An Interview With "Extra Man" Writer Jonathan Ames

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2010

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Literary lion: Jonathan Ames with lion (left)

Photo by Travis Roozee

“The act of writing is always an act of solitude,” says author Jonathan Ames. Though he’s primarily known for his short stories and novels, over the last couple years he’s segued into film and TV. But how different are the two mediums?

“It’s always about trying to write sentences that have clarity and that are interesting,” explains Ames. “But the structures are different. Scripts keep the prose to a minimum. And it’s a very collaborative experience. With the novel you can take time. ... you’re the [director of photography], the casting director, wardrobe, location, set design. But with a script, you have to work with all these other people to make this happen.”

The Extra Man, the first Jonathan Ames movie, comes out Friday, Aug. 20. Based on his 1998 novel of the same name, it concerns young New York dandy transvestite Louis (Paul Dano), who gets pulled into the world of Kevin Kline’s Henry Harrison, an “extra man”—basically a nonsexual gigolo—to the city’s heaping helping of lonely dowagers.

This microcosm, bizarre as it seems both in print and in the film adaptation by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is “very close,” Ames says, to the real deal. “The ‘extra man’ or ‘walker’ is a longtime fixture of New York society, Palm Beach and, I’m sure, Philadelphia’s Main Line. Blue-blood culture has a lot of walkers.”

Ames himself was an “extra man” at one point, and also lived in squalid conditions, as Louis does, though how closely Extra Man mirrors his life he won’t say. “Everything is made up once you’ve change a detail,” he says. “It did mirror my life to a certain extent. But the Louis character is so much different from myself.”

Henry was a composite of three different men Ames knew. Ames gets a screenplay credit along with Berman and Pulcini, but says the only work he did was on the Henry character, particularly his amusingly grandiloquent turns of phrase. Our ultimate perspective on this crabby, sexist, operetta-singing sycophant is complex, but the character comes off alternately despicable, pathetic and hilarious. “In the novel and the film he’s meant to be a full portrait of a man,” Ames says. “How I want people to see him is as this incredible life force that’s pressing on to the next event, no matter what.”

Both Extra Man and Bored to Death, the HBO show Ames writes that’s about to head into its second season, feature protagonists who long for the past. Louis idolizes F. Scott Fitzgerald; Bored ’s lead, who is named Jonathan Ames and played by Jason Schwartzman, yearns for the private-dick noir of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, even starting his own Craigslist-based detective agency.

“It’s the intellectual thing to long for the past,” Ames says, adding, “I’m sure the past was just as horrific as the present. It’s a futile longing.”

Ames describes the character named after him as a “postmodern detective. He would like to be hard-boiled. He would like to be tough. He’s something of a Don Quixote. Don Quixote wanted to become a knight after reading too many books about chivalry. The Jonathan Ames character played by Jason thinks he’s a detective after reading too many detective novels.”

Ames’ segue into TV and film isn’t unexpected. In addition to his many story collections and novels, he’s had a one-man off-off-Broadway show (Oedipussy), written a graphic novel (The Alcoholic) and acted in both the IFC show The Girl Under the Waves and as an extra in the porn C-Men. Moreover, he’s had two amateur boxing matches under the name “The Herring Wonder.”

“I do other things because I’m curious,” he says. “I have fun performing. It’s a way to be social, a way to meet people.”

Much of his work, and especially Extra Man, straddles two sensibilities: a highbrow world of luxury and class and a lowbrow world of sexual frankness and scatalogical humor. (In addition to knowing good cocktails, Henry also has a foolproof way to urinate on the street without being caught.)

“I think I’m drawn to the sophisticated,” Ames says. “I like the novels of Thomas Mann and Graham Greene. And then I love the Three Stooges. I’m not a snob, I guess. Or I’m a snob who likes a good fart joke.”

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