Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Reporter's view of Steve as an interviewer
The Toronto Star
Oct. 21, 2005. 01:00 AM
A nose for a good story; Steve Martin's creative skills are on display as he promotes Shopgirl, the new movie based on his own book
Over three decades in the public eye, Steve Martin has learned the art of saying a lot while keeping secret that which he chooses not to reveal.
It's a skill that politicians, major rock stars and the most serious of actors employ to stay out of trouble and to protect their privacy and sanity. Martin, who recently turned 60, has long wished to be considered a serious actor, and so this one-time "wild and crazy guy" has become the mild and evasive man. He's very good at it, I've found, both in one-on-one interview situations and in press conferences, where he adjusts his technique to suit the audience. He's been doing plenty of both to promote Shopgirl, his wistful new romance that opens today, starring himself, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman.
On his own, the Texas-born and California-reared Martin is unfailingly polite, apologizing for interrupting a journalist's question. He's self-deprecating and eager to please, avoiding any appearance of putting on airs. He gives long and thoughtful answers, unless you ask him something that goes against the grain or intrudes on a personal space. Then you get "no" or "never" or both in reply. Such as when I asked him if he will ever return to his wacky stand-up comic routine that first won him fame in the 1970s: "Nope. Never, never, never, never, never."
At press conferences, including the one he shared at the Toronto film festival with Shopgirl co-star Claire Danes, he's more the jolly raconteur. He spins out one-liners ("In drama you worry and in comedy you really worry") and banters back and forth. He appears to enjoy the process of discussing his writing, his acting and his theories about comedy.
But listen carefully and you can hear the steel gates clatter down and the castle doors clang shut. Such as when a journo poses the most sensitive question of all regarding Shopgirl, the screen adaptation of Martin's 2000 novella about a naïve sales clerk with artistic ambitions (played by Danes in the movie) who falls for a secretive and manipulative older man (Martin).
Here goes: Exactly how much of Shopgirl is based on Martin's own romantic past?
He bristles at the query but quickly rallies his defences.
"Well, it's hard to answer," he says, guarding a smile. "Some is personal, some isn't. It's a work of fiction. It's a work of imagination, I hope. It's also that you draw characters from life."
In point of fact, Shopgirl is based on a lot more of Martin's recent life than he cares for the public to know. A few days after his Toronto visit, the New York Times published an interview with his ex-girlfriend Allyson Hollingsworth, 36, who looks a lot like Claire Danes and who met Martin in similar circumstances as those in Shopgirl. She is also an artist, and she worked as artistic consultant for the Shopgirl movie, which Martin also produced. Bit by bit, she recreated a striking nude charcoal self-portrait of herself, which Danes' character Mirabelle Buttersfield is seen making and displaying.
In deference to Martin, Hollingsworth declined to comment on her past romantic relationship with him, or to reveal how closely Shopgirl reflects it. Martin also declined comment, and the topic was still not on his agenda when I chatted with him by phone from L.A. last week.
He did, however, agree with me that he has become less forthcoming as his career has progressed, and he has grown weary of the constant need to "stoke the star-maker machinery," as Joni Mitchell once said of fame. He doesn't like having his picture taken — this is the same guy who used to prance on stage in King Tut and bunny rabbit outfits — and he does press interviews out of a sense of duty, not desire.
"It is difficult talking about things, because I don't like to get political in interviews," he says.
"It just leads to trouble. And I don't know why I'm telling you all this, but I don't think I can add anything to my own work. Nothing that anybody else couldn't add, just by looking at it."
He admires the way Bob Dylan has so skilfully befuddled and blocked every interviewer who has dogged him since the early 1960s.
"You don't want to know what Bob Dylan is thinking," Martin insists, expressing a minority opinion he takes to be common sense.
"I'm a different personality. I wish I had that same strength. I always find that interviews with artists are always wrong. They're always wrong about themselves. What we like about (their art) and what they like about it are really two different things."
You can sympathize a bit with Martin, even if it's hard to muster many tears for a man who has hit movies, TV shows, plays, books and records to his credit, and whose sizeable personal wealth has allowed him to indulge his hobby of collecting art by such greats as Picasso, Hooper and de Kooning.
When he first hit it big as a comedian, this one-time Disneyland children's performer and gag writer for the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher liked to mock show biz conventions. He was the clown prince of the counter-culture, the master of the ironic putdown of the old and the corny. He wrote jokes and short stories — remember Cruel Shoes, his 1979 publishing debut? — that appealed to corners of the brain where logic learned to "get small" and to mock the straight.
He didn't have to sell his work or even talk about it. He was so hip, all it took were a few appearances hosting Saturday Night Live — the hottest show of the 1970s — for everyone to know what he was about, and to get where he was coming from.
"I grew up in the '60s and it was just a whole other attitude," Martin agrees.
"Lorne Michaels talks about how he never marketed SNL. And I never did Steve Martin lunch boxes in the '70s, because our ethic was that you were supposed to let the work speak for itself. But now the process is that you write it and you make it and then you explain it. Which you know, in a sense, you're doing the job of the journalist or taking away the job from the journalist."
Lately he's more acutely aware of this situation than usual. Besides Shopgirl, he's also answering questions about his remake of The Pink Panther and his comedy sequel Cheaper by the Dozen 2, both due out in coming weeks owing to an unfortunate collision of production and marketing schedules.
He's not looking forward to trying to talk intelligently about his two comedies — "Sometimes you're just making stuff up''— but he knows it's demanded of him, and he will oblige. He's much more willing to man the phone and smile at press conferences for Shopgirl, because it means so much more to him, and it's part of the serious artistic expressions he wants to make for the rest of his life. "I feel a connection to Shopgirl. It was my first serious prose piece. So I really became intimate with every sentence. I felt really personal about it, although it's not a personal story."
Not a personal story? So there's nothing about Martin like his Shopgirl character Ray Porter, the outwardly courteous and generous millionaire who deep down has serious intimacy issues? To give an honest answer to that question, Martin would have to reflect on his failed past relationships not just with his Shopgirl muse Allyson Hollingsworth, but his long string of former flames that have included his ex-wife Victoria Tennant and girlfriends Anne Heche and Bernadette Peters.
Martin is not about to get that personal, so here's what he says about playing Ray Porter: "I understood the character. It was hard to say some of the things that Ray Porter had to say."
It's too soon for him to get much feedback on the movie, but Shopgirl has been out as a book long enough for Martin to hear some interesting comments, which split along gender and age lines. Many men have told him they understand Ray Porter, too. Many older women describe the story as sad, or even a tragedy. Many younger women, however, call it romantic. He finds that fascinating.
The steel gates are starting to roll down and the castle doors are being closed on the interview. But Martin finishes with an anecdote he'll likely tell many times as he promotes The Pink Panther, in which he recreates the bumbling Inspector Clouseau character made famous by Peter Sellers.
"I met Peter Sellers once, at a promotional event in Hawaii about 1980. He was extremely kind to me. He came up to me, and I don't tell this story very often, and I was doing stand-up and I had The Jerk coming out. I was under a lot of criticism because I was kind of a flagrant comedian. And he said, `I know you're under a lot of criticism right now, but I know what you're doing.' It was really nice."
It sounds like the most honest and intimate thing Martin has said in the entire interview. But how could anyone know for sure?
maybe KMT knows :)