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Party Down Star Martin Starr on Magic Mushrooms, His Service Industry Dream Job, and Why He Feels “Lucky”

Of all the service industry jobs that one could do, Party Down star Martin Starr always wanted to be a pizza delivery guy — and he’s not kidding. He’s rather intrigued by the idea of visiting a stranger’s home and learning what makes them tick, even if only for a minute or two, and it makes sense that he’d have an inquisitive mind, having grown up the son of an actress (Jean St. James) and an elementary school guidance counselor (James Schienle).

Though Starr (very) briefly served as a barista, he never really had the experience of taking on odd jobs, as he began acting at a young age. Thanks to his mom, he started taking improv classes at just 11 years old, and once he began to learn the art of comedy, he never looked back.

Since his breakout role as Bill Haverchuck on the short-lived but beloved series Freaks and Geeks (1999), Starr has worked pretty steadily. He co-starred in the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley (2014) and played one of Peter Parker’s teachers in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) before signing on to play Sylvester Stallone‘s business partner on the Paramount+ series Tulsa King.

Most recently, Starr found himself back on the set of Party Down, which was an odd job in its own unique way, as Season 3 brought the gang back together again after a 12-year hiatus. Starr plays Roman DeBeers, a science fiction writer who makes ends meet as a waiter for the Party Down catering company, and the actor explained that for him, tapping into the character was more about understanding the insecurity of an actor not knowing his next gig than about survival.

Above the Line spoke with Martin Starr via Zoom video from his home in Los Angeles. Starr has an analytical way of breaking down his thoughts, perhaps inherited from his parents, and right off the bat, we went down a silly rabbit hole of other television characters named Roman (there are seven in total, including Roy in Succession, Grant in Big Love, and Zazo in Jane the Virgin). Segueing into more actorly topics about Party Down, Starr addressed pretending to be high on magic mushrooms in the instant-classic Season 3 episode “KSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau,” where the staff partakes in the hallucinogenic fungus. Starr was especially delighted by co-star Adam Scott‘s performance and said he relishes the fact that, for the most part, he’s still close with a lot of his former co-stars, who he also considers his friends.

Party Down
Adam Scott and Martin Starr in Party Down/Starz

Above the Line: It’s nice to meet you, Martin. I don’t know if you realize this, but there are only seven Romans in television character history. Can you name them?

Martin Starr: I had no idea. I’m honored to be one of them if I’m included in that history. Who are the other Romans, just outta curiosity.

ATL: I knew you were gonna ask me! We’ve got Roman Roy from Succession and then there was a Roman in…oh no, what was that show?!

Starr: [laughs] We’re only at number two. You can tell me another time, Robin.

ATL: You got it! So Martin, tell me how, from the very beginning of Party Down, you sort of tapped into your character, Roman DeBeers?

Starr: Oh, from 15 years ago? It was really on the page. I didn’t have to stray much from the way that [creator/writer] John Enbom had written the character. A lot of it is in the dynamic between Ryan [Hansen] and me; the Kyle/Roman dynamic was pretty easy to fall into because it was so clear in the scripts, and a lot of it built off that. It’s kind of easy to put yourself in a situation where — because we’ve all been there — you’re not achieving the heights that you want to, and you don’t maybe feel like you can do it, and you feel a bit stuck. That’s absolutely where all of these characters were, certainly in those first couple seasons, some more than others.

I think Jane [Lynch] was maybe the only standout who was just happy-go-lucky all the time and always felt like everything was always going to work out. But the majority of us were all stuck wanting something that we didn’t maybe feel we deserved or didn’t feel we could achieve, and that’s a huge foundational vibe to the way that Roman goes throughout his life.

ATL: What do you remember about your own lean times, and perhaps some of those awful jobs you had to take early in your career?

