Demetri Martin: From Person to Movie Star

Stand-up comic turned actor Demetri Martin talks with Scott Macaulay about Taking Woodstock, Generation Z and what he has in common with director Ang Lee.

When Demetri Martin decided to walk away from a full scholarship in his second year at law school, being a film actor wasn’t exactly at the forefront of his mind. After all, he was leaving to be a stand-up comic. A far cry from litigation or on-screen acting, stand-up comedy is a decidedly less glamorous career choice where the worst-case scenario is you get booed off stage and end up broke, wondering why you ever gave up a full ride to NYU Law. Best-case scenario is you get a one-hour special on Comedy Central. A decade later, Martin has had two (Comedy Central Presents Demetri Martin and Demetri Martin. Person). And with good reason.

With the same intellect he initially brought to his academic studies, Martin has crafted an act of clever one-liners and wordplay (“I think vests are all about protection: the life vest protects you from drowning; the bullet-proof vest protects you from getting shot; and the sweater vest protects you from pretty girls.”). That, combined with his peculiar talents – he can ride a unicycle, play piano, harmonica, guitar and bells (sometimes simultaneously), and draw with both hands at once – has won him one of comedy’s highest accolades (the Perrier Award) and landed him gigs with some of TV’s most popular comedy shows (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). This year, Martin’s own sketch comedy show, Important Things with Demetri Martin, premiered on Comedy Central.

While his TV show raised his profile, Martin is bound for even greater stardom as he has the lead role in Ang Lee’s latest movie for Focus Features, Taking Woodstock, in which he plays Elliot Tiber, a gay Jewish man struggling with his identity against the backdrop of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. It's an unlikely role for someone who, as Martin points out, is neither “Jewish or gay or in the ’60s.”

In this interview, FilmInFocus talks with the comedian about Generation Z’s relationship to Woodstock, his Beatles haircut, the economy of Ang Lee’s language, and what it’s like to be Demetri Martin, the person – and movie star.

What did Woodstock mean to you?

Well, I really like music from the ‘60s. So I guess my first association with Woodstock would be in that context. The second would be the Woodstock documentary film I saw.  And maybe I’d say the third if this is in order, but that it is some sort of a landmark in time for people who did not live in that time. It is like an encapsulation of the hopefulness of a specific time in America. I was born in 1973 so I missed Woodstock. Even if I were born in 1969 I would have missed it.

Taking Woodstock is obviously about an older generation, but it seems to be aimed squarely at a younger audience. Why is the story of Woodstock pertinent to your generation?

It’s weird for me, I think, because of my haircut. For ten years, I’ve had some sort of Beatles haircut. I look back at pictures of myself, and I think, that’s ‘64, that’s ‘66. My hair just grows a certain way, and because of that people think I’m younger than I am. I’m considered Generation X, but I perform a lot in colleges now, so I’m sometimes associated with the generation that is just coming out of college – Generation Y, or maybe the one after that, Generation Z. I think this film will be pertinent to that generation, probably if it’s good.  If it’s not, it won’t be as pertinent. But I hope it has some sort of message. Ang seems pretty on top of that kind of stuff.

How would you describe the humor in Taking Woodstock?

I don’t know. I’m mostly a jokes guy, so I was kind of surprised when I was even contacted. I don’t know how funny I am in it. It seems that funny things happen, and I’m kind of just there.

You’re kind of self-deprecating throughout the script. Your character is almost playing the loser to himself.

Yeah. It seems so. It’s very circumstantial. It’s like crime, but comedy. “Circumstantial,” that refers to evidence, right? And “composition” is a word I think of too, because there are so many moving parts and people in many of the scenes. There are just little pieces of humor popping and bubbling around. I think a lot of [the humor] is in [Ang’s] compositions.

Is your role in this film different than other types of acting you’ve done?

In terms of film acting I’ve only done three other things. And, I’m not Jewish or gay or in the ’60s, and I’m playing all three of those, so that’s a triple whammy for me. But that’s okay. It seemed [initially] like it would be a real acting challenge. I’m not a trained actor – [my background has been] more in standup. 

Did you feel a connection to Elliot Tiber when you first read the script?

I think I understood when I first read it how I might fit into this script, and I do understand how the script relates to the real guy, but I don’t know how much I relate to the real guy. But I’m told – I remember Michael Lange saying to Jonathan Groff, who plays Mike Lange, “Oh, Elliot, I remember him being pretty quiet and maybe unassuming.”  So in that sense I might be similar to him. But Elliot today, I think he has probably come into his own more, so he wouldn’t be as tentative.

What were your anticipations about working with Ang Lee?

I knew some of his work.  I know he’s a really good director.  I had heard he was pretty intense working with actors.

Does he beat you?

Pretty close, but not quite [laughing].  No, but it’s interesting because often he’s very sparse with his language. He doesn’t say that many words. I like stand-up that way. A lot of my favorite things, actually, are pretty economical when it comes to word usage, and Ang is a good example of that.  He won’t say that much stuff, so when he does say something it has greater weight. It’s some sort of law of proportionality, I guess. And he’s a very keen observer, which is the first and most important quality in a good director.  Just noticing what’s happening visually, emotionally, and then another adverb I can’t think of.  Spiritually, maybe -- I don’t know.  But to see him build a scene is kind of cool. In a lot of ways it’s like having a front row seat through a very accelerated acting school, because I do scenes with a lot of actors, and I’d say every single one is more experienced than I am.

And each is different.

Yes, and at different stages in their careers.  I came in and told each person I worked with, “I haven’t done much of this before, so I’m sure I’m going to make many mistakes.” Simple things like where I stand or where my eye line is -- that kind of stuff.  So to do that and to get to work with Ang, which is a very long-shot kind of situation, is nice. I vacillate between feeling very grateful and tired.