Corey: What are you thinking about as an actor these days?
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
My interview with actor Jesse L. Martin (Law and Order, RENT, The Flash)
I first became aware of Jesse L Martin when we worked together at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York. Since that time, Jesse has developed an amazing body of work. He is currently on his third season of the Flash, where he plays Detective Joe West. He was Ed Green on Law and Order from 1999-2008. He has appeared in Smash, New York Undercover, X Files, and Ally McBeal. He originated the role of Tom Collins in the original production (Off Broadway and On Broadway) of RENT. He also appeared on Broadway in Timon of Athens, The Government Inspector; Jesse worked in two productions at New York Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and in The Winter’s Tale. The Merchant of Venice was moved to Broadway at the Broadhurst Theater. He has been seen in films such as Cake Eaters and RENT.
Corey: Would you talk about your experience at NYU Tisch?
Jesse: NYU was high on the radar when I was in school, I went to a Performing Arts school in Buffalo, New York. A lot of the actors who were continuing their training at the university level always talked about NYU, particularly about the fact that they had several different studios, different forms of training, whether it be Strasberg or Stella Adler, Circle in the Square, Playwrights Horizons, there were many different schools to go to at NYU. So it seemed like the perfect place to go for a young actor, to get to explore all these different areas.
When I got there, I realized that it wasn’t so cut and dried that way, you had to pick one studio and stick with that studio. And I did so, I went to Strasberg, and for the first two years I committed myself to just learning that, and all that it had to offer.
Somewhere around the end of the second year, I realized that, yes, these things were helpful, great tools to learn, but it’s not something that I need to spend my entire college career doing. I’ve learned those lessons and now I need more, I need more training, different training, so I have more tools to work with when I’m done with this education. By that point, they’d created a new studio, which was called the Classical Track, I’m not sure what it’s called now. Basically we had a professor who came in, Louis Sheeder, who spent most of his time with classic material, like Shakespeare. We did a lot of work with Shakespeare. I had been obsessed with Shakespeare since I was a kid, it was perfect for me. This guy was very good at taking classical text and putting it into a modern context, and when I say modern context, I mean like giving you tools that would apply to any text, not just classic text. His techniques could apply to anything.
To me, it kind of saved my whole college experience, because up until then I was really sort of jaded about the experience. I mean I was paying a lot of money to go to NYU and I was paying for it myself, so I really didn’t want to leave that college experience without feeling like I got everything out of it that I could possibly get. One thing I would say to young people who are going into school—it’s supposed to be your experience, you’re supposed to get out of it everything that you want to get out of it, so even if there’s a curriculum and…rules, if you will, you’re paying a lot of money to go to that school, or somebody is, whether it’s your parents or you, you get out of it what you want to get out of it. I was very very pushy with the administration at NYU because I really wanted to get what I wanted out of that system, if you will, and I did get a lot of pushback because of it, you know, ‘this is not how we do things here, bla bla bla…” And I really didn’t care. I wanted the training that I wanted and eventually I did get it. I felt satisfied with what I got out of the school when it was finally said and done. I’m glad I went to NYU, it was a great experience.
The biggest thing it did was it introduced me to New York and New York Theater and that changed everything for me. You know, you grew up in New York, when you see how productions are done in New York City, when you see how actors are in New York City, the level that is expected from an actor in New York City, it raises the bar and raises the training, because you want to be one of those actors. I think we both grew up that way where you wanted to be considered a true professional, and to be a real professional in New York is saying a lot.
Corey: Would you talk about after graduating from NYU, what was that time like?
Jesse: The first thing that is obvious is you have to make a living, you have to pay the rent, you have to eat so I went to those jobs that provided me money like waiting tables, bartending, I worked at Macy’s for awhile, I took all the jobs I could take.
Most of those jobs I took not only because I needed money, but they would allow me space and time to audition. It was sort of a prerequisite going into the job, talking to my bosses I would say “I’m an actor, I really want to be able to go to auditions, and when they come up, they’re random, I will give you as much notice as I can, but I want to go to an audition if I’m offered one.”
