ONE OF the most recognizable comedic actors of his day, Martin Starr has been stealing scenes since his early days as Bill Haverchuck in Freaks and Geeks. Later roles have seen him in Knocked Up, Hawaii Five-O, and Drunk History, among many others.
In the feature-length Amira & Sam, screening at the Savannah Film Festival, Starr plays a different kind of funny man: An Army veteran returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who dabbles in standup comedy and falls in love with an Iraqi immigrant.
The catch: She’s in the U.S. illegally.
As Sgt. Sam Seneca, Starr tempers his usual deft comedic hand with an expert portrayal of a young vet who has internalized both the weary cynicism of his military experience as well as his training and ability to very quickly suss out people and situations—in particular the slimy world of Manhattan hedge funds in which he finds himself when his cousin wants to use Seneca’s service ties to hook clients. (Playing that role is another familiar face, Paul Wesley of The Vampire Diaries.)
As Sam’s paramour Amira, newcomer Dina Shihabi is quite simply a delight. You’ll no doubt be seeing more of her.
We talked to director Sean Mullin, a military veteran himself, a few days ago.
You had so many chances to write a script chock-full of tired cliches, but avoided them all. How’d you manage that?
Sean Mullin: Nah, I just wrote 33 versions of the script! I just kept rewriting. Also, I've seen every rom-com ever made (laughs). I actually sat down and watched literally every rom-com ever made, so when it came time to write one for myself I knew directly what I did and didn't want to do.
It's the chemistry of Martin and Dina that really makes this work. How did you cast these leads?
Sean Mullin: The casting process is a big part of it, yeah. I didn't know Martin personally before we made the film. But I'd seen his work and I'd never seen him hit a false note. I knew he was great and funny.
Dina's a real catch, how did you find her?
Sean Mullin: Dina just came down to audition! She put herself on tape. I didn't make it through the whole audition, I just knew. She's got star quality. She lit up the screen from the first time I saw her.
Martin nails the whole veteran vibe, the sort of Zen way that guys who've been on multiple tours just stay extremely chill. How did that come about?
Sean Mullin: That's Seneca's defining characteristic. Of course his name is from the Roman philosopher known for stoicism. From the start I modeled him after a couple of Green Beret buddies of mine.
Martin mentioned the cool demeanor of all the soldiers he talked to preparing for the role. He said most of all he was so impressed with how quickly they made decisions. So Sam Seneca is always making very quick decisions, taking quick action, firm but realistic decisions.
All the vets who watch the film, their favorite scene is when the stocktraders ask Seneca to tell them about some “Rambo shit”he saw in Afghanistan. Instead he tells them this funny story about when he walked in on a priest masturbating.
That’s very typical of vets, to tell funny stories instead of the dramatic stuff.
One of your main characters gets deported, yet you manage to avoid any hint of a political statement at any point. Deliberate?
Sean Mullin: After I left the military, in film school at Columbia one of the first things they teach you is it's great to delve into political issues and socially resonant issues and stuff, but if you want to make a political point, write an essay, don't make a film. If that's what you want to do, go on Sunday morning TV and yell at each other. If you want to engage people, the whole goal of film is to challenge perceptions.