A Bronx Tale
Ben Schwartz Gets Interviewed By Billy Crystal
As a Jewish kid growing up in the Bronx, Ben Schwartz relied on humor to make new friends. That skill came in handy when his family relocated to Westchester, and even more so when he embarked on a comedy career that eventually led him to his breakout role as the lovable blowhard Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on Parks and Recreation. Schwartz’s origins made him a natural fit opposite Billy Crystal, another Jewish kid from the Bronx who could make people laugh, in the 2019 comedy Standing Up, Falling Down. They became good friends, staying in touch as Schwartz went on to voice the lead character in Sonic the Hedgehog and its upcoming sequel, and showed up in everything from the Netflix comedy Space Force to the Apple TV+ whodunit The Afterparty. Earlier this month, they reunited over Zoom for a casual chat about food, sleep, and other essentials.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Why are you in New Orleans?
BEN SCHWARTZ: I’m filming a movie called Renfield. It’s a Dracula-based movie.
CRYSTAL: You work all the time. Do you say yes to everything?
SCHWARTZ: I’m trying to be good at saying yes to the things that make me happy.
CRYSTAL: Why do you choose a project?
SCHWARTZ: I choose it through words, actors, or director. I did a film with you, and I thought the words were good, and the actor box was checked, because I always wanted to work with you, and thought I could become a better actor by being near you.
CRYSTAL: Did you?
SCHWARTZ: Oh my god, yeah. We had great fun and incredible chemistry.
CRYSTAL: Were you funny as a kid?
SCHWARTZ: I was. I think I’m a mixture of my mom and dad. My mom is more physically comedic and zany, and my dad is more witty, and I kind of do both. So as a kid I liked making people laugh, and when I moved from the Bronx to Westchester, the way that I made friends was by making people laugh. I was the class clown in high school.
CRYSTAL: Are you a good sleeper?
SCHWARTZ: Terrible sleeper!
CRYSTAL: What keeps you up?
SCHWARTZ: You know what it is? The second I look at my phone, I’m up. If I see a text or an email, my brain starts and I can’t go back to sleep. I get too curious about who’s emailing, and texting, and why. Or if I go on Twitter, it’s over.
CRYSTAL: It sounds like an addiction to the phone.
SCHWARTZ: I think that’s absolutely correct. There’s a mode that I use called sleep mode. You put it on sleep mode and that way your phone doesn’t show any texts or emails and it always stays dim. That’s changed everything.
CRYSTAL: Do you dream a lot?
SCHWARTZ: I think I dream a lot. I don’t retain those dreams very often.
CRYSTAL: Isn’t it frustrating?
SCHWARTZ: I hate it.
CRYSTAL: Especially when you’re about to leave home to work. I’m about to leave now for almost a year.
SCHWARTZ: Talk about what you’re doing. I know this is supposed to be about me, but I’m so excited that you’re doing this thing on Broadway [Mr. Saturday Night].
CRYSTAL: It’s scary. Leaving my family brings anxiety, and then there’s the work. You’re thinking of new lines, new songs—that’s what keeps me up. But it also fuels the dreams. And so there’s dreams that make you feel like you’re in the middle of some great VR thing, and then I wake up like, “Oh! I was living in a terrarium!” And then you go to write it down and it’s gone. You can’t remember them. Does that happen to you?
SCHWARTZ: All the time. But when I have an important thing coming up, if there’s a big filming day, I’ve usually not slept a ton the night before, because I’m either excited or nervous.
CRYSTAL: What pisses you off? I’ve seen you get a little frustrated. But do you have a temper?
SCHWARTZ: I get frustrated at a lot of things, and I get annoyed, and oftentimes I’ll spiral about little things that nobody else would care about.
CRYSTAL: What gets you frustrated?
SCHWARTZ: I hate feeling helpless. That can be on a macro scale, like during Covid, or it could be my mom who just hurt her leg, and she’s in New York. And the fact that I can’t be there for her, really made me upset and sad.
CRYSTAL: So what gets you angry?
SCHWARTZ: When someone hurts or disrespects my friends.
CRYSTAL: What does your father do?
