For a guy who's a successful stand-up and burgeoning actor, it's hard to imagine a performer with as slight a presence as Demetri Martin. The comedian began his career just a few years ago with appearances and writing gigs on both The Daily Show and Conan O'Brien, and moved on to a special and eventually a series with his namesake. In his latest role, as the main character in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, he plays a young man inadvertently caught up in history-making events when he agrees to host a music festival in his hometown of Bethel, New York. Perhaps appropriately, his performance is a study in modesty, but it's one that will no doubt define him as an actor and establish his presence among mainstream audiences like never before.
Cinematical recently spoke to Martin in an exclusive telephone interview about his participation in Taking Woodstock. In addition to talking about the conception and creation of his increasingly familiar, but surprisingly featherweight persona, Martin talked about tapping into what director Ang Lee wanted for his period piece, and looked back on the legacy of Woodstock, particularly in the context of contemporary pop culture.
Cinematical: What was the process for you of developing this character? In a way it seems not completely dissimilar from the persona you have in your comedy, but at that same time it's not supposed to be you.
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Demetri Martin: There were a couple of things. The first was I knew I was playing someone who exists for real, and he's still alive, so I got to meet Elliot. But at the same time Ang said, "I don't want you to do an impressions of this guy. Elliot's at a different place in his life now than where he was at the time in which you're portraying him. It was interesting because at that time, Elliot was pretty repressed and pretty quiet and I guess pretty shy and definitely kind of awkward, at least from some accounts. I remember they would say some things, and then you meet Elliot now and he's not really shy or quiet; he's really developed into a person who's figured himself out, I guess, or at least much more comfortable with himself. So the first thing was, okay, I'm not really doing an impression of a person as much as I'm trying to give some details and capture his essence at that time of his life. Secondly, Ang didn't want him to be me as the comedian, and I didn't either, because that's probably a different movie. If I need to go just be Demetri in some movie, then why have me in it?
But what was interesting was this idea that Ang had for every performance in the movie where he wanted it to seem authentic to that period and the way he understood it, and by that I mean he wanted it to be sincere and open and connected with each other as they could be and have a certain kind of innocence that is harder to find today; it's a little easier to be cynical. What was tricky was I couldn't ever be, not sarcastic but I guess there was certainly lines where I said, oh, I know how to do this, like I see the joke here, but Ang was really specific; he was like, that's too knowing, or that's too sarcastic or whatever. I'd rather you do it sort of straight and sincere. That was interesting because I'm not a particularly sarcastic person, but I am a comedian and I've been on stage for 12 years now, so you do develop certain defense mechanisms, and those were not available to me in the movie.
Cinematical: Your character seems to have a lot of things projected onto him – Velma being perhaps a more mature of comfortable version of himself, for example. Did you think about the idea that as much as you had to create a character for yourself, because he was still figuring out who he was that you did have to sort of underplay Elliot so he wasn't too much of a defined presence?
Martin: Yeah. I mean if you look at the script and then the finished film, it's an interesting role to get because I'm in almost every scene, and often I'm reacting to things that are happening to me and I'm kind of just riding a strange wave or swirling around in a maelstrom – but I'm not directing the wave. I'm kind of unwittingly the character that launches a sequence, and has to like ride the sequence, but he's not going forth boldly making all of these things happen. He's trying to deal with stuff more, so yeah, I think there's definitely an understatement and a quietness in that performance and the way that Ang put it all together where I'm just this kind of guy who's there (laughs). But at the same time, there's an interesting juxtaposition, because you have this giant event right in the distance and all of these extras and people there, and like Live [Schreiber] and all of these actors where somebody shows up and I get to do scenes with them and they go away and they're back and it's a tour through all of these people.
Cinematical: How did you perceive this film was going to depict Woodstock and that era? It's easy to see it pop culturally, but how was it decided what the difference would be between that perception and what the reality was?
