A Martinez on Cowboy Bebop, John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Michael Bay and the miracle of Big breaks
Emmy-winning actor A Martinez (Longmire, Queen of the South, L.A. Law) is in the highly anticipated new Netflix series “Cowboy Bebop.”
Cowboy Bebop is an action-packed space Western about three bounty hunters, aka “cowboys,” all trying to outrun the past. As different as they are deadly, Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) form a scrappy, snarky crew ready to hunt down the solar system’s most dangerous criminals – for the right price. But they can only kick and quip their way out of so many scuffles before their pasts finally catch up with them.
In episode 9, “Blue Crow Waltz”,
Martinez plays the role the Syndicate Capo Stax, who assigns his underlings Spike and Vicious to a job negotiating with the Neptune Cartel, but tells Spike to keep an eye on Vicious, who is the son of an Elder.
With over 50 years of acting credits to his name, A Martinez has had countless memorable roles including starring roles on “Santa Barbara,” “General Hospital,” “One Life to Live,” “L.A. Law,” “Profiler,” “Longmire,” and most recently “Queen of the South,” on USA Network. He’s also starred in several feature films including THE COWBOYS opposite John Wayne and Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning film POWWOW HIGHWAY and WIND RIVER just to name a few of his incredibly long list of credits.
The LA-native and Daytime Emmy Award winner is passionate about Indigenous people’s rights and journeyed to Standing Rock with Democracy Now in 2016 to help protest the oil pipeline being built on Native land. A continues to honor his Mexican & Native American heritage in both his advocacy work and the roles he’s playing on screen. Up next, Martinez is not slowing down, with a plum role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the new Michael Bay film AMBULANCE and another season of the Emmy award winning Amazon digital series “The Bay.”
I had a conversation with Mr. Martinez about getting his big break in film over fifty years ago and much more!
This interview is a transcript from a video conference call. It has been edited for clarity.
JN: Before diving into this interview about your role on the Cowboy Bebop series, first of all, how are you doing?
What did you think about Episode 9, “Blue Crow Waltz”?
A Martinez: I’m doing well. I actually saw my episode last night. It was a great relief to actually have it come off well. It’s funny, the sense on the set was that it had gone well. Then I saw some people at the screening in Hollywood who had seen it and said, “Oh, it was really good.”, but you don’t really have faith that it came off until you see it. It was challenging to pull off, and I was thrilled to have it turn out well.
JN: So when you say challenging, was it just the whole production, the makeup that you had with your character Stax?
A Martinez: Yeah, the makeup was intense, and the entire production was such a big operation, and there was so much kind of energy and input.
My first scene was on Anna’s bar, a massive construct in the middle of an even bigger construct on a sound stage in New Zealand.
There are hundreds of people around, and there’s this kind of odd subtext of anxiety about COVID, even though New Zealand had it under control pretty much. You just had a constant sense of, you know, people asking you to keep your distance and to be really careful. So it’s a challenge to jump on the moving train, as it were. Plus, it was a really intense character, and the makeup was just concerning. I had only one functional eye. So your brain is a little bit sideways off of that. In general, I found it challenging, and I was stoked to see it last night with my wife and actually have it come off well.
JN: I saw it a couple of nights ago, and I really enjoyed it. But what was your take and your wife’s take?
A Martinez: Well, she liked it, a lot and more, taciturn, you know, sort of, uh, my wife is going to pretty much have my back almost no matter what (laugh) but more importantly, I just felt like I did my job, you know. I have so much respect for the people involved in this project. I just think they’re extraordinarily gifted, but beyond that, they’re just so good at heart. You know, they’re people that have their heart in the right place and work so hard, and I didn’t want to do anything less than my best, and that given such a wonderful character to play.
So I loved it.
JN: Were you familiar with the animated series before diving in?
A Martinez: I had fairly limited knowledge of it, but I was aware of it, and the memory I carry of it more than anything was just the beauty of the images.
I love the way the characters were drawn. Spike sort of looked like he had the body of Manute Bol. He looked like he was seven feet tall with a kind of small head on top of this incredibly lengthy body. He was so graceful and cool, and that was arresting. And, of course, Fay Valentine was, you know, eroticized to the point that caught my attention. (laugh) I just thought it was cool, but I wasn’t as big a fan of it as some of my other friends were. I did vibe on the music though. I thought the music was extraordinary. One of the great things about the series is that they got Yoko Kano to come and make the music. It’s almost indescribable how much it means. Her palette is just so broad, and, you know, she can do anything. You know, suddenly there’s like a little kind of banjo shuffle going on in a certain way, kind of a throwaway piece, and you go, “This woman writes banjo shuffles to?” So blown away.
JN: I was just doing my research on you, and when I got the pitch, it said, “his first movie was The Cowboys,” and I’m like, no way, this guy’s too young to be in that movie. So I watched it again last night. And then I went on YouTube, and there are many clips here and there. One of the comments was, “I wonder what those kids are up to now?” What was it like in that scene with Roscoe Lee Browne?
