At 45, comedian Steve Martin has segued gracefully into middle age. His peripatetic stand-up days have given way to a successful film career. He is a highly regarded modern art collector and sits on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Four years of marriage to actress Victoria Tennant have added sweetness and stability to life.

Martin isn't pulling back, however, resting on his estimable laurels. An Emmy, two Grammys, a best-selling book, and a host of acting and writing awards notwithstanding, he continues to put himself on the line."L.A. Story," to be released by Columbia Pictures on Feb. 8, is, he believes, his most ambitious project to date: an effort to break new comedic ground, to share his musings on life and love, to paint a quasi-affectionate portrait of the town everyone loves to hate. Fresh on the heels of the debacle "My Blue Heaven," it would seem, there's more than usual at stake.

Serious and low-key, Martin is not the Robin Williams breed of comic, prone to quick one-liners and inspired flights of fantasy. Much more a solid, almost stolid, practitioner of his craft - testament to the dictum that comedy is no laughing matter.

Fielding questions on a variety of subjects in a recent interview, he shared his thoughts on Southern California, comedy, and romance ... both cinematic and otherwise.

Question: You moved to Inglewood, Calif., from Waco, Texas, when you were 5, lived in Garden Grove as a teen-ager, attended the University of California, Los Angeles, Cal State Long Beach, performed at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. It would seem, on the face of it, that you are ...

Answer: Very California.

Q: Do you identify as such?

A: I don't, but others might. It would be very fair if they did. I just don't identify myself with a place. It's like "Go Raiders!" I just don't get it. Like, why am I cheering for this town? Towns are good and bad but they don't have principles, constitutions. You wouldn't go to war for your town. I didn't base the character in the film on myself, but I didn't write it radically different from me either.

Q: "Roxanne" - the other screenplay you wrote on your own - also deals with love and relationships. Does this reflect certain changes going on inside you, certain preoccupations?

A: Love stories have always been my forte, or at least my area of interest. Even "The Jerk" was a love story. But certainly the presentation of it has changed, gotten more complicated. A friend said to me that he saw this movie as "The Jerk" for adults. "L.A. Story," though, is more about romance than love. I distinguish between the two. Love takes place over 25 years. Romance takes place when you first fall in love. It's a high-concept idea. It stirs all emotions and you can manipulate and be manipulated. It's very fertile ground.

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Q: Could you have written this film 10 years ago?

A: No. No. It's not what I say in the movie that is significant but how it is said - and I don't think I could have said it this way 10 years ago. The romantic parts of the movie are not so much dialogue as visual. The director, Mick Jackson, tried to visualize the emotions of being in love. The wind, the rain, the storm, the turmoil, are really metaphors for something else. The scene where we turn into children is meant to represent the feeling that comes over you when you are captivated by someone and everything is new. That's why L.A. is presented so beautifully in the movie. The vision is altered, seen through their eyes.

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Q: Did you make a conscious decision not to present the "underbelly" of the city?

A: From page 1. The ugly side of L.A. has been presented so much and I thought it was a cliche and wouldn't be that interesting. Also, I didn't want to muddy the works in this particular story with a big smoggy day. It just doesn't serve the story at all.

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Q: Does L.A. get a bad rap?

A: Yes, it definitely does. It's a real scapegoat. A lot of people love putting it down because it makes them feel better. I remember reading an article in the Village Voice in which the writer was just so disgusted from the moment he stepped off the plane. Victoria says when she meets English actors and says she lives in L.A. they go: "Oh, you poor thing." ... And, of course, the first place they all want to come is L.A. This attitude is definitely out there and it's way overboard. Yet you could make a case for hating it. Or loving it. L.A. is not something that you have to have an opinion about, you know.

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Q: This is the first time that you've acted with your wife since you two met on the set of "All of Me" in 1984. Was the part written with her in mind?

A: It was written for an English ... person. We wanted an "alien" to come to L.A. and be hit with it. In this case, we had not just one alien, but two: the director, an Englishman and an outsider, also had a different eye. It was his decision to present the natural, wild underside of L.A: the deer, a cat, that ceramic leopard in the tree.

Q: You've said that the story and the city are integrally linked. Is there a sense of possibility here you don't find elsewhere?

A: This is the place where, truly, anything can happen. Where one day you're down and out and the next day you're on top of the world - at least, professionally. In New York, there's more ladder-climbing but, here, it's almost like a "Scud" (missile) - undirected. It can land anywhere and it can land on you.

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Q: In the movie, Victoria's character says: "L.A. is a place of secrets. Someone said if you turn off the sprinklers it would turn into a desert. But I see it as a place where they've taken a desert and turned it into their dreams."

A: She actually said that to me once ... and it's true. First there was the desert, then they brought in water and started making movies. The weather, the sunshine, also sets a certain tone. This place is like a retirement village for the young.

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Q: But you didn't always feel so enamored of Los Angeles.

A: No. I left in '73 or '74. It was all the obvious things: the smog, the traffic. I was going nowhere. My girlfriend and I packed everything in the car and took off. We passed through Santa Fe and stayed there for two years before moving to Aspen. When I moved back to Los Angeles in 1979, I was less angry. I slammed my fist against the steering wheel less often. Not only at the traffic, I now realize, but at the display of wealth and fancy living which was always in your face.

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Q: Are you able to enjoy yourself right now?

A: More than ever before. It's a cliche, but stand-up life is really hard. Life is much more comfortable these days. And, for the first time, I'm truly confident of my abilities. All these years, I've fought it, despite external recognition. Awards mean nothing to comedians. What matters is the audience, how you're doing - artistically, for the most part - at that moment. At one point, I got so paralyzed I could write five screenplays before I could write three jokes for stand-up. Now, I've finally allowed myself to relax quite a bit, to think I can do it because I've done it in the past. The pressure to come up with the material is the same but, because the anxiety about whether I can do it is gone, it's just about coming up with it.

