Best known for his portrayal of Bill Haverchuck on the tragically short lived series Freaks and Geeks, actor Martin Starr has made a name for himself playing the awkward outcast in shows like Silicon Valley and Party Down. Despite earning his chops acting alongside some of the greatest comedic ensembles of the modern era, Starr hasn’t ever really portrayed the leading man. Until now.
His latest film, Amira & Sam, finds Starr — playing the titular Sam — as a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars trying to acclimate himself to the civilian life. Along the way, he meets Amira, an Iraqi immigrant in this country illegally.
I had the chance to catch up with Starr to discuss his first leading man role, his increasingly busy work schedule, and a little bit about the upcoming second season of the hit HBO show Silicon Valley.
Amira and Sam opens in limited engagements on January 30 and is also available on demand. To find show times and streaming availability in your area, click here.
You’re not really known for being a lead or romantic lead type of actor. In Amira & Sam, you’re playing the lead. Was it weird or difficult to step into that sort of role?
Martin Starr: I think that the biggest change, besides feeling any sort of pressure, was just working every day, all day, on a shoot. I’m not totally used to it. It was a fairly tight shoot. I think it was 17 days, and I worked all day every day of those shoot days. So that was weird. There are maybe three scenes I’m not in, so it was exhausting at the end of the day. It was really fun. It was a really great group of people, and it was a really invigorating experience to be able to tell this story.
So could you see yourself branching out and doing more dramatic or romantic roles now that you’ve done this?
I’m as open now as I was then to being a part of that. What’s most important to me is telling the story and wanting to be a part of telling that story. That’s more important than the kind of movie, so I look forward to the next thing, whatever that is. Are you asking me to do a romantic comedy with you? I’ll do it, James. There haven’t been a lot of romantic comedies that we’ve done. So I’m open to it.
You know what, give me a week or two to work out a pitch, and I’ll get at you with some ideas.
Perfect. A tennis pro. I’ll just throw that out there if we’re spitballing. Can you run with that?
I can run with that. Maybe like a tennis pro or even a long distance runner?
There we go! We’re on to it! We’ve begun. Maybe they can meet up at the Olympics. They don’t do tennis at the Olympics, do they?
No, but maybe that’s the central conflict. Like the runner looks down on the tennis player for not being an Olympian. See? This thing writes itself. We got this.
Boom. We’ve cracked the code!
I know you’ve said in other interviews that you prefer and enjoy working with people that you know. On the surface, it doesn’t really seem like there are any connections with any of your usual crews with this film. How did you get involved with the project?
I sat in with [director] Sean [Mullin], and to be honest I wasn’t sure when I sat down with him that I was the right fit, but we sat down and talked a few times, and being able to see through his perspective why he needed to tell this story and what this meant to him everything seemed to fall in line. I really fell in love with the character and the story through our conversations. Then I just had to be involved. There was something else that was happening around the same time, and I had to choose one or the other. It sort of became a more complicated decision, but I’m so glad that I did.
Going a little further into that, what was it about Sam that really attracted you to the role?
For me, one of the things that really drew me to it, was the opportunity to play “a man.” When I read the script, he really felt like a man, with moral obligations and a sense of justice. He’s a strong man. Even though he may come off awkward at times and uncertain about some things, he has a backbone. It was fun for me to jump into that. That was new for me. And all the rest of it was really fun, and I hadn’t done [anything like it] before. The genre, rom-com, I mean certainly Knocked Up was a romantic comedy, and I would argue that Adventureland was [also]. But I never played this part before. The guy doing the falling in love.
How was it working Dina [Shihabi] to make that happen? Because there were some really sweet and tender moments of genuine humanity shared between you two. Was that interesting on set? Did she make it easy?
