Steve Martin is raconteur, playwright, novelist, actor, and occasional Oscar host. No wonder when one has the chance to talk to Martin, a rarity at best, one has to talk fast. But even 15 minutes with the inimitable actor is a revelation. He was keen to talk about his latest film Novocaine, a dark comedy/thriller in which he plays dentist Frank Sangster, who is living the American Dream.
Blessed with a thriving dental practice and a sleek modernist home, Frank is happily engaged to his ambitious dental hygienist, Jean Noble (Laura Dern). His perfectly managed life quickly unravels, however, when Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham-Carter), a seductive new patient with an appetite for pain-killers, settles into his dentist chair. Before long, drugs are missing from his office, Susan’s psychotic brother Duane (Scott Caan) is stalking him, and Frank himself is wanted by both the DEA and the police for drug trafficking and murder.
As he flees from authorities, Frank becomes increasingly drawn to Susan, and through her learns he is the victim of an elaborate con scheme, which may also involve his wayward brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas). Fuelled by the desire to create a new life for himself and Susan, Frank plunges into a shadowy world of drugs and violence in order to prove his innocence, only to discover that breaking the law might provide his only hope for freedom. It doesn’t sound much like a comedy, right? Steve didn’t think so either, as he talks dentistry, humour and Oscars to Paul Fischer.
Question: Did your Little Shop of Horrors research carry over to this film?
Answer: Okay, me and dentist and research from “Little Shop of Horrors.” First, me and dentists, I’ve only played two. One is in “Little Shop” who I realize that he gets killed. Then this one, who’s a pretty straight guy, regular character who actually kills others. So, it’s a full circle! I just had my dentistry experience from “Little Shop” which I completely forgot so I had to go to a dentist and sit around all day and play with people’s teeth.
Question: How do you feel about dentists in real life?
Answer: I don’t hate it. I don’t like it or hate it. It’s just something I do every six months or twice, three times a year, something like that.
Question: What appealed to you about this character?
Answer: Well, first I liked the movie because it was the kind of movie that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You read the script and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, unlike many scripts I read. I enjoy the genre of psychological thriller, twists and turns. It’s kind of like “Spanish Prisoner.” I had just done “Spanish Prisoner” and I thought, “This has the same feel. I really like that, and it’s a bigger role.”
Question: How was working with a first time director?
Answer: First time director was no problem. I was continually surprised at the depth of his knowledge and I was surprised that it’s something that could be taught in film school, because that’s where he must have gotten it. I know he had written several movies and had been on movie sets, so he must have been a keen observer.
Question: Were the love scenes difficult?
Answer: Oh no. First of all, Helena’s a giggler and Laura’s funny and bright and witty, so whoever I was in bed with, it was a delight. You know, these scenes are shot with 15 people staring at you so it can only be funny, rather than hot.
Question: What’s your progress with Gwyneth?
Answer: Well, as long as I never meet her, I’m still going to have a baby with her. As soon as I meet her, of course I know it’s off.
Question: What makes her so special?
Answer: I don’t know. I just wrote this piece for the New Yorker where it was my struggle to have a baby with Gwyneth though I had never met her. It’s had an afterlife.
Question: How did it become an animated short?
Answer: Well, it just did. They were doing a site that would have a lot of animated things and they asked me to do something and I suggested animating that.
Question: Why Gwyneth?
Answer: Well, she’s very beautiful and she’s kind of iconic. She’d just won the Oscar and she’s ethereal. She’s almost like somebody you can’t quite touch, so it made it funnier than someone you actually could touch, like Angelina Jolie.
Question: Has Gwyneth seen it?
Answer: I think she’s read it. I don’t know if she’s seen the animation.
Question: Any plans to host the Oscars again?
Answer: I don’t think this year. It was fun to do and hard to do and exhausting. When you’re out there, you’re looking at a bunch of friends.
Question: Is Russell Crowe your friend?
Answer: I don’t think he’s a humourless guy. I think he was just surprised that he was mentioned. Maybe he wasn’t even paying attention and then heard his name. I haven’t met him but people say he’s a very nice guy and he has an Australian sense of humour.
Question: Do you have a recommendation for host?
