Demetri Martin’s Wikipedia page says he is “an American comedian, actor, artist, musician, writer and humorist,” which we can all agree is a lot of things (and that’s without mentioning the fact he can ride a unicycle). He plays the role of Louis in current comedy film and the feature-length writing/directing debut of actress Lake Bell, In a World…
The film, set in the male dominated world of voice over work, won Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award — 2013’s best U.S. screenplay and sees Martin play the role of Louis, a sweet, supportive sound engineer who falls for Bell’s lead character. I’ll be honest; Demetri Martin is one of my comedy heroes, so I didn’t ask enough questions about the film. I mean, there’s some, but I mainly asked things I really wanted to know. If you ask me, it makes for a better interview, but you didn’t ask me, so we’ll crack straight on. I called Demetri at 9am his time, we exchanged niceties and the interview started from there….
So, you play the role of Louis in this film, what drew you to the role?
I received the script from my agent and I know Lake Bell, we’re friends, I hadn’t seen her in a while and my agent said, “Hey Lake’s written this movie, she’s gonna direct and she’s starring in it,” and I said, “oh, cool,” and once I read the script, I liked the script, I liked how the storylines wove together and I thought, “yeah, I could play this guy.” It seemed it was within my, somewhat limited, range, so I thought “Yeah, this’ll be fun.”
It was a quick shoot, it was made for not much money, I dunno how much the budget was, but I know it wasn’t big (SB: I checked later, it was around $2 million) and once everyone else got paid a lot, I didn’t. We shot it around LA, it was 20 something days, it was cool. Also, it was nice to be in a film, where you could see someone you know acting and directing, doing the whole thing, saying their own words, and changing things as they feel they need to along the way. It was kind of a clinic.
Was that different to what you’ve experience on film sets in the past then? Say, working with Ang Lee for example (on Taking Woodstock)? Was it more fun?
Yeah. Yeah, I think it was. It was a privilege to get to work with Ang Lee, but that was a different vibe, yeah. More serious. I think I knew one person going into the Ang Lee film, whereas here I knew a group of people, so it was a bit looser. At the same time, you know with Ang Lee you’re working with someone who has this body of work behind him, and here you’re working with someone who’s newer, so it is a whole different game. At least it seems like it going into it, and after working for a day or two you realise okay, it’s not that different, we just have different players and a different budget. It’s different enough.
Do you think the different vibes on set cause any difference in your performance, or do you just go into the performance in the same way?
Well in this movie I was able to improvise and it stayed in the film. In the Ang Lee movie I was told specifically, “no improvisation,” and the script supervisor made sure if I changed anything, on any take, or forgot a word, I was told, “hey, you need to say ’and’” so yeah, that was a big difference.
Do you find it harder then, acting, rather than doing comedy, as you have less control, or did you get used to that very quickly?
The first bigger part that I had was in the Ang Lee movie, and there, for the first week or two, I felt kind of frustrated because, yeah, I think I’m more of a writer, so in stand-up I come from more of a writing place, where, for me, for the majority of my stand-up career so far I’d say, it’s mostly about communicating ideas that I’ve had. In the last two years, I’ve improvised more on stage and I think maybe it’s a little bit more in the moment or a little more present than it was, for the bulk of what I’ve done. So yeah, mostly for me, performing is about communicating ideas that I’ve had or have prepared or are ideas that I can change quickly. So in that sense it was more frustrating.
But about two or three weeks into the Ang Lee movie I was talking to Imelda Staunton one day, and it was a pleasure to get to work with her, and I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but it dawned on me that there was a lot of creativity involved interpreting someone else’s words and giving a performance and there’s quite a lot you can do, and she’s an excellent actress with a lot of experience. So there I started to learn about the joy of acting as an interpretive task and how creative you could be, so it’s the long answer to say I do find acting more difficult but it’s enjoyable in a way that I didn’t expect. I realised how fun it can be to act and how creative you can be as an actor without changing the words, not just delivering your own writing ideas, it really is interpreting someone else’s.
