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October 2005
Shopgirl: An Interview with Steve Martin and Claire Danes

Shopgirl: An Interview with Steve Martin and Claire Danes

By Julian Roman

Steve Martin takes his novella to the big screen with Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman. "Shopgirl" is the story of Mirabelle, a lonely twenty-something woman that works at the glove counter in Saks. Her search for love and acceptance is set against the backdrop of a glimmering Los Angeles. Martin and Schwartzman play the very different suitors who vie for her attention. The cast spoke to the press, including blackfilm.com, at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Steve Martin and Claire Danes were paired together. It turned out to be mostly an interview with Steve Martin, but Claire was able to sneak a few answers in.

Is "Shopgirl" your most personal film?

Steve Martin: Well, having written the book, I would have to say yes. But I'm not sure what that means. They're all personal. They all have your heart in them.

Is it at all autobiographical?

Steve Martin: No.

So Ray Porter is not you?

Steve Martin: A little bit. Like anything, a little bit, some of this, some of that. Some of it's just about men. Some of it's talking to men.

When did you realize you wouldn't be playing the comedic role?

Steve Martin: Well, I couldn't have. I'm the wrong age first of all. I always knew what the movie was. I always knew what the role was so there were no surprises to me. I've done a lot of dramatic work. Even in comedies, I've done dramatic work. But I know that in other people's head who don't know everything I've done, they see it maybe a little differently. But at this point, I go so what? The movie is a movie and the movie's touching and I think it works and it's effective. That's what I want. It's not about trying to fulfill some audience's dream.

Claire, how does Steve have such great insight into women?

Claire Danes: Oh. I don't know. It's really impressive that he's been able to draw this woman so convincingly and so compassionately. I guess he's known a few of them.

What does Mirabelle see in the men?

Claire Danes: Jeremy's [Jason Schwartzman] a mess but he's a charming one. And he's not offering enough when she initially meets him. He's not ready. That's crystal clear. But when she re-encounters him and sees the transformation that he's undergone, no matter how superficial, I think she trusts that he's moving in some way. And I think he really likes her and that's a pretty powerful aphrodisiac. If somebody likes me, I'm inclined to like them.

Steve Martin: I just have to jump in because I think that it's a very common experience to have a lousy date and still go out with them because you're there. When Ray Porter shows up, whether he's older, this or that, this is going to happen. And when Jeremy shows up, it's like this is going to happen. There's not a million choices. You're going it's there, it's in front of me, its not over the hill. That's one reason why we do these things, get involved.

Why then does Ray go for her? Is it the same reason?

Steve Martin: There's a very simple answer. And I can't remember if it's still in the movie because it's a tiny little moment. Ray takes Mirabelle to a very fancy restaurant and the first thing the maitre'd says to Mirabelle is, 'Nice to see you again.' Which is a mistake because she's never been to this restaurant. It's meant to imply Ray's been here with other women. But that's a minor thing because Ray's not a serial sexual guy. But in that scene, Mirabelle says, 'Why me?' And Ray looks up at the waiter and they have a moment. It's in the book. He looks up at the waiter. The waiter knows why and Ray knows why. He wants to sleep with her.

Why doesn't Ray come around?

Steve Martin: Unable to go there. He's just unable. It was never meant to go further.

Is he emotionally cold, can't open up?

Steve Martin: I think it's a very cruel answer. He doesn't love her.

Does Ray see a psychiatrist to resolve his issues?

Steve Martin: This is my dirty secret and the dirty secret is in the book, Ray does not see a psychiatrist because the narrator, the omniscient narrator can tell you exactly what he's thinking. But in the movie, I couldn't do that and I hated to resort to a psychiatrist but I racked my brain. He didn't have a friend. I can't put him on the phone going, 'Yeah, well I'm thinking that, I'm thinking this.' That's too boring.

So is Shopgirl really about the search for intimacy?

Steve Martin: That's an analysis after the fact. It is certainly not, 'I'm going to sit down and write a story about intimacy.' No, you're writing a story about characters and then it might turn out that that's what it's about. But frankly, I don't know. All I know is this is to me a character study cloaked in drama and film, but it's a character story of a young woman. That's the way I see it and what happens to her and how she is affected, how she grows.

Talk about the casting of Mirabelle. Why was Claire so perfect for this role?

Steve Martin: I knew it was a juicy part. That's what I felt. I wanted to make sure we got the exact right actress because I felt we had a lot of choices, because actresses don't get a role that's meaty, juicy, crying; this, emotional, sexy. And it was a very short list before we got to Claire. We had lunch and we knew that it was she that we wanted. Even when we had financing and it fell apart, then we got other financing, none of the elements changed. It's so clear as you saw the movie that Claire is the exact right person to play the role. You can't imagine anyone else in it.

Mirabelle has a unique look. Talk about her character's fashion choices

Claire Danes: Nancy Steiner designed the costumes and she's incredibly gifted. It was really exciting to collaborate with her because she's really capable, imaginative, empathetic, and just has great style. So we had a lot of conversations about how we would articulate her experience and her character through clothing. And she had a lot of great ideas. I mean, Steve keeps talking about how important detail is in this movie and in keeping with that, she was so specific in her choices, down to the little bird pins.

Steve Martin: In the book and the movie it's implied that Mirabelle does have a fashion sense and it's just about price as the movie goes on. But she always, and I know people like this, looks great in their clothes. And I know it's not expensive clothes. It's just putting something together in some way and I always liked that about Mirabelle's character, that she starts out looking kind of interesting on a budget.

What does the film say about antidepressants?

Steve Martin: I don't have a negative view of it. Only in discussion with people who had taken them, I was told that one symptom is that you can be going along fine, going along fine, going along fine and then it just quits working. And you can have a big crash and the solution is to get a different one. And then you take that pill and then that brings you back, but it takes a couple of weeks. That's what that episode is about.

Claire Danes: Actually, she consciously decides to stop taking them. She's feeling overly confident about her own emotional stability. So physically, it's really dangerous to do that. And if you're going to wean yourself off them, you should do so cautiously and incrementally. To suddenly just drop it is really risky.

In your novella, Mirabelle works at Nieman's. Why change Nieman's to Saks?

Steve Martin: That's very simple. We could shoot in Saks and not in Nieman's. But they're equivalent, I think. I mean, aren't they?

How was this experience different from shooting LA Story?

Steve Martin: "LA Story's" a very different kind of film in that the city of LA is a character. It's still a character in this movie, but in a less specific way. In "LA Story" it's mystical, magical, it speaks, it talks. Here, it's a mood. It's a strange thing. I think of those vast shots of Mirabelle's apartment where she's got a $600 a month apartment yet an entire view of the city which often happens in LA.

Do you like LA?

Steve Martin: Oh yeah, I've lived there my whole life.


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