Art Talk with Jesse L. Martin

New York City, New York
Jesse L. Martin (r) with Byron Jennings in William Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale, directed by Michael Greif, part of the 2010 Shakespeare in the Park. Photo by Joan Marcus
You may recognize Virginia native Jesse L. Martin from his 198 episodes (according to as Detective Ed Green on TV's Law and Order. But Martin actually has deep roots in theater, most notably as one of the original cast members of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera Rent, which made its Broadway debut in 1996. We spoke with Martin via e-mail about life after Law and Order, which includes, of course, a return to his first love---theater. NEA: What's your version of the artist life? JESSE L. MARTIN: My version of an artist's life can also be called a student's life. I am constantly trying to enrich my brain and body so that I may expand the tools in my artist arsenal. That means doing things like learning new languages. I am currently studying French, Spanish, Swahili, and Xhosa. It frees me to imagine working in the arts all over the world. I'm primarily an actor but have a strong interest in dance, visual arts, photography, instrumental and vocal music, folk art, and indigenous rituals. My artist's life is being a student of the world. NEA: What was it like to return to the theater last summer? What are the similarities and differences in working in theater, in a TV show, in film? MARTIN: Working at Shakespeare in the Park this past summer was definitely a welcome return to the theater for me. Because we did Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale in repertory, it was a real challenge that reaped great rewards. Working on stage is the ultimate for me because of the immediate response from the audience and the fact that when the curtain goes up, it's up to you to create the "magic." In film and TV the "magic" is dependent on so many more elements other than yourself. The theater challenges an audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks as far as physical settings, time, space, and suspension of belief. It makes for some of the richest artistic experiences to be had. Theater is home for me, whether on stage or in the audience. NEA: You were in the original cast of Rent. Did you have a sense that it was gong to be the breakout hit that it was? And how did working on that production impact your life as an actor? MARTIN: Working in the original company of Rent was the greatest theatrical experience I've had to date. Before Jonathan Larson left this earth, he gave us the material that allowed us to go as far as we could imagine. Our director, Michael Grief, took it way past our imaginations and handcrafted the vision for us to revel in. It felt so alive and important in those early rehearsals. We knew we had something special, but couldn't have predicted the breakout success of the show or that we would lose Jonathan. Rent changed my life as an actor. Up until then, I hadn't done the kind of work that had a profound resonance with audience members. The kind of feedback and attention we still receive from the fans, is constantly inspiring. Rent still influences my career, many years later. NEA: When you were shooting Law & Order, you were literally in the community every day. What---in a larger sense---do you see as the role of the artist in the community? MARTIN: Working on Law & Order meant we filmed in the streets of New York City everyday. That means that we were face to face with our community and would get feedback, encouragement, and sometimes stern advice about our work. Working in the community like that taught me how to put fame in perspective. I learned that I am responsible to the community in the choices I make on film. I have to be sure that my choices reflect what I see and hear in the streets, the neighborhood, the city. I was always reminded of who I was doing the work for, and the privilege it is to do so, by the community. They owe me nothing and give generously. I owe them my time and humility. NEA: Conversely, what do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist? MARTIN: The community owes artists in the same way it owes students. Artists who are established can expect no favors and must become part of the community that leads, teaches, and encourages young artists. Our emerging artists are our national treasures and, arguably, one of this country's biggest exports. It's up to the community to provide young artists with sanctuary and support. NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to theater (and television and film) what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work actors or artists as a community are making that isn’t yet there? MARTIN: When it comes to theater, TV, and film, the things that are missing, in most cases, have to do with diversity. This world is not one color or culture. Everybody has a story. To tell that story or see that story reflected through art is extremely valuable to the community. The arts belong to everyone and our work should reflect that diversity. NEA: In a controversial 1997 keynote, playwright August Wilson said, "We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theaters to develop our playwrights." How do you respond to that thought as an actor of color? MARTIN: I see August Wilson's statement about "colorblind" casting as more about inclusiveness of culture. I have been in many "colorblind" projects and the only ones that were successful were sure to not be "culture blind." We draw from our own lives and should be free to use our ways of being in art. If you cast a Maori person as King Lear, shouldn't he be able to use his rich culture in the character development? "Colorblind" casting means nothing, as far as equality goes, if you end up with "culture blind" productions. NEA: What does "Art works" mean to you? MARTIN: "Art Works" is an awesome phrase because it's true on so many levels. Art works as a mirror to society. It helps us see ourselves in perspective. It inspires, it teaches, it coddles, it reprimands, it moves us, it saddens, and causes great joy. Art works to give our young artists a voice at a time in their lives where they feel that no one is listening otherwise. Art works to even inspire some of our youths to great advances in science and technology. I dare say, without art, we'd have no technology, architecture, or transport. So "Art Works," indeed. NEA: Any last words? MARTIN: The arts saved my young life. It gave me the strength and the inspiration to endure any hardships I encountered. It gave me perspective on the world and set me free in it. I owe my career to all those artists and teachers who were my champions growing up. I strive to do the same thing for young people today.