A Martinez: That was extraordinary, and it’s like sort of a metaphor. I don’t want to say this. I get told off when I spend too much time deprecating myself (laugh), but I was the 3rd choice! I was not the kid who they couldn’t wait to sign. One kid washed out in riding school. He couldn’t cut it on the horse. Some other kid got thrown in jail for some petty crime. So they finally gave me a shot. (laugh)
I watched John Wayne movies; my daddy used to take the whole family to see his movies at the Drive-In. So I was just stunned that I would be working with John Wayne in the flesh. That seems surreal. I loved it.
A Martinez: Mark Rydell, who directed it, was an actor himself back in the day on soaps like I was. He is also a musician, a jazz musician, and he has a really wonderful way of communicating. He could lean into when you were in trouble and just whisper the simplest thing in your ear, and the light would go on! You know, just an amazing intuitive sense of what was necessary to say, and always very clear on what was important not to say. I loved doing the work. Bruce Dern , watching him work was like going to acting school. I was familiar with Roscoe a little bit from his work on stage, but you know, I wasn’t too deep into him, and he blew my mind. It turns out, as you may well know, he was a world‑class poet. In addition to being a world‑class athlete in his youth, he was just an extraordinary person. He teamed up with the actor Anthony Zerbe to go around to schools in Los Angeles and do poetry and expose kids for the first time in their lives to poetry.
I learned from watching him do poetry, the wisdom of silence.
He was aware that this kind of loaded language challenged people, and he understood the wisdom of affording them time to absorb what he had just said. So that was amazing, and he really provoked a change in my journey.
The thing that was so poignant to me in looking back on it was that he and John Wayne used to play chess together in the mornings. They were both “chessnuts”.
John Wayne had the unfortunate experience of the interview for Playboy. He was drinking a lot of vodkas and in the bag in terms of his opinions.
A Martinez: Are you aware of that Playboy Interview?
JN: Yes, I recall. (The interview went viral on Twitter in 2019)
The following is an excerpt of the May 1971 John Wayne Playboy interview for context.
PLAYBOY: Angela Davis claims that those who would revoke her teaching credentials on ideological grounds are actually discriminating against her because she’s black. Do you think there’s any truth in that?
WAYNE: With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
PLAYBOY: Are you equipped to judge which blacks are irresponsible and which of their leaders inexperienced?
WAYNE: It’s not my judgment. The academic community has developed certain tests that determine whether the blacks are sufficiently equipped scholastically. But some blacks have tried to force the issue and enter college when they haven’t passed the tests and don’t have the requisite background.
END OF PLAYBOY INTERVIEW
A Martinez: The article had come out on the weekend, and on Monday morning, I made it my business to pay attention.
Roscoe refused to play chess that day.
I just thought that kind of consciousness was so widely distributed until recently it was considered bad to even talk about it.
I never forgot that I thought that was really something.
I also thought that John Wayne was really brave physically for his work in that film. He was already pretty beat up, and he did a lot of really hard work. He got up on that horse and did some heavy-duty stuff. So I applauded that from him.
JN: A friend of mine is a film distributor here in New York, I told him I was interviewing you, and he said he met you at a screening for POWWOW HIGHWAY.
A Martinez: What’s his name?
JN: Peter Hargrove, he told me I should ask you about the Young Animals.
A Martinez: Oh, my God! That’s astonishing that he has that in his mind. Wow, it’s amazing! You know, Jonn, you go along in this journey, and you spend so much time not getting jobs and trying to make it work. I was at UCLA in an acting class, and it was a theater in the round. It was taught by a man named Louis Palter, who today my daughter is studying at a Carnegie tech and Sandy Meisner technique out of New York and a lifelong friend of mine. I was in his class. It was an improvisation class, and a casting director came to the class one day and was not announced. We were working in a little theater in the round, and he set up in the top row where it was dark. So nobody knew he was there. His name was Fred Rousse. He was one of the main cogs in Francis Coppola’s kind of organism, his mafia. (laugh) On the day that he was there, three of my classmates jumped me into a improvisation so I got to do a lot of work in front of him, even though I was too shy to start anything myself. Afterward, he comes up to me, and says,
“Hey man, you want to be a movie? You seem right for this part.” I’m thinking, “Who is this???”
He wants me to meet this director named Maury Dexter, who had a career that was focused on making the kind of pictures released by American International, you know, Biker pictures. In my case, it was a picture about racial strife in a San Diego High school. Patty McCormack, was the leading lady, and the leading man was a guy named Tom Nardini, who had done some fantastic off-Broadway work, and Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin. I’m as green as grass, and I go meet this guy, and he jumps me into this movie. Here I am just minding my own business in school, you know, studying really hard, but also partying real hard. I didn’t have the ambition or the kind of wherewithal together to really be trying to get started. The guy shows up to one of my classes and says, come be in the movie.
That was the Young Animals.
I still think of it as a miracle. It’s a tough business, and you obviously have to do your best to get good if you want to be taken seriously, but you need some breaks along the way. Just like that kid who couldn’t make the horse and another kid who got jumped into jail, suddenly I get the part on The Cowboys. That was the ultimate break, to have the casting director come in and basically say come be in a movie. (laugh)
JN: I guess coming up next for you, I just saw the trailer for the new Michael Bay film AMBULANCE, that looks insane!