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Q: You're in the fortunate position of being able to call your own shots, to avoid playing the game. Can you visualize a time when you'd have to start playing the game again - or would you just as soon cut out?

A: If I no longer had the prerogative of doing it my way, if I had to go back to pitching ideas, I'd definitely say "that's it." I've never had to make concessions. I never had a movie that I wanted to do turned down in my whole life. I always write the script first so it speaks for itself. A friend of mine once asked how to make it in show business and I said "Be so good that they can't ignore you." She thought I was being flip but it's true. The challenge is trying to live up the opportunities given me.

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Q: There was a wonderful line at the opening of the movie: "I was deeply unhappy, but I didn't know it because I was so happy."

A: That's not exclusive to Los Angeles. It's everywhere. Filling up time may be what life is about. You temporarily take a job and end up staying for seven years, just like my character did. He didn't really plan for things to go that way but couldn't energize himself to get out of it. It's a pitfall of society, the way things are structured. Often people don't have choices. There are children, rent payments. I was lucky because I was able to gamble. Don't ask me why. I didn't come from a wealthy family. I had no money. Maybe it goes back to naivete which is your greatest asset when you're young. If I was starting in comedy today and if it didn't work the first time, I'd probably quit. But I kept at it, kept at it.

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Q: Is it a mixed blessing to be living in a company town?

A: There's nothing mixed about it. That's the worst part of it. Pretty soon you think your whole life is only about movies and you find yourself concerned about such things as how so and so's movie did - in the fourth week. You're playing a game because numbers are so seductive. The trade-off is that I like the people and the company.

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Q: Could you understand others coming away from the movie with a less-than-positive take on the city?

A: Definitely. It's a little bit like a Rorschach test. Your opinion going in will affect your response. My wife put it best: It's like teasing your best friend. You have to like him, know him pretty well, in order to do it. Anyhow, this movie is nowhere near a lethal blow. It's not mean or ugly, but anything can be misconstrued. Someone can find something awful in a fairy tale.

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Q: When you're creating a fantasy, how do you decide how far you can take the audience without losing them?

A: Your only guidepost is your own instinct - and judicious editing. In my (stand-up) act, I learned that, in the first 10 minutes, I could say anything and it would get a laugh. Then I'd better deliver. In the movie, it's the same thing. You get a lot of laughs when people first sit down and then the story better kick in. My 20 years in front of an audience, I would hope, gives me a sense of what works.

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Q: Still, film and stand-up are two very different media.

A: That's something I had to learn. I've found that any type of humor can be transferred to the screen, as long as there's clarity. The audience wants to know just what they're supposed to be feeling, when they're supposed to laugh. In the orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally ...," for instance, the big laugh came not when Meg Ryan's character was writhing in her seat at the restaurant, but when they flashed to the face of another customer .... Her look said it all. Yes, we can hear it. Yes, we are shocked. Any device will work, as long as there's clarity. The audience doesn't want to feel tricked or outsmarted. When that happens, it's not because we're smarter than they ... just that we're doing things badly.

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Q: You've always been "off-base." What gives you the confidence to be one-of-a-kind?

A: It's partially stupidity, not knowing that it's supposed to be done any other way. When I first started doing my act, I played the banjo, did comedy, magic tricks, juggled, read poetry. I stuck it all in. I didn't know you were supposed to just stand up and tell jokes. Essentially, that's what my act became: those five elements - except I dropped the poetry.

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Q: Have you always thought of yourself as a "creator" rather than a performer?

A: Since the age of 19, anyhow. I was sitting in a college class one day and this revelation hit me like a sledge hammer: I knew that I could no longer get my stand-up material from joke books, that it would never be unique unless I wrote it myself. And that was very depressing because I had no skills in writing comedy. I didn't know what a joke was, but, as someone once told me, your emotions follow your intent. If you create the intention of starting a comedy act, slowly your mind starts adjusting and you arrive at a new emotional state.

(Optional add end)

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Q: What do you hope people take away from "L.A. Story"?

A: I don't know what is actually said by the movie. I know what I intended. One of the big story points was: If you're in a relationship and it's not working, maybe you shouldn't blame yourself - or her or him - but just realize you're with the wrong person. Represented, of course, by Marilu Henner's character in the movie.

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Q: Then in this age of analysis and angst, you think we're too introspective - that sometimes it may just be an instance of "it's just not meant to be?"

A: Right. I always felt guilty in my relationships, like I was a really bad boyfriend or always making someone unhappy. And then I met Victoria and said "Oh." I knew, then, it wasn't me.

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Q: Do you miss stand-up?

A: No. I feel like I did it and it came to the end. I couldn't get any bigger. I had nothing left to say. I quit. The collaborative nature of movies is not a frustration but a relief. I've always enjoyed writing comedy with someone else. It makes everything fun.

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Q: Are you working on anything now?

A: I'm writing a script that, unlike this one, is very story-oriented - an adaptation of a 19th-century novel, updated like "Roxanne." I can't be more specific because it's in the public domain.

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Q: Any more acting roles on the horizon?

A: In March, I start a Larry Kasdan film called "Grand Canyon" starring Kevin Kline and Danny Glover. I have just a small part, playing a movie producer, of all things. It's not a comedy so I'm really thinking about it: I don't want to do a parody ... it has to be real. After that, I'm doing a modernization of "Father of the Bride" directed by Charles Shire for Disney and then a movie with Meg Ryan. Working title: "House Sitter." It will be directed by Frank Oz, who I've worked with twice before: on "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Little Shop of Horrors."

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AP-NY-01-29-91 1909EST