Martin Starr: Finding a motive

Actor wrestles with ambition in working-stiff roles

College grad James (Jesse Eisenberg, left) learns the ins and outs of amusement-park games from veteran games guy Joel (Martin Starr, right) in the new comedy 'Adventureland.'

College grad James (Jesse Eisenberg, left) learns the ins and outs of amusement-park games from veteran games guy Joel (Martin Starr, right) in the new comedy "Adventureland."

College grad James (Jesse Eisenberg, left) learns the ins and outs of amusement-park games from veteran games guy Joel (Martin Starr, right) in the new comedy 'Adventureland.'

College grad James (Jesse Eisenberg, left) learns the ins and outs of amusement-park games from veteran games guy Joel (Martin Starr, right) in the new comedy "Adventureland."

Martin Starr felt like he had blown his audition for the new comedy "Adventureland." It was a role he really wanted, and he didn't think he did it justice in the tryouts.

"Sometimes, I feel like when I don't care that much about an audition, and I'm not worried about it, I'm not that nervous," says Starr. "The ones that I really want, I get so 'in my head' about it, I psyche myself out and feel like I did a bad job."

Ultimately the angst didn't work against him.

"I ended up in the movie somehow," he says. "Greg (Mottola, the film's writer-director) thinks that my memory is a little bit off. I distinctly remember not doing a great job. But that didn't translate, and Greg liked it."

Starr plays Joel, a jaded "lifer" amongst the carnival-game attendants at the fictional Pittsburgh-area Adventureland theme park. As a Russian-literature fan working at a low-rent amusement park, Joel has learned to shrug off ambition and accept his lot in life. Occasionally, though, enough hope shines through to inspire him to think things might just work out OK.

Joel's up-and-down attitude toward life attracted Starr to the role.

"The story is so compelling," he says. "I felt like that character was kind of like the heart of the story. There's this love story and this web of relationships going on. But that (role) felt like the heart of it."

The role is in contrast to the film's main character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who wears his dreams and ambitions on his sleeve.

"I feel like a lot of people can relate to (Joel)," says Starr. "I know I can, for sure. I try to motivate all the time, but you go through droughts of ambition or motivation sometimes."

For Starr, the struggle for motivation has been in doing his own screenwriting, though he hasn't exactly sat around being idle. Since starting his career as nerdy teenager Bill Haverchuck in the short-lived 1999 TV series "Freaks and Geeks," he has acted in several small-but-funny roles in films like "Knocked Up" and the Mottola-directed "Superbad," which was co-written by Starr's one-time roommate Seth Rogen.

Along the way, though, he felt like he was putting off other creative endeavors.

"For a long time, I wanted to write," says Starr. "But I just didn't do it, for some reason. I was very lackadaisical about the whole thing. Of course, it doesn't happen and time flies by and you realize you're 26 years old, as I am now, and there's still a lot of things you want to accomplish."

In that regard, Starr is knee-deep in a screenplay with his writing partner, Charlyne Yi, a comic actress who co-starred with him in "Knocked Up."

"We're about halfway through a script that I'm insanely proud of," he says. "Every time we go back and read it I think it's a great story. Only time will tell if people agree with me."

Curiously, another current role has Starr playing an aspiring screenwriter who works as a catering-company DJ in the series "Party Down" on the Starz cable network.

Like his "Adventureland" character, he plays a person working on the bottom end of the small-time ladder. It's a type of position he says he isn't personally familiar with, save for one day he spent working as a barista, but he thinks it could be worthwhile.

"I feel like those sort of service-industry jobs give you a wider understanding of the human race," says Starr. "I kind of feel like I've missed out on something, even though most people look back on it with regret, almost, that they had that job in the first place. I still would have loved to have had that experience."

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