Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Steve in Premiere Magazine
The Premiere Interview
The Good Humor Man
Sure, he was once a wild and crazy guy. But now Steve Martin--comedian, actor, and writer—is happier talking ‘Shopgirl’ and starring in family-friendly fare.
By Fred Schruers
Some years ago, Steve Martin praised comedian Jack Benny in an interview: “He had the courage to wait,” Martin said. Over the years, it’s become more and more evident just how important creative patience has been for Martin. His upcoming film ‘Shopgirl’—adapted from his best-selling novella of the same title—rigorously keeps to its own stately but fascinating beat.
Martin will insist the story and the film belong to Clare Dane’s titular Mirabelle. But next to her in many frames is Martin’s Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman with an almost arctic reserve that clearly masks much deeper feelings.
Steve Martin, of course, can be described in the same terms. Though we met him as the manic stand-up comic, time has shown that persona to be a canny fabrication. His first blip in cinema was the 1977 short, The Absent-Minded Waiter, and when he starred in The Jerk two years later, he won instant acceptance that has persisted. Early next year, Martin will take a turn as Inspector Clouseau in an update of Peter Seller’s legendary Pink Panther series. He seems hopeful it will launch him, at 60, into a new and revivifying franchise.
Not that Martin necessarily needs the help—his sunshiny family comedies like Parenthood, Father of the Bride and its sequel, followed by Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, have positioned him as an indispensable éminence blanc atop a kinder, gentler genre Hollywood desperately needs in its current slump. We spoke withy Martin in a quiet Manhattan hotel, during a break from shooting the Cheaper sequel in Toronto, and he lived up to his billing as a polite, even courtly lunch companion—and also as a hard man, despite what’s perhaps his best performance to date, in Shopgirl, to compliment.
Claire Danes has said she was playing out a love story in Shopgirl that she felt was quite autobiographical for you. That’s not something you’re emphasizing?
I definitely downplay it, because it is largely fiction. There are almost no incidents in the book that occurred in life. Certainly [I’m] represented by several relationships, different passages, times in my life, people I’ve talked to, stories I’ve heard.
I think men who recognize themselves in your character, Ray Porter, may be your most fascinated—not to say guilt-ridden—audience. For instance, Ray wants to have sex, even as Mirabelle’s having a meltdown about their relationship.
He decides against it, but—yeah, it’s interesting. I think men think it’s a cure-all. [laughs]
At one stage in the film, things that in the book were interior monologues become confessions to a psychiatrist.
I hate to use a shrink in a movie. It’s kind of an easy way out. But there had to be a moment in the film, just for good storytelling, where it’s fully explained that he has no intention of carrying [the relationship] further. Usually those kind of conversations are done with confidants in the movie, but he had no confidants. And it’s certainly legitimate for a guy like him at his age to have a shrink. But also I think the director did a brilliant thing: He never cut to the shrink.
The critics remarked when the book came out that it was the work of a man striving to become thoroughly immersed in female psychology.
It’s hard to say why I became interested in the psychology of women. I didn’t do it voluntarily—it just occurred. When I was writing the book, writing the women parts was much easier than writing the men parts. Because writing about a woman, I know what’s interesting to me to show or reveal or describe. But when I’m writing about a man, I don’t know. Because I am one, I didn’t know what was interesting about us.
I have a friend who’s a scientist working with, I think it was hedgehogs—and she is on the way to discovering the differences in orientation—how men and women find things and locate themselves. Men see big landmarks, women see particular details that they remember. Hence, they’re always in conflict bout how to get there in the car.
Around 1980, there was a stage where you felt a malaise about your career. Pennies From Heaven seemed to pull you out of that, creatively.
That just had to do with being tired, I think. I was doing my stand-up career and doing a movie, and it had all been very, very successful. And you just take a deep breath and go, “So, what? I keep doing the same thing? Or do something different?” It was a creative standstill in a way.
So you took on a dark Dennis Potter piece that required heaps of dancing. The challenge seemed to reinvigorate you.
I read a book in college called Psychology in Art, and it said Picasso continually shifted, [but] Chagall pained the same thing his whole life. It’s just two different ways of operating. And both successful, just a different mind-set. I guess I have the shifting, shifting or learning something new. I’ve always found I do better as a beginning than I do as an experienced worker.