Starr: I wish I had more stories for you. I do not. I started acting pretty young. I grew up in Los Angeles; my mom is an actress, and so I started taking classes through her. She used to do workshops and stuff for actors, and so I was always around her quite a bit. Then I found an improv class when I was 11 or 12. That’s really where I fell in love with exploration, and I fell in love with comedy and this art form.

It just kind of became a piece of me that I needed to keep trying and exploring, and I got very lucky to be a part of a show called Freaks and Geeks when I was 15, and from there, the rest is history, as they say. There were certainly some rough patches, and I did not feel like it was going to continue at times, but I am lucky enough to be here now.

Freaks and Geeks
Samm Levine, John Francis Daley, and Martin Starr in Freaks and Geeks/NBC

ATL: What were some of those fears during Freaks and Geeks?

Starr: Freaks and Geeks was wonderful. The years after that, I think, got really tough. I didn’t fall in love with a business; I fell in love with an expression, and that was a difficult brick wall that hit me, at some point, where I didn’t quite know how to evolve.

To better understand, there are really two parts to it. You can be really good at one and bad at the other. You have to kind of figure out both on some level in order to maintain a career. I don’t know if I’ve really done that, but somehow I’m still here.

Life is always full of ups and downs. I constantly feel grateful just to be able to keep doing something that I love and have made it this long.

ATL: Is there another job in the food service industry that you’d be willing to try?

Starr: This may sound really weird, but I always wanted to be a pizza delivery boy. It’s so weird. I don’t understand it, but I thought it would be so interesting to meet people. You’d meet so many people and be in their place of comfort — like, you’d see their homes, even if just for a split second, and you’d get a glimpse into people’s lives. I just kind of thought that was an interesting job for that reason, if for no other. The pay is probably terrible, [but] you’re [probably] met with a warm reception every time, so that’s also nice. You’re celebrated. Whether they actually follow through and tip you for it is another thing. But that might be a more societal issue.

The fun of it for me would’ve been to just explore meeting people for two minutes and seeing what their living situation is like. I just found that really interesting. I was a barista for maybe six hours. I made $2, not to brag. I did not get the job, but I sat in there and learned how to make coffee, and I don’t drink coffee. So the whole process was very new to me. Those are the experiences that shape you. Those are the ways in which we grow the most — through hardships. But I’ve had plenty of struggles in other ways, so don’t worry; I’ve made it through. You’ve just got to look at the positive. Oh boy, now I sound like some inspirational quote book or something. I’m so sorry. [laughs]

ATL: Is it true that your dad was a guidance counselor? Maybe that has something to do with you analyzing things a lot.

Starr: I suppose it does, and he was always kind of seeking out self-growth and development. [Note: Robin’s answering machine goes off, and ironically, her mother leaves a message.] So cute. Do you need to pick that up? Do you need to take that? It’s funny that you asked me about my dad while your mom was calling.

Yeah, he was a guidance counselor and was always kind of seeking the questions or the answers to questions like, “Why are we here?” and “purpose of life” type stuff. So he kind of battled with those questions [for] the majority of his life, for better and worse. But it certainly made him a very curious person, and he never lost that until the end. So, I definitely picked up a lot of that from him. Why not ask questions?

ATL: Well, isn’t that a part of acting — to delve into a character and ask questions to better understand their motivation?

Starr: That’s all part of it, absolutely. And in greater ways, [questions are] just a part of life. If you’re not asking questions, what are you doing?

Party Down
Tyrel Jackson Williams and Martin Starr in Party Down/Starz

ATL: So, you mentioned earlier that you had a great scene partner in Ryan Hansen, and in the latest season, you have a great scene with Tyrel Jackson Williams that will surely go down in TV history — the mushroom-taking scene. How does one tap into that feeling, unless you’ve actually done them at some point?

Starr: Oh, yeah. I’m not legally allowed to say. No, I’ve done a lot of mushrooms; that’s how I know, and it looks like it’s kind of slowly becoming legal in the U.S., which is great. It should be. There’s no reason why [it shouldn’t]. I’ve never had an experience with mushrooms that I didn’t enjoy on some level. I’ve had difficult times on the journey, but at the end, it’s always something that I’ve looked back on with appreciation.

