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Interview: Martin Starr

Amira & Sam stars Martin Starr as the titular Sam, an army veteran re-assimilating into American culture, a role that allows him a more dramatic angle on the deadpan persona he’s been perfecting for years. Cut Print Film spoke to Starr about that dramatic shift, stand-up comedy and what he sees for his future.

CUT PRINT FILM: What about Sean Mullin’s script attracted you to the project?

MARTIN STARR: There’s a lot. It was something I had never done before. It was very personal to him, and I really got to fall in love with the story and the character through his eyes and talking to him. There was a lot about the character that kind of scared me a little bit. I’ve never done anything like this before. There were a lot of factors that made it enticing.

CUT PRINT FILM: You’re more known for your comedic roles. What was it like to take on this more dramatic story?

MARTIN STARR: I didn’t approach anything any differently. Whether it’s comedy or drama, it’s all derived from the character and honesty. I was just playing the beats as they were written. It didn’t feel like I had to make any adjustments.

CUT PRINT FILM: Do you think you’ll pursue this kind of thing in the future?

MARTIN STARR: I take things as they come and if more opportunities like this occur that feel right, I would absolutely take more opportunities like this. It was definitely really fun; we had a really tight schedule s there were things with that that were very difficult. Making a movie this quickly and on this budget. It was a tremendously fun experience; it bonds you to all the people you got to make it with.

CUT PRINT FILM: What was the experience of working in that condensed timeframe?

MARTIN STARR: I think we had fifteen or sixteen days to shoot this. It was really a tight schedule to try and get so much done, in such a short amount of time. You just hustle and get it done. Sometimes you work long days and don’t sleep as much as you might want to but everybody’s in it to make the best end product. Which hopefully the movie touches people and leaves an impact on them after they see it. And also hopefully [the film] really rings true to the people that we’re attempting to portray: veterans and progressive Muslims. If we do that, it’s a huge success.

CUT PRINT FILM: Did you have any personal ties to the veteran experience? Or did you mostly rely on Sean Mullin’s obvious expertise?

MARTIN STARR: My father served in the army, a long time ago. I didn’t really know much or tap into that as much as Sean’s personal experience and the personal experiences of some of his friends and some of the producers and financiers, who also happened to be vets. And then I also met a bunch of cadets at West Point. I got to make a trip up there and see what that atmosphere was like.

CUT PRINT FILM: Had you ever done stand-up comedy before?

MARTIN STARR: No. We were going to try and test some things out and Sean wanted me to go up on stage when he signed himself up for an open mic at a venue that he used to do stand-up comedy at back in the day. And he wanted me to go up as well. I chose not to because I wanted the first scene in the movie to be where I do stand-up comedy for the first time, to really be awkward and uncomfortable. I wanted to be able to tap into the natural difficulties that come with standing up on stage and having all the attention on you and you alone for the first time. It felt natural to go up and do it the second time, and to be honest I felt more natural than most people would feel up on stage like that just because I’ve done so much improv before, so it didn’t feel uncomfortable. But I’d never done stand-up comedy before that. And to say I’ve done stand-up comedy is like somebody who worked on ER saying they were a doctor.

CUT PRINT FILM: A lot of the characters you play feel out-of-place, as if the world around them will never quite understand them. Are those more the roles you’re offered or is that the kind of thing that you’re attracted to?

MARTIN STARR: Both. But I also feel like that’s my understanding of what it is to be human, figuring out for yourself who you are and never being understood. Nobody else will really understand you the way you do. Ultimately, it’s defining yourself in a way that you respect.

CUT PRINT FILM: One of the film’s centerpiece scenes is that long shot of you and Dina Shihabi (who plays Amira) talking in bed. Was that an especially difficult one to prepare for given that the camera is still and its focused on your performances?

MARTIN STARR: It was definitely hard to feel good about it because there was so much pressure on it being one take. I feel like even in the take that we used there was something that I really didn’t like that ended up in it, but that was the best take that we had. So many of those little moments you really have to fine-tune and figure out after doing it a few times. I didn’t prepare any differently than I normally would, it was more that it felt like the first four or five takes were rehearsal. That’s not usually the case, it was just so difficult to get all of that in one fluid take. We kind of found new beats to guide some of the rhythms that were already there in a way that felt most natural to us.

CUT PRINT FILM: You and Shihabi had great chemistry in the film. How much of that came naturally and how much of that you had to work on?

MARTIN STARR: It all came pretty naturally and our communication was also a valuable part whatever we had onscreen. But we naturally have great chemistry and got along really well, and still do. She’s moving out to LA in a couple weeks because she finished grad school at NYU. It was really fortunate for us that we got along as well as we did because it could have been very difficult and it was very easy. You don’t know whether you’re going to like each other but you have to make it believable, you’ve already committed to that idea before you ever meet.

CUT PRINT FILM: That’s good because it felt like this was one of your performances that was most dependent on one other person, rather than as part of a whole ensemble.

MARTIN STARR: Yeah, and I think we really do hold each other’s hands through it. We worked really well together and thank goodness for that. On such a tight schedule, a production that small if that’s difficult then you’re really running into trouble. So it turned out all right.

CUT PRINT FILM: Looking forward, do you see yourself going after larger roles like this if they’re offered to you?

MARTIN STARR: Yeah, my focus isn’t really on the size of the role, it’s the inspiration and drive and feeling challenged. There are so many different things that I look at. I’m working with people that I’ve yet to work with and people that I work with often and love and respect. There are so many reasons to do something. I’m still as open-minded as I have been about what the next thing that I do is. I’m very excited to see how that turns out. The only thing that I’m really in control of at the moment is writing, so I’ve been writing things on my own to try and get out the stories that I want to tell.

CUT PRINT FILM: What projects are you writing currently?

MARTIN STARR: A film I’ve been writing with my friend Charlyne Yi. We’ve been writing something for a while, and we’re getting into another script. And then TV, I’ve sold a few things here and there that haven’t really amounted to anything. I currently have something at Sony and we’re waiting to get back notes on that. We’ll just kind of see what turns out. Writing a lot of things.

Amira & Sam opens today in select theaters and on VoD. For more info go to drafthousefilms.com


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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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