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Out of the group of young actors first gathered together 12 years ago on NBC’s Freaks And Geeks, Martin Starr has kept one of the lowest profiles. He’s hasn’t lost a ton of weight like Seth Rogen or written a movie for The Muppets like Jason Segel or done everything under the sun like James Franco. But he has played memorable supporting roles in some of the funniest cult shows and movies of recent years, from Judd Apatow-blessed movies like Knocked Up and Superbad to the 2009 cult hit Adventureland. Starr’s highest-profile recent role was as catering wage slave/frustrated writer Roman DeBeers in the Starz series Party Down, and he’s currently appearing in Paul Scheer’s Adult Swim action series parody NTSF:SD:SUV, playing the unit’s resident computer genius. The A.V. Club talked to Starr about NTSF, the prospects of a Party Down movie, and why he wishes he could be a pizza-delivery man, at least for one day.
Martin Starr: No, no, but I think everybody else was. When Paul started to figure out that he could actually make it, then he expanded the idea a little bit and he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. And 100 percent it sounded like a funny idea. And I’m crazy about him. I think he’s hilarious, and he’s a fantastic guy. I love to work with people and do what I love.
AVC: Did you take the role because you wanted to do “action comedy”?
MS: Well he sent me the trailers, four different ones. One of them was like, 30 seconds long, [one was] a minute long, and [one was] a minute and a half. And they just looked really funny. And I feel like it parodied it really well. I’m fairly specific about the kinds of things that I want to do. And I do like trying new things. So that certainly played into it, the fact that this is something I’ve never done before, but also, that it looked good. The whole thing played really well for me. I laughed a lot, so that made me certainly intrigued by it. I love working with my friends. The sad thing is, the working process in this business can be stressful sometimes. So I try to make choices so that I can enjoy the experience.
AVC: How are those situations stressful for you?
MS: Well, not so much for me, but I just watch some people freak out under the pressure of, you know, the money, man. So working with my friends, I feel like I have some foresight into how much fun it could be. Because it should be fun. We’re lucky to be working in this business to begin with. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the most amazing experience every time we work.
AVC: You’ve mentioned in interviews before that you only like to work with, like you said, people who you enjoy working with. When did you start thinking that way?
MS: I think when I stopped. It was just a breather. I had an agent at one point that was just—this was years and years ago. I switched agents right after I moved, right after Freaks And Geeks. Then toward the end of that run with that agent, it was just horrible. I kind of felt betrayed, like I thought I’d gotten to know this person, and I think I’d forgotten that it was a business. Or maybe I just never knew. That’s how I found out. Then I was like, “This is such an amazing, creative environment, or at least it should be,” because that’s the kind of world that I wanted to create, a world where I could be creative and be a part of the process, and enjoy every moment. So as much as I can, I try to eliminate the stress.
AVC: So if the roles are smaller, or they’re supporting roles, you’re more looking at who you’re working with than anything else?
MS: No, I look at the material and who I’m working with. I mean, you never know how things are going to turn out, but as much as I can have any foresight into the quality of the work that’s going to be done, and also the people that I’m working with, knowing that we all want to create something amazing, that it’s not in any way about money. Party Down was so low-budget and everybody was in it because they loved the show and they loved the material, and it’s so much fun to make, because everybody was in it and had heart. The purpose was there.
AVC: On NTSF, Kate Mulgrew is a lot funnier than anyone would have expected. Had you known her from Star Trek: Voyager or some of her other work before you started working with her here?
MS: She’s amazing. I mean, when I was a kid, I totally watched Star Trek. I was into the run of that show until I was probably 18 or 19 and moved out of the house. I used to watch the original every night on Nick At Nite. I’d watch pretty much any Star Trek that was on. But I didn’t necessarily remember her going into it, or think about that. Once I met her, she’s so memorable. She’s fantastic. She’s such a sweetheart, and amazingly funny. She fell right into it. I think we have a pretty broad, and maybe dirty at times, sense of humor, and she was willing to have fun and laugh.
