Martin Starr has been known as a comedic actor since he got his start in “Freaks and Geeks”. His many comedic roles have included parts in “Party Down”, “Superbad”, “Knocked Up”, “The End”, “Adventureland”, “Burning Love”, and as Gilfoyle in HBO’s hit, “Silicon Valley”. Martin’s most recent role is playing Sam in the new film “Amira & Sam” which comes out this Friday. Lesley Coffin caught up with Martin to talk about the new film, his experience performing stand up comedy for the first time, and how he got to play “Silicon Valley’s” Gilfoyle.
Have you heard about the romantic comedy about a shy, mild-mannered war veteran and wanna-be-comedian who falls desperately in love with an independent, Arab woman? Despite the current trend towards outrageous rom-coms and “anti-romantic comedies,” the movie Amira & Sam is both more dramatic and gentler than most we see in theaters now. The character of Sam is sincere, earnest, and charmingly low-key; the type of character whom in the 80s or 90s was played by actors such as Peter Riegert or Tom Hanks. This year, however, the role is being played by one of the stars of Silicon Valley, Martin Starr. And as the always earnest Sam, Starr is pretty terrific and utterly convincing.
Starr’s sudden change in “type” isn’t that different from the welcome surprise we saw just last year from his Adventureland co-stars Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins, (although Sam is nowhere near as dark.) Also like Wiig, along with many comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Molly Shannon, and Nick Offerman, Starr showed a more serious side at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Starr costars alongside Blythe Danner and Sam Elliot in the dramedy I’ll See You In My Dreams. In fact, when we spoke briefly, he had literally just gotten back from Utah that morning…and was onset filming the second season of Silicon Valley.
Despite his more recent serious, low-key roles in Amira & Sam and I’ll See You In My Dream, the choices he’s been making are not conscious attempts to change his career trajectory. He explained, “I hadn’t really thought about it, but it’s not an intentional decision. These are just the opportunities that I felt drawn to and happened to come into my field of view. I just feel lucky to be a part of them.”
In Amira & Sam, which comes out Friday in select theaters and VOD, he plays a returning veteran trying to adjust to life as a civilian. But unlike the relatively small number of movies about the war veterans we’ve gotten, his character’s body and mental state appear pretty well intact…he just doesn’t feel as if he fits into the new world he’s returning to. “I think he felt out of place, coming back to civilian life, like he didn’t have a place,” explains Martin, “and he doesn’t know how to deal with it or why this was happening.” Sam reconnects with his military translator, who happens to be caring for his spirited niece Amira, an illegal immigrant. When she gets in trouble with the law, he takes her in and the two begin a slow friendship and eventual romance.
Saudi Arabian, Juilliard-trained actress Dina Shihabi is a real find as Starr’s co-lead in the film, and will certainly be one to watch. And writer/director Sean Mullin (a veteran and stand-up comic as well) has written a very smart and heart felt script with a timely narrative framed within a classic romantic comedy. When I mentioned that Starr’s character reminded me of the types Tom Hanks became famous for, he takes the compliment (modestly), but acknowledges there are similarities in their approaches to these characters.
“I’ve always loved Sleepless in Seattle and the other movie he did with Meg Ryan, Joe Vs. The Volcano. There was always something so understated about his performances in those movies and he always played really quirky characters who were still very natural and real, even though you always got the sense that he was a bit of an oddball. And hopefully that is something that comes across with my character in this movie. These are real life scenarios and I’m playing a real human being,” he said, “but someone who sees things with a sense of humor.”
That sense of humor is a key part of Sam’s ability to cope, and the reason he tries to face his fear and perform stand-up at open mic nights. This was a new experience for Starr, who has plenty of experience performing live, but had never performed stand-up before having to film two sets in a New York City night club. Starr was able to use some of his nerves to his benefit as an actor, turning down his director’s offer to perform and get some practice before going out on stage, explaining “I didn’t want to because I wanted the first time we filmed those sets to feel like my first time too. I was little nervous filming and didn’t want to lose those nerves by going up beforehand and getting comfortable. It’s definitely an interesting challenge to play a nervous character. I needed to be off-putting to the audience inside the movie at the club, but the audience watching the movie had to be enjoying it.”
Despite being known for his comedic roles, Starr identifies himself as an actor, not a comic. “My approach always comes from inside the character first” explains Starr “And the comedy comes from inside that. From the character’s perspective, rather than joke telling or writing. The timing comes naturally from within the character.” His love for acting has been a part of his life since childhood, and came naturally from his family and environment.
“I started doing improv when I was young.” Starr said. “I grew up in LA so it was all around me and I was just bit by it as a kid. My mom’s an actress and she had her own business that just kind of surrounded the business. So I met a lot of industry people when I was young and I had all these opportunities to just play at it, when it doesn’t mean anything and there was no weight because it doesn’t really matter. I just got to learn dialogue and do cold reads, and I got good at that part, and was comfortable doing all these acting exercises. And then I found this really excellent acting teacher, Kevin McDermott, who taught a kids’ acting/improve class at a place called Center Stage LA. And that is really where I found my passion for comedy and being funny. But it was just as rewarding to get the whole room laughing as it was to get the whole room crying. And the improv we did wasn’t specific to comedy.”
And while good at both, Starr certainly has a natural affinity for comedic acting. By the time he was a 16, Starr was one of the future “who’s who” stars of Freaks and Geeks as the skinny, geeky (slightly slow) Haverchuck. And while the show was short lived, he stayed busy working in films such as Superbad, Knocked Up, A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy, and starring roles on cult series Party Down, Burning Love, and NTSF:SD:SUV. Then came his current run as Gilfoyle in the Emmy and Golden Globe nominated Silicon Valley (he wore his Party Down uniform to the awards a few weeks ago). Originally he auditioned for the role which would ultimately be played by T.J. Miller. But creator Mike Judge made adjustments to the pilot to include Martin.
“The character was just a vision in Mike Judge’s eye when I came into the part. They played with the voice, and I knew early on the character would be written in my voice. I got lucky in that way, because I had auditioned for another role. Kumail Nanjiani and I had both auditioned for different roles and our characters didn’t exist in the first script we read. I remember getting an offer to be in the pilot and at the table read I had one line. But when I walked in, Mike just came up to me and said I have all these ideas for your character. So it’s been fun to see the character evolve and come to fruition.”
Amira & Sam is in select theaters and VOD now. (bit.ly/amiraandsam).