It takes a pretty big fella to step into Peter Sellers's shoes, but Steve Martin did it when he took over the Pink Panther franchise back in 2006. Nobody will ever dare say he's better than Sellers in the part, or even as good -- this would be tantamount to heresy, probably even for Martin -- but the snow-haired funnyman has managed to make bumbling Inspector Clouseau fun again and for that he deserves our gratitude. He discussed the role, how the franchise has evolved under his watch, and the challenges and gratification of comedy at a recent press day to promote The Pink Panther 2 (which, by the way, is funnier than Martin's first outing).
Cole Haddon: Why is Inspector Clouseau such a beloved character?
Steve Martin: Because I'm playing him!
SM: May I have your name? Should send you a gift.
CH: So, please explain.
SM: Thanks for the compliment. But it's just something I do. I didn't really study up on anything. However, I did think, if we're making a slapstick comedy, we should go back and evaluate those films. There must be 100 great gags we could take and nobody would know but us -- but we didn't do that. I was just watching [some Chaplin] the other night. He was such a great entertainer, and I couldn't help but feel like, "What a pretender I am!"
CH: Then it's just something you do, the physical comedy. But you're also a master at it, so how do you prepare?
SM: Well, for me, it's mostly in my head. I visualize the scene, and you kind of get a feeling for what the timing should be. I think there's an intellectual property to the physical gags. In my world, they have to be set up. You don't just walk into a door. You walk into the door for a reason. It has to be a logical scene. You can't just be bumped around, or you lower the film a bit.
CH: Pink Panther 2 is probably the most family friendly of all the Pink Panther movies. Hell, the last one had a Viagra gag. Did you intentionally aim for a softer PG rating this time around?
SM: We realized something making the first movie. We were dealing with the legacy of the Peter Sellers movies, which were kind of risqué. We had some of that in the movie. But we realized for [the sequel], the audiences that really liked the first one were families. So we couldn't just pander [by playing directly to that], but brining Jean Reno's character's kids into it did bring his character to life and making him a very genuine person. The hair washing season, which I think is hilarious, works because these are two lonely guys in Paris who think, "Let's go out on the town," but [ironically] just end up washing each other's hair.
CH: There's a press conference in the movie in which you seem to take a few jabs at the media, particularly in how Alfred Molina's detective responds to journalists' persistent question asking. Venting a bit?
SM: Well, there's a line in the movie from Norman Mailer when we're being interviewed by the press. He had come out of a courthouse and the press asked him, "What do you think about the trial?!" He said, "No comment." Then they asked him, "Can you tell us how you feel right now?" "Well, if I made a comment after I said 'no comment,' I'd look like an ass, wouldn't I?" I thought it was great, so we put it in the movie. But I don't have a problem with the press. I have a problem with negative press. You know, we're all sensitive. But I know you would never do that!
CH: Clouseau gets hitched, which is new. Do you think that's going to change the character in any fundamental way?
SM: I have to tell you that every movie I've done that ends with me at a wedding or holding a baby has been a hit. [Laughs] No, we just discovered while making these movies that there was this romantic thing going on between [Emily Mortimer's character,] Nicole, and Inspector Clouseau. I think it's a great thing to use. It's happy and nice. And if we ever do a third, it would obviously open with our honeymoon. You know, I try to take her across the threshold, and she's wearing arm pads and a helmet.
CH: Your scenes with Lily Tomlin, who tries to improve Clouseau's political correctness, were painfully funny. What was it like working with her after so long?
SM: [It's like] you're finishing a sentence you started twenty years ago. You know, life is like that. We had no warm-up times, being such close friends. So it was very easy to work with her.
CH: I've been making my way through your autobiography, Born Standing Up, which was published in 2007. What do you think was the greatest challenge of writing it?
SM: The biggest challenge was remembering. It's interesting how your own history can be found outside your own mind. Talking to other people, going through memorabilia I had thrown in cardboard boxes over the years. Writing the book was like an archaeological dig the further I went down. It's also a writing challenge, because you have to be careful. You don't want to brag, but you don't want to deny accomplishments.
CH: Do you think you'll get around to writing another volume?
SM: No. I realize now it's all about before you make it that's interesting. By 1980, I was making movies and it's all just anecdotal [after that]. There's no story. "I met so and so." You could replace my name with anybody else's in the movie business.
CH: I have to say, you seem pretty humble for a big star.
SM: Comedy makes you humble. Because there are so many opportunities to miss, and strike out.
CH: Last question then. What's the biggest thrill you get from comedy?
SM: In any other profession, you end up wearing a suit and sitting behind a desk. But if you make it in show business, you end up in a clown suit riding on an elephant.