AVC: What are the differences in doing these 10-minute Adult Swim episodes and the schedule for a movie or even a half-hour weekly show?
MS: I feel like the main difference was that we didn’t shoot like, a two-day episode. Like on Party Down, we shoot a four-day week and get an episode done. On this, they wrote most of the episodes before we started working, all interwoven between each other. We would shoot a scene from one and then shoot a scene from another later that day. So it was harder to keep track of storylines. But I guess the fun part of doing this is it’s mostly about the jokes. Which means as long as you get the tone, it’s easier to keep track of what’s going on.
AVC: In addition to this role, you played a hacker on Hawaii Five-0 this past season. Do you get afraid that you’re going get typecast as that kind of character?
MS: I guess I didn’t think about it, because it felt different to me. I mean, the tone is a lot different, and the style of the show in general is a lot different, and the character itself. Next season we’re talking about the possibility of me being the hip-hop tech guy. So there’s just fun to be had to go from emo into a hip-hop tech guy. Also, I feel like the last thing that I sunk my teeth into was Party Down, and while that guy was maybe a bit on the nerdy side, he was more of a dick than anything. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you known guys like your Party Down character, Roman, frustrated writers who are always pointing out flaws in other people’s writing?
MS: Yeah. I mean, I live in Los Angeles. There are plenty of people out here that think they should be making it, but to be honest, just don’t believe in themselves enough to actually do it. I feel like that was the conundrum that he was stuck in: wanting to be famous and wanting to be well-known and appreciated for his writing, but didn’t even have the confidence to put it out there in that way. Although he did try a few times, I think deep down, he expected failure. And that was what made him so depressed.
AVC: With Hawaii Five-0, was there ever an intention to bring you in as a regular or a semi-regular?
MS: I showed in one, but it was the second episode of the season. I think they were trying to set it up, and then one of the main cast kind of ended up playing the tech guy, because I guess they hadn’t really figured out everyone’s role in it yet. So [Daniel Dae Kim], I think, ended up falling into that position, so they didn’t really need me anymore. … Alex [O’Loughlin] and Scott [Caan], who most of my stuff was with, they’re just fun to hang out with. We laughed a lot and had a great time. Alex happened to be a big fan of Party Down, so that always makes it easier going into something, when you immediately make friends with somebody.
AVC: When you hear someone’s a big fan of Party Down, does it pop into your mind that “Oh Alex O’Loughlin, he could’ve been a good guest star for the show”?
MS: No, but now that you say that, it makes me think that maybe we’ll try and get him into the movie.
AVC: All right, now that you’ve opened that door, let’s talk about that. How far along is it? Is this a real possibility, or this kind of like the Arrested Development movie, which people have been talking about for five years now?
MS: Well, I think we’re pretty aware of the fact that these opportunities come and go, and certainly for ourselves and for the people who enjoyed the show, they don’t want to wait forever. And we want to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. So the only real problem with that is that John [Enbom] and Rob [Thomas] and Dan [Etheridge] are all pretty busy working on other shows. So as they have time to write the outline of a treatment and get that kind of material to the company that’s interested at this point, that’s the real challenge right now, to get their time used in a way that’s good for the movie.
AVC: How long of a window do you think they have before people will stop calling for a movie?
MS: I think we’re putting more pressure on ourselves than anybody else would. I think they want it. I mean, it’d be amazing if we could, by January or February, have the ball rolling and know when we were going to shoot, have a start date, or at least have some semblance of an idea, real financing. So then we could start moving forward. And you know, getting everybody together.
AVC: Have they taken any lessons from the Arrested movie development process? It’s at the point now where anyone associated with the movie gets asked about it; the expectations have built up so much.