SCHWARTZ: My father started off as a social worker, then he worked as the director of the YMHA, which is a big job in Riverdale. And then he moved from that, and also did a whole bunch of stuff, and then worked in real estate. My mom was a Bronx school teacher.
CRYSTAL: What did she teach?
SCHWARTZ: Music. I was one of her students, and I wasn’t allowed to be any of the big roles in musicals when my mom was a teacher because they considered it nepotism.
CRYSTAL: You sing in your new show The Afterlife.
SCHWARTZ: You’re talking about The Afterparty?
CRYSTAL: I’m a Jew. I’m always talking about the afterlife.
SCHWARTZ: By the way, what a seamless transition, Bill.
CRYSTAL: Pretty good, right? I did my homework.
SCHWARTZ: My episode is a true movie musical. I have original numbers, I have choreography, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had anything like that before. It was incredible. a woman named Kat Burns gave me choreography, and to learn it is so difficult when your brain doesn’t quite know it yet. And then it feels so fulfilling when you pull it off.
CRYSTAL: If this movie doesn’t go well, are we thinking Dancing with the Stars?
SCHWARTZ: It’s a limited series, Billy.
CRYSTAL: [Laughs] I’m talking about the Dracula movie. What’s the strangest thing you have to do in this film?
SCHWARTZ: There are stunts that I’ve never really done before in a movie.
CRYSTAL: Do you wear a harness?
SCHWARTZ: Let me give you the exclusive. I wear a harness.
CRYSTAL: Do you work in front of a green screen?
SCHWARTZ: I can’t tell you these things, Billy. You’re gonna get me fired. This is Universal.
CRYSTAL: Do you throw punches?
SCHWARTZ: I do.
CRYSTAL: Is there swordplay?
SCHWARTZ: I can’t tell you, Billy. Let’s talk about Running Scared [Crystal’s 1986 action comedy], if you wanna talk about stunts.
CRYSTAL: That was a big part, it was right after SNL. I had to work with the great Gregory Hines. God, I miss him. Greg and I trained at the Beverly Hills Gun Club.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, wow. Just a note to the reader: If you ever want to have a real horny night, look at what Billy Crystal looked like in that movie. You were jacked!
CRYSTAL: I was. I had a great trainer named Dan Isaacson, who had just trained Travolta for Staying Alive. But as you know, one too many pastrami sandwiches. I have like a two-and-a-half pack now. We’ve eaten in some interesting places together. And you turned me onto Goldbelly.
SCHWARTZ: Oh my god, yes.
CRYSTAL: What’s your favorite thing to order from Goldbelly?
SCHWARTZ: These are great questions. There’s a place called The Clam Shack, which is in Maine. It’s Maine lobster sandwiches. When I get something for people’s birthdays, I’ll get Russ & Daughters because I want to bring some Jewish New York to people.
CRYSTAL: For those of you reading, Russ & Daughters is the best smoked fish palace of all time. The best salmon, the best bagels, the best lox, it’s phenomenal.
SCHWARTZ: Then for desserts, there’s a cannoli cake that I get for people.
CRYSTAL: I’ll name somebody and you tell me what you would send them. Madonna.
SCHWARTZ: I’d get her big ice cream cones and some Jeni’s ice cream to go along with that bra she wore in the ‘90s.
CRYSTAL: Your great friend and a phenomenal actor, Sam Rockwell. What do you send Sam?
SCHWARTZ: I would just give him a big piece of a big piece of beef from a brisket place in Austin, Texas. There’s a place called Black’s that’s really good. That man works out a lot and needs his meat.
CRYSTAL: Benedict Cumberbatch.
SCHWARTZ:He famously loves fried oysters.
CRYSTAL: Lady Gaga.
SCHWARTZ: I would get her a piece of meat from Italy.
CRYSTAL: James Corden.
SCHWARTZ: James was kind enough to do something for me, and I sent him ribs and the Clam Shack lobster for his entire family. Is there a food that soothes you?
CRYSTAL: Pizza will. It’s gotta be really good. Do you have a pregame meal?