A Martinez: It’s a two-hour heart attack! (laugh)
JN: What was that like?
A Martinez: It was just so cool on so many levels. I was in New Zealand working on Cowboy Bebop when the audition came. They specified in the audition, tell us where you are and where you’re based. So I got to say I’m based in Los Angeles, but I also got to say, and I’m in New Zealand cause I’m working. I think you always look a lot more desirable if you have a job. (laugh)
I did this audition, and I phoned up my son in California said, “Will you record these lines? This is Jake Gyllenhaal speaking off-camera.” So my son did a version of Jake, and I cut them in there on the spot, in my little apartment in New Zealand, and sent it in, and they offered the part to me.
A Martinez: The thing that was so wonderful to me mainly was just being around those actors. I worked with Jake and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is astonishing. He was Bobby seal in the film THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. They play brothers who are basically in a severe crisis when my peak scene comes. I had thought about it when I read the script that this is not the biggest part, but this scene that I get to do is truly unforgettable. So you always love if someone wants to put you in an unforgettable scene, but the difficulty, the grace of it was that Michael Bay has got the camera on his own shoulder. He’s looking through the lens himself, talking to you at the moment. He has a wonderful appetite for improvisation and making stuff up. He’ll say stuff like, “Hey man, I’m going to jerk the camera. The camera’s going to jerk to you, and as I hit you, I want you to do something with your body and counterpoint to that. Right?” I was thinking back to the days I did Santa Barbara, we had one director, may he rest in peace? This man, Michael Glioma, approached Daytime TV directing from an entirely different point of view. He wanted to see what the poetry could be of the imagery, and he would sometimes start the frame empty and say, “Okay, you come into this side of the frame in profile, and the other person will combine. Then boom!” Or he’d say, “I want you to swoop around this piece of furniture.”
You think, “What the hell? What does that have to do with what I’m planning?”
But you realize soon that if you honor that, you’re part of this kind of poetry for your eyes, that creates a bit of a spell and changes the feeling of everything. I surrendered to him, as did we all. We won a lot of Emmy’s because of him. So when I’m working with Michael Bay, I’m thinking Santa Barbara, and that dude in particular trained me to not only be able to do this but to actually have an appetite for it. So that was great. I loved that he challenged me at the moment, and I was able to step up. The hard part was that it was early in 2021, and COVID was starting to resurge. So when we’re doing the scenes, there are monitors (bless their hearts) who were walking up every time you stopped, every time they yelled cut somebody is coming up to say, “Where’s your mask?” So the first thing you do at the end of every piece of work is cover your faces and don’t check in with each other. It just reminded me of how much we crave being able to look each other in the face and see what our partners think. How did that work for them? Was that good for them? That was really difficult, and Jake, to his everlasting credit in my book, broke ranks a couple of times when he could see that I was kind of wondering and just walked up to me and leaned in and said what he thought might be cool to do going forward. He really went out of his way to be the host, and take care of me.
I appreciated them, and of course, he’s Jake Gyllenhaal! He is just amazing!
JN: I know you directed like a music piece, like a few years ago. You learned a lot of this from all the movies you’ve made. Is that your next progression to direct more projects?
A Martinez: Yeah, I’m writing something right now that will have music in it. I got strung on a little bit at the very beginning when in fact, The Cowboys was a big part of it because I left for 16 weeks. I was in a little band that was doing decent. It was playing some funky places in LA, and suddenly one of the five pieces disappears to go off and be in the movies. Another guy in the band is also a brilliant actor, and I think it was hard for him to watch me go off and do that. I know they had a hard time adjusting to my absence, and then when I came back, they had a hard time adjusting to my reinsertion. The thing that I’m writing will involve a lot of music. So, yeah, that’s definitely on the horizon.
JN: Awesome. I’m going to wrap it up, but, just curious, what’s your favorite film?
A Martinez: It’s A Wonderful Life, What’s yours?
JN: The Third Man.
A Martinez: That’s a great film.
JN: Did you ever meet Jimmy Stewart?
A Martinez: Well, you know, he was at Bob Hope’s 80th birthday party. Sammy Davis Jr. was there. I read his book, Yes I Can when I was younger. Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr. walked up to me, and he goes,
“Hey, man, I love you as Cruz on Santa Barbara, you do a great job!”
I’m thinking, come on! (laugh) It’s just so trippy when people you admire are actually paying attention to your work; it’s astonishing. I walked up to Jimmy Stewart when the show was over. He was tending his wife at his table, they were getting ready to leave, and he was about to help her with her coat or something; I sort of awkwardly walked up and said, “Hey, I’m A Martinez. I just got to tell you, sir, that It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite movie.”
He’s turning away from me to help his wife, and by the time he turned back, he had tears in his eyes.
He said, “It’s my favorite movie too, son.”
So that was memorable.
JN: Wow. That’s amazing, man. Amen. Thank you so much for this interview. I really appreciate it.
A Martinez: Dude. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to talk to you. You have a whole other thing going on, and I deeply appreciate it.