Martin: I think part of what attracted Ang and James to this story was the idea that it was a personal story and to some degree an outsider's perspective on a very large, well-known cultural event, so that there's no way they could make a big concert movie – and I guess there isn't really a reason to because there's a great documentary on it. But the trick for them is how do you make the movie; I remember telling somebody in an interview that it would be interesting if this movie were called Preparing For a Concert, because you take out the word Woodstock and that carries with it so much, but at the same time that's what makes it cool, I think when it does work for people, because you have the giant, big thing that everybody knows about as this kind of starting point, and then it takes a lens and maybe sharpens its focus and points at a little speck on the side of it. one thing I found interesting was anytime I've ever thought of Woodstock, I don't think, oh yeah, I wonder what the townspeople thought? I just don't think of that, or if you want to go somewhere and you just can't move; like, sorry, we can't come down for the weekend, the town's been completely invaded. Those are kind of interesting things, because you get into the kind of day to day logistics of people in a different era, and then the fact that this is based on a real story, these are real people, that definitely makes it interesting. It's not just a make-believe thing, like there was this fictional family. They were there. I think there's a burden there for sure, but it would be interesting to see what people think about it – "hey man, I didn't see Janis Joplin!" and that kind of stuff. It's just this smaller, personal story that takes place next to it.
Cinematical: The way the zeitgeist is going, we've sort of hit a collective fascination with the 1980s. Why is now the right time to revisit the Woodstock era?
Martin: Well, I guess the baby-boomer generation aging must have something to do with the nostalgia factor, but aside from that, there are two things that I think of when you ask that question. The first is, if you think of the election of our president and the world as something that's very connected now and a generation that seems to have mobilized to some degree to help him rise to office, it makes you think, oh, there are young people who are working for something that they believe in. I don't think that disappeared necessarily, but when I was in college, grunge was really big, and it was a different message, I think, that our generation was sending out. There was maybe an undercurrent, kind of, of checking out or apathy or disenchantment and maybe feeling disempowered, where now it doesn't seem to be so much the case.
When I go to perform at colleges, people seem more engaged and a little more hopeful. I hope that maybe has some resonance when you look back and there's a relevance that Woodstock carries, to say, oh my God, we're not that different from them. But at the same time, there's something that's so sad about how much our social networks and digital connectivity does seem to splinter what Woodstock seemed to offer, and what Woodstock was. To try to do that again, I just don't know how you could do it, and I'm not saying anything so original here, but I go to music festivals and just people holding up their cell phones while standing on stage, it's so hard to actually just be in the present moment. People just recording it, you're not even there, you're already just thinking about watching it later or sending it to somebody; it's so hard to just sit there and be somewhere and your mom can't call you and nobody can get you. That doesn't exist, you know; it's weird. I don't know if that makes it relevant, I think it's just an interesting difference.
Cinematical: Having done this, I presume this took you out of your comfort zone, was it difficult to compartmentalize those differences you talked about earlier, or was this something that was a different kind of stimulus that would make you want to play more roles that take you away from either the persona you perform as or just yourself?
Martin: I think what's interesting about that question is that the first part, if I went through my time on the movie, the first part of your question, it was kind of difficult, especially in the beginning because I was not sure about how this goes, this kind of a job. And then as the movie went on, I started to understand what my job really was, and then like the second part of your question, it became more of that, which was oh, I think I understand and appreciate a little more here the creativity involved in interpreting somebody else's words, helping somebody else make their vision real. I thought that's such a cool opportunity to get when you get it, and it's such a different one than stand-up; you're really exercising different muscles and I think you're learning different things. I think eventually they really can inform each other, because there's a commitment that comes or that's necessary for any of this kind of work, I guess, where you're really trying to help someone make this scene work. It's just different than making your joke work when you're on stage; you want to commit to your joke and stuff, but there's like a different skill set, I think, so it's a cool thing to be like, maybe I'll get to do that again.
Cinematical: Ang Lee described your comedy as non-confrontational. Was the way you developed your performance style completely natural, or was it at all in reaction to the more conventional, maybe more aggressive persona of a stand-up? Or did you think consciously about the way you wanted to create a public persona?
Martin: I think that was a more natural process where I tried to pay attention, and I still do. I think... it's like Woody Allen said: the audience teaches you how you're funny. So over time, you get to be on stage so many times that if you really pay attention every show to what's working and what's not working, and even how you're received. If you improvise and do this one way, how that shapes the room and the experience, and then on another night you do something a different way, and then you can see how they react, you start to realize that they're helping me figure out who I actually am as a performer, because I can't help myself and I end up in certain places anyway, and then those things seem to work. So rather than trying to be something I'm naturally not, why don't I just pay attention, and sure enough, I'm not particularly confrontational as a person, I'm not particularly edgy, I'm not particularly dirty, so what I like are puzzles, I like short, concise ideas, but those are things I'm attracted to so over time it starts to correct itself and it ends up being a pretty natural process.