You said to a caller on a radio show who asked when you’d do a stand-up tour again, “Never. You can mark that on your calendar.” Why such a permanent repudiation of the gift that made your name?
One, you have to do it all the time in order to be good at it—I’m not prepared to go on the road. And by the time I quit, I found the audience just…I like precision of comedy, and the audience just wouldn’t allow that anymore. Years later, I thought, “Oh, I realize what happened. They thought it was a party.” I was doing something else. I thought I was doing my comedy act that they would appreciate. But it had turned into a party.
There was a degree of anger and alienation embodied by that guy in the white suit with the balloon animals, and by the Wild and Crazy Guys as well.
I don’t think it’s alienation; I think it was the silliness of arrogance. It’s like when people become so self-important, I always find that really, really funny.
You hosted the Oscar telecast when the relatively new Iraq war was boiling over nastily.
Oh, it was the worst. That day, there was a story—that they were executing army personnel, you know—whoa. I just resolved, I have to put that in another room.
You opened with a gag about how they’d turned down the glitz factor, getting a big laugh because they so clearly hadn’t. But you avoided anything portentous.
My philosophy came from a couple occasions in my life. In 1963, I was working at the Birdcage Theater at Knott’s Berry Farm. We had a show that night, a comedy show. And Kennedy was shot. Everyone was just stunned. We were debating whether to do a show or not. It was decided by others, yes, we’re going to do the show. And we thought, this is going to be horrible. We went out, it was the biggest laughs that we had had in a long, long time. Almost a contrary response. And I always remembered that.
I thought something has to be acknowledged, and then we’re going to move on. And the other reason I wanted to do that was that they told me ahead of time that the show was going to be broadcast to wherever the troops were. And so I thought, if I’m a soldier sitting there, do I want look at a somber ceremony? No, I want a big show.
I have a theory that certain comics—notably you and Bill Murray—find much of their humor in twisting things that are commonplace in an inspired but familiar, smart-aleck way.
I feel differently from Bill Murray. He’s got a real gift of a special kind. He’s just the coolest. I play a different thing. But he’s just got a great, I-don’t-care attitude. Jack Nicholson has it. Actually, it’s something I used in my early stand-up days, which was, I’m going to make them think I don’t care. If you’ve got that going, the audience is very relaxed. They go with you; you don’t look like you’re trying to please them or that it’s their job to like you.
Maybe part of that approach is the portrayal of sheerly insincere stage personas?
Well, I was a witness to ‘50s show business, which was built on insincerity. Lounge singers and Vegas acts and kind of super-polished. So it was the first thing a would-be iconoclast would puncture, go after.
By the time you had a few pictures under your belt, you gave in more to the underbelly of all that—your inner Jerry Lewis. At one stage in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Michael Caine is laughing in the take. Do you remember that day?
I pulled him down on a bed, I know that.
And you’re throwing your leg over him. That kind of stuff’s got to be pretty much an homage to Jerry Lewis.
Well, I’m always “homaging” Jerry Lewis, you know—[he] affected so much comedy, and especially me and my friends. I’m not saying it’s one hundred percent; it might be ten percent or twenty percent, but it made you love comedy. You kind of grew up with Jerry Lewis. There are things that are just brilliant in his movies. It didn’t always work as a whole, but neither do mine or anybody else’s, you know. So I can see sources of bits in my own work that…There’s an echo in your head of where things come from.
The Jerk still gets laughs on repeated viewings—that was your film breakthrough.
I didn’t know how it was going to work but everything [up until then] had worked. So I had no reason to think it wouldn’t. I wrote the script with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, and some of it was from my act, like the “I was born a poor black child” and that bit—“I don’t need anything, just this.” I knew the kind of story I wanted to tell.
It’s like everybody came on for their cameos and seemed to be comically inspired—like, today’s my day. Was it like a movie circus?
The movie is a circus anyway. The tents and trucks…Everybody got—caught the spirit. Carl Reiner was just great. He contributed a lot to the script, too, uncredited of course, ‘cause directors don’t get credit. But it was just nothing but fun. I was in love with Bernadette Peters, and everybody was happy and pleasant; nobody was difficult.
