Steve Martin and Claire Danes Jr. Interview

The actor and author on how he turned one of his books into a film, plus the actress on working with him.

Getting your big break on Saturday Night Live really helps to give you a name in Hollywood. Steve Martin certainly reeped the benefits of that as a movie and tv star. He's also become a very successful author, selling millions of copies with his numerous books.

One of those books being Shopgirl, which he made into a new movie, and he stars in. It's about a 50-something guy who falls for a younger girl, played by Claire Danes, and she kind of falls for him. But Claire has also has started falling for someone else, Jeremy, played by Jason Schwartzman.

We've already heard from Jason about working with Steve; now it's time to hear from Steve and Claire about this film. We talked to the two up in Toronto; here's what they had to say:

What are your thoughts on romantic love vs finding a compatible partner?

Steve Martin: Well, I know people who work both ways. But you know look, the question is, how many lovers do you have before you settle in? (small pause of silence) Four? (Laughter) One night we were going around the table it was not about romantic love it was about sex. But someone on the table suggested we share how many lovers we've had. And it came to one girl and she said four. And then another, I should say woman said six and then another said Fifty. (Clare laughs) And she said, I was in college and we were just, you know. So it's everybody's story, whether it's one, two, three, ten, twenty or Magic Johnson. This story is about one of those episodes that gets a little out of control. I was rereading the book, because I had to read something from it, I'd forgotten half of it. And it says that Ray was about to enter into an addiction that he couldn't break, meaning sex with Mirabelle because he found something in her that was beautiful. So this is a slice of somebody's life; it's some of us, none of us and all of us.

There's no real back story to Ray; is that your decision?

Steve Martin: I cringe at back story. Because it never quite explains or gets into some psychological thing that is never quite right and never quite the truth and who knows why someone is someway. You just can't say (mocking tone) And Ray's dad never loved him. It doesn't explain it. And yet we all know there are people like that. We meet them and deal with them and are them. And it's never quite explained. You never say ‘How come that person exists?'

How did you adapt to the narration and using the voice over in the movie?

Steve Martin: Well, I secretly wanted to, but I also know how things work you cant do that. Well, Woody Allen; I did want some of that language in the movie because it creates a tone. That's why its there. I don't want to be redundant but if you notice, all of those voice over's are placed not as exposition but as almost like musical moments. It's always at the end of a scene, over silence, over a static shot or at least a very still shot. When you got action going on, voice going on, music going on, it's all lost. You really have to go 'Listen!'

Claire Danes: Yeah I think the voice over actually enhances the various moments instead of compensating for something that's lacking. Voice over can be tricky. It can be dangerous because its over used or inappropriately used. I think in this case it informs the story.

How did you work on the physicality of Mirabelle?

Claire Danes: Yeah, all of that was intentional, actually. I can say that and mean it this time (laughs) Anand [Tucker] was very careful to plot those moments. In the beginning he really wanted to emphasize my stillness. Which was scary because you know, it's hard to trust that that's going to be enough. That the audience is going to remain engaged with her when she seems to be giving very little. I always want to tap dance in some way. But I think it was important to show that she starts to find joy and that's physically articulated at some point.

Why is it hard for Hollywood to make truthful love stories?

Steve Martin: It's a very, very good question, but it all goes back to the ‘meet cute' I always feel that there's the person with the inspiration and then there's the person who's going ‘no, no.' This other movie had this and we got to have this, then it starts getting wrenched out its own heart. Our movie didn't get wrenched. Because basically the book is about small moments and the movie is about small moments, which are obviously the biggest.

Claire Danes: It just seems like the most successful, iconic love stories are not so easy or escapist. I think the ones that stay with us and resonate are full of conflict, discord and misunderstandings cause that's what makes drama happens or tension even if it's a comedy. I think people who make movies and have invested a lot of money in them, get frightened that if they challenge an audience they are going to repel them. And I think the opposite it's really true. It takes confidence and courage to know that and then commit to it.

Have you ever had a Ray in your life?

Claire Danes: (in a sly tone) I've never met anyone like him. Did I ever encounter this sort of relationship? Personally no, but it's easy to extrapolate. It's my job to find the cornel of truth and then exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate until it's of an appropriate scale. Again, I said this earlier but it's well written so it's easily relatable. I mean for everybody. These are not alien creatures. I think these are pretty common and ironically that's what makes them striking. This story it's pretty ordinary.

How did you work out the relationship with the director?

Steve Martin: We just did. He's a very gentle guy and he understood the script and the movie. There was never a contention when we were shooting, so it was fine.

Did you ever consider directing?

Steve Martin: No, not really.

How did you balance the comedy with the drama?