MS: I mean, I think we all just want to do it. That’s the real driving force. And the fact that we’re fortunate enough to have, I believe, stars sign off on the idea and allow us to move forward with a movie. I think we’re all just trying to take advantage of this opportunity. And by we all, I mean I’m sitting on my ass waiting, but John and Dan and Rob are trying to move it forward for everyone’s sake so that we can continue the story. It’s such a fun atmosphere. It was like a vacation in this business. It’s like one of the best experiences I’ve had. Freaks And Geeks was also as outstanding as Party Down.
AVC: What was it about the Party Down experience that made it one of your favorites?
MS: The amazing group of talented people that we had every day, and the guest stars were incredible. I think we got really lucky, especially considering that we didn’t have anything to show people at first. From the very beginning, we still got such great people to want to be a part of it for no money. The show really didn’t pay anybody very well. But the benefit in that was, you could get people like Jane Lynch and Adam [Scott] and Lizzy [Caplan] and Ken [Marino] to sign onto something for one year for no money, hoping that this was going to be as good as it read. And it was. So everybody wanted to come on again for the second season, and it felt so good to do. Some jobs are—and I force the word “jobs” out of my mouth, because I feel like I’m lucky enough to be doing something that I love to do and it doesn’t feel like a job 99 percent of the time. But you know, this job, it was incredible. It was a vacation. It was a job you wanted to go to every single day, even at 4 a.m. when you had to be there at 5, you’re like “Ah, I get to go to Party Down this morning.
AVC: What attracted all those people to the show? Was it Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas? Was it the scripts?
MS: I knew Paul, and I think that might have been how it was posed to me. They sent me a pilot script, and the script read really well and all the characters’ voices were really clear. And that’s not something you often see in a pilot. And in the script in general, a lot of times there’ll be like, one voice. And these characters were pretty well-defined in the way that they spoke. It was easy to see it. Such a fun idea.
AVC: You mentioned your food-service experience in other interviews, your failed barista career.
MS: [Laughs.] Yes! That was sadly the only legitimate day of work that I’ve ever had in my life.
AVC: Is it because you got jobs like Freaks And Geeks when you were a teenager?
MS: Yeah. I was 16 when I got Freaks and Geeks, and that was exactly why. I never needed to. I always wanted to, though. There’s still part of me that wants to be like, a pizza-delivery guy. Just to meet people. I think the way you meet people, the interactions you have with people are so unique. There’s something that’s fun to me about experiencing that side of the world. I feel like, in this business, you get treated too well when you’re a working actor. There’s just something weird about it, something uncomfortable about it. But to be on the opposite side of the spectrum where like, probably half the time, people are complete assholes to you when you deliver a pizza to them. Some part of me wants to experience that side of humanity.
AVC: People being complete assholes to you?
MS: Yeah. I’m sure that would give me a lot of stories to write about.
AVC: You never worked at a supermarket or the mall or anything like that?
MS: No. I applied to a supermarket in Florida and they did not accept my application. I think I was 15. And I think I tried another place and they didn’t accept it either. Then shortly thereafter, I moved back to L.A. and I was going to school. So I couldn’t really work. But you know, I never really had a summer job or anything.
AVC: What is your proudest computer achievement from when you were a kid?
MS: [Laughs.] Maybe beating Doom.
AVC: Completely beating it?
MS: Yeah. I think it was Doom 2. I played that for so long. There was this breakfast nook, this tiny little room that had the computer in it and like, a window. Normal people probably would have set up a little table to have their lox and bagels in the morning, but we put a computer in there. And I’d play that as soon as I got home every day.
AVC: You never broke into the game and tried to cheat it or anything like that?
MS: I didn’t until after I beat it, I think. Then I tried just like, having every weapon technique. Which is equally fun, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those guys that’s a purist when it comes to videogames. I’m like, fuck it. I mean, they put all that stuff in the game. I don’t want to spend five days, at this point in my life, trying to get a weapon that I could just type in a code and have immediately.
AVC: Life’s too short.
MS: Yeah. I don’t need the accomplishment of playing a videogame for five days to have a weapon that ultimately, the moment doesn’t really matter that much in my life to begin with. It’s just pure fun.
