He knows how to pick 'em

By Helen Barlow

Veteran comedian turned banjo star Steve Martin talks to Helen Barlow about why he's still plucking funny, despite his critics

Steve Martin still might be a wild and crazy guy on screen but he's rather serious in conversation.

Though to kick our interview along he's brought along a new banjo composition, something he whipped up himself, he says, as he pulls out his iPod and plays part of a tune, like a kid at show-and-tell.

It seems the 63-year-old is using his profile with his second Pink Panther movie to plug his other 2009 release - his first musical album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo."

Martin's long been a practitioner of the bluegrass instrument. It was a prop in his early stand-up routines. But now he's got serious with it. The album features as guest stars singers Dolly Parton, bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen - a school friend who also produced it.

Martin wrote all 15 of the tracks, only one of which is played for laughs.

As Gill told the New York Times: "The first image I have of him is the arrow through his head [a trademark Martin prop], playing the banjo. Everybody does. But when you hear him play, you know he's not goofing around."

And for Martin, the album is more personal than his latest film. "I'm used to bad reviews for movies because people like to attack them, but I'd be sad if the reviews were bad for this album."

When Martin's first Pink Panther movie was released in 2006, it was slammed by the critics, in part for daring to recreate the charm of Blake Edwards' early movies starring Peter Sellers, on whom Martin modelled his performance.

"Mostly I started by imitating Peter Sellers and then gradually changed into my own version of what he's doing, which I think is essential. I wanted to create a fundamentally genuine-sounding French accent and then make fun of it or be funny with it. I don't speak French well so when I play Clouseau I get a free pass."

Nevertheless the first film became one of Martin's biggest movies, grossing more than US$150 million ($270 million).

As he has tended to do with his successful Hollywood films - a third instalment of Father of the Bride is in the works and he made two Cheaper by the Dozens - Martin was keen to do a Pink Panther sequel.

"I love my Clouseau character, I think he has a good heart. What makes our movies different from the earlier movies is that he has a girlfriend and also a close friend," says Martin.

"With Pink Panther 2 people say it's even better because we're more comfortable with the characters and that we have established something that the audience understands. There are more comic scenes in this movie too."

The story follows Clouseau and co-stars Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Yuki Matsuzaki, Aishwarya Rai Bachnan and John Cleese as they try to catch a high-stakes thief "The Tornado", who has stolen valuable historical works and is now after the Pink Panther diamond.

But it's perhaps harder now to reconcile Martin the apparent renaissance man ("Well, Leonardo did play the banjo") who has written novels, columns, plays, a well-received memoir Born Standing Up and who is a serious art collector, with the guy still pratfalling his way through PP2.

Then again, he's come a long way. Born in Waco, Texas, Martin moved to California at the age of 5. His father had wanted to make it as an actor in Hollywood but ended up selling real estate instead.

Martin jnr began entertaining at Disneyland, playing banjo, juggling and and doing magic.

He drifted into stand-up comedy and almost abandoned it for academia, studying philosophy at university.

"That gave me a new perspective on things. You study a lot of different types of thought and it keeps you from being seduced from any one of them," he says.

From the beginning he was devoted to his craft - a mix of astute, observational wit, fluid body language and a whirlwind of one liners - which he says is the reason he succeeded and became the first rock-star comedian.

"I'm not an aggressive person and I can't believe I made it this far, but it actually proves that you don't have to be aggressive. I was dogged, I had will and I would drive 500 miles (800km) to do one show in a dump somewhere in California, and I'd perform in horrible circumstances.

"You know I didn't have an ego about it, I was just literally trying to make people laugh."

He wrote comedy for Sonny and Cher, John Denver, Dick Van Dyke, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and of course Saturday Night Live. When he went into movies with 1979 breakthrough The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner, he happily gave up the gruelling stand-up tours. "It just became too much," he says.

But further collaborations with Reiner on Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains and All of Me put Martin on Hollywood's comedy A-list.

He enjoyed successes with Roxanne - a reworking of Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Daryl Hannah - and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, as a man trying to get home for Thanksgiving with the travel partner from hell, played by John Candy.

But over the years there have been misses: among them Leap of Faith, Mixed Nuts, a big-screen version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven and a remake of The Out-of-Towners. He felt he was "letting myself down" in duds such as Sgt. Bilko. "It just wasn't fun any more."

Realising he needed to recharge, Martin found a new creative outlet in writing. "I've found that writing serves my acting," he says. "Now I can't imagine not doing either. Acting is like going outdoors and writing is like staying indoors. They kind of serve each other. Acting has helped my writing and my writing helps me understand characters."

Martin has long written for the New Yorker magazine, where he met his current wife, Anne Stringfield. He published a collection of satirical essays in a book titled Drivel, and in the early'90s wrote his first play, Picasso at The Lapin Agile.

After splitting with his first wife, British actress Victoria Tennant, who co-starred in LA Story, followed by Anne Heche leaving him for Ellen DeGeneres, Martin went through an introspective period. That included a straight role as a shadowy stranger in David Mamet's 1997 drama, Spanish Prisoner.

But he returned to comedy form in his 1999 Hollywood satire Bowfinger. In 2000 he published his first novella, Shopgirl.

"To write a novel I think you have to be ready, you have to have life experience, for me at least," he says. Martin wrote the screenplay for the film version, where he played the central character, an older man who seduces a younger woman (Clare Danes).

While at the time Martin said there was only a little bit of himself in the romantic drama, director Anand Tucker said there was more. "Steve has synthesised various parts of his life. It's filled with lots of emotional truths."'

Today Martin is probably happier than he ever has been. He seems content. He has always been big on exercise and it shows. "I exercise. It's how I read books, exercising with audio books." The grey hair is apparently just there to fool us.

"I went grey in my 20s. It runs in the family. Everyone else uses dye, not me. I never thought twice about it, it never occurred to me.

"Now it's easier. I think I stay younger because people have always seen me with grey hair."

Who: Steve Martin.
1945: Born in Waco, Texas, on August 14.
1979: First major film, The Jerk.
1982: Quits stand-up and stars in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.
1983: The Man with Two Brains.
1987: Bumper year with Roxanne and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
1991: Stars in a remake of Father of the Bride.
1993: His play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, opens in Chicago.
1998: Publishes Pure Drivel, a collection of articles written for the New Yorker magazine.
2000: Publishes Shopgirl, a novella later turned into a film in which he stars with Claire Danes.
2001, 2003: Hosts the Oscars.
2006: Steps into Peter Sellers' shoes as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, a critical flop.
2009: The Pink Panther 2 (opens Thursday in New Zealand) with banjo album The Crow.

- NZ Herald

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