Audiences may know Jesse L. Martin as the often brooding and intense cop on TV’s Law and Order, a character he has now played for almost eight years. But behind the tough guy, is a sensitive former Broadway star, an extraordinary singer and a sensitive soul, who first impacted audiences in the original Broadway hit, Rent. Now Martin is back where it all began, reprising his original role of Tom Collins in the screen version of Rent. Garth Franklin talked to Martin in this exclusive interview.
Question: What was the biggest surprise to you when you came back to re visit this character?
Martin: The fact that I was cast it was literally the biggest surprise. But I was initially nervous about the notion that 2 of our cast members weren’t there because, I am sure, there was going to be a whole lot of talk about the fact that all the original members were back and the truth of the matter was 2 weren’t there. So I was sacred because I didn’t know how to deal with that, I mean I knew how to deal with it on an everyday work level but when you have the press or what have you come at you an ask you about it I wasn’t sure how to handle that. So I really did feel like I needed to call them to make sure that I had their blessings in order to do this movie because I knew that they would be devastated that they weren’t included, because I would have been if I wasn’t included. Anyhow I did I called them and I said hey I was cast in the film and I know that you weren’t and I just wanted to call and say do you feel okay that we are doing it, because we were that tight and we are that tight of a family and it is like you had a family reunion but you didn’t invite your sister or you didn’t invite your brother so that was really, really important that I started working on the film with their blessing.
Question: Now having the wealth of experience you’ve had between doing Rent and Law and Order do you feel that you are able to approach the character very differently this time round? Were you able to give it a fresh perspective?
Martin: Well the only real big difference was the fact that I was way more relaxed, comfortable and confident about what I was doing as far as the film goes. I mean I had so much time to absorb what had happened on stage and how those relationships and characters develop during rehearsals. So I was way, way more relaxed by the time we started working with Chris Columbus and I felt really sure of myself. When we were on Broadway and prior to that at the New York Theatre Workshop I wasn’t always really sure of what I was doing or the choices I was making for the character, so I just sort of went with the flow, tried to keep my energy up and hoped that I was doing the right thing.
Question: Dick Wolf could have been a dick and not given you the time off from Law and Order, so were you kind of nervous about asking him for the time off to do it?
Martin: I wasn’t nervous about asking I was nervous about what the answer was going to be. But I was so sure about doing the film that I was willing to do whatever I had to do in order to the film…
Question: So you would have quit Law and Order?
Martin: I would have had to. You don’t get this opportunity so if he had decided no it would be an impossibility I can’t allow you to leave in order to do this film I would have had to quit you know. Maybe he knew that and God Bless him he really wanted me to stick with the show so he made it rather easy for me to take off and do the movie and everybody was saying that is unprecedented like he never does that. It showed me he had a lot of respect for me and he had a lot of respect for the project because he literally said to there is no way you can’t do that movie there is no way, you have to be in that movie and I was like wow I can’t believe Dick Wolf just made this really easy and so did NBC. I couldn’t think of a way for me not to be in the show, like how would they do that, how would I not be in the show and then return? I kept thinking and waiting for the other shoe to drop like they are going to fire me and I am not going to have a job next season that is all I kept thinking and that of course didn’t happen. So I got shot in the chest but I’ve recovered and now I am back in the full swing of things so I can’t thank them enough for making that easy because I don’t know what I would have done if they had said no.
Question: What is your take on Tom Collins??
Martin: He is the 1 person in the cast who doesn’t have any lofty artistic ambitions; he literally wants to keep his family around him and be a humble teacher. But he is probably the only one that doesn’t have any real creative ambitions like striving to be the best artist or the best film maker he just wants to keep his family around him, I mean you move to New York and you basically adopt the family that you want and he found his family and he wanted to make sure he didn’t lose them, whether it be to a disease or what have you. The first time you see him, he has never been in love before and people don’t know that but the truth of the matter is that is the way that the character was given to me when we were back in the initial workshop stage, he has never ever, ever been in love, he has had people that he loves around him but he has never been in love. So Angel comes along and she is the most vibrant thing that anybody has ever seen and the humble guy gets the vibrant one. I am very, very happy about that story line, I thought it was really, really beautiful that you don’t see Collins before the story happens but he is a particular shy guy and this woman, boy, man, thing comes in and literally changes his life and suddenly he is running around jumping on the subway, dancing on tables like it literally changes his life.
Question: Is there much of him in you do you think?
