If ever there was a romantic comedy made for people who don’t like romantic comedies, Drafthouse’s latest offering, Amira & Sam is it. The feature film debut from writer/director Sean Mullin revolves around the unlikely relationship that develops when Army veteran Sam (Martin Starr) offers to help his war buddy’s niece Amira (newcomer Dina Shihabi) avoid immigration trouble by allowing her to stay at his New York apartment. As stated above, things do not play out in conventional romantic movie fashion, which is a welcome surprise.
Another welcome surprise is that Starr — best known for supporting roles in Silicon Valley, Party Down, Knocked Up and Freaks and Geeks — is the leading man. Playboy recently spoke with Starr about the pros and cons of being the star of a film (which is in select theaters and On Demand January 30), the specifics of what makes a sex scene sexy, and his take on our Lucky 7.
Given the roles you usually play, where does this one — romantic lead — fit in?
To me this seemed like an odd fit, which normally would push me to want to challenge myself but I kind of felt hesitation at first. [Writer-director] Sean Mullin and I sat down and talked things out and part of my hesitation was in being the lead of the movie and I wanted to make sure it all felt right going in, so we talked for awhile and he and I reconfigured a little bit of how we saw the movie.
Was the reconfiguring little changes in tone or character or what?
Yeah, for me it’s really about the honesty of the character so I was trying to figure out what was going on from Sam’s perspective and to also tighten up the script. One of the things that didn’t feel right to me that we ended up cutting was a sex scene. I feel that in general sex scenes are gratuitous: You get the purpose of it, nobody is going in to watch porn, so after the first kiss you can assume what’s next and the romance is lost once you get to that weird graphic moment. It’s very difficult to portray that moment that’s as visually beautiful as you intend that moment to live in the audience’s eyes so that’s one of the things that got cut. And I think we ended up with a really great moment between the two characters. I think it’s visually more powerful for me to be removing her hijab and for us to kiss than me pulling her down onto the bed.
How did you prepare to play an Army veteran?
Before we started, I was just working out for a couple months to get my body into the shape I wanted, just for myself to feel comfortable in that character’s skin. Then I spoke with Sean at length about his experience and then he put me in touch with a lot of his friends; some if not all of the investors either served or are related to people who served. So there were a lot of resources available to me.
What did you enjoy about being the lead, now that it’s all said and done?
I don’t think I’m any less hard on myself when I watch the movie so I’m just on the screen too much now. But it is fun to be able to play as much as we did and to see it all really embodied in this character.
Judging by what I’ve seen you in, you’ve made great choices throughout your career.
Well, don’t do more research into that.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m writing, mostly writing TV which seems redundant considering I’m on a TV show [Silicon Valley] that I don’t think I could write near as good as but I’m willing to try.
And TV is so good right now.
There are a lot of people investing a lot of time and energy into quality television. That’s probably what I’m putting most of my time and energy into at the moment but I kind of take things as they come. I haven’t thought out what my next step is because I don’t usually know until I take it.
What was your first encounter with Playboy?
Okay, this is what I remember: I had an acting coach/teacher and he — I won’t say his name just in case he wouldn’t be comfortable with this — but I remember I used his bathroom at some point. And this wasn’t a studio, it was at his house where I was getting coached for an audition, I was like 12 or something and he had a Playboy in with all the other magazines. It wasn’t hidden, it was just there and I found it and that was joy. I must have been like 10 years old, I was like ‘Wow, naked boobies!“ It was really incredible.
What movie scared you most as a kid?
I can’t put a finger on it, I remember most of all wanting to see Natural Born Killers and my parents wouldn’t let me. I was 14, maybe? I was like, "Man I’m fuckin’ old enough, I can read, I can watch scary movies.” They were like, “You can’t watch that one.”
What’s your pop-culture blind spot?
I don’t really keep up with music. I’m very into music but the kind of music I love is classic rock and older hip-hop. I’ll listen to anything — not anything, not country music — but most music and really enjoy it if it’s well done but I have a blind spot when it comes to the newest pop dance song or whatever. All the guys on Silicon Valley are very up to speed and can sing along with any Taylor Swift song that comes on the radio, I’m the guy that doesn’t know any of the words.
Let’s pretend you’re on death row: What’s your last meal?
Oh God, this feels like a Hollywood cliche but sushi from my favorite sushi chef. I can’t tell you who that is because I like that it’s a quaint little spot that I go to.
What was your first car?
A Honda Civic, I had it for 13 years. It was a red Honda Civic DX hatchback? It was the shittier one, whichever one that is.
What’s your favorite mistake?
That’s such an interesting question. That is not a thing that pops into the mind easily. I don’t know if this counts but I get so nervous before auditions, I think one of the best auditions that I can remember — or at least it was the most crucial in my career — was meeting Paul Feig and Judd Apatow for my first callback for Freaks and Geeks. It kind of came up last minute and I had plans to hangout with my friend Kenny, so he came with me to the audition and I didn’t really care about the audition. It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s that I didn’t feel that same amount of pressure because I was thinking, “Oh yeah, we’re going to the Santa Monica Pier after this to hang out” or whatever. I was like 16, having my own car was huge, so that’s all I was thinking about. I think that allowed me to feel really comfortable.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
Was it “California Love?” Actually it was before that, this is sad, it was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” It’s so sad, I knew all the words to that.
That’s not sad.
Well, Coolio definitely dropped off. I still like the song, it just feels really dated now. Some songs stand up. That one does not.