I know that’s not for everybody, but as far as expanding your reality and expanding your vision to really be able to understand things… sometimes we get so wrapped up in a narrow viewpoint in our own little world. There are tools like [magic mushrooms] that are just here on this earth that can help you to reevaluate your stance, the way that you think about life and the way that you live your life in a valuable way.

So, mushrooms are great. In that episode, mushrooms were not so great. I’m pretty sure that’s the title of this article: “Mushrooms Are Great.” But in that episode, certainly, that’s not the experience that Roman has.

ATL: How much of that scene was actually improvised?

Starr: I don’t think a lot of the dialogue was actually improvised. We certainly found moments here and there, but you can’t write on a page the details of doing mushrooms. You just write, “They do mushrooms,” and then here’s the dialogue. So, in some way, a lot of it was improvised just by nature. I mean, there are so many wonderful moments where Adam is, like, behind the bar on mushrooms. I loved watching those moments. I thought he played them so well.

It’s so fun to watch someone you know. I probably will never be able to get out of my own way to see my own performance the way that I can watch somebody else’s. But being able to see these episodes, I can certainly appreciate them and be happy with what I brought to them. But being able to watch my friends do some amazing things, it’s just so fun to watch — Adam, in particular. There were just moments where I was like, “Holy shit, that feels like he did mushrooms to make that happen.”

ATL: Maybe he did!

Starr: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the other headline.

Tulsa King
Jay Will, Sylvester Stallone, and Martin Starr in Tulsa King/Paramount+

ATL: Ironically, drugs have played a theme in your career. After all, you are now playing a dispensary owner in Tulsa King

Starr: Oh, yeah. Sometimes you just have to let yourself go and be the drug kingpin. [laughs] Yeah, I don’t know how that happened, to be honest. I did a movie [Samaritan] with Stallone a couple years ago, and I guess I didn’t make a terrible impression because somehow we ended up working together again. But yeah, the experience on that has also been really fun. It’s so interesting to be able to work with so many different, talented people from such a wide range of businesses.

I am constantly thankful that I get to keep doing this. I think we’re coming back for another season at some point. The Writer Strike has certainly put this on pause for a little bit, but I have no doubt that we’ll be coming back at some point, as long as Stallone wants to. I know he’s expressed just how difficult and grueling TV schedules can be, certainly compared to movie schedules, but I think it was rewarding enough for him to want to come back.

ATL: I imagine you’ll want to put on the bowtie again for Party Down, should it come back for another season as well.

Starr: I hope so. That’s a question you can direct [to] Starz, but hopefully, we can work out the schedules and find the time that we’re all available so that we can do it. Certainly, it’s a different level of fun coming to work on Party Down every day with an entire group of people [who] you’ve known for so long. Basically, it’s like coming back to summer camp. We just get to play. That’s really fun. It’s just nice to have a group of friends.

I feel very lucky that I’ve had this a number of times. I’m still really close with the majority of the guys on Silicon Valley, Freaks and Geeks, and Party Down. And the show I did called NTSF:SD:SUV was also an amazing group of people. That was on Adult Swim many moons ago. But you know, I keep in touch with some of the people on Tulsa King, too.

I feel like every time I work on something with such great people and have the fortune to do so, my family expands a little bit. It’d be great to come back and do a full 10 episodes of Party Down. I mean, I’d do a million episodes in a row. I could do this for the rest of my life, but it’d be fun just to come back and get to do it again any way that we can.

ATL: And if not, there’s always pizza delivery, right?

Starr: [laughs] Yes. Thank you for bringing that up. Maybe I do need to live this up. I think I might be a little old, but fuck it. You only get one opportunity to live your dreams, and now is mine. So I’m going to go and be a pizza delivery boy, and I’ll tell you how it goes.

Season 3 of Party Down is now available on Starz.

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