The other thing about that time period was, you know, I’m not in school anymore so…are you still training? Are you still getting work done? Are you still exercising yourself? One of the things I was sort of consumed with was I would just study roles that I wanted to play at some point in my life. Just study them, so like I remember being particularly obsessed with Hamlet, thinking that one day somebody’s going to come along and say ‘Hey, you have an audition to play Hamlet.’ And I’d be ready for it. And it did come along, that actually did happen, and there I was completely prepared for that audition. I was able to go in and really kinda nail it because I had been studying it all along. So that was one of the things that I did when I was out of school but not ‘successful’ or making money as an actor.
I also did this thing that I always encourage young actors to do, particularly in New York because New York has a system with casting directors that still treats the actor with a lot of respect. I would offer myself as a reader for any casting director that would have me. I wanted to see how actors came into the room, what happens when an actor is successful in their audition, what happens when an actor fails in an audition, and how directors, producers, casting directors treat actors in the room, like who gets treated what way. It helped me learn a lot about literally how to audition, how to come into the room. It also introduced me to all the actors that were working in New York, it introduced me to a lot of theater directors that I eventually would work with, would want to work with, and it made me a friend to many casting directors who would call me in for jobs eventually.
Corey: what did you see from actors entering into their auditions?
Jesse: I think the most successful actors were the ones who came in absolutely prepared. And it didn’t matter whether they were nervous or uncomfortable or awkward with the director or the casting director, the ones who were really prepared, once it was go time, it didn’t matter what happened in the room before then, or after then. They came across as someone who absolutely could play the part, and were considered wholeheartedly when they left the room. Oftentimes they were offered the role just after. Those were the most successful ones.
The ones that were less successful were the opposite, they weren’t prepared for it. They stumbled through an audition, and even if they were absolutely right for the role, oftentimes they didn’t get it or didn’t get a call back, because they just weren’t prepared. That was the biggest thing about auditioning that I learned, I mean there were times where I would be called by my agent or manager where they said, ‘we have this audition for you, it is tomorrow.’ And if I didn’t have enough time to get the material down and really feel like I had prepared for it, then I turned the audition down because I’d rather not go in then go in and fail.
Corey: Would you talk about the transition period when you started to work on Broadway?
Jesse: It was amazing. The Broadway community is probably one of the most accepting and embracing theater communities ever. I mean, I worked on the West End and I had a really romantic idea of what that would be like, and it was nowhere near the Broadway experience. Because once you’re in the Broadway community, you’re always in the Broadway community and you’re treated as such. There’s a real camaraderie, there’s a real brotherhood, real sisterhood if you need to say, and you felt it immediately. I was beyond happy. I couldn’t even believe that A) there I was, it was all I ever wanted, I never really planned to be famous, or rich or anything like that, I always thought the big deal would be that you are a working actor and yes, you do have a Broadway career.
And once I was on Broadway, and I was like, yes, I’ve done it! I’ve made it! I still had trouble paying the rent, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money, and I knew that that job was going to end at some point; you’re not guaranteed the next job, right? So I was preparing myself to go back to waiting tables and bartending, but I was in the club and I had the card, the Equity card to prove it! That does a hell of a lot for an actor’s confidence, and it certainly did for me, like I was on Cloud 9 and of course when that job was over I was struggling to find another job, Broadway didn’t just come along and say, ‘hey, you’re in, come do another one!’
So I started doing readings and workshops for very little money, I started taking jobs that were regional theater, going to places like Actors Theater of Louisville, Cleveland Playhouse, all of this just to get back to New York. Eventually I did get back to New York, I got to do Broadway again, even Off Broadway, I got to take shows like RENT, which started Off Broadway and ended up on Broadway, so I was definitely welcomed back into the community and the club, if you will, but it was certainly not guaranteed.
Corey: I’m interested in hearing about the early days of RENT, before Broadway. Hearing about the process and about what that experience was like for you.
Jesse: It was absolutely amazing for so many reasons. Because the truth is right before I was cast in RENT, I was doing this show outside of New York at Hartford Stage. And when the audition came along, the casting director was Bernie Telsey, someone who had just cast me in the show I was doing at Hartford Stage. He was someone I had offered my reading services to earlier in my New York career, and he’d become like a good friend and like a mentor to me, somebody who I trusted and he was always calling me in, even if he thought I wasn’t right for the role, he would call me in anyway because he always thought I did a great job in the room. So when he called me for RENT, I was like okay, I’ll come and pick up the material, and when I went and picked up the material, there was literally like three pages of material that honestly didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me because it was only three pages, and I was given a cassette tape with Jonathan Larsen singing a couple of songs. Bernie did tell me that the character I was reading for was a character named Collins, but that character didn’t appear in the three pages he gave me and the songs on the cassette tape were not the songs for this character. I didn’t know what to do with this stuff, I mean, what do I do?
