Interview: Martin Starr on Playing the Romantic Lead in Amira & Sam


amirasam1If you’re anything like me, you’ve gotten tired of seeing New York City being used as a lazy backdrop for the most obvious brain-dead romantic comedies, which is why it’s nice to see a different approach to the genre in Sean Mullin’s feature film directorial debut Amira & Sam

Martin Starr, from “Freaks and Geeks” and “Silicon Valley,” plays Sam, a soldier who has returned home from the warfront and is trying to figure out what to do next – he even tries his hand at stand-up comedy. He soon meets Amira, the niece of an Iraqi man Sam befriended while in the Middle East, as played by the lovely and funny Dina Shihabi. Just as the two of them start to bond and get closer, she’s faced with deportation forcing Sam to make some tough decisions.

The movie played at a number of smaller film festivals where it’s won a considerable amount of audience and jury awards, mainly due to the winning combination of Starr and Shihabi, who give the movie a very different feel and flavor than other romantic comedies. had a chance to immerse ourselves into the movie with two days of interviews, starting with a video interview with Sean, Dina and Paul Wesley (“The Vampire Diaries”), who plays Sam’s cousin, which you can watch in the video player below. 

The next day, we got on the phone with Starr, who had been super-busy filming the second season of “Silicon Valley” and he used his day off to answer some questions about his involvement with this movie and how things are going on the show. I spoke with Sean and two of your co-stars yesterday.

Martin Starr: Oh, you talked to Dina?

CS: Yeah, Dina and Paul, also. They were both in New York and they said nice things about you, mostly.

Starr: I don’t believe you.

CS: They really did say nice things about you. We talked a lot about the different styles of comedy you have with Dina and how you guys match up and that kind of stuff. It’s funny how many of the guys from “Freaks and Geeks” have become romantic leads—Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and I guess Jay Baruchel, too—so what interested you in playing that kind of role in Sean’s movie?

Starr: You know, it took some convincing from Sean, initially. We sat down and talked about it. I didn’t really feel like I fit the movie at first. I think we kind of reimagined the character a little bit and the story in small ways that made me feel more comfortable kind of jumping into it. I feel like it’s a big thing to tackle in the tight schedule that we had. So I wanted to make sure I felt really comfortable going into it. 

CS: Sean has a lot of connections to the subject matter. He went to a military academy and he worked at Ground Zero, so he probably knew a lot of Wall Street people. If you had any questions about the character or the situation, I assume he had a lot of the answers?

Starr: Oh yeah. I mean, it made it easier for me to fall in love with the story and the character, when I saw it really through his eyes and we talked it out a lot and clearly, he knows everything about this character and all of the details that he was writing about. He really wrote what he knew, so it made it easy to tap into him as a resource.

CS: Sam has a very clean-cut look, and I think we’ve gotten used to seeing you with long hair and a beard. I’m not sure what your normal look is, because obviously, a lot of the roles you play, you have the beard and the longer hair. Is that just something you grow usually for roles or are you usually more clean-cut?

Starr: I’m probably just lazy. It grows out and then I get a chop and however it is when they see me. So that’s how that ends up being such a big part of my career, I guess, but it didn’t fit at all for this character, so we had to cut it because nobody in the Army is allowed to have a beard or longer hair. It’s just standard protocol.

CS: I seem to remember at least some military movies where they’ve had beards, like “Lone Survivor” and some of those more recent ones, Navy SEALs. Maybe at a certain level you’re allowed to grow a beard, I guess.

Starr: Yeah, I mean I guess if you’re a Navy SEAL, it’s a different story. You get special rights, but I don’t know, this is from Sean’s experience, there was no way that I would have longer hair and there’s no way that I would have any facial growth, so it all made sense to me and it helped me get into the character.

CS: Was this something you shot even before you started doing “Silicon Valley?” I know how these things work where you shoot a movie a while ago and they edit them and do the festivals. So was this something you shot before you had even started “Silicon Valley?”

Starr: No, I shot this and then immediately went into a movie called “Dead Snow 2,” and then after that, we started immediately on “Silicon Valley,” so it was a few months of hectic travel.

amirasam3CS: So you were able to grow your hair back out after doing this for “Silicon Valley”?

Starr: No, I wore a wig.

CS: Wow, okay. I hate to dwell on this particular subject, but I’ve seen you in different looks, and I was curious whether or not you’d gotten used to growing out the beard and the long hair.

Starr: Yeah, I mean, I grew it out for season two, but yeah, I don’t know. It’s nice to be able to have my hair the way I want it. So wearing a wig is something that I’ve never experienced before, because it’s a luxury in some ways, and in other ways, it’s an extra hour of makeup in the morning, so that’s not the best. But you know, I get to have my hair how I like it.

CS: What about shooting in New York? I know both Sean and Dina, they went to school here and they have experiences shooting here. Have you ever actually shot a movie in New York on the streets or anything like that before?

Starr: No, the most time I’ve spent in New York before that was I spent a week there working on a show called “Ed” in like the ’90s or early 2000s. That was the most time I had shot, was a week. It’s such a beautiful city. I really had an opportunity to fall in love with it. Yeah, even in our hectic schedule, the time I had off, and I mean, maybe it was just being in New York, working and doing anything, I don’t know. It’s just an easy place to fall in love with.