Victoria Tennant [Martin’s ex-wife] was the perfect person for L.A. Story. Was she he inspiration?
I wouldn’t call her the inspiration. People think that, but I was just interested in a love story set in L.A. And I waned to use her as an actress. So I kind of had to have an English story. But really the premise of L.A. Story was its surrealism.
I think one thing people remember is our hero just popping caps out of the car window—
That is a very elaborate thing to shoot, too. You have to shut down a freeway. We did it in Bowfinger but only on a Sunday morning, a little tiny stretch of highway.
It’s been rumored that you find your renewed vigor as a box office draw somehow aggravating.
I phrase it like this—my career was nicely closing up, then a terrible thing happened: I had a hit. [laughs] I had to get back in show business.
Apparently you didn’t rush right to the starting gate for the first, latter-day Cheaper by the Dozen?
My instinct was no, no. Remake that? No. By the way, these aren’t remakes; it’s like a new script, just the same premise, is all. And I turned it down. But the ending did get me. Then I talked to the director, Shawn Levy, and I really, really liked him. And then, I was saying, okay, all right. And I had no idea it was going to turn out to be so popular.
I do appreciate that it’s a wholesome film. Of course, I have no problems with violence, crudity, sex, language, anything—except when it’s done wrong. And I’ve felt a lot of movies were just grotesque, and kind of disgusting, because they’re done wrong. I mean they’re not from the heart, they’re just sort of, I don’t know the right word, it’s like research-driven.
A lot of that research seems to be backfiring lately. The studios have made some wrong guesses—as an actor you hope not to get swept up in a mistake.
If [the script] doesn’t feel good, you have to feel like it’s going to become good. And then you have to say, well, who’s in it? I’m not looking to make just a studio comedy for no reason right now. I mean, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 had a reason—the first one was a bit hit. And I was in it, and the studio wanted to make it again. So in a way you have a business obligation to the people who financed the first movie to do it again. And it was a good script, so…
You’ve said of Queen Latifah, with whom you also had a hit, that what’s good for the Queen is good for Steve. She’s become one of your key onscreen partners along with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bonnie Hunt.
Those women are delightful. Each has a different personality. Diane is coming from a very instinctive place, to the point that she never does a bad take. It might be different. It’s never bad or untrue. And Goldie, her own personality is so lively and so infectiously fun. She’s very smart, and works from her own personality and her intellect at the same time, working out bits and contributing. Bonnie is a director-writer, and she’s coming from that a lot. She’s also incredibly quick, so she’s got that improve thing going with her director sense.
All of these women have shorthand. Meaning that we can communicate, we get it, you’ve got timing together. We understand what the other is doing. You don’t have to go, “oh, yeah, I think I got it.” It’s like Eugene Levy and I have shorthand.
You got a really nice payday out of The Pink Panther. Were you simply the right guy at the right time to take on a classic that Peter Sellers had such a good run with?
There’s two things you risk. One is a gigantic failure, and the other is a gigantic success. If it’s a gigantic success you become completely identified with that character. So I looked at it and I thought, well, you know what, I like that character. And especially now having made one, I’m hoping it’s a giant hit so we can make another one, ‘cause I love dressing up like him and talking like him, and I love everything about it. I like the people I’m working with and I wouldn’t mind—you know, I’m going to be 60—so not a bad way to end up…
You talked about directing in an interview many years ago, and I haven’t seen it mentioned since.
I have no interest. That’s like taking on a war. You really have no life for awhile, even for a year and a half. And I like my life, lying around, going home, having dinners with friends. That’s too much to give up.
As a producer of Shopgirl, you were on the set enough to make your opinions felt—a very collaborative process with the director. The next best thing to directing it.
I put myself in because I because I thought, well, I went to the trouble of writing it, I might as well be in it. But no, my interest really is in continuing Pink Panther, working with people I have good rapport with, working with directors I like. That’s really the fun of it now. Because the outcome of something is unpredictable.
Finally, is there an artistic byword that you remind yourself of as you embark on projects, whether writing or acting?
Well, David Mamet said it: “No art comes from the conscious mind.” I like that.