AVC: Do you think the game-playing years feed into how you approach some roles now?
MS: I never thought about this before. I don’t know. I assume that everything that I’ve done has an impact in my life now. But I can’t explain to you which way that it might. I suppose if anything, the familiarity with that reference and my ability to like, you know, talk about it or know about it, when improvising, or just to have that in my head in a moment, I suppose that’s useful, if that is right for the moment for the character.
AVC: In an interview, you mentioned a great improvisation Adam Scott threw at you on Party Down… Something “McCumface”...
MS: Oh, Balls McCumface.
AVC: How do you compare a set like that, where you’re encouraged to be creative and go off script, as opposed to a set where you have to basically read the role as written?
MS: It just depends what you’re getting into. If it’s an actual procedural show, then there’s purpose to the work, the way they’re written, if the research has been done. Does that make sense? But most of what I do is comedy anyway. But I was raised doing comedy and drama improvisation, and scene study as well, and different things when I was a kid. That’s what I fell in love with. So I guess I just feel most comfortable and most useful in the project if I can bring something to it, if I can make something feel more dynamic and more real than maybe it was written on the page. I mean, there’s a reason I haven’t done Shakespeare. I don’t feel like I can really bring much to it, to be perfectly honest. I’m interested in doing plays, but not necessarily something where I can’t bring something out of myself and find a way to elevate the material.
AVC: So even when you did those episodes of Mad Love last season, you were able to bring something to a very traditional, four-camera show?
MS: I hope so. I mean, they were open when we were shooting. I certainly made a few decisions that I was surprised that they were into, just because I’ve worked on multi-cam before and I feel like they’re generally pretty rigid about dialogue, but they were fairly open about change on that. That was also a time when Eugene Levy and I were developing a sitcom for CBS. So I was also curious about the way that they worked on CBS, and the atmosphere, so that I could get a vibe for what we might be in for as our show moved forward. But at this point, it looks like it doesn’t have a life on CBS. It may on another network, but CBS isn’t interested in what we brought to the table.
AVC: Do you think Freaks And Geeks was on a few years too early?
MS: Maybe on NBC. I don’t know about on TV. I think it was just bad timing for that network, maybe. Because everyone else at NBC loved it. For the most part, going in, on the few occasions that I went in to NBC while we were shooting and stuff, everyone was so excited, and they had Freaks And Geeks posters up on their wall. They were really into the show, most of the executives and the people that worked there. Then the guy that was calling the shots didn’t get it. So that was where we fell flat. I went up to his office and he was like, “I can’t relate to this at all. These aren’t the kind of kids I grew up with,” because he was more fortunate in his youth.
AVC: So the series with Eugene Levy still might have a life somewhere?
MS: It’s certainly possible. I love him to death. I had such a great time working with him. You know, I went up to Toronto a couple times and we started figuring out what we wanted to do, and just had a great time getting to know him. I didn’t really know him up until then. I’d met him once. We both wanted to work together. So I was proactive and flew up there to start working with him. But now I think if we can work on something together, that would be ideal. He’s such a creative, fun guy to be around. I’m sure something will work out. He’s someone that I would like to work with in the near future.
AVC: Whether it’s that show or something else?
MS: Yeah. I’m still pitching ideas around at the moment. My buddy Matt Bush and I, he worked on Adventureland with me—he was Frigo, the guy that was punching people in the balls and pissing on windows—he and I have been kind of writing out pitches to try and make a show together. We’ve been writing for a little while, so hopefully. It’s an idea that we have that seems most appropriate for Adult Swim or something, a cartoon idea. At the moment, I think a lot of my energy’s going toward trying to make that happen. And then there’s another pitch, I’m trying to work something out with a particular network. We’ll see how it all goes. I don’t know what to make of it. I feel lucky to be working. And more importantly, I feel really lucky to have such a great group of creative, talented friends. Amazing people as friends. Every day’s a blessing, right? It’s all in your control.