Bernie was like, well, you know, just come in, and sing a song for the director, Michael Greif, who I had never worked with but wanted to, he was a great director and he was really up and coming, so I knew the importance of going to the audition but honestly wasn’t that excited about going into the audition because I had no idea what the project really was, and I had no idea what my involvement in the project would be. So I kinda kept putting the audition off, and again I was in Connecticut working.
Eventually Bernie Telsey did get me on the phone and he said, look, I know you’re having a hard time with this one, but I promise you this is going to be a really interesting and cool project, I think you should be involved and you’re perfect for it, and Michael Grief would really love to see you. So I ended up going into town, I didn’t know what to prepare for this audition, they said this was going to be a rock opera, and I’m like, I’m not even a ‘rock’ singer. So I didn’t know what I was doing, to be honest, but I knew it was important to Bernie for me to come in. So I did, and I just sang ‘Amazing Grace’ because it’s a song I know, and I can sing it very well, and I sang the song, talked to them for a little while, I spent a little time working with the music director, Tim Weil, singing scales, he wanted to see what my range would be and that’s really all that happened in the audition. I had a show again that night, so I knew that I had to get out of the room and get back on the train and go back to Connecticut.
So I left, I got back to the theater that night and I got a phone call from Bernie Telsey saying that I was offered the role of Collins, and I was like, okay, that’s cool, but I still don’t know what it is. I still don’t know what the role is, so I wasn’t sure I was going to take the role, but then the actor side of me kicked in and I was like, wait a minute, when this job is over, you don’t even have another job, and yeah, that’s a workshop, and it pays only about $400 a week, but it pays more than you’re going to get if you don’t take the job. So I took it.
Within the first week, I realized what the role would be and realized how cool of a project it really was, by the end of the first week we’d learned several of the songs in the show. And I was absolutely blown away by the people involved both onstage and off stage, and I knew that whatever it was going to be, it was going to be a great thing for me to be involved in, like I will have learned a lot by the end of this and hopefully the show will turn out great. Jonathan Larson was literally writing the show as we were rehearsing it. It was amazing, it was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had. Of course, the tragedy of losing Jonathan in the process, before the show even really got on its feet sort of shook all of us in a way that I’d never been shook before in a project, but it also galvanized us to really make the show work. Because we didn’t want Jonathan to have done all this in vain. And of course, the show still wasn’t finished when Jonathan passed away. So we had to make the things that weren’t done happen. We all felt responsible for that.
Corey: As a teacher, I’ve found that there are students who study Musical Theater that choose to avoid the work of studying acting itself, because they feel acting is not necessary in Musical Theater.
Jesse: Yeah, I find that ridiculous. First of all, a lot of the kids that I teach here (Vancouver), they would call themselves Musical Theater actors, and I would always say to them, no, you’re an actor. You happen to do Musical Theater, mostly , but you are an actor and you should always think that way. I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals because I get really turned off by when things become such a musical that reality goes out the window, any sort of real acting work goes out the window. Sometimes it’s a big giant musical. But I’m not that guy.
If I was in musicals, and I’ve been in plenty, but I always wanted to take the actor route with musicals. To really take them seriously as if I was doing Shakespeare, or Chekov or Tennessee Williams. Not that musicals are less than, but I always wanted to be the actor who sang. Not the other way around. And sometimes that doesn’t work. So I can’t be involved in that project. I feel like sometimes they just want you to be ‘the singer.’ The best musicals do embrace that whole thing of you being a real actor and I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of productions where the difference is palpable. You know, where you see they are really engaged in this thing, it’s not just song and dance. So I don’t understand the notion of not training as an actor for musicals.
Corey: When you started working professionally on camera, on network TV and on film, what was the learning curve like for you?
