It’s official: The geeks have inherited the tube. From TV’s top-rated sitcom The Big Bang Theory to TBS’s game show King of the Nerds, former outcasts are now totally au courant. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the rise of Martin Starr. Once the geekiest of the geeks on Judd Apatow’s short-lived but much-loved 1999-2000 NBC dramedy Freaks and Geeks, he’s now starring in the highly-buzzed-about new HBO comedy (debuting Sunday, April 6 at 10:30 p.m. ET). As Gilfoyle, Starr is now “the coolest guy in the house,” as he puts it, in this look at up-and-coming tech-heads created by Office Space mastermind Mike Judge.
The satire deftly mirrors a societal shift in recent years: On Freaks and Geeks, the stoner “freaks” were the cool ones, and the “geeks” were the social pariahs. But with the cultural ascendancy of nerd rock stars like Steve Jobs (the supreme deity of Silicon Valley–and Silicon Valley) and Mark Zuckerberg, geek chic has become a defining aesthetic of the 21st century.
That’s one reason Silicon Valley is likely to get a much different reaction than Freaks and Geeks did. In the new show, Starr’s Valley character, Gilfoyle, is a coder and security expert who protects Pied Piper, the potentially revolutionary app at the center of the show’s first season. “I’m the bouncer,” Starr explains. “I keep the people out of your club you don’t want to get in. I just have this unwavering confidence that perhaps I don’t deserve to have.”
In real life, Starr isn’t always so confident when spouting the scripts’ tongue-tripping techno-jargon. “For the most part, I use my computer to write and Google whatever pops up in my brain that I want to know about in the moment,” he says. “Other than that, tweeting may be about as tech-savvy as I get.”
That’s why computer-industry consultants are available on set for Starr and the other actors. “Most of my questions to those guys are about understanding what I’m saying,” he says. “In our season finale, there’s perhaps the most complicated dick joke that’s ever existed. It makes you feel real stupid when a base-level joke is too complicated for you.”
But fear not, techno-phobes: You don’t need a degree from Caltech to enjoy the show. “I feel like this project is completely relevant,” says Starr. “Nowadays, minus maybe the older generation, everybody has a phone on which they download apps and lives within the same world we do on the show. Even if it’s somewhat unfamiliar to people who haven’t experienced the plight of the uber-nerd, there’s fun to be had in how socially inept we are in our different ways.”
How did the 31-year-old actor transform himself from Freaks and Geeks‘s Bill Haverchuck, a painfully skinny braceface, into Gilfoyle, who sports shoulder-length hipster hair, stylish stubble, and bulging biceps with an upside-down cross tattoo on one of them? The character is a self-proclaimed “Satanist with theistic tendencies,” which Starr says allows Gilfoyle to have “fewer moral boundaries than the other guys,” not to mention “a hot girlfriend.” Let’s deconstruct how Starr built his geek empire.
Born in Santa Monica and raised by his actress mother, Jean St. James, Starr took improv classes growing up and made his screen debut under his real name, Martin Schienle, as a “kid in a coma” in the 1992 movie Hero. “They put casts on me, then they used a saw to cut them off,” he recalls. “It was really scary! I got Geena Davis and Andy Garcia to sign the casts, but I don’t know where they are now.”
A Starr was born when Shienle adopted a stage name after executive producers Judd Apatow and Paul Feig cast him as one of the leads in Freaks and Geeks. The show brought him not only into the orbits of Feig (who would go on to direct Bridesmaids and The Heat) and Apatow, but also future stars like James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel, who were all castmates. “We were just kids–nobody was over 20 or 21,” he says. “It’s rare to come across that kind of quality. We didn’t know at the time how lucky we were to be part of a show the creators put so much of themselves into.” Unfortunately, NBC didn’t know what to do with the show and bounced it all over the schedule, ultimately canceling it after only 18 episodes. “We were never given a chance,” Starr says. “Now it’d be a more welcomed idea.”
After the show ended, Starr continued to collaborate with his Freaks and Geeks cohorts, costarring with Rogen in Apatow’s smashes Knocked Up and Superbad. He re-teamed with Rogen and Franco on last summer’s comedy hit This is the End. “I’m friends with most of the people who were on Freaks and Geeks,” Starr says. Whenever they reunite, “it feels like you’re getting to work with your buddies.”
Another cult comedy landed on Starr’s plate when he was cast as one of the primary cater-waiters on Starz’s 2009-10 fan fave Party Down, alongside another Freaks and Geeks alum, Lizzy Caplan (with whom he would also costar in the 2012 rom-com Save the Date). This one lasted only 20 episodes, but there have been persistent rumors that cocreator Rob Thomas will Kickstart a movie version of the series, just as he did with his Veronica Mars film, in which Starr recently appeared. “You constantly hear this buzz, and I certainly hope the success of the Veronica Mars movie bodes well for us,” Starr says. “But I’ll believe it when I see it. Everybody has the desire to do it, but we’re all so busy, I don’t know if it’s possible.”
A decade ago, Starr provided voices for Mike Judge’s Fox cartoon King of the Hill, but they’d never actually met until the actor was called in to audition for the role of the self-important incubator creator that ultimately went to T.J. Miller on Silicon Valley. “The day they told me I didn’t get that, they told me they were writing a new part,” Starr recalls. “I went to the first table read, and I had only one line of dialogue. Mike immediately took me aside and said, ‘I just want you to know, we have big plans for your character–we just haven’t had time to develop it yet.'” Those plans now seem to be paying off. “We showed it to a crowd at South by [Southwest], and the reaction was amazing,” Starr says. “It seemed like people were invested in it, and it was really well-received. It feels like the pieces are falling into place.” Now that he’s on the verge of becoming a master of the pop-culture universe, how does Starr look back on his ascent? “I really don’t think about my career arc, to be honest,” he says. “I just feel fortunate to continue to work with my friends and people I respect and admire.”