We got along really well. We sat down at a birthday right before we started shooting. I had some friends in New York, and we got to know each other and I got to meet Dina a very comfortable way. We sat down and went over some of the scenes in the movie, and it was clear right away that it was going to be easy, that our chemistry was going to be easy. It was clear we had an affinity for each other. That makes it easy, when you feel that chemistry. It eases some of the worry if there is any.
Do you think Amira and Sam adds anything to the conversation about cultural understanding?
I absolutely hope so, especially when it comes to Muslim culture. There’s certainly a huge part of the story that’s about assimilating back into American culture after being a war vet, and there’s a huge takeaway about progressive Muslims both in our culture and abroad who do love America and what it stands for and the culture and who still hold on to their spiritual beliefs, even though they might conflict at times. There is a progressive Muslim movement that isn’t voiced very loudly in television and movies and the media. This is a huge opportunity. I didn’t really recognize it at the time, but since seeing the finished product, it was a huge opportunity to be a voice for that group, especially with all the extremist coverage in the press, to show the steps that they’re taking to have their voice heard. It’s nice to be able to voice [their feelings].
Between all your TV and movie appearances 2014 was pretty busy, and it’s kind of looking like 2015 is shaping up to be another busy year. Are you enjoying getting to do all of this work?
It’s really fun. Busy is great. I think I’m looking forward to taking a week or two and disappearing. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a vacation, so at some point I think I’ll need to unwind for a minute or else I’ll just go crazy. Fortunately, the work that I’m lucky enough to is the love of my life, so getting to do it feels like I [haven’t] worked a day in my life. Certainly there are difficulties that come with the job, but it’s just so fun for me. I don’t take it for granted. I think, most of all, it’s emotionally draining, which I think is a good sign for me. I feel like it has to be emotionally if you’re giving yourself into the character and the story. Otherwise you’re not feeling anything.
So do you have anything coming up that you’re excited about working on?
I’ve got a movie at Sundance right now called I’ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner. I’m really excited about that. I had an opportunity to see it, and it’s a wonder human story about the golden years of life. It’s not a movie that’s shown through any sort of filter. It feels very human as opposed to a movie about “old people.” It’s a movie that just happens to be people in their older years who are living. I’m excited about that. There’s a movie I did last year called Shut In, and I’m excited to see how that’s going to turn out. I got to play a bit of a crazy person.
Can you tell us anything about season two of Silicon Valley? Will it be making another South by Southwest premiere like season one did?
I don’t know, actually. I hear that there’s talks of it, but I don’t know whether that will or won’t happen. I think it’s up to SXSW to take us on again. I don’t know how much they’re expanding. I heard that they want to do premieres of TV shows, so it just depends on whether they open it up to us coming back, being our second year. The show in general is going really well. It’s been so much fun to get back into the swing of it. We’re eight episodes in, eight out of 10. We’re getting into the final two episodes, and it’s just fun. Pure joy.
Not to be a bummer, but can you tell us a little bit about how you handled Christopher Evan Welch’s death?
I didn’t spend very much time with him; we didn’t work together a lot. The time that I did spend with him I could see how big his heart was, and in his performance you can see how honest he is. You could feel that immediately. He just was such a genuine human being and put everything into his characters, and I personally felt like he was the best part of season one. The depth to the character that he brought and how innately funny that character was, not by any attempt to hit any comedic beats but in the way he approached that character and the intricacies that he saw and brought to life in that character. The details of who he was made every moment a joy to watch. It wasn’t an easy obstacle to overcome. But as they say in theater, the show must go on. Tears and all, the show must go on.
Well, Martin, it looks like we’ve gone over our allotted time, and I’m not trying to keep you busy. So thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. It was truly a pleasure. I’ll get back to you ASAP on that pitch, okay?
Yeah yeah. We got a tennis pro. A runner. We got to make this, man; we gotta make this happen.
No doubt, man. This is gold.**
Comedy gold. Rom-comedy gold.
**It occurred to me after the interview ended that we could call it Long Distance – Love and I’ve been kicking myself for not thinking of it earlier ever since.