There’s no mistaking Martin Starr’s voice. The 33-year-old actor has built a career out of playing deadpan, Daria-like characters who communicate in monotone. Among them: a gawky, four-eyed nerd on the short-lived teen drama Freaks and Geeks (1999 through 2000); a frustrated screenwriter moonlighting as a pink-tied caterer on Party Down (2009 through 2010); a bushy-bearded brat-slacker living with Seth Rogen and Jason Segel in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007); and, potentially, a just-announced part in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
His current role, a Satanist engineer named Bertram Gilfoyle on HBO’s celebrated tech satire Silicon Valley (which finishes its third season on Sunday), is no exception. Helping the show’s anxious protagonist, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), to launch a revolutionary data-compression program called Pied Piper, the sarcastic Gilfoyle acts as the company’s online security expert — but mostly he just trades poker-faced barbs with his equally acerbic co-worker, Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani).
Given Starr’s penchant for impassive characters, it would be easy to assume that his real-life personality doesn’t stray far from theirs. And while he does have a distinct bass tenor, Starr himself is much quicker to laugh — specifically, in a recent phone conversation with Bigbendmusic, at himself attending a Blink-182 concert in 1999 and being surrounded by skate-punk teens. Below, we discuss that experience, licking Kumail Nanjiani’s face, and Starr’s thoughts on the real Silicon Valley.
How did you end up playing Gilfoyle?
I auditioned for Mike [Judge, Silicon Valley’s co-creator and executive producer] three years and some odd days ago. The character didn’t exist. I auditioned for Ehrlich [Bachman, now played by T.J. Miller]. Kumail [Nanjiani] might have [also auditioned], or maybe Zach [Woods] did. I know that I’m not the only person on the show to not get the role of Ehrlich who auditioned for it.
I was told I didn’t get the part, [but] that they were going to write something they wanted me to do on the show. In the pilot episode, Gilfoyle had one line in the entirety of the show. I was like, “Aw, man, I don’t know.” I’m not so selfish [that I think] I’m too good to say one line, but I think I was just like, “What is this, exactly?” I wanted more information. Then they asked me to do a table read, and I think that’s what I was most confused about. I thought, “Who needs the guy who’s got one line to come to the table read?” And then at the table read Mike started to unload a little bit more about the character [and] the relationship between Gilfoyle and Dinesh.
Watching you and Kumail constantly try to blow up each other’s spots is definitely one of the show’s best running gags. Did you guys know each other prior to filming?
We did know each other. I went to an awards show in Europe called the Gotham Awards, and Kumail happened to be hosting that year. I don’t think he felt very well-received by that audience. Any awards show is very difficult. It’s a big audience and no one is there for you, especially when you’re a stand-up comedian used to performing in a certain capacity. But I thought he was really funny.
I ended up talking to him afterward. I got really drunk, and I think he’d had a fair amount of alcohol as well. He started to gush a little bit about how much he loved Freaks and Geeks. I guess at some point I got so drunk that I licked his face in connection to a story I was telling. So, that happened. That was my introduction to Kumail: licking his face.
What kind of music does Gilfoyle listen to? Something Satanic?
I’m not totally up to speed with death metal, but I would imagine that’s what he listens to. Norwegian death metal.
What do you listen to on an average day?
This is what I was worried about. [Laughs.] Lately I’ve been listening to podcasts, so that limits the amount of music that I listen to. I grew up on a lot of the music that Freaks and Geeks idolized and put into a lot of the episodes.
So, a lot of Rush?
I listened to Rush growing up. [But] I think my band to end all bands was Led Zeppelin. I [also] grew up listening mostly to rap and Led Zeppelin, which is an odd mix but, you know, that’s who I am.
What’s the first album you ever bought?
The first album I ever bought was 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. Then, when I bought a record player in my late teens, the first records I bought were by Led Zeppelin. I think I bought everything they had. I [also] bought a bunch of really cheap records and for some reason Dr. John was in that pile. I fell in love with this Dr. John album, and through him I suppose [I] fell in love with that kind of Louisiana, Cajun, New Orleans vibe. I really like the way that they’ve never strayed from that old, lo-fi music style, like Leon Bridges. This guy Dan Reeder came out maybe five or six years ago. It’s just him singing with a guitar, and there’s no intention to get the best clarity possible. It’s just music. It’s coming from the soul.
