Adrian Martinez, star of such films as Focus, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Disney's live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp, talks to us about his role on TV series Stumptown, writing and directing his first feature film iGilbert and lessons learned getting his indie project off the ground.
Adrian Martinez is a prolific actor across film and television, dancing effortlessly back and forth across the line between comedy and drama. He's a character actor who is a big character in his own right. Having watched some of his previous interviews, I was anticipating a playful experience during our chat, so when I told him I had some questions lined up, his response didn't disappoint.
"Sure, as long as it has nothing to do with acting or the film business."
Fortunately for me, he did indeed open up about his experience in the film business, especially about the making of his debut feature as writer/director iGilbert. First of all, though, I ask if his work has been impacted by coronavirus, and how he's kept himself busy during quarantine.
"Yes, it has had an impact on me. I was scheduled to do a movie in Venezuela with actor, John Leguizamo, and that got shelved because of COVID. Then, we were supposed to start season 2 of Stumptown in July and here we are in September still waiting. It has had its effects, yes. I've been reduced to doing monologues in Times Square with the little coin cup in front of me, but it is what it is!"
In fact, the native New Yorker has been busy, far from Times Square, writing a new feature. It's great to hear that at a time when some creatives are feeling the pressure to be productive during this unexpected time, Martinez has been able to be exactly that.
"Orson Welles once said, 'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations'. In the midst of COVID, can you dig deeper and find something to do creatively in this climate? For me, the answer is yes. If we didn't have these obstacles, then we would be forced to just spend a lot of money and make it easy, but now we have to dig deeper. That's the challenge for everyone who's creative right now. It's still possible.
"I've written a film script called Gabacho which is Spanish slang for a white person. In this case, it's ironic because the Gabacho will be played by me, a self-loathing Latino, who gets deported from the States, winds up in Mexico and then befriends all the people he hates to get back to the States. It's a satirical look at race and identity. I'm in the middle of having meetings, raising funding for that. Wish me well because it's a funny as hell movie."
As an actor, right before the virus struck, Martinez was preparing for shooting the second series of Stumptown, the story of a sharp-witted Marine veteran who becomes a private investigator played by Cobie Smulders. Not only was the series picked up for a second season, but Martinez's character Tookie has also been expanded. What's it like waiting to discover the fate of your character?
"I have had the blessing of being able to work with the executive producers in a very open forum. I pitch them ideas. I send them ideas all the time via email. They're in Los Angeles, I'm here in New York, but it doesn't matter. We Skype, we email and I pitch them all ideas for my character Tookie.
"For those of you who haven't watched this show, Tookie's wife cheated on him. I can't imagine why. I was loving and faithful and great in bed [laughs], but there it is. What happens to Tookie now? Does he wind up with her again? Is Tookie on eHarmony or any dating app that you might have in London? Does he swipe the wrong way? The possibilities are endless."
The series is based on a graphic novel written by Greg Rucka, in which Tookie does not feature as a character, and has instead been created for the television show. Does that offer him a sense of freedom with the character perhaps not enjoyed by his cast mates who have a clear reference point for their role?
"You make it work either way. If there was a real Tookie, I'd be in Portland and talking to him, studying him and examining how he speaks and all the rest, but the fact that there isn't is a blank slate. I've done most of my best work with improvisation. I think of a movie called Focus that I did with Margot Robbie and Will Smith, where most of what I did was improvised or just a leap off the dialogue. I Feel Pretty with Amy Schumer, same thing. I did a lot of improvisation there. It's how my brain works.
"You ask, 'Is it okay if we try it this way or that way?' It's harder in television because there are standards, practices, and all that, but if you have the right creator of the show in your corner, it makes it a lot easier. I was pitching Jason Richman last year every week, every episode, 'What if Tookie did this?' Some of it stuck to the wall and some of it didn't, but it's my obligation to get it out of my head and out of my heart because that way, I'm not wondering, "Damn it, what if we had just done--' I don't like that. Just get it out of the way. Just say it."
Speaking of getting it out of his head and heart, I ask what inspired him to write and direct his first feature iGilbert - in which he also stars - the story of a 39-year old loner living with his mother, fearful of life and people yet starving for human connection.
"This is a true story. I was sitting in a subway here in New York. There was a beautiful woman sitting diagonally across from me, right next to the door. This guy walked into the car and he walked up to her and just started taking photos right up to her face. She was like, 'What the fuck are you doing?' Very upset. The next train stop, he gets off. That was it. I just wondered, 'who is this guy'? Why do you think that you could just completely objectify someone that easily, that quickly? He wasn't emotional or laughing. He was just dead. I just wondered about that.
"I've seen it a few times, just people just taking photos of people without their permission or anything. I just wondered about it. I don't know if you've seen The Social Dilemma in Netflix. I encourage you to see it. It's about social media and this ever-increasing dehumanization that's going on and how the focus seems to be on surface connection instead of true human connection, and is humanity at risk of being lost during this battle?
"iGilbert is my attempt at addressing one person's journey where he becomes completely lost and just seeing women as objects that he uses to feed his loneliness, but, of course, it doesn't work and it leads to catastrophic consequences in his life. I just felt compelled to do it because I have a young daughter and I'm wondering what kind of men is she going to be left to decide who she spends a life with if we're so indoctrinated and just taking pictures and just objectifying each other? That was the beginning of it."
With inspiration in place, then came the task of writing script. Martinez worked on the story over 6 months, and even wrote some scenes worked on in a writing group led by Jose Rivera, the Oscar-nominated writer for The Motorcycle Diaries, but to write the whole script took him just one weekend. Then came directing the piece. With all experience as an actor on so many different sets, were there any insights into directing that proved particularly valuable to him?
