Demetri Martin is a man of many talents. In addition to being one of the top stand-up comedians working today, being a Nerdist podcast guest, authoring two books, and creating and starring in his own short-lived but much-loved sketch comedy series, Important Things with Demetri Martin, he’s been turning up ever more frequently in major motion pictures. For his newest cinematic outing, In a World…, Martin plays the romantic lead opposite the film’s writer-director-star, Lake Bell. We sat down with this man of many hats to talk about how acting affects his writing, the idea of doing another TV show, and the notion of adding “Film Director” to his already impressive list of skills.
NERDIST: You’ve been acting a lot more recently; was acting something you wanted to get into for a while?
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah, definitely not from the outset. I like standup and I started doing it just to do that but I started jotting down ideas for things that were, like, “You know, that’s not going to work as a standup joke, that would probably be a better short story or maybe a movie someday.” And then I discovered Woody Allen and Albert Brooks; I kinda came to those guys later. As a kid I never saw a Woody Allen movie or anything and it opened up my understanding of what you could do as a comedic actor, because I was, like, “Hey, this is more about a perspective, you don’t have to be a traditional actor in a sense,” and that kind of piqued my interest.
I thought, “Hey, maybe down the line I could act, at least in my own stuff,” but in order to make my own stuff, maybe I could get cast in other people’s stuff, and then people might accept me on screen and not just as a standup. So there was some logic in my head that I don’t even know if it makes sense, but, yeah, it was kind of later along the way. And then when I got cast in a couple of things, I was like, “Oh, this is cool, this is a different kind of creativity. It’s more interpretive. With stand up, it’s more like getting to be a writer who’s talking, whereas in this, it’s like, “These are the lines, so what can you do with it?”
N: Did you find that it came easy to you?
DM: Yeah, I mean I haven’t been cast in anything that requires me to be much beyond my own range. So I don’t know how easy it is, but I don’t think I’d ever be an actor who can transform the way some actors I see who are really natural kind of broader range actors, if that’s a term. That would be hard for me in the same way that voice-overs would be hard for me, because my voice can only do so much.
N: You’ve gotten to work with Ang Lee and Steve Soderbergh.
DM: Yeah, which is awesome.
N: Were both of those situations where you had to go audition?
DM: Yeah. For Ang, I was their first choice, because James Shamus, the producer, knew about me from The Daily Show from his daughter. She showed him a clip of me while he was writing the movie and he was, like, “Oh, that guy would be good.” I met with James and Ang and then I had to go audition a few days later and do like four scenes, and Ang directed me during the audition and filmed it. So that was a pretty intense audition. And then with Steven Soderbergh, I met with him for Moneyball and I was originally cast. I met with him and talked with him for like two or three hours one night at a bar in New York and then I found out a couple of days later I got the part, and I worked for one day with Brad Pitt on the original Moneyball that then got shutdown after a day of working because Sony didn’t like the rewrite or whatever happened at that point. It got rewritten and a year later it was made and Jonah Hill was in the part that was originally mine. The part was changed a bit and gutted, so I was out. That’s why I was in Contagion, because he kinda threw me a bone and was like “Hey, we almost did it! I’ll let you be in this.” And I was like, “Thanks!”
N: It did kinda seem like “Oh, hey, Demitri Martin is in this.”
DM: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “What’s that guy doing in there?”
N: Have you found that acting has helped your writing?
DM: Yeah, even doing my series, which is now 3 years gone. I never did sketch comedy, I was never in an improv group, I never did one second of that stuff; I only did stand up. But when I got the chance to do a sketch show, I thought, “You know I’d like to do sketches that are like scenes. Just like practicing for being in movies or something. So they’ll just be these scenes and I’ll try to play them as emotionally real as I can and that’ll be good practice.” And I learned from that how to write for myself a little bit better, and then if I’m writing for someone else what I might expect from them. ‘Cause even having writers was kind of interesting for some of the stuff on my series. Somebody would write something and I’d think, “I see how this is funny as a written thing but I don’t know if I can do this turn this quick from this emotion to that one in just the two lines and still feel like it’s believable.” Maybe a better actor could but I don’t think I could pull it off. So, I started to learn about different trajectories in scenes and stuff. At least how I understand it.
N: For this movie it seems like there was a lot of room to play around with the dialogue; did you feel like you were able to make it your own?
DM: Yeah, I thought it was cool. Lake was flexible about that and let me fiddle with stuff a little bit. But there was an understanding of “Hey, we’re trying to achieve this in this scene.” But a couple of the bits seemed to work. She kept in some of the stuff I did and thought it was cool. You know, my concern was just helping Lake execute her vision. It’s her movie in every sense; she wrote, directed and stars in it. So, what I learned, especially from Ang Lee, was if you get to be an actor in a movie, that’s great, but it’s the director’s vision. Can you give the director as many options as possible in the edit? That’s what he told me. Pretty much day 1, he’s like, “your job is to be well-rested, to know your lines, and to give me as many options in the edit as possible.” So it kind of took away any idea of “You’re the star and it’s all about you,” it’s just like, “Nah I need you to help me make this thing I want to.” It wasn’t like that, but it’s nice to have that in my head and anything I work on that’s not mine, I try to think of it that way.