What was your first show?
Oh, no. No, no you don’t, this is really bad. This is so embarrassing because it’s not a real concert.
You’re only making this sound more intriguing.
Okay, so when I was a kid, my dad took me to the Gipsy Kings and stuff that was on public radio. He had a membership to… I think it was KFBK. So we would go to these concerts, and I got to see Gipsy Kings at either the Hollywood Bowl or the Greek Theater.
But the first time I actively went to a concert? This is why I said “Oh no”… It didn’t really occur to me to go see live music [when I was younger]. Then a girl I had a crush on really wanted to see Blink-182. She was a huge fan, and you know guys do things for women to impress. So I found my way into some tickets and I took her to see Blink-182. I just remember feeling 100 percent like I didn’t belong there. That wasn’t exactly what I connected with, music-wise. Also, I think [Blink-182’s] whole fan base were, you know, girls that wear cut-off socks on their arms. I think the girl that I took there wore stuff like that as a fashion statement.
Like, Enema of the State-era Blink-182?
It must have been, like, ’99. Yeah, they were like the hottest of all things. That’s clearly why she wanted to go. I think I asked my agent to get me [tickets]. It was right when Freaks and Geeks had happened, and someone told me that I should try to ask for a favor or something. Somehow I got a pair of tickets for her. Even though I’m sure I could have afforded to buy them myself.
It sounds better when you say, “My agent got me Blink-182 tickets.”
[Laughs.] Does it, though? I think it sounds so douchey!
At the time it felt cool, but that was also like the first time I had ever had a number of experiences like that. That was an early crush in life, that was the first time I had gone out and attempted to find tickets for a concert on my own, and the first time I had the accessibility to a person to help me get such things to happen.
Speaking of awkward gatherings, on Silicon it’s really funny to watch people attempt to socialize in groups. Every party — most recently Bachman and Big Head’s million-dollar luau — just turns into a work powwow. And in the pilot, Kid Rock performs to an almost-empty room. Do you think people in the tech industry are too preoccupied to party?
It depends who’s throwing the party, I suppose. A lot of people who have been in tech for a while have expressed specifically that they’ve been to a party like [the Kid Rock party] — that it is maybe a little too accurate.
Clearly that’s not what every party is like. Now, with the success of the show, we’re invited to events for a personal appearance sort of thing. Myself, Kumail, and Thomas [Middleditch] did one in San Francisco at a thing called DreamCon. This party was the opposite of that. It was crazy-packed, way too many people in that room, all super-excited, and we were just standing up on this weird balcony. I guess [we were] meant to wave at people, or something strange, and then do a meet-and-greet. If you thought meeting 2,000 nerds in one evening would be awkward, you’d be right.
Bigbendmusic recently ran an article about how rising rents in San Francisco are pushing local musicians out of the city. What do you think of the tech industry’s polarizing Bay Area presence?
The only thing I can say with certainty is that [tech is] completely taking over San Francisco in a way that I don’t know that I’m super-excited about. They’re changing the city and they’re turning it into a place where, at some point, only tech will be happening. You’ll probably get a lot of tourism, but the main industry will be technology.
There was a restaurant that I really love that had to leave San Francisco. They had to move to Oakland because I assume the rent was just too high. Like, if you reach a point where restaurants have to charge $30 for a s**tty hamburger in order for you to get food, then that’s a failure to some degree by the city. [Tech is also] pushing out families — like, no one can afford to live there unless you’re making a million dollars a year. That doesn’t make for a great city, in my opinion.
I could see Bill Haverchuck moving to the Bay Area and working in tech, 30 years after Freaks and Geeks took place. Like, you really wanted to tell him and his friends that things are going to get better as they get older.
Well, they do! The teacher in the AV club specifically says, “You know that jock? How cool he is right now? Well, one day he’s gonna be showing cars at some used-car lot and you’re gonna be the king of the world.”