Jesse: It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. I’d grown up in the theater so all the rules, all the things I needed to know in theater were ingrained in me. So I didn’t have to worry about that going into a theatrical production. Going into television and film, it’s a whole different animal. The whole idea of having to hit a mark without looking and the importance of being able to do that, was completely lost on me during my first couple of experiences. The idea that there may be a different amount of energy that you need on camera as opposed to the energy you might need onstage. How much voice you use, how much you project, I freely admit that when I started on camera, I was woefully naïve about what you need as a performer on camera.
The best thing that happened was that my on camera experiences happened in New York City, and New York City has some of the best actors in the world. And if you can calm yourself down enough, and just watch what the other actor is doing, and how they’re dealing with the situation, because you know, television and filming can be very very stressful; there are so many elements that can get in the way of you being relaxed and able to do your job. I mean, you have assistant directors who are telling you what to do, or you may have a director who doesn’t necessarily treat you like you would be treated in the theater, you don’t have 6-8 weeks of rehearsal to get this role right, you have a week.
So, again, preparation always, always the thing for me. That’s my big thing always. It’s like how prepared can you get for the day? But like I said, I was lucky to be in projects where were actors across from me that I could just watch and see…like, wow, that’s how you hit a mark, or you don’t need to project so much in this scene, you find ways of fine tuning what you’re doing. But it was definitely a huge learning curve, because again, I grew up in the theater, so performing in front of the camera was a whole different beast.
Corey: Would you talk more about this age-old issue of getting in front of the camera and what’s required from the actor?
Jesse: I can try. You know that onstage there is a whole theater that needs to see what you are doing, needs to hear what you’re doing, needs to feel what you’re doing. So you have to project yourself in a way that is not…not real, if you will. It’s a put on energy, and it has to be put on, because everybody in the theater needs to see what you’re doing, to feel what you’re doing, to hear what you’re doing.
You don’t have to work that hard at all on camera. I’m not saying you don’t have to work, you don’t have to work that hard. Things become more about the camera being like a person sitting next to you, who you only have to project to that person, you don’t have to project to the whole world. It becomes a lot more intimate. That was the best lesson I learned, that the camera is a person and you’re just talking to that person, in that space. You don’t have to project any further than that.
Corey: On your show, do you see day players or supporting actors come in who are not yet aware of this difference that you’re talking about?
Jesse: Yeah, it just happened, just the other day. We were working on The Flash and a young actress came in and she just got out of drama school, this was her first job ever. So she hadn’t even had a professional gig onstage yet and there she was on a television show. And, God bless her, when we started working she was projecting too much, it was as if she was in a play, she had that energy as if she was in a theater.
But she was really smart and she paid attention, and she started bringing everything down, started to realize what the other actors were doing, and then she was playing the space that she was in. And that’s a big deal, right? Playing the space you’re in. If you’re in the theater, that’s a bigger space. In front of the camera, very small space. Sometimes really small to where the camera’s just on your eyes, so that’s all you’re working with right then and there. Your body might be doing all kinds of things, but the camera is just on your eyes, so you have to get that space.
Corey: Would you talk about your experience in The New York Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the park?
Jesse: Well, I mean, Shakespeare in the Park for any New York actor is absolutely legendary and one of those things you want to tick off your list if you can. It’s like actors wanting to be on Law and Order, every actor wanted to be on Law and Order. If you weren’t, you were like dammit…that’s just something a New York actor does, right? Shakespeare in the Park for me was one of those things where I felt if I don’t get to be onstage in Shakespeare in the Park, I will have failed in a way.
And luckily the time that I was offered a part in the park, I was offered two roles in two different shows. It’s like one of the first times that they decided to put together a company and they put together two shows in rep. So I was super excited, we did “A Winter’s Tale” and “Merchant of Venice.” Both of them I had never done before. And I wasn’t very familiar with Winter’s Tale at all, it just wasn’t on my radar growing up. So again I was working with Michael Greif, he did RENT, and another director I had heard of and had a lot of respect for was Daniel Sullivan. And all these great actors were involved, people that I’d seen not only in the park but on Broadway, in film, in TV, and I was just super excited. You don’t get paid a whole lot of money to do the park, no actor really does it for the money.
