Demetri Martin On His New Movie, Dropping Out of Law School, and Gorilla Suits

The comedian stars in In A World…, opposite writer/director (and former Maxim cover model) Lake Bell, in theaters August 9th.

hoto: Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Many people know you from your standup comedy, but you currently star as Louis, the male lead in Lake Bell’s new film, In A World… How did that happen?

I’ve known Lake a little bit over the years. I probably met her six or seven years ago at a comedy party in L.A. or New York, but it tends to be a small world, when you meet this friend and they were in a movie with that friend or did a sketch thing or something, so she was in my orbit of friends. And I guess it was last summer that I got the script, and my agent said, “Hey, Lake Bell’s making this movie and you might be right for this part here,” and I read it and said, “Yeah this would be great.” And it was cool, it worked out, and it was like a 20-day shoot. And I’ve been in L.A. for a bit now so it wasn’t too far from where I was living.

I just interviewed Lake, who mentioned that she had written the roles played by Rob Corddry and Michaela Watson specifically for them, but that you were cast as Louis later. But it feels like this role was written for you, maybe even more than theirs. Is that just a testament to you having done a really great job?

I think, as an untrained actor especially, when I get a script or an opportunity, the first thing I’m thinking is, “Can I do this? Would I cast myself in this?” And in this case, I thought, “Yeah, I think I would believe a guy who looks like me doing this guy. That should work.” And then, when it came to shooting the scenes, there was a little bit of leeway so I was able to improvise a little bit, which was nice. If we didn’t improvise, I thought the scenes were written perfectly well enough that they should work anyways. So you feel like, “Lake’s done her job here, so let me just try to make this realistic.” But the nice bonus was that I could put some of the stuff into my words a little bit and kind of do my cadence, so maybe that made it seem a little bit more like it worked for me. And Lake was such a great scene partner that way; it’s nice when you’re doing the scene with the person who’s directing, because between takes she can say, “Cool, I like that, can we try this?” It’s almost like a nice shortcut.

There are some very intentionally awkward, stilted moments between your character and Lake’s. How much of that is scripted and how much of that was just the way it happened?

I think a good part of that’s scripted, but what was nice was that Lake’s intention was, “Let’s talk over each other, and this should be kind of sloppy and realistic.” But then I think maybe it was different for each actor, because she was kind of feeling it out and had different ideas for each person. With my stuff it was cool that in the scene where she came over to my apartment, I got to fiddle with it a little bit. A lot of it was, “Hey let’s get the take, let’s get it down, and then let’s try some other stuff.” Just from a few other parts I’ve had, I’ve learned more about the nonverbal part of acting, which is a fun thing to explore. You know, as a comic, I think I’m very verbally-oriented about a lot of the stuff that I’ve written or thought up and how I say it. But when you’re doing someone else’s words, then there’s this other way of communicating, so I actually enjoy that.

The movie is ostensibly a comedy, but it also explores some more complex themes. How much did it require you to tap into your dramatic side?

Even while reading the script, what I thought was that this was one of those movies where the writer had paid attention to story and said, “Ok, I am going to make sure this works as a story,” and that she had something to say. Even if it’s subtle (and she’s not preaching or anything), but I thought that anything that was dramatic about the movie was useful because it served that kind of function. If it’s just all [comedy] bits, maybe that would take some of the wind out of the sails of her trying to make a point. But if she could ground it and make some of the stuff a little bit more dramatic and have some of those moments that were more emotional, that might make it all work better. And I think it did.

In the movie, Lake’s character is trying to make it as a voiceover actress, and Louis works at the studio where she records. Have you personally done any voiceover work?

Very little; maybe four or five things over the years. I just wrote a pilot for FOX, an animated pilot that we just turned in, and I’m the lead, so I did voiceover for that. I don’t know if it’s going to [make it to air], but that’s probably the most voice acting I’ve done.  I haven’t booked much; I don’t have much of a range. The stuff I have done is because someone was like, “Yeah, just [do it exactly] the way you talk.” But to see these other people who can really stretch and transform; it’s cool, it’s interesting. It’s a specific talent.

What was the experience of working with a female director?

I really enjoyed it. I was excited for the opportunity also because it was Lake, who I knew, although I didn’t know her well. I thought it was great. It certainly was as good as working with any male director, and I guess that makes sense because I don’t know if there would be much of a difference – certainly in capability, of course, it should be the same. At Sundance it was cool because, first of all, I thought Lake was really prepared, I thought she executed it so well and she wrote a great script, and I think her performance was excellent. And I really liked that it was a movie with a female lead and funny women, including her, in it. I think there are several women who get to be funny in the movie, and it’s not all just reacting to some guy – the women are kind of driving it. I think that’s important, and I think I’m lucky as a guy to get to be a part of something like that. I also think that as a guy, if you can be lucky enough or learn how to write well enough for women, you can also set yourself up. Like, I think of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway, two of my favorite movies, and I think those are just outright funny performances that don’t have that much to do with a guy, just a woman being really funny. But at Sundance, I got to see Lake’s movie for the first time and I also saw Jill Soloway’s movie called Afternoon Delight, another female director, and I thought it was awesome.