Are there things that you transfer then from acting into comedy and vice versa?
I think so. I think lately what I’ve been thinking or noticing more is the importance for me of emotion in comedy, not just maybe cognition. I really like jokes and I like writing jokes that don’t have that many words and I like the kind of intellectual exercise of jokes, composing them and delivering them, but it is pretty powerful when you see somebody like Richard Pryor. It’s just so emotional, it’s not really so much about having one liners or cleverness or something, so yeah, acting I think intersects with that idea. A great performance has such emotionality to it. It’s great and as a stand-up it would be nice to someday evolve to that level of emotion on stage. In one man shows I think I’ve had glimpses of it where I talk about very personal things but I gravitate more towards less emotional fare and more kind of thinking based stuff.
Yeah, though in your show If I (won the 2003 Perrier Comedy Award, and later filmed as a one-off BBC television special) there’s a lot of really subtle emotion in there, the personal things in there are amazing and it’s very well crafted. Do you think that show would be different now that you have done more acting?
Thanks. Yeah, it probably would and maybe there was more of a rawness or a naïveté as a performer who had mostly done one liners, when I did that show, that was a departure for me, because in the States, however many years I’d been doing stand up, up to that point, I’d been doing mostly short jokes, one liners. I found it hard to get stage time beyond ten or fifteen minutes tops, so it was difficult often to get too deep into anything and now I’ve had the luxury of doing longer shows. So yeah, it probably would be a bit different now.
What was it like for you in this film playing a love interest? Was that weird for you?
Yeah, it was a little weird. I don’t particularly enjoy getting my picture taken but I still wanna act and I like being in things so it’s one of those weird tensions. I need attention for some reason. I’m not sure what my problem is but I’m drawn to performing. So as a person who’s not that thrilled about having my photo taken and posing, when you add making out with someone on top of that, yeah, it’s a little uncomfortable, but I’m not complaining, it was great work if you can get it. What I think was really educational, for me, was to be in a movie where the guy is the love interest and the woman is the protagonist. The woman is the comedy engine for the story and the movie, so that’s interesting because I realised I’m in the role that women often have. I’m the love interest, more than the joke deliverer.
You’ve also had the film Will in the pipeline for a little while now, where are you at with that?
That one, jeez, I think I sold that idea when I was, I dunno which Edinburgh Fringe of the four years I went, but this goes way back to when I was coming to the festival, I sold that idea to DreamWorks. And I wrote a couple of drafts of that script years ago and then it just languished. It came back to life a couple of years ago with a different production company, different studio and it almost got made. This is over two years ago now and we had the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, who I’ve since become friends with ‘cos I worked with them for six months on the script and I thought it was gonna get made and it went away again. And then just a few months ago it came back to life and now Michel Hazanavicius, the director of The Artist is attached as the director, so I’m about to do another draft of the script, to address his notes and the studios notes. So long story short, it could get made in the next year but I’m not holding my breath.
Well, that brings us nicely to my next question, what’s up next for you?
I’ve done two books, I’m writing my third one now and this is a book of short fiction. It’s all short stories and I’m trying to write a movie that I can direct and star in that I would hope to shoot next summer. It would be small and cheap, independent and I need to figure out what it is and hopefully I can do that in the next month or so, so I can get it together for next summer, and shoot it probably somewhere around Los Angeles. I’m hoping to do that, and it would be a comedy.
One question I really wanted to ask, going from the comedy world to the acting world, who do you find a weirder scene of people?
I’m far more used to comedians, so for me spending time with actors is weirder. I had an actor friend in New York, he was a new friend and we went to dinner and we were talking about comedy and acting and whatever, and I said, “Hey, my friends are having a party. It’s a Karaoke party down in Chinatown.” And it was all comedians at the party, and I think he knew a couple of them, so he said “Oh cool, you wanna go?” I said, “Yeah, let’s go down there.” He said, “Hey, you know what, we’ll take my Vespa.” That was the first time I thought, “Alright, none of my comedian friends have a Vespa.” So then we go to his garage, we get on this Vespa, we have the helmets on and I’m holding on behind him, thinking, “I’m gonna get crucified if my friends see me.”
