The voice of Sonic has become one the most in-demand comedy actors and was personally tapped up by Billy Crystal for his new film. He talks to Adam White about overworking, underachieving and worrying his winning streak will end

Theres a great quote that a therapist told me once, says Ben Schwartz. Pain is inherent in life, pain is expected, but the amount of suffering that you do thats on you. I think all artistic people make themselves suffer like crazy. A few years ago, the actor, writer and comic was quite literally suffering for his art. Trying to juggle his work on US TV series House of Lies with his recurring role as disastrous party-boy entrepreneur Jean-Ralphio on the feted comedy Parks & Recreation, he became so worn out that he was diagnosed with strep pneumonia.
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Im still that little kid that cant believe I get to do this, says the 38-year-old. Its crazy that I get to play Sonic the Hedgehog or work opposite Billy Crystal. But its sometimes hard to say no to stuff because you just cant believe you get those opportunities. I wasnt sleeping and I would only be working. I hate letting people down, so I would yes to so many things.
It was Garry Shandling, the late and revered comic behind The Larry Sanders Show, who finally told him to pull himself together. The pair were introduced by Sarah Silverman and played basketball together every Sunday. I know that, compared to real jobs, my problems were nothing, Schwartz insists. But hes like, Nobodys gonna tell you to slow down but yourself. So now I make sure that I dont work on weekends unless I really have to.
While that may sound like a punchline, Schwartzs tone is deathly serious. Even in a period of enforced downtime, speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles to promote his new film Standing Up, Falling Down, Schwartz has an unpredictable energy about him. Amid the barks of his pet dog, excited by the presence of someone outside the front door for the first time in weeks, and his displeasure with the current wildness of his trademark quiff (My Judaism is very much on display right now on the top of my head, he jokes), Schwartz talks fast and with a sparky confidence.
His self-quarantine has been taken up with press days for the various projects hes still juggling: besides Standing Up, Falling Down, he hashis long-form improv specials for Netflix, the home release of Sonic, and the forthcoming series Space Force. In the latter, from Parks & Rec creator Greg Daniels, Schwartz stars alongside Steve Carell, John Malkovich and Lisa Kudrow in a workplace comedy at least partly inspired by Donald Trumps plans for an intergalactic branch of the armed services. I read the script and I said, Well, Im gonna be watching this anyway, so I might as well try to get in it, Schwartz jokes. His character has been described as a self-centred media consultant, which feels appropriate. Schwartz excels at playing those kinds of slippery and insincere people: hes portrayed a lot of suits, scumbags or fruitless strivers, was brilliantly obnoxious as a untrustworthy PR guru in House of Lies and mastered underhand deviance as the voice of ruthless talent agent Rutabaga Rabbitowitz in BoJack Horseman.
In Standing Up, Falling Down, a funny if melancholy dramedy about a struggling stand-up, hes somewhere in the middle hapless and endearing, but also casually cruel. Billy Crystal, who plays an eccentric dermatologist, brought Schwartz the script personally and he says that he would have accepted the role whatever the film was. It could have been literally anything, he says. I get to learn from somebody Ive looked up to my entire life.
Chance encounter: Schwartz and Billy Crystal in ‘Standing Up, Falling Down’
As it happens, the film operates almost as an inverse to Schwartzs current career. He plays Scott, a down-on-his-luck comedian whose attempts to make it in Hollywood have instead resembled a series of setbacks and doors slammed in the face. So he puts his hopes on pause and comes home to Long Island, his tail between his legs, where his parents pressure him to pursue something else. Its only after a chance encounter with an alcoholic dermatologist (a rare and moving turn from Crystal) that Scott confronts his own misdeeds and sets about regaining his confidence. Youre way too young to be this defeated, Crystals character tells him.
I connected with the idea that hes failed at this thing that hes told his family he was going to do for the rest of his life, Schwartz says. There are hundreds of very funny and very talented people, and theres no way that all those people are gonna find success and be able to make money. But it doesnt mean theyre any less funny.
Lucky for us, then, that Schwartz managed to break through. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, he had zero connections in the entertainment industry, and only realised after graduating from college with a psychology and anthropology degree that he wanted to make people laugh for a living. Early success came by chance. In Manhattan with a friend in 2003, he was asked to sit in the audience for a live taping of David Lettermans late-night talk show, and noticed young interns, known as pages, guiding the crowd as they entered.
Party boys: Schwartz and Aziz Ansari on ‘Parks & Recreation’
I thought, oh this would be incredible if I could do this, because Id be at this television show that Id love, he says. So I happened to talk to the right people and hustled my way into getting that page gig. He would spend a year on the Letterman show, regularly faxing jokes to his bosses in the hopes that they could potentially make it into one of Lettermans opening monologues at the beginning of each episode. And he would do the same for Saturday Night Live, which was filmed nearby. Then on weekends he would intern at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv theatre co-founded by his future Parks & Rec co-star Amy Poehler.
His parents said he should give himself two years to see what happens. And in my head, he recalls, I was like, Ive gotta work my ass off to give myself every opportunity I can to either fail or succeed even a little bit. I devoted myself to it.
Schwartz moved to Los Angeles in 2008, where he worked as an actor and freelance joke writer, most notably contributing a number of gags to Hugh Jackmans opening musical number at the 2009 Oscars. Work flowed from there. He would regularly collaborate with the comedy site Funny or Die, author books and film scripts, appear in movies including The Other Guys (2010) and This Is Where I Leave You (2014), and lend his voice to animated series including DuckTales and BoJack Horseman. His role on the short-lived JJ Abrams spy series Undercovers also led to a long-standing friendship with the mogul his dextrous vocal chops helped inspire the blips and beeps of Star Wars droid BB-8. 
Animated: Schwartz’s live-action Sonic co-stars Tika Sumpter and James Marsden
Understandably, he was top of the list for Sonic the Hedgehog, whom he voiced in the blockbuster feature film earlier this year. Unveiled in February, it also happened to be one of the last major studio films of 2020 to have its release entirely unaffected by Covid-19. Schwartz is grateful that it was able to be put out into the world. Even more so when the negative response to the original Sonic design, glimpsed in a maligned first trailer and fixed soon after, led to the film being delayed.
The script never really changed and my voice never changed, so it made me so happy that the design that people reacted to in the first trailer didnt take away from what the film was, he remembers. It always had that heart and always had that love. But it was also surprising because we had no idea how it would turn out. Im doing Voice Notes for my friends kids now! It feels like we were a part of something really special, and I dont know how often in a career that type of stuff happens.
While he says that he no longer feels the need to say yes to everything, hes still motivated by the terror that everything could fall apart in an instant. The experiences of his character in Standing Up, Falling Down, could start to become autobiographical.
Im terrified of failing, he explains. I think that drive, and that want, and that fear that it could all end after working so hard for it
He pauses, as if to imagine the unthinkable.
Its still a thing that pushes me.
Standing Up, Falling Down is available on all digital platforms now, via Signature Entertainment