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Martin Starr on Freaks and Geeks, Silicon Valley, and the ‘Bummer’ of Being a Leading Man

Martin Starr. Photo: Getty Images

When Martin Starr settled in for a half-hour chat about his life and career at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas late last month, and told the applauding crowd, “Thank you for having me, it’s good to be in Wichita,” he paused to clarify: “That sounded sarcastic, but know it was not sarcastic. My mother is from Logan, Kansas. I love Kansas very much, so I am genuinely very happy to be here.” That’s a bit of a hazard for an actor who does sarcasm so well — when he’s being genuine, people don’t believe him.

But Starr is far from the bitter, impatient malcontent he’s known for playing in shows like Silicon Valley, Party Down, and Freaks and Geeks; he’s a practicing Buddhist, a curious actor, and a budding filmmaker. He produced Silver Lake, the low-key and charming starring vehicle that screened after we talked at Tallgrass (he also received the festival’s “Soaring Talent Award”), and over the course of our conversation, he was warm, thoughtful, and appreciative of the career he’s had, and the possibilities it holds.

You started acting when you were pretty young, right?

So I was getting older.

But you came from a family where your mother was a working actor and a coach.
Yes. She went to Kansas University, in the theater program — not to brag — and then came out to California and pursued acting. So yeah, those are my genes, at the core.

Did having someone in the house who had made it a career make you think of it differently than if you were just a kid who wanted to be in the school play?
I think it was more that way because I grew up in Los Angeles. And because you go to an audition and there are like, 30 other kids there. There’s a weird pressure on it, and it’s not just like a fun thing that you’re doing on the side, that you’re the drive and motivation behind. There are so many parents who are like, Get in there junior, and don’t eff this up!

But I didn’t really fall in love with it until I was 12 or 13, and I took an improv class called Center Stage L.A. Kevin McDermott taught this class, and I just kind of fell in love with that. I fell in love with comedy, I fell in love with drama, I just fell in love with acting there. That’s where I really found it to be fun, because auditioning sucks.

And how soon after that breakthrough moment did you book Freaks and Geeks?
I was 16. I had just come back from living in Florida.

How was that?
Bummer. A real bummer. I don’t like humidity. It was also just a bummer because it felt like everyone moved to the same little part of Florida that I moved to. And everyone wanted to, like, shoot guns and fight … But because my parents were fighting to figure out their own happiness, and what was important to them spiritually, that put me on track to ask a lot of questions that perhaps some people never ask.

Like what kind of questions?
Like, why? That’s the biggest one. What’s important? What’s valuable to me here? What am I willing to give up to create the kind of environment that I want to live in and to create the kind of relationships that I want to have? I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way but I end up kind of going back to that core and evaluating what is really important. And it helps me get through the mistakes that I’ve made to create value in my life again, where I could easily get down on myself for not doing as much or accomplishing the things that I want to accomplish.

That is heavy stuff for 15!
Yeah! That was it.

So at 16 you get cast on Freaks and Geeks which I think is where most of us first saw you. That show and Party Down were both these incredibly funny, astute shows that did not find a big enough audience quickly enough and didn’t last long enough.
I mean, I remember Judd [Apatow] being on the other side of a door screaming at people, and someone saying he’s on the phone with NBC. He was saying just the craziest shit to his boss, that no one else would still have a job if they said to their boss.

But he was basically like, you guys can go fuck yourselves. You have no idea what you’re doing. You’re making the biggest mistake — just about the way that they wanted to tweak things. So he got very aggressive and just wouldn’t shoot things. They wanted very specific things, like a holiday episode or an abortion episode, they wanted to hit these big moments. And Judd didn’t want to do their stereotypical here’s-what-the-first-season-of-a-high-school-show-looks-like crap. So he only shot what he wanted to shoot, and would kind of deny them the opportunity — because he knew that they would — to go back and reedit things to make them the way that they wanted. Which is real ballsy for a guy who could get fired any second!

I think that was one of the things that he felt most connected to up to that point in his career, just hearing him talk about it since, sounds like it was as impactful for him and for Paul [Feig] as it was for all of us. And we were so much younger. So it was obviously a huge thing for me at 16 to have that experience.

So after those experiences with shows that should’ve been around longer than they were, now you’re on Silicon Valley which has been running for several seasons and it’s on a supportive network. Is that jarring for you, to have a show that keeps running that the network seems to like?
It’s really cool, man! It’s really fucking cool. I think I appreciate it so much more because I’ve watched things that deserve to continue, fail. And I think because all the rest of the guys on the show loved Freaks and Geeks — as one of the many symbols in Hollywood of things that deserve to go on but didn’t — they were aware of it, and because they saw the way I was reacting to things, and they didn’t have the experience that I had, they seemed to be very mindful.

Because I was so trepidatious, they kind of followed suit a little bit. Nobody jumped to conclusions or got ahead of themselves. So we all had the awareness to appreciate everything as it was coming, and not assume for one second that it was going to make the kind of impact that we’re very fortunate that it’s made.

Especially in the community that we’re satirizing, it’s very cool to be hitting the mark so thoroughly that a lot of tech people come up to you and say, I’ve heard of your show. I watched an episode. That’s all I could handle. It was too accurate.

That’s a good feeling.
Yeah. Or like the wives of people who are the head of something or big programers or whatever, coming up and saying, My husband can’t watch it but I watch it all. I love it! I meet all those guys, they’re just like that.

For a long time, you’ve been this valuable supporting player, and guys like Judd and Rob Thomas — who did Party Down and Veronica Mars — they know they can they can bring you in to play a supporting role, they’ll give you some great lines, you’ll deliver them beautifully, and steal scenes and that’s that. Now in something like Silver Lake, you’re playing a leading role —
I just imagine everyone getting up and leaving … Oh he’s the lead? Oh, whoops!

— and in this film, there are actors like Fred Melamed or Seth Gilliam or Lawrence Kao, and they kind of have Martin Starr roles, where they’re doing those really funny scene-stealer performances.
I know. It’s a bummer! [Laughs] I miss it!

That’s what I was going to ask! You’re the straight man, is that a weird adjustment for you?
I don’t know if it’s weird as much as it’s just different. I don’t know that I like it. I also don’t love the attention. I don’t know if you can tell! I like just being able to pop in and pop out. But this was a really fun experience.

I also produced the movie. So it was — I was very hands-on and in the process from the beginning, and really worked tightly with the edit, and getting it to where it is now. But that’s interesting too. It’s like, on top of the pressure of playing the lead in something, also having all of the other aspects, so that you’re making sure that everyone’s happy and everyone’s enjoying the process and that everything’s getting done what needs to get done to make this movie complete.

When it comes to the creative process, do you see yourself doing more of that? Or maybe even moving into other realms like writing and directing?
I’m going to direct a short film, I think, in the next six months, that a friend of my girlfriend wrote. And I really like. It’s just a weird, weird little story. I like weird little stories. We’ll see how it goes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Martin Starr on Freaks and Geeks and Silicon Valley