It was like the best summer camp experience I could have ever asked for. You spend the entire summer just working in these plays and once the show goes up, I remember as a kid and in school at NYU, going to the park, waiting in line to get those free tickets, the excitement that built up when you got in your seats, the sun went down, and there’s that castle in the back, and there’s the lake, it’s just magic. Absolute magic. And to be somebody standing on that stage in the midst of all that was like a dream come true. I was super super happy about that whole experience. And it was also really fucking hot. You can’t believe. You’re in the middle of summer, in the city, wearing period clothes. You’re like, oh this is…this is…this is hard! But again, the best experience ever.
Jesse: What it’s about for me these days is who do I want to work with? If the work I’ve done so far has led me to a position where I could chose, that is what it’s all about for me right now—finding those people that I really want to work with, whether they be directors or certain actors, or writers, from television, theater, there are certain playwrights that I’ve never gotten a chance to do any of their work, like August Wilson, who I think is phenomenal. I could fit into any of those productions and I haven’t had a chance to do that yet.
So if I was in the position where I can chose those things, then that’s what I would do. Right now I’m on episodic television, which pretty much takes up all the time you have during the year. So I might not get to do that very soon, but it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to, something I want to do. You know, I do television and films so I can support my theater habit.
Corey: is there anyone you want to name that you would like to work with?
Jesse: Well, I’ll tell you something very funny, you were one of them. First of all, we had a great time getting to know each other in New York then. And the idea of working at a place like the Ensemble Studio Theater, which I had seen things at, I’d seen great actors working there, but I’d never been given the opportunity to do anything there. And the play that we got to do there, that was a hell of a lot of fun.
And I really appreciated both of you guys, Michael (Michael Louis Wells) as well, for completely different reasons. I wasn’t exactly friends with Michael at the time, I was certainly closer to you, but the idea of being able to do a three hander like that was a big deal for me and a whole lot of fun and I learned a lot. And I can expand that and say I have met enough people and made enough friends in this business, that if I could, I would only work with my friends, you know what I mean? Not just because they’re my friends but also it’s a comfortable place to start. Whether it be theater or film or what have you.
As you know, everything for me is about preparation, if you already know the people you are going in to work with, that’s part of that preparation. Like, I know that I’m going to be able to work with Corey in this way, I know I’m going to be able to work with Daniel Sullivan in this way, I know how he rolls. You also know that you come in with a modicum of mutual respect, where you bot already respect each other’s work and opinions and choices, so it makes things so much easier. Like I’m sure you’ve been in many positions where you’ve walked into a theater production or a film, where you didn’t know anybody. And the idea of just getting to know people, particularly on a film, because things happen so quickly is a thing, there’s a learning curve there, and sometimes you go through an entire film production where you didn’t really get to know them at all, you’re not really sure if it even worked. It’s all about personal experiences now for me, it’s not so much about just getting the job. It’s about the personal experiences you have doing those jobs.
Corey: Finally, with where you’re at now, what turns you on in terms of acting? Your time is filled with the episodic work, what do you dream of?
Jesse: One thing is that I don’t have to do any other jobs to support my life, I am an actor. You know what it’s like to be an actor, you’re never quite sure you’re going to be able to make a living doing it. I can say I’m sure that I can make a living as an actor, doing what I love.
What I love in this world of acting more than anything is being onstage. So I will do episodics, I will do film, I will do whatever I need to do in order to feed that habit. That’s where I am with acting. One of the things I say to myself all the time, particularly working in episodics, is as long as I’m happy between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ then I stay there. The minute I’m not happy with what happens between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ is when I know that I need to move on. I need to move in to something else. The acting well has dried up and I need something that’s going to stimulate me again.
It’s one of the reasons I was super grateful for that Shakespeare in the Park event, because I had been on episodic for such a long time and even developed a sort of fear of getting back onstage. And the idea of getting back onstage with two productions of Shakespeare was terrifying all of a sudden. I mean like I told you, Shakespeare and I jam, but I was absolutely terrified, I mean like what if I don’t know what I’m doing anymore? What if I can’t command a role onstage? But again, it’s something that’s always been in me since I was a young kid so getting back on that stage, getting back in that rehearsal room, watching these amazing actors opposite you, I mean, I did Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, he was there in rehearsal every single day and I got to watch him do what he does. So all of those things confirmed that yes, this is the place that I belong. And as long as episodics continue to pay the amount of money that they do pay, I’d do theater for nothing. I can’t say I don’t learn anything from television, because I do. But I learn everything doing theater.