There’s certain things, I know it doesn’t quite connect what I’m saying, but if you wore a nicer shirt one day down to the comedy club or something or new sunglasses, it’s just the whole topic of conversation, you can’t get away with anything, you can’t really put on airs, not in the crowd that I ran with in New York. It’s all about eviscerating everybody and taking the piss, bringing them right back down. With some of my actor friends, that doesn’t happen the same way. I’m sure plenty of actors do that, but I found people were very……you can get away with more, in a strange way. You can kind of play this role in life, like wearing sunglasses at night. With comedians, I don’t know that many who get away with that kind of thing, it doesn’t really happen.
You were attached to the film Moneyball for the role that ultimately went to Jonah Hill, which he got an Academy Award nomination for. Do you ever wonder what might have been under different circumstances?
No. You know I still haven’t seen the movie. I didn’t see the movie probably because I would have thought, “Oh, I wish I could have been in that movie.” So I don’t know what his performance is like, maybe it was great and cool, he got the nomination. But I do think, I’m guessing, maybe the last few years would’ve been easier for me, or something different if I had been able to be in Moneyball, whatever Moneyball would’ve become with me in it, just because, hey, maybe I could’ve gotten to the next role in a studio film or something off of that if I had a little bit of momentum there.
At the same time, I have to honestly say that my expectation has always been that I’ll have to write my way into whatever films I want to perform in and I’m moving more slowly than I expected. I was hoping by now I would’ve made my first film but I’m a procrastinator and in stand-up there’s a very satisfying quick feedback loop which has been great and satisfying and crippling because I just escape back into stand-up and I go do shows on the road. And I like to draw, like writing jokes, I just draw all the time, when I should be working on larger things. A drawing is quick and a screenplay takes so long. So, it was nice when I got to be in an Ang Lee film even if it wasn’t the most successful movie and then when I thought I was gonna be in Steven Soderbergh’s version of Moneyball, I thought, “Wow, this is great.” Those seem like lottery tickets to me though. It seems much more about luck, where you get to win these different sized lotteries by getting cast in films. I’m sure there’s tonnes of talent, and super talented actors out there, but there’s so few parts and so many actors. But I can write one thousand scripts if I just discipline myself and do the work. That’s not so much a lottery ticket. That seems more like work.
And one final question Demetri. If you could recommend one film to watch, to whoever’s reading this, (that’s you), what’s your favourite film that you go to the most, or one you recommend?
Oooh, I dunno if I have a favourite film…..(SB:just a couple then?)….I’m a big Woody Allen fan (SB:Yes!) and a big Albert Brooks fan so maybe if I could recommend two. Hmmm, your readership is not American, y’know, Lost in America I think is a pretty great Albert Brooks film, I love Defending Your Life too, I love all of his films. As an American, Lost in America’s pretty funny, it’s really funny. And for Woody Allen I like a lot of his big ones that people like. I saw Bullets Over Broadway recently, It’s just excellent, that’s really such a great film. So I’d say maybe those two lately. I have a long list but they kind of go in waves, something draws me to one or the other, and I say, “Oh, let’s watch this,” and then we’ll check it out and say, “Yeah, that held up.”
You know what’s great in both of those films maybe, and it does kind of relate to the film I was just in, is that women are funny. Julie Hagerty, Dianne Wiest, there’s just these great performances from women and I think as a male film maker if you can learn to, or find a way to write funny roles for women and find funny women to be in them, you only help yourself. I think everybody wins when you give women an opportunity to shine. That’s what’s cool about Lake’s movie.
And so the interview drew to a close, Demetri and I said goodbye and I went and re-watched Woody Allen films, as you should too.
You can see Demetri Martin in In a World… NOW (well, check your local cinema listings, it might be four in the morning as you’re reading this, I don’t know). It was released in cinema’s Friday 13th September and we’ll leave you with a clip with none other than Lake and Demetri.