Looking at Martin Starr's IMDb resume is scrolling through a comedy goldmine. He's starred in some of the best television comedies of recent memory with roles in Freaks and Geeks and Party Down and has made memorable appearances in films like Knocked Up and Superbad. He currently stars on the HBO tech comedy Silicon Valley as Bertram Gilfoyle, a Satanist programmer. Starr's so well known for excelling in comedy, it's almost hard to imagine him in a more dramatic role.
But he slips into his dramatic role well in Operator, in which he stars as Joe, a programmer who uses technology in his personal life to cope with the extreme day-to-day anxiety he experiences. One of his coping mechanisms is his wife Emily (Mae Whitman), an endlessly patient partner whose voice Joe uses in spurt of inspiration as the new voice of the customer service hotline he works for. Despite her patience and love for Joe, Emily's determined to forge her own path as she begins to take improv classes and meet new people. As they both gain more inspiration from one another in their work, the more fractured their relationship becomes.
We sat down with Starr after the film's SXSW premiere and talked about the nature of human connection in 2016, depression, and taking on more dramatic roles.
Operator reminded me a little bit of Her in the respect of emotionally relying on something that doesn’t even exist.
It’s such a dense, rich area of conversations. I think even with Tinder, it puts this pressure to create a version of you that you want to show to people. You are already creating an insincere connection because you are selling yourself as a product. It takes out the spark that occurs in real life. That natural flirtation and that natural development of feelings are taken out because you are looking at someone’s six-pack or you are looking at someone in a bikini or someone’s witty comment.
I was like, "This is depressing." Do you think it’s depressing?
Yeah. It’s depressing until the third act, when he takes on the challenge of combating the easy way out that he has constructed. He’s created a codependence on this part of [Emily's] personality, which is something he could have probably gone through at some other point in his life. These panic attacks are spurred on by normal human interactions that he’s capable of dealing with emotionally. But there are these triggers, these deep-rooted triggers that he doesn’t deal with.
It was so nice to see a committed relationship between two younger people on film. It’s complicated but they really care about each other.
Yeah, I think that was definitely one of the draws for me, that it was a loving relationship that kind of fell apart naturally. The need for one person became dependence for the other person. She’s trying to grow in a new direction and he’s not allowing it by the nature of his need for her.
Why were you drawn to do this film?
I had no time with the script before my meeting with Logan [Kibens, the director] initially. I really just liked her and I understood through her and our conversation some of the foundations of the movie. It’s autobiographical in some way. It made it a lot easier to fall in love with the story and want to tell it. It also scared me a little bit. It isn’t familiar, the panic attacks. It wasn’t something I had experienced at that point.
Those panic attacks are very relatable to me.
Have you had panic attacks?
Oh yeah. When I was watching it I was like, “Oh shit. Panic attacks. Too real.”
I didn’t know what it felt like until I did a little bit of research and it spoke volumes about that experience in the script. Then I started inducing them on myself.
That’s very Daniel Day Lewis of you.
I don’t think you could share that experience in a real way if you can’t relate to it. I didn’t feel the depth of it probably until we actually shot it on the day. It was really intense to shoot those scenes. I’m not whining about it, but I was emotionally drained after that. I think that’s why it ended up being the majority of the day that we shot. It’s hard to go from that to another less intense feeling.
They are not fun.
Like, I’ve struggled with depression for a lot of my life, which is probably why it was so easy to delve into that. If I just focused on the terrible ways in which my brain works, it’s easy to just be overwhelmed.
Did your own history with depression make you want to take this?
There are definitely times when I feel like my brain isn’t working the way I want it to. Then I sit back a little bit more and try to observe and be more aware. What drew me to this most was how much it scared me to figure out this thing that was unfamiliar to me. I hadn’t done anything like this in the sense that it was an adult romance. There was depth in these characters. There was a poignant voice to this entire movie. There was a perspective that was valuable. I didn’t want to falsely represent something to an audience, especially to people who have experienced this. So if it feels false to me, it will feel false to them. Then what is the value? Once I had felt like there was added value to me being a part of this, then I could be committed.
Why should people go see Operator?
I think it opens up a deep conversation about our connection with technology but in a way that’s palpable and easy to digest. This isn’t about the connection between man and machine, but about the changing connection between man and man. That’s not to be sexist! I mean the human connection, which is evolving. Now everyone has this computer in their pocket that whenever they feel stupid, they can ask it a question and it tells them an answer. It knows everything. What a weird world. It used to be through human interaction or books that you would find out something new when you have questions about life or want to figure something out. Now you just sit and watch funny videos or do whatever on your little palm device.