CS: Let’s talk about your co-star, Dina, because she’s really quite amazing. I don’t know how much she’s done before this, except for a few smaller things, but this is a pretty major role for her and she’s very funny in the movie. I feel like you play the straight man to her in some ways. Did you guys do a lot of rehearsals to work out the relationship and the humor beforehand?

Starr: The humor just came naturally from the dialogue of the scenes, so we sat down and worked on certain scenes together with Sean and Laith, who I don’t know if you had a chance to talk to him. He plays Dina’s uncle, so the four of us all sat down and kind of talked some things out, but really just getting comfortable with each other. Luckily, we all got along swimmingly.

CS: You’ve done a lot of movies where you have room to improvise and adlib. In a movie like this, Sean obviously had written a very specific screenplay, but he also said that he was very open to ideas and to throw things out. How was it being able to work like that? Did you do any improvisation at all with Dina or with anyone else or was it sort of very much stick to the script and see where it goes?

Starr: Oh, for sure, things changed. But the script was pretty tight. We didn’t have to move much, but if there were things that didn’t work on the day, sometimes you read something on the page, and then, when you kind of end up on a shoot, it doesn’t have the same feel to it or you kind of find something. We would shift things around here or there, to try and adapt. It always turned out pretty well. There were very few days where you run the risk of time becoming an issue when you mess around with something too much, but luckily, there were very few days with our tight schedule, where we kind of felt under the gun.

CS: Although this is a comedy, it’s not like a madcap type of thing and Sam’s more of a serious role because he’s a war vet, but he’s not the typical guy who comes home from war shell-shocked. It does have more serious undertones, so how was that as far as doing that and knowing how much humor to bring to it? Was that something you worked out with Sean and you tried different things?

Starr: My natural instincts in comedy aren’t different from my… I don’t do a lot of slapstick, so I don’t really have to change anything. It all comes from the character. I didn’t approach this any different than I approach anything else. The difference really was that there weren’t as many written jokes that you have to hit or play, so a lot of the humor that is in the movie, that’s just finding moments that play well. Some of those came from improv and just allowing us to play a little bit.

amirasam4CS: I know the movie played at a bunch of festivals and did very well, getting some awards. Were you able to go to any of the festivals and see it with an audience?

Starr: I have, yes. I saw it up in Seattle, and that was the finished product, except for small things changed after we got distribution, but nothing even to really speak of. So I haven’t seen that cut, I don’t think, but I saw it with an audience up in Seattle and it was really well received. It’s really great to be a part of something that I can be as proud of and that is finding its audience.

CS: You often play the best friends but in this one, you got to play the leading role. Do you think you want to try and do more of this kind of thing or move in this direction?

Starr: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m enjoying everything I get to do right now. I haven’t really thought about… you know, I’m not changing my path. I’m just kind of going with what feels right. Currently, when I’m not working on “Silicon Valley,” I’ve been writing, so we’ll see where that takes me, but I don’t know. I’m open to everything.

CS: When you’re the lead, there’s more pressure on you to sell a movie in some ways, as opposed to when you come in as a supporting player.

Starr: Sure.

CS: How’s it going on “Silicon Valley” as far as the second season? Is there less pressure because the first season was received so well?

Starr: I don’t think so. I think there’s actually a lot more pressure because it was received so well. I think because that gives everyone such clear… there’s a bar that we’ve set for ourselves now, and any time somebody comes up to me and says that they love the show, they often times reference our final episode and the d*ck joke that happened. So we set the bar at a pretty interesting level, to have to meet that. I could see that Alec and Mike want to surpass that and no pun intended, it’s a hard thing to do.

CS: It really sounds like Mike has found his medium. It seems like he’s always had trouble when he tried to make movies, but he seems to have found a place where he could do TV that’s edgy where he doesn’t have to hold back.

Starr: Yeah, everybody feels really comfortable here. It’s fun. I mean, it’s an honor to be able to work with Mike and I like him and the group of actors that I get to work with. I think this season’s going really well so far. I’m excited to see how it all comes together in the edit room and how it’s received come April 12th.

CS: A lot of people like the feud you have with Dinesh on the show. It seems like you tend to have a nemesis in a lot of the comedies you do, so are you guys finding new ways to antagonize each other this new season?

Starr: Yeah, it’s an interesting relationship, because it feels kind of one-sided, but it sometimes feels very marital about it the whole time, like, it was very husband and wife and who’s who. Let’s just say I’m not the wife. It’s really fun for both of us to kind of be able to play with that dynamic. So, we take full advantage every time we get the opportunity.

CS: I saw you have a movie at Sundance called “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Are you going to have a chance to break away and get up to that or are you just too busy working?

Starr: Yeah, they had worked my schedule out for a minute, but then we had alocation fallout, so I can’t get up there now, but I’m really proud of that movie, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” I just saw it this, I don’t know, two days ago, and Blythe Danner is incredible in it. I’m so proud of her and so proud of Brett in that movie.

Amira & Sam opens in select cities on Friday, January 30, as well as on VOD. You can find out where you can see it on its official page