SCHWARTZ: When I improvise, I try not to eat before, so I don’t feel too heavy. When I was touring with Thomas [Middleditch, for their improv show Middleditch and Schwartz], we would get there a little bit early to do a sound check, then we’d just hang out, or be on our phones, and then we’d go on stage because we wanted it to be fresh and connected. What was your pregame for 700 Sundays?
CRYSTAL: I’d get to the theater at six, and I had a gym, because it’s a one-person show, so I had a lot more space. We built a gym underneath the stage, and I was able to put a treadmill in, and a steel stretch cage, some bands, and some lightweights. I’d come in and do like 45 minutes of just walking and stretching, and working some bands so my body felt great. Then I would eat at 4:30 in the afternoon. I had a wonderful chef who prepared me lean food, a lot of protein. And then at intermission, if I felt I needed something, my go-to was always peanut butter and jelly on white bread.
CRYSTAL: From high school on, that’s been my go-to little hit of energy.
SCHWARTZ: What type of peanut butter, what type of jelly?
CRYSTAL: It wasn’t crunchy, and just the plain old grape jelly.
SCHWARTZ: For The Afterparty, there’d be very late nights, and I’d always get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat, cut in half, and it was heaven for me, because it reminds me of my childhood. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself connecting and wanting things from when I was a kid. Do you find that it continues on as you get older?
CRYSTAL: Yeah, I get cravings. I don’t eat junk food, but the other day I had a craving for a McDonald’s cheeseburger. We were visiting my mother-in-law, and she lives a couple of blocks from McDonald’s. I had the fries, they’re still great. I felt like I was back at NYU!
SCHWARTZ: And it tastes exactly the same. I consider fast food candy now.
CRYSTAL: Yeah, and my body reacted like “Why did you do this? I thought we were done with this.” But it’s that throwback to something familiar that makes you feel a little more connected to yourself.
SCHWARTZ: Same with TV shows and movies. I can watch Back to the Future anytime and it makes me feel great because it was my favorite movie growing up.
CRYSTAL: You’re all alone on a desert island and you got five movies. What would they be?
SCHWARTZ: Back to the Future, Dumb and Dumber, Shawshank Redemption. I’d probably put a Disney movie on there, so maybe Aladdin? Which, by the way, stars your close friend, who anytime you tell me a story of, brings my heart aflutter.
CRYSTAL: He’s amazing in that film.
SCHWARTZ: You know what I think a perfect movie is? When Harry Met Sally. Would you consider yourself the straight man in that film?
CRYSTAL: I think of that as a reactive man. I’m more of the straight man in Analyze This.
SCHWARTZ: Yes, that’s right.
CRYSTAL: I like the subtlety of doing that kind of work. And in Analyze This, I played a guy who listened for a living. And Bob [De Niro] was so amazing. Talk about getting back to improvising. No matter what I would ask him in the script, he would give me a different line reading each time. So it was like playing tennis with a guy putting a different spin on the ball each time. And then you had to react differently because he’s giving you something.
SCHWARTZ: This is a question I get sometimes that would be fun to have someone of your stature to answer. Is there somebody that you acted with that you were insanely nervous to work with? You’ve done so much stuff that you can stay confident and respect the person you’re with and be excited. But is there someone that you’re like, “Holy shit, I’m acting with Robert De Niro?”
CRYSTAL: It was him at that point.
SCHWARTZ: Has to be.
CRYSTAL: Penny Marshall, rest her soul, had directed him in Awakenings. So I called her, and I said, “I don’t know him very well. What’s he like on a set? Any clues?” And she said, “Make fun of him.” And I’m thinking, “This could be a setup for disaster.” But I did it on the first day of shooting and he laughed like crazy. And from then on, we had a hard time keeping a straight face.
SCHWARTZ: That’s the best.
CRYSTAL: You can have a few seconds of awe, but it also said, “Look where you are, you’re working with him. And he wants to work with you, so you’re together.”
SCHWARTZ: I’ve had moments like that. When I met you, when I met [Don] Cheadle. It’s, “I know this person from watching them my whole life. They’re in front of me now.” I have to have my moment to be like, “Holy shit!”. And then we talk like humans and it’s, “Alright, he’s just a normal person.” And then we’re off to the races.