Answer: I haven’t even thought about it. I haven’t even really thought about the Oscars. It’s a little too soon, so I don’t even know.
Question: Are you writing anything?
Answer: Yeah, I’ve just written a screenplay for “Shop Girl,” my novella. And I’ve adapted a play that will be done in New York in March called “The Underpants.”
Question: What are you reading?
Answer: What am I reading? I’ve got the National Book Awards coming up. I’m the host, so I’m trying to read about 15 books. There’s “The Corrections,” there’s . I can’t remember all the titles. I’ve got Salman Rushdie’s book, “Fury.” I just bought a book “Killing Pablo,” Pablo Escobar.
Question: What is “The Underpants” about?
Answer: “The Underpants” is a play that was written by Carl Sternheim in Germany in 1911. It’s the story of a woman whose underpants fall down in public and how it changes her life. So, I adapted it for modern times.
Question: What did you learn from working with dramatic actresses?
Answer: I think learning acting is subconscious. They don’t say, “Do this this way.” It’s just something where you watch them, you maybe see a technique. It’s something you pick up your whole life from other actors. So, I can’t say anything specific, but it’s like when you play Tennis with someone who’s better than you, you’re suddenly better. It’s the same thing with good actors. They make you better.
Question: How has your sense of humour changed?
Answer: I would say that as you get older, your sense of humour becomes less vicious, at least in my case. Edgy humour is better left to younger people who can afford to be less sensitive. As you get older, you know people who died, you know people who got diseases, you’ve had things yourself, you know what pain is and so you tend to identify with your victim a little more. You can still be edgy, it’s just not as vicious.
Question: Do you think of the scripts you read as an actor or a writer?
Answer: You read a screenplay like an actor. You think, “Can I say this?” The first time, you just read it to see what it’s about and then if you’re interested, you read it several more times to see what you’ve missed. Sometimes you miss action, you didn’t quite catch what was going on, you start reading all the descriptions rather than just your own lines.
Question: Do you consider this film a comedy?
Answer: I never considered the film a comedy, although now that I’ve seen it with people, I realize it gets laughs. No one’s acting funny. It’s really the style of the movie that brings about the humour, and that’s the director’s gift to the film. It’s really a kind of very dark, scary movie.
Question: What else are you working on?
Answer: “Shop Girl,” I would probably be in that and I’m probably going to do a movie called “In the House” with Queen Latifah.
Question: Is anything in your career most special to you?
Answer: You know, I’m always looking forward. So, in the last 10 years I would say the play I wrote, “Picasso at the Lapine Agile,” my book “Shop Girl” and the things I’m working on now. It’s hard to look back 10, 15 years or 25 years and go, “That was the most special” because life is so present. I don’t really live in the past.
Question: What invigorates you about writing and acting?
Answer: Writing and acting are complete opposites. One is very physical, it’s done in public, it’s done on the road and in different towns. Writing is mostly interior. It’s quiet, it’s solitary and it’s essentially intellectual. Performing is essentially emotional, or acting. Of course, they bleed into each other because writing is certainly an emotional experience. It’s just a different portrayal. If you’re writing something, you can break down a gesture into five paragraphs if you want. When you’re acting it you just do it.
Question: Do you prefer one?
Answer: No. Both are rewarding, but writing is much more personal, so I’d have to say my heart leans towards that.
Question: What about directing?
Answer: I’ve never had an interest. I think people think I directed things, but I haven’t.
Question: Are you hosting something for National Public Radio?
Answer: A comedy series. I’m sort of the narrator of a little half hour show about comedians of the 20th century. It was fun, because mostly the comedy series is built of audio clips, bits from a lot of comedians. I’m anxious to hear it because when I did it, I didn’t get to hear the clips.
Question: What are you goals now?
Answer: I don’t think of life in terms of goals. I think of it as what I’m motivated to do next. As long as something keeps appearing, which it always has, that’s what keeps me vital. I just find oh, now it’s time to do this. Oh, now it’s time to do that. Sometimes I might think about something for 10 years and then suddenly it becomes the time to do it.
Question: Didn’t you used to give business cards instead of autographs?
Answer: I did that years ago. It was a joke.