Martin: Yeah, there is a little bit I mean first of all I have to say that if I wasn’t an actor I would probably be a teacher. I really do believe that teachers were the first actors. I mean think about who the teachers were in the beginning of education and they probably had a stage, they had an audience and they had to get a bit theatrical in order to get the lesson across, so it makes sense to me that I would have been either an actor or a teacher. I have such reverence for teachers, I grew up and I had some of the most dedicated and generous educators and I know for a fact that now it is very difficult to just be a teacher. First of all you don’t make a whole lot of money, you have students who have absolutely no interest in what you are talking about you don’t have the resources that you should have it is an impossible job. So I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be, I mean it is frustrating to be an actor but to be a teacher, to be placed in one of the most important positions in our society and they get no love from any angle from the administration, from the students, from the parents they get nothing and they still manage to change lives.
Question: That is what they are in it for.
Martin: Yeah, they still manage to change lives. So that’s part of Collins that is definitely in me the other part would be someone who literally fights on a daily basis to make sure that his chosen family is in tact and that everybody’s good and that everybody’s healthy, well as healthy as they can be and anybody who needs help is going to get it from me weather I have to move mountains or just use duck tape that is definitely in me. The only thing that eludes me is I haven’t found love in the way that he has.
Question: Why is that?
Martin: Well, I don’t know if…
Question: You are too busy.
Martin: Well that is probably true too. But I mean if love was that easy to find then everybody would have it
Question: I had to move from Australia to find love.
Martin: Maybe I’ve gotta move TO Australia to get mine. But that is the only thing that has eluded me so far.
Question: Why did you want to be an actor?
Martin: Initially it was to get over my fear of just speaking in front of people, I mean when I was a very little kid…I grew up in Virginia in a really small Blue Ridge Mountain town and I had a very thick accent and I was unceremoniously plucked from Virginia and moved to Buffalo New York and I was absolutely terrified to even speak in front of people. I was sure they would call me a hick and all kinds of names and I would be the recipient of school yard ass kickings for the rest of my young life. I had a teacher who recognised that and came to me one day and said would you like to be a part of our after school drama program and to me after school…this was about 4th grade, after school meant that I was in trouble someway and I didn’t want to put any sort of misery or worry on my mum because she was working really hard and I didn’t want to have to say to her I have to do this after school thing, I mean I was terrified to tell her that and I said I don’t thing my mum would allow me to do that. I have to go home and help with whatever needs to be helped with and my teacher said I’ll call her and we will see and I was terrified I was like oh god my mother is going to kill me and she called and my mother was like that would be great. So suddenly I had the permission to be in this play. I was terrified because I knew I would have to speak I was playing a part of the Parson. So I played the part with fire and brimstone just like I knew from back in the South and they said it was one of the funniest things they’d ever seen and all of the kids suddenly were my pals, they loved me and they were like that was great job…
Question: Are you surprised you are still doing it now?
Martin: Not at all, no. I mean from that moment on I knew that that is what I was going to do.
Question: I mean you struggled like every actor does in your early years. Were you reluctant to take on a TV series or was it the fact that partly TV meant security when Law and Order came along?
Martin: The bigger decision was the fact that it was Law and Order and the fact that it was taking place in New York because that was the only place that I wanted to be. I am not a Los Angles person. I have nothing against it but I don’t want to live there, I want to live here I think it is way more vibrant, there is way more opportunity, there is cultural opportunities here that that you are just not going to get anywhere else and anything that is amazing in this world is eventually going to come through New York City, so this is where I want to be that is really the reason that I was very excited about taking that job and it is the reason that I am very reluctant to let it go.
Question: You still like doing it though don’t you?
Martin: I do still like doing it; I am having a great time.
Question: How many years have you personally been on the show?
Martin: 7 seasons.
Question: So almost it will be 8 soon.
Question: Do you think Green has evolved in that 7 years?
Martin: He has certainly evolved, but the trick with Law and Order particularly the original Law and Order is the fact that you almost know nothing about their characters and I would rather it be that way. Because it really is about the case at hand and the only time you learn anything about these characters is through their work so the only evolution is through work and I think my character has gotten so much better at his job and I couldn’t ask for better than that.
Question: Were you very shocked by Jerry Orbach’s passing?
Martin: Yes, very much so. I was sure that he was going to pull though and he gave me every indication that he would pull through and it happened so quickly that I couldn’t believe it.
Question: Did you guys swap war stories about being in the theatre a lot?
Martin: Certainly, I mean he certainly had a whole lot more war stories then I did…the wealth of knowledge that I gained from being next to him 14 hours a day is invaluable, and he literally taught me everything there was to know, I mean he was literally the Prince of New York theatre and I got to work with him every single day.
Question: Finally, why do you think audiences will flock to see Rent?
Martin: I guess there is so much to see and so many things to attach yourself to. You could the most cynical person in the world but there has got to be something in this story in this music that is going to move you. I hope.