Steve Martin: Like in the book, there a scene directly translated into the movie where Mirabelle decides to phone Jeremy and he knocks the phone of the cradle and she embarrasses herself by yelling into the phone and then he decides to call her. There are other comic moments, with the mistaken identity thing, but basically that's not what the movie it's about. Those are little stories that help us out of the tome poem aspect of it.

You've gone from broader comedies to smaller personal films; why?

Steve Martin: You're implying that the choice is some kind of choice or that it's deliberate; it's not. It's what comes along, it's where your head is, is the project ready to go, do I like it, who's in it; it's a million different things. There is no starboard where there is someone deciding or a star chamber where we go to figure out the next move. I'm sure that works in certain cases but it doesn't work for me.

How do you approach your writing; how do you decide if it's a novel or a script?

Steve Martin: Well, if you have an idea it usually comes in a framework in your brain. You know if its sentence oriented or if it's visual.

Did you expect to play Ray Porter once it was being adapted?

Steve Martin: I suspected it. Actually the first person I asked was Tom Hanks cause I thought he was the perfect, perfect guy to play it.

How much of the story is autobiographical?

Steve Martin: The question implies how much of Mirabelle is autobiographical because I wrote her too. So you know what the say, everything is culled from every source, my own life, other lives. I'm sixty and I've had sex since I was 18, you know. There's been a lot of stuff going on.

Sex every week?

Steve Martin: No, not every week. There's been long dry spells. But the story, it's from a lot of experience, whatever is my own or from conversations and that's where it all comes from. I subsequently wrote a book about a guy who was neurotic in some way and it doesn't apply to me at all but I can imagine it.

Is there more satisfaction from the films you help create or from the ones you're hired for?

Steve Martin: I would say the three stages of making a film are the initial ‘are we gonna do this,' ‘how much will I be paid,' is there a lot of nights, who's it going to be with? The second stage of doing a film is how much fun your going to have doing it. The third stage is was the film a hit? What I'm saying is, whether I'm involved in creating something or not, it's a personal issue of do I respect it. But you can only know that five or ten years later. The first thing once it's done its how is it received. You want it to happen, no matter how involved you are. I don't know anybody who says, unless you're making excuses, but its art and they don't understand it because I'm so confident in that thing that stiffed. I was having a discussion with a friend, this was years ago, about psychiatry. They were comparing psychiatry to art, and that being in psychotherapy was an artistic process. But he said there's a big difference between being in psychotherapy and being an artist because an artist's abandons what he's made and in therapy you try to retain your thoughts and feelings. And that's essentially what I do, once it's done, it's an accident when I see it. Sometimes it's a happy accident, sometimes its not.

What's your reaction to getting the part of Mirabelle?

Claire Danes: Well I was thrilled when the opportunity arose. I had read the book and was really affected by it. I know a lot of people who were, so I'm not very special by having been moved by it, but I was. And I couldn't have been in more exquisite company; I loved Hillary and Jackie, so I felt confident that Anand would render the story with subtlety and depth and smarts. And Steve has really been a hero of mine forever. So anyway, it was a total joy. I felt capable of playing her. Sometimes I am more nervous than others about inhabiting a character. Sometimes they seem a little more inaccessible, but this one was there. I think it was because she was so well written and also because I draw too; it wasn't very effortful. I mean it was an intense experience and I had to remain focused to be able to do it, but it was pretty easy. All the signifiers were in place, I just had to be open and receptive and something good was going to happen.

Why was Claire the perfect Mirabelle?

Steve Martin: Well, we had lunch and Claire didn't even had to speak before we knew she was exactly right for her because she's naturally beautiful as opposed to unnaturally beautiful in Hollywood. I always think in twenty years, where are the old actors going to come from, cause they're all going to look like this (does a mock facelift) There isn't going to be anyone to play 80. Or you're doing a period film and there are people with fake breasts.

Claire Danes: These are fake. (lots of laughter)

Steve Martin: Claire just fit in her simplicity into this role. There is a quiet solitude to her performance, which we've seen before. But she could also play a glamour girl. It she had to be a buxom dancer she could.

Claire Danes: Chicken cutlets.

Steve Martin: But she's quite stunning in this movie. I was always amazed. How does she know that emotion?

How was it doing the romantic scenes with the guy who wrote the romance?

Claire Danes: Steve was incredibly generous. Immediately he made it very clear that if Jason and I needed to rework a scene we had license to. He was great that way. I never felt confined or pressured to do something because it was not intuitive; I never had to do that, because the material was incredibly fertile. Also I'm kind of methodical, so once I commit to something I'd rather just do it than change it. So that was good, it made me feel more relaxed. It became our story and Steve made that possible; he shared it. He's been doing this for a long time. Anybody who knows how to make a good movie, knows that it's a collaborative undertaking; to deny that it's really dangerous. I was very impressed by that, cause he could have been possessive or territorial or stingy; he was the antithesis of that.

Shopgirl is in theaters today.