, known as Frances most awkward, timid and reluctant monarch. Schwartzman, who came to the fore with a lauded performance in Wes Andersons RUSHMORE, has more recently been seen in such contemporary roles as David O. Russells I HUCKABEES and Steve Martins SHOPGIRL. He was an unexpected choice for a period piece, which is part of what struck Coppola as being just right.

I always felt there was something very sympathetic about Louis XVI, comments Coppola. He was never meant to be King and was only in that position because his older brother died. I think he was plagued with this sense of being very inadequate he was near-sighted and said to be inept at a great many things. So I really felt that Jason, who has this very vulnerable and sensitive side, would make Louis more touching and believable. I think he brings heart to Louis XVI. And another thing about Jason is that he looks like a Bourbon. When you look at those old portraits, he fits right in, although Antonia Fraser said and I agree that Jason is a lot more handsome than Louis.

Coppola was also impressed with how Schwartzman threw himself into the role, gaining more than 40 pounds to portray the famously chubby monarch and taking extensive lessons in order to learn how to dance, ride horseback and carry himself with 18th Century royal comportment albeit in a uniquely nerdy and myopic way.

Schwartzman was taken with Coppolas intrepidly modern approach. I liked the idea of giving these historical figures some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and helping to bring Louis XVI fully to life, he comments. We tend to forget that when thinking about historical figures, or anyone from long ago that they were real moving people who were sometimes afraid and who sometimes got too full, and sometimes slouched, and sometimes doubted this or that. I remember seeing Amadeus when I was a kid and having my mind totally blown apart because it was the first time I realized people from the 18th Century laughed. I was so young and my perception of the past was very much, They were old and cold and uptight. Seeing that film changed me, it made those people real and accessible. What I found so compelling was that the film took the characters seriously without ever losing sight of the fact that no matter what title they held, or how genius they were, they were always, at the end of the day, just people. I find that to be true with Marie Antoinette as well. Its not like watching people up on a pedestal from far away youre right in there with Marie Antoinette and Louis in their daily lives. So its a very intimate story about something huge.

Schwartzman immersed himself in Louis life in preparation for the role a process that led to at least as much confusion as certainty. It seems that the view of who Louis was is completely different in every historians interpretation, he says. Even his personal diaries werent very personal. On the day he meets Marie Antoinette, the woman he is going to spend the rest of his life with, he writes in hunting log: Met the Dauphine today. Thats it. And on their wedding night, when they are supposed to consummate the marriage, he writes: Nothing happened. No more. So hes quite tough to figure out. Ultimately, after all the research, I decided to base everything on Antonias book and Sofias script.

Schwartzman viewed Louis predicament sympathetically. I came to see him as a young man who was placed in a position in which he felt overwhelmed. He didnt see himself as strong enough, handsome enough or brilliant enough to be King, but he also really believed that God had intended for him to be King, he says.

When it came to his young wife, however, Louis was completely at a loss. For his scenes with Kirsten Dunst, Schwartzman recalls Coppolas advice. Her note to me was that any time there was an uncomfortable silence, dont try to fill it and dont try to make Kirsten comfortable; just let the tension be there, he says. This was really difficult, especially because Kirsten is such a nice person. But I think it worked very nicely because you see that Marie Antoinette is so eager to be liked by Louis and he just cant seem to find a way to make it easy for her to be in his presence.

In the bedroom, all the pressures on Louis and Marie Antoinette lead to an incredible seven-year drought of passion. Although theories about just what was wrong have ranged from the psychological to the physiological, Schwartzman has his own view: I think Louis had performance anxiety on a huge level, he observes. It must have been tough to be so young and on the cusp of so much power with all these people looking at you and wanting things from you and at the same time you still feel really awkward and uncomfortable in your own skin. If you take two people in this predicament and throw them into a bedroom situation, all kinds of inappropriate feelings are going to come up.

Another challenge for Schwartzman was bringing his character to life with precious few lines of dialogue. Louis is a silent person but with Sofia, silence is never really silence, he explains. We went through each of the scenes where Louis is sort of just sitting there and talked about what he is really thinking about in his head. We discussed all the things he really wanted to say but couldnt. Was that really what Louis XVI was thinking Nobody can know for sure, but I think we came up with a good synthesis between what is known and Sofias interpretation.

Throughout, Schwartzman especially enjoyed working with Coppola. From the second we started this film, I trusted her with my heart and soul, he says. I think a lot of us on the set share similar experiences and she used a lot of memories, references and pages from our lives to give us all a common ground during the production. She would say Its like this song or its like this movie or its like that time we were at dinner and you really understood what she was talking about.

Much of the role was a revelation for Schwartzman. Being a King is something I never thought Id be asked to do, he admits. I learned how to ride horses, how to dance a minuet, how to bow and how to use proper 18th Century etiquette. I could now sit at a dinner table with the best of Versailles and fit right in. Its been a really enriching experience.