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Is his `Shopgirl' character the real Steve Martin? (He says no)

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Steve Martin is in a relationship now, thank you.

Not saying with whom, but that should shut down nagging questions about his actually being the character he plays so close to the vest in his new book-turned-movie "Shopgirl."

The character in question? A wealthy, aloof and lonely art lover who dates a much younger woman.

The film isn't autobiographical, though it gives those who follow showbiz gossip room to whisper.

"Shopgirl" is a dry, occasionally funny, mostly bittersweet tale of a love triangle, putting Martin and Jason Schwartzman, 25, in competition for Claire Danes, a sad, lonely glove clerk.

Danes, 26, accidentally gets at that "big question" - older man, much younger woman - when she talks about worshipping Martin, 60, "for as long as I've been conscious. He's been an icon since before I was born."

And now he's your love interest in a movie.

Martin professes no concern for that, or for the movie's box-office chances in the face of reviews that are calling it "melancholy" (The Hollywood Reporter) and "glum" (Toronto Globe & Mail).

It is Martin's picture, and his is the performance being compared to Bill Murray's Oscar-nominated turn in "Lost in Translation." He spoke from his home in Los Angeles.

Question: Where did this story come from?

Steve Martin: (Chuckling.) I was married for 10 years, and then I was single for 10 years. Big-time single guy. I just became interested in this subject, who knows why?

What I was really interested in was writing something. Once I had the idea of the gloves, which is the first big event in the book, where he buys gloves from a shopgirl and then sends them to her, I tested it on a few writers who said, `That's an interesting start to a relationship.' I knew I could get a book out of it.

Q: So it wasn't just you, seeing some beautiful young woman standing at a counter at Saks and wondering where she came from, what she wanted out of this lonely city where you live?

Martin: There are a lot of girls in L.A., pretty girls who have descended on this city for show-business or whatever dreams. There are gathering centers of such women; malls and department stores like Fred Segal's in L.A. ("Where the stars shop," its ads say) are filled with young women like this who have migrated here.

In L.A., there's a promise, a hope that they'll be noticed. Maybe in the small town where they're from, there's no hope.

Q: What would Mirabelle, the shopgirl, see in these two men who end up competing for her affections? One's old enough to be her father, the other's an uncouth child.

Martin: That's very simple. When someone pays attention to you, there's almost always a response, especially if lonely. You could be just flattered, or in certain cases you might be disgusted. But generally, if somebody pays serious attention to you, there's something compelling about it, whether you're male or female, if you're thinking it's more than just a `pick-up' or something.

Mirabelle meets an older man who takes her to a nice restaurant, flatters her and treats her well, with dignity, and she's just come off a relationship where she wasn't treated with dignity. She understood that Jeremy (Schwartzman) was young, but she was really lonely when she met him. But she has no abiding interest in him until he comes back changed.

Q: That's an interesting dilemma that you set up for Mirabelle, a young man who has no means and no class but who's willing to change to impress her, versus the older, more fully formed richer man who says upfront, `This is me. Take it or leave it.'

Martin: Whose relationship is so perfect that there isn't somebody going, `Why's she with him?' Ray is what he is.

Jeremy, all he changes is his etiquette, not his inner soul. That's what romantic self-help books teach you, how to behave properly, things not to say.

When Ray Porter tells her things such as I'm not looking for a permanent relationship,' these conversations don't mean anything. Because the subconscious says,Yeah, but you're here with me. You seem interested.' Men, and maybe women too, think that all you have to do is say something like not looking for a permanent relationship' once, and that's the way it is. That's not it at all. If someone says,I never want to be in love,' and you sense that they're falling for you, you don't believe what they said.

And many relationships start with `No, I'm not interested in seeing you.' People can grow on you.

Q: Why play Ray yourself?

Martin: Well, I wrote the book. I wrote the screenplay. And I'm an actor. I need the work.

I knew I was going to be on the set every day anyway. We went to Tom Hanks early on but he was busy. And once he turned it down, I'm the right age, and I understand the character because I wrote the book.

Q: You've been one of the sharper observers of Los Angeles over the years. What did you discover about the city, the people there and your feelings about them in writing this?

Martin: I've lived in L.A. almost my whole life. I find the city can be very poetic, and I don't even know what that means. There are some days when you're on the freeway, and you're up 30 feet on an overpass, and you look out, it's dusk and the stars are twinkling and the houses are twinkling and the sunset is glowing and there's an airplane or two coming in, lined up for LAX, and it's just magic.

I grew up here. It's the briar patch to me.

Q: How important is it for you to be taken seriously?

Martin: There's a little semantic slip there. Does doing a serious movie mean that you want to be taken seriously? But I want to be taken seriously as a comedian!

I have no interest in that whole `Drama is serious, comedy is silly' thing. One's not higher or lower than the other. I just do comedies and dramas, movies and books and plays just for variety.

Q: Ever any worry that, because of the void in what we really know about you, a very private person, that we would all jump to conclusions, seeing this wealthy, artistically tuned-in millionaire as being you by another name?

Martin: That's unimportant to me. They look at "Father of the Bride" and go, `How can you not have children?' All performance comes from somewhere within, unless you're playing Hannibal Lecter.

Q: And yet having written this yourself, from a particular place in your life ...

Martin: Yeah, but I've written many things. I wrote "Bowfinger," but that doesn't make me a loser-producer. Hahaha!


(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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