"Yes. In 2013, I did The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller. He produced it, he directed it, and starred in it. He was involved from 5am until 18 hours later. I've never seen a guy work harder at anything in his life. He was so meticulous about everything and so committed to making this the best movie he could. He would be in a scene with me and then he would just check the monitor, and he would be signing papers, and he would be talking to his producer about the next setup, and how we lost a location and he would take off and handle it. He was just relentless, like a machine.
"That really informed me about the challenge of directing and starring in a movie. I really soaked that in. To be honest, iGilbert almost killed me because I wrote, produced, starred, and directed it. It was a shoestring budget. It was a really difficult shoot. My DP left a week before day one. I wound up finding my DP on Craigslist [chuckles]. Locations came and went, actors came and went, crew came and went. When you can't really pay people what they're used to, I understand we're all trying to survive, but it was difficult. It took its toll."
Production difficulties aside - Martinez is clear he does not want to produce a movie he's starring in again - for an experience actor turned first-time director, working with the actors must have been enjoyable.
"It was the one thing I could definitely say I got right, because I love actors and I love how courageous they are. It seems easy in some sense, but it's not. It's hard to reveal yourself in front of a crew and camera and just be completely raw and naked with people you barely know. I was fortunate to have a wonderful cast.
"Dascha Polanco is my leading lady, a wonderfully gifted actress. There was one scene. It was between her and Raúl Castillo, also a wonderful actor, who plays the bad guy in the movie. The day they first met, they had to do a love scene in a bedroom that gets very heated and passionate and becomes somewhat violent. There was no time for rehearsal. They literally just jumped off the edge and into the deep water, and they swam beautifully. It's a great scene in the movie. One of my favourites. I understand how hard it is, how brave they are, and I really appreciate the craft."
"I do want to direct again, I want to direct my script of Gabacho. It isn't an ego thing, it's really more about protecting the piece, because once the director directs the movie, they really can manipulate it in the edit to their own story, and there are a lot of stories of this happening in Hollywood where you don't even recognise the script anymore. It's really just about protecting something I wrote arduously over a long period of time, and making sure that my vision is out there on the screen. I would love to direct Gabacho, I'm just not going to put my own money into it this time [laughs]."
As the director of his own script, in this instance, he was able to manipulate the final piece how he saw fit. A crucial piece of the puzzle for Martinez was the score.
"I had a hard time finding the right music for it. Movies that are low-budget like these, you really have to rely so much on the music. The music helps really tell the story. I flew to Spain once to meet with these composers, just trying to work something out, and it fell through. They wanted more money than God needs, and it just didn't work out.
"Then I was filming Disney+'s remake of Lady and the Tramp in Savannah, Georgia. I had a day off and they have a film festival there, SCAD, and I got invited to go see a movie there.
I'm walking over, and a couple of people recognised me, and they said, 'Hey, we actually wanted you to do a movie with us.' Then a very famous film critic was there and he said, 'I know you, yes. You're okay'. Then I just blurted out, 'Does anybody know of a composer that always delivers!?'
"They said, 'Oh, yes, our friend Gill Talmi is amazing. Check him out, he's in New York'. I;m in New York so I reached out to Gill Talmi, and I swear to you, I sobbed. I'm getting emotional now because when he did the first pass on the music, I grabbed him by the face, and I said, 'I have a movie now. I have a movie!' It's so delicious, and beautiful, and moving, and it really just puts the story together. That was a big deal in post-production, finding the right composer. Huge thanks also to Gisela Fulla Silvestre and Emy Cee who also added music to the film."
When it came to the edit, Martinez had two different editors work on the film, Shonnard Hedges and Morgan Neville, with varying backgrounds in film and television - something that influenced the final edit of the film.
"It was interesting because I had the first pass, the editing was done by a man, who mostly works in television, and then the second pass was done by a woman who mostly works in feature films. There had been a good chunk of time that had passed between the two, and they both brought different aesthetics and perspective to it, and it really wound up being helpful.
"Now, I don't know if I'll do that again, but it was interesting how one was very sort of nuts and bolts, and the other one would look at different takes that were more nuanced and crazy. Anyway, it was sort of like grab the best of the best, and now we have a movie. I think, hopefully, only I can tell because it looks pretty seamless, but it's very interesting seeing two different perspectives, from two different kinds of experts going at it."
Post-production on the film was completed in July and it has already be accepted into some film festivals which are yet to be announced. Has he had the opportunity to screen for an audience just yet?
"I've been a real - what's the word? I don't want to say dick, but yes, I've been a real dick about it. I've shown it to a few people, like some wonderfully acclaimed A-list directors types that you know. They've been very, very supportive, and they love the movie. That got me feeling, 'Okay, let me just take a deep breath and jump with this, and start submitting to festivals'. I think it's not going to be seen anywhere until I have a world premier lined up, and then I'll have a private screening with cast and crew, if we can still actually go anywhere. That's the thing, it's crazy now with COVID, but we'll see how it plays out."
With the film ready for the world, and overcoming some of the challenges faced while making it, what advice would Martinez go back and give himself at the start of the project?
"I would say that when you cast a movie, you don't just cast the actors, you cast the crew. It's essential to hire people that will be there for you from the beginning to the middle to the end, that believe in your project beyond whatever money they're going to make, and that are actually committed to the vision of what you're trying to do.
It really is like going off to war. When you're in the pit and you're shooting at the end, you don't want the guy next to you to be like, 'This is getting a little cray cray, you never said there'd be dirt. I'm going to leave now'. You don't want that guy [laughter]. You want the guys like, 'Here's more ammo, let's get this right'. That's certainly going to be the case on Gabacho, hopefully, knock on wood."
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