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Steve Martin reflects on his serious roles while talking 'Billy Lynn'

The comedy legend talks "Pennies from Heaven," "The Spanish Prisoner" and the amateur movie he was in as a teen.
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    Witness Steve Martin, as a scheming NFL team owner, in both 3-D and high-resolutio|Sony

Steve Martin studied philosophy in college. He’s written novellas, he’s an avid art collector and he’s starred in dramas like “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” Oh, and he’s also released numerous stand-up albums, wrote and starred in comedies like “The Jerk” and numerous others, and ranks second on the list of people who have hosted “Saturday Night Live” the most. (He’s 15 to Alec Baldwin’s 16.) Martin is a complicated guy, especially because he says his comedy doesn’t exactly come from a serious, dark or troubled place.

So it makes sense for him to pop up in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the latest from two-time Oscar-winner Ang Lee. He has a small role: The film centers around an Iraq War soldier (played by Joe Alwynn) who reminisces about his traumatic tour while his troop is honored at a football game. Martin plays the scheming owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who’s trying to help snag them a movie deal. On top of this, Lee shot the film in a radical new format: Not only is it in 3-D, but it's in high-frame rate. Where film projects 24 frames per second, this has 120 per second, making for an image of such high clarity that the images — and the actors — look more like real life than a movie.

Martin talks to us about his history with dramas, seeing himself in super high-resolution and not riffing on David Mamet dialogue.

Since "Billy Lynn" is a drama, I wanted to ask about “Pennies from Heaven,” where you have dance numbers interspersed with some of the saddest dramatic scenes ever committed to film.
That was a fantastic process. I had to learn to tap dance. [Laughs] And I love the premise of the movie. I met Dennis Potter [the writer], and I had seen the original BBC television version. I was so knocked out by it. I was honored to be in it.

And it was your first dramatic movie.
It was my first movie after “The Jerk”! [Chuckles]

Was it hard convincing the filmmakers you could do a serious movie at that point?
I actually believe the movie was so un-commercial that the studio wanted someone commercial. That’s how I got it. Because I had just finished “The Jerk,” and that was a big hit. I was ready to go, because I didn’t know where to go with comedy anymore. I think I really got it by default.

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Was the dancing difficult?
They came to see me in Vegas, where I was playing. I remember the director, Herb Ross, saying to the choreographer, Danny Daniels, “Can you teach him to tap dance?” And he said, “Yes, I think I can.” I think it was because I was moving a lot on stage. I had a certain kind of weird physical grace.

It’s a tricky role, because you have to be able to dance and be light and be very serious.
I was so into it that I made a vow I wasn’t going to be broken by anything, whether it was the dancing or the drama. I really loved that role.

You had some theater experience before that, though, right?
I didn’t really do much theater. I had worked in a theater as a performer. But it was a comedy show. We did four shows a day for three years. It was a very different thing. But when I did “Waiting for Godot” 100 years later [ed. well, 1988], I realized the things I had learned on that little stage in Knott’s Berry Farm when I was 18 were actually quite valid to support me through this experience. The words were different. The words were better. [Chuckles] But the idea of blocking and facing front and cheating forward, all those things came into play.

I wanted to ask about “Disneyland Dream,” which is technically your first film. It’s an amateur movie, shot by one Robbins Barstow in 1956 at Disneyland. You worked there as a kid and there’s a brief moment where you can see your teenage self walking in the background. The film is now in the Library of Congress.
When I saw that footage, I had this memory of someone coming with a movie camera, which was very rare in those days. I actually remember that moment when they guy was there with his family, shooting that footage.

You’ve had dramatic roles throughout your career since, too. One of the best is David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner,” where you’re actually terrifying.
I loved doing that. Although I feel even in comedies, like “Father of the Bride” or “Cheaper by the Dozen,” there’s actually drama in those movies. There’s very emotional scenes between the father and the kids or the father and the wife.

And there’s always the argument that all comedy is serious and comes from a darker place.
Well, no, I don’t make that argument. [Laughs]

Even in your early stand-up albums, it’s clear you have a basis in more serious matters. You have jokes about philosophy, which you studied in college.
Yes, it’s true. I was a student of philosophy. It paid off in terms of how to think in an unusual way. It paid off in my life in how to judge arguments, how to evaluate things in both rational and aesthetic ways.

When Ang Lee came to you, what kinds of things did you discuss?
He talked about his technical philosophy of the movie, and how it was going to essentially be the first drama in 3-D. He believed that drama in 3-D would bring the audience deeper into its core, and how the high-def would speaks for the expressions on people’s faces, which would become much more detailed and more subtle, like in life. Expressions are very subtle.

What was it like seeing your face onscreen in 120 frames per second, or any time you’re on screen?
I try not to evaluate it. You can’t make a judgment on your own face. You’re so used to it. I just learned to pretend it’s not there or it’s not me.

Is there much difference between working with a “serious” director versus a comedy director, or are they generally the same?
I’ve worked with comedy directors, like Carl Reiner and Frank Oz and Ron Howard. In those films, because it’s a comedy, I tend to be very collaborative and say, “What if I did this?” or “What if this line were different?” When the movies serious, like “The Spanish Prisoner” or “Pennies from Heaven” or this, I’m just an actor. They have the vision. I say, “You want me to move over there? Fine. I can do it.”

With Mamet you’re almost a kind of puppet. He has very precise dialogue and very precise ways you’re supposed to occupy space in the frames.
That’s fine with me. I took pride in doing what he wanted and saying his dialogue exactly as written. Sometimes you have to find a way into it. With “Waiting for Godot,” the dialogue is often broken and short and it stops and starts over. I realized, in life, that’s the way people talk. That’s closer to the way people talk in life than they do in plays and movies.

And you don’t want to riff on Beckett, or on Mamet.
No, no. [Mamet’s] very particular about that. Even with the “uh”s. He writes in all the “uh” and the “er”s.

If you missed an “uh” or an “er,” would he yell at you?
I don’t think so. But I tried to keep them all anyway.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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