Tao of Steve

TORONTO-Steve Martin wasn't Steve Martin's first choice for the role he plays in Shopgirl, his screen adaptation of his best-selling and beloved novella. "I asked Tom Hanks because I thought he was really the perfect guy to play it," Martin says. When Hanks passed on the project, Martin settled for himself in a role he always suspected he might play one day.

He says he didn't have any doubts about casting Claire Danes as his title character, though. "As soon as we had lunch, Claire didn't even have to speak before we knew that she was exactly right for it, because Claire is naturally beautiful as opposed to unnaturally beautiful in Hollywood."

Danes plays the title character in the bittersweet romantic comedy about Mirabelle Butterfield, a lonely young artist who sells gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and finds herself torn between two men: Ray Porter (Martin), a rich, suave older lover with commitment issues, and Jeremy, a terminally immature but well-meaning would-be beau played by Jason Schwartzman.

Sitting next to Danes at a news conference for Shopgirl's world premiere at September's Toronto International Film Festival, Martin raves about his film's star. "There's something about the simplicity of Claire's performance that's quite stunning."

Although Martin didn't direct Shopgirl (which opens in Vancouver next Friday [October 28]), it's very much a Steve Martin film, and his costars were definitely looking to him for approval. "Steve has been a hero of mine forever," says Danes, who was a fan of the book before being approached about the film.

So, what was it like to share the screen with the screenwriter? "Steve was incredibly generous. Immediately he made it very clear that if Jason and I ever needed to rework a scene, we had licence to. He was great that way. So I never felt confined or pressured to do something that was not intuitive."

Speaking at a separate news conference, Schwartzman echoes Danes's sentiments. "I would ask him questions like, 'What did you mean by that?' or 'Do you think it's like this?' And it's so helpful to have the guy who wrote it-especially when it's Steve Martin-be there and really talk you through what he meant. And the great thing about him, too, is he's very open. He was suggesting things to me. He's an investigator, and it's a pleasure to work for an investigative writer."

Director Anand Tucker was equally starstruck, and understandably wary, when he signed on to work on what was clearly going to be Martin's movie. "The idea of it was incredibly daunting. You're flying on a plane from London to New York to meet"-and here Tucker shrieks the name-"Steve Martin. Oh my God!"

Tucker smiles and continues. "And he's written the book and he's written the screenplay and he's acting in the film and he's a producer. And that's a tough one. But within one minute of meeting Steve, he's actually an incredibly generous and unprepossessing person whose main concern is the work. He just wanted the film to be good and to be emotionally truthful, and he let me get on and own the movie in my own way and do my job, for which I'm eternally grateful."

Not surprisingly, Tucker did step back when it came to actually directing Martin's performance. "When it came to acting, I trusted Steve completely. Steve would bring his performance to the stage. We didn't rehearse one second of the movie, and we never did more than two or three takes. Everyone was into it, and I think if you cast right, you trust your actors."

Martin says he never had any desire to direct the film. Although he's proven himself as a comedian, a playwright, a novelist, a producer, and an Oscar emcee, the director's hat is one he's in no rush to wear. But how did he navigate his relationship with Tucker? "We just did," Martin says. "He's a very gentle guy who understood the script and the movie and there was never a contention while we were shooting, so it was fine."

Tucker agrees. "We argued. We never actually had any problems at all, but if there were disagreements that we had, they may have perhaps come up in the cutting room." So when there were disputes, who won? "We would argue, and I would win half and he would win half."

Although it's comedic, Shopgirl is very much "the serious" Steve Martin as opposed to the wild-and-crazy guy on display in movies like Bringing Down the House. When Martin is asked if he deliberately changes up his roles, he looks amused. "You're implying that the choice is some kind of choice, or that it's deliberate. It's not. It's what comes along. It's where your head is. Is it ready to go? Do I like it? Who's in it? It's a million different things. There's no star chamber trying to figure out the next move. I'm sure it works in certain cases, but it doesn't work for me."

Is Ray at all autobiographical? No more so than Mirabelle, Martin replies. "They say everything's culled from every source-my own life, other lives. I'm 60, and I've had sex since I was 18, so there's a lot of stuff going on”¦.I wrote a book subsequently about a guy who was-we'll call him agoraphobic; that was one thing that doesn't apply to me at all, but I can imagine it." That novel, 2004's The Pleasure of My Company, was also a bestseller.

One question that clearly excites Martin is why Hollywood has trouble making believable love stories. He pauses before answering. "It's a very, very good question. But it all goes back to the-what do they call it?-the meet cute."

Danes, who has "met cute" in a few Hollywood films, laughs and nods.

The "meet cute" is the officially sanctioned spark for all Hollywood romantic comedies where the romantic leads discover each other in some outrageous, endearing, and bizarre way that leads to them hating each other and, inevitably, falling in love.

"I always feel like there's the person with the inspiration and then there's the person who's going, 'No, no, no; this other movie had this, and we've got to have this and we've got to have this,'?" Martin explains. "And it starts getting wrenched out of its own heart. And our movie didn't get wrenched, because basically the book is about small moments and the movie is about small moments which are, obviously, the biggest."

Martin also tried to avoid other Tinseltown clichés in Shopgirl, like explaining the roots of his character's aversion to commitments. "I cringe at back story because it never quite explains-or it gets into some psychological thing that is never quite right and never quite the truth. And who knows why someone is some way? You can't just say, 'And Ray's dad never loved him.' It doesn't explain it. And yet we all know that there are people like that, and we meet them and deal with them and are them and it's never quite explained, but you never say, 'How can that person exist?'?"

Asked if the movies he writes mean more to him than the movies he simply performs in, Martin says that what matters most to him is how a film is received. "I would say the three stages of making a film are the initial 'Are we gonna do this? How much will I be paid? Where's it going to be? Are there a lot of nights? Who's it going to be with?' The second stage of making a film is 'How much fun is it while you're doing it?' Third stage of the film is 'Was it a hit?'"