It seems like women in comedy are having their moment in a whole new way.

Yeah, it’s cool. In a lot of ways it seems long overdue, but this is a time in which the right things are converging. I’ve known Amy Poehler for a long time – I haven’t seen her in a while but I used to know her, and I used to go to UCB in New York and everything. And Amy was always so funny and sharp. And I know Kristen Wiig a very little bit, but to me she’s just one of the funniest people. She’s awesome, she’s just got such good comedy chops.

You went to law school before you transitioned into comedy and acting. Did you ever actually finish law school?

No. I did two years out of the three, and I dropped out after the second year.

Going from law school to standup comedy is quite a jump. How did that transition come about?

I was a good student when I was a kid, and I did everything I was supposed to do, and I got A’s. But I think around 7th grade I decided, “I’ll be a lawyer; that’ll be it – corporate lawyer.” I didn’t know what a corporate lawyer was, but it was in the ‘80s, so it was like “Corporate lawyer, that sounds good!” So that was the plan. Then I went to Yale, and then I got into Harvard Law School and I was on my way. But at the time my girlfriend, who I was in a long-distance relationship with, did not get into any medical schools in Boston, but she did get into NYU Medical School, and I had also gotten into NYU and Columbia, so I had all of these choices. Showbiz had nothing to do with my reality or my ambition. I was like one of those over-achieving, more nerd-oriented people, so I was on my path and I didn’t want to lose the girl, so I went to NYU Law School – and it ended up working out for me because they gave me a full ride. So I go for free to NYU, I get there, and then I realize about two months into law school, “Crap, I am bored. This is not for me.” In college I did all my activities, and it was fun, and I just had this law school thing hanging out there. And I get to New York and had one of those very typical quarter life crises. And I just started thinking about what I liked doing, and realized, well, I like joking around with my friends, maybe I should try comedy. Oh, and then I was a White House intern after the first year. I was a White House intern for the Clinton administration.

Did you see anything inappropriate, um, go down in the Oval Office?

Yeah, well, later I found out Monica Lewinsky was at the Pentagon by then. She wasn’t in my group or anything, but I think I only missed her by a session or something. I came back to law school the second year, and that’s when I really started thinking, “You know, I don’t really like this law thing. Maybe public policy will be interesting.” That led to applying to the White House internship thing, I got it, and spent the summer in D.C. but I realized, “I don’t want to do that stuff. That’s not the world for me.” Came back to law school and was like, “I still hate this.” Meanwhile my girlfriend loved medical school and wanted to be a doctor. I thought, “Jeez, I don’t have that kind of passion for what I’m doing.” That’s when I literally took a notebook out and made a list: What do you like doing? What’s you’re calling? This isn’t it. And it all came back to comedy stuff, and that I liked joking around with my friends. And I didn’t know anybody in comedy, I had no links to showbiz, nothing. But I was in New York, and there were comedy clubs, so I decided, “I’m going to drop out, I’m going to do that.” And that was in ‘97, so I just had my 16th anniversary of doing stand-up in July.

I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be interviewing you today, and she said, “Ask him if it’s true that he occasionally, and without explanation, wore a gorilla suit to class at NYU.”

Wow. This person knows me. Did I go to law school with this person?

Nope. I guess she just heard it through the grapevine somehow.

Yes. It is, sadly, true. This was long before I thought I was going to do comedy, but I think maybe that’s when things were boiling over and I was just not admitting to myself, “Hey, you should go try something else with your life.” But I had gotten the gorilla suit for an equally terrible reason, which was that when I was in college, we had some ski trips, you know, where you’d get a bunch of people together and you’d rent a bus. So my ski suit was a gorilla suit – like, I got this gorilla suit, and for some reason I thought it would be funny to ski with the head on and everything, and I had some fake gold chain or whatever with the lift ticket. I would hate that guy. Now I can see the screaming need for attention, and if I had just done stand-up then, I probably would’ve been ok and I wouldn’t have had to do that. But anyway, I still had the gorilla suit in law school, and I think that’s when the wheels were coming off the train at that point in my studies. So my dorm was down the street, and few times I remember just walking into a couple classes wearing it. Nobody knew it was me; it wasn’t like I took the head of and said, “Hey it’s me!” But it just was kind of funny; I guess they were experiments in seeing how people react to these stupid bits. For me what was enlightening was that once I started doing stand-up, like pretty much the minute I stepped on stage, I re-normalized, and I didn’t try to be funny in life anymore. Which is almost kind of sad, but I just got more serious about it all. It was like I took care of the problem.

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