Martin Starr began his career as the token nerd in the cult series Freaks and Geeks. As time has passed, and as “geek” has been embraced as more of a lifestyle choice than a label earned in gym class, Starr has changed along with the title, evolving his well-known character trait in projects like Party Down, Knocked Up and Adventureland. It was only a matter of time before he made his way into the tech world, which he did with Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley, which is gearing up for its second season.
Taking a small departure is Starr’s most challenging performance to date. As the titular Sam in Amira & Sam, directed and written by Sean Mullin, Starr plays a veteran of the Iraq war who is struggling to assimilate into a world he once called home, but no longer recognizes. Shortly after his release, he meets Amira (Dina Shihabi), an enchanting but guarded Muslim woman who is proud of her background, but also enthralled with American culture. Because of this she finds herself belonging to no one, living in a country that vehemently opposes her. Together the two find a common bond in their oppression. Taking place in 2008, the film is a touching and incisive portrait of a post-9/11 world.
Paste caught up with Martin Starr to chat about his career and the new challenge of acting in Amira & Sam.
Paste: How did you become involved in acting? Was Freaks and Geeks a stroke of luck?
Martin Starr: I grew up in Los Angeles, and my mom had a business that revolved around acting. I grew up doing cold readings, which is getting sides for a scene of a movie or TV show, and having five to ten minutes to work on it, and then come back and do it. I grew up in an environment where I just adapted to that skill set. Then I found out a really fun improv class that I took in my early teens and the rest is history. I fell in love with acting then.
Paste: Was your taste influenced by your environment?
Starr: I’m sure part of it was due to being in the environment and my mom being an actress, but finding my own footing and my love for my improv class that I took at this place called Center Stage LA, that’s really when I fell in love with it and honed whatever skills I have.
Paste: For how long did you study?
Starr: Three or four years, and then I started helping out teaching and assisting with the younger kids for a bit, and then I moved to Florida and couldn’t do it anymore. It was incredibly valuable for me. It was improv, comedy and drama, with character study and scene work as well. I had loved making people laugh, because before then it was only with adults for the most part. I was the only kid in my mom’s classes that she had produced. I would always be the only kid involved in the scenes, so it was a different atmosphere there then going and being around my peers and making them laugh or feel something.
Paste: Did you have any aspirations to be on a show like SNL?
Starr: I always wanted to do television and movies. I think there was some dream world where I would go to SNL but I don’t know if I was ever really cut out for it. I didn’t really think about it until I was too old to go and do it. Most of the guys on Silicon Valley made an attempt to get in. Most people I know who are involved in comedy have all tried.
Paste: Are you surprised with the cult following that Freaks and Geeks has?
Starr: It’s not surprising just based on how good that show is. I think it does hold up over time. It’s that very human experience that everyone goes through in high school.
Paste: Judd Apatow had said that he felt responsible for the cast, mostly to give them jobs after the show was canceled because you guys were so young. Did Judd reach out to you? Or give you any advice?
Starr: Yeah, we talked. He was very open to mentoring everybody that was on the show. He had a very paternal responsibility [to] us. He attempted to put me in Undeclared and then I remember him calling and telling me that FOX turned him down.
Paste: The talent pool in Freaks and Geeks was unreal.
Starr: The entire show was very well cast. I feel the same way about Party Down and Silicon Valley. I’m surrounded by some really talented people, and if I’m put into the same category as them talent-wise, I feel very fortunate.
Paste: Amira & Sam was incredibly unique because of its narrative about assimilation. Even the symbolism in the two characters taking off each other’s uniforms, these clothes that keep them oppressed in society, was powerful. Was that something that struck you immediately when you read the script?
Starr: I didn’t really see that when I first read the script. That was something that evolved during the process for me. I feel like we’re both hiding under these “costumes.” She’s hiding under her abaya and I’m repressed by this representation of being in the army. We’re freeing ourselves from that judgment [by] people.
Paste: We’re in this weird time where we’re far enough removed from 9/11 that sometimes we don’t think about how people are still suffering, both veterans and Muslims. What do you hope is the message this film has for a post-9/11 world?
Starr: I didn’t see this when we first made the movie, but I think one of the most valuable things that we have in the movie is the depiction of a progressive Muslim. Muslims are villainized as extremists in the news, so it’s tremendously valuable to help show a different side of the culture. The extremist voices are louder because what they’re doing is so flagrantly in denial of human life and the value of human life. That voice is clearly screaming out on all news channels, so for us to be able to portray a repressed Muslim finding her way in the world, but [who] is still driven by her spiritual beliefs inside of the Muslim faith and her love of American culture and desire to be free and sexual as a woman, is important.
Paste: Going back to Silicon Valley, did you know about anything in regards to the start-up world before you signed on? Did you meet anyone from a start-up?
Starr: At the premiere of Season 1, we met a lot of interesting people. They’re all intrigued by the fact that we’re trying to come into the world that they created. A lot of these characters are amalgamations of these people that actually exist. I hear on a number of occasions from people in the tech world that they’ve worked with people who are exactly like my character on the show, which is really cool to hear. It makes me happy.
Paste: What’s next for the new season of Silicon Valley?
Starr: Weeeeeell, we fuck shit up! [Laughs] I can say that we reach the pinnacle that we found at the end of last season with the epic dick joke. So far it’s been really fun. We have a female coder that comes in. That was one of the things that was highly talked about last season. It was said that there weren’t enough female coders. We get into the difficulties of continuing a start-up when you’re being attacked by a giant conglomerate that has so much more power.
Amira & Sam hits select theaters and is available on VOD January 30, 2015.