N: And what was it like playing the romantic lead in a romantic comedy?
DM: It was cool, I think the fact that the fact that it was an ensemble diffused any weight that I’d have to carry and I thought I could pull it off in a comedy enough. At the end of the day, we seemed to have really good chemistry. The one time I saw it at Sundance, I thought, “Yeah, I think that’s believable, we seem nervous but find each other.”
N: Did you have to learn anything about sound engineering for this?
DM: Nah, they just kinda showed me everything like “just move these, this does that, and this does that.” I’m not very method; I don’t do any research or anything.
N: You mentioned Important Things, which I thought was great; is that coming back at any point or was it just kind of a thing?
DM: Yeah, no, it just became Things. It was no longer important enough (laughs). That was an interesting thing, because I was psyched to get the opportunity and I just jammed as much as I could into every episode. What I probably learned most from that show was how to get through a day of shooting and how you move your budget and make decisions through the day and what you have to do at lunch to do to prep for the next day. We would be looking at casting stuff on the set somewhere in the Valley or shooting a sketch while I have some beard and costume on, saying “Yeah, I think he’d be great for it, let’s see if we can get him.” But that kind of multitasking became less fun as things got more and more hectic. Stand up is kind of luxurious, because it’s very self-contained and you’re in control of your schedule often and what you do on stage.
There are plenty of difficulties with it but not like a production where you have all these people and crew and hair and make up and locations and where are we going to park the truck for lunch and there are all these production worries and stuff. So I was happy when it was done. Now, with some distance, I’m like, “You know, I wish I had the one more season; I was just figuring out the show”. It would have been nice just to have the body of work of the three seasons. At the time I wanted to quit after the first season, I was like, “This is not for me”.
N: It must have been difficult, too, in that it was the first show you had done and it was your own show with your name on it.
DM: Yeah, I didn’t find it that enjoyable; it wasn’t very healthy. I think the stand-up thing is already so self-involved, and then you’re selling a show where you’re playing yourself. If I ever had another show, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be playing myself. I would try to have some other character and hopefully be part of an ensemble, because it just seems like too much. It’s like, if you’re in a band, you’re selling your band. If you write a book, you’re selling your book. But as a stand-up, it’s always like you’re selling yourself, you know? You’re trying to be authentic, so hopefully you’re selling something that’s close to yourself, but that’s also a part of the problem, because you’re kind of cannibalizing yourself. So there’s like some line there that everybody finds. Like Louie [CK] I think has done a remarkable job, and Stephen Colbert. I think those are two guys that have figured out the right thing for themselves where they’re playing themselves in a sense. But, whatever version they’re doing, it’s working, but a lot of us don’t find it.
N: Are you developing something new for yourself to do?
DM: Yeah, I’ve done two books. I did one that was kind of comedy bits and essays and a couple of short stories. The second one was all drawings. It came out in the spring and it was like a couple hundred line drawings. The third one will be a book of short stories, I’ve been writing just short fiction that will be in a year and a half or so. In the meantime I’m writing a movie and I’m working a couple. I want to direct and star in my own movie and get money, probably make a small movie and shoot it around here somewhere.
N: Other than being on sets, have you had much experience directing?
DM: No, I haven’t done any. But on my series, I wanted to direct stuff and my agents were like, “You’re not in the Guild and you’re doing all this other stuff; forget it.” And I was like “OK,” but I did work with directors who were cool and I did get to ask for shots and I was in the edit for everything. So from doing the series, I feel like I’m not so scared. Whether I’ll be a good director or not remains to be seen, but in terms of know how I want something to look and knowing why I like what I like, I think that’s such an interesting first step with a lot of things.
We all consume so much content and everybody has such strong opinions if they really like something or hate something. But it’s really interesting when you get down to “Why do I like what I like? What is it aesthetically that exactly draws me to that?” It seems like the other side of the coin of having to make those decisions. Like “You know, I like stuff locked off, I don’t really like a funny handheld thing. I don’t need a lot of movement. If there’s music in something, I maybe don’t want to notice it that much. I want a softer touch.” That kind of stuff.
N: Did you pick up anything from Lake, it being her first film, that maybe you could use?
DM: What I picked up the most was that preparation is not an optional thing; it really is required, because she was available to do what she needed to do each day and was totally cool through the whole thing and did not get flustered when anything went wrong. When things inevitably do go wrong, I was very impressed how she really kept it together and people were happy. It’s cool, like, when you ask your friends to be in your movie, it can so easily go wrong where people start to resent each other and she’s asking you for too much. But it wasn’t like that, people seemed really happy to be in it and happy for Lake, which I think is a huge accomplishment. The movie being good at all on top of that is such a nice bonus, but as an experience and as laying the groundwork for a career, I thought, “Wow, great job.”
In a World.. hits theaters August 9th.