'American Crime': A Series Packed With 'Emotional Honesty' About Race
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, John Ridley, is the creator of the new ABC series "American Crime." Ridley won an Oscar for his screenplay for "12 Years A Slave." A little later, we'll bring Benito Martinez into the conversation. He's one of the stars of "American Crime," playing the father of a boy implicated in a murder. He's also known for his roles on "The Shield" and "House Of Cards."
"American Crime" revolves around a case where a young man was murdered. His wife, who was beaten and appears to have been raped, is the hospital, where she's still in a coma. The story isn't so much about solving the crime as it is about the social and racial issues that shape the lives of the victims, their parents, the suspects and their families.
The victims are white. Three young men are arrested in the conjunction with the attack - an African-American meth addict, a Latino high school student and a Mexican youth supporting himself through illegal activities who fears being deported. Nearly all the characters are part victim and part aggressor and hold stereotypes and preconceptions about the others.
Let's start with a scene from the first episode. The murdered man's parents, Russ and Barb, played by Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman, have just been interviewed by a reporter covering the murder. Barb has told the reporter that she was a left alone and broke to raise their two boys after Russ gambled away their money and left the family. As Russ and Barb drive away from the interview, he's angry that she told this to the reporter, and they start arguing. Barbara makes him stop car. She runs out, and he follows after her.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME")
TIMOTHY HUTTON: (As Russ) Don't you walk away from me. That was 20 years ago. I am not that same person.
FELICITY HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I am not here for you.
HUTTON: (As Russ) Listen, I admit I had some problems.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Problems? Say what you did. Say what you did. Say what you did. You gambled away everything we had, then you went and stole so you could gamble some more. You were off in Vegas.
HUTTON: (As Russ) Yeah, it was an illness, Barb. That was an illness. It was an addiction. I got myself help, and now I am recovered.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) We had nothing. Raising those boys by myself in public housing - do you have any idea what that was like? A white mother and her two white kids - do you know what those people did to us day after day?
HUTTON: (As Russ) Barb.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Do you know how those people treated my boys?
HUTTON: (As Russ) Barb.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I am here trying to do what I can for Matt, and your feelings are hurt over what I say to a reporter.
HUTTON: (As Russ) Barb, Barb, come on.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Stop saying my name. Now it's easy to be a father, Russ, when all you have to do is stand in front of people and be sad.
HUTTON: (As Russ) You think - you think this is easy for me? Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to earn back the love and the trust of our boys - our boys? Now, get in.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) That must've been so hard. Just stay out of my way.
GROSS: That's a scene from "American Crime." John Ridley, Benito Martinez, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. John Ridley, let me start with a few questions for you. The characters in "American Crime" - there are families that are African-American, Latino, white. You have people who are Christian, secular, Muslim, atheist. You're getting at so many different points of view, and many of them are in conflict with each other. We just heard Felicity Huffman's character say that she raised her sons as a minority member in a housing project.
JOHN RIDLEY: Right.
GROSS: Do you know what that was like? Do you know how they treated us? She thinks that her son was murdered because he was basically the target of a hate crime - an anti-white crime - and there's no talking her out of that. So you have a difficult juggling act here 'cause you're trying to understand so many different characters coming from so many different backgrounds...
RIDLEY: Yeah, absolutely.
GROSS: ...And, I think, trying to be sympathetic to everyone, although you wouldn't necessarily agree with everyone.
RIDLEY: Well, to your point, yes. And in the clip that you played, you have Tim Hutton and Felicity Huffman talking about their past, talking about their relationship - two parents of one of the murder victims who are trying to reconcile their strange relationship. And as you say, Felicity's talking about her perceptions of how she was treated as a single white mother raising her two white kids in public housing. Things that she says can be interpreted and may very well be bigoted, but coming from a place of true experience, as opposed to someone who maybe grew up in an isolated suburban area - never had a true interaction with people of color or people of a different faith, but has a certain belief system because that's how people in their surrounding area believe. She believes very clearly that what she feels is a direct result of her environment, and she cannot be dissuaded of that. And she's a mother who is very passionate about trying to resolve a set of circumstances for a very specific reason - because of her kids.
GROSS: It's, I think, very hard to write from a variety of points of view representing different ethnic, racial and religious groups without managing to offend someone.
GROSS: People get very easily offended it nowadays. And everybody is so sensitive to anything that could be interpreted as, you know, offensive or stereotyped, so is this something you always had to check? Did you always run lines pass somebody from the ethnic or religious group or racial group that you were writing about to see, like, did this come out OK? (Laughter).
RIDLEY: Yeah, I've been writing for a very long time. And you can say good morning, and you can offend half the population.
RIDLEY: And it's something you have to get past. In terms of vetting things or putting things in front of folks, I work with an amazing writing staff - amazing in their ability, amazing just as people and also amazing because it was easily one of the most reflective writing staffs probably working in Hollywood.
And I say reflective versus diverse. A lot of people like to use the word diversity. I think diversity is something we tried to achieve in the '70s. Right now, organizations need to be in reality, not in diversity. So we had individuals with all kinds of backgrounds. And it wasn't necessarily about vetting or is this proper because even people within ethnic group or race or religion are going to see things differently. And that's part of what we get into in the show. But it's just saying are these things coming from a real human point?
GROSS: The series is being broadcast against the backdrop of a series of police shootings of African-American men and of shootings of police. Where in that chronology did you write the series?
RIDLEY: That's a very, very good question. And when we started the series, it was late - sort of mid-to-late 2013, and it was after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting. And ABC approached me about the show, and they approached me - this was before "12 Years A Slave" came out and some blessings in my professional life. And they were very committed to try to tell a story that was provocative, that challenged.
But working through it and developing the show, even though television - very quick development process - there was a feeling amongst us. You know, maybe we, as a nation, had moved past certain things. Maybe we expended a lot of energy in this Trayvon Martin trial, and we'd grown. Or if the incident happened again -something like it - we would respond in a different way.
In the middle of shooting the series, we had Ferguson that happened, and not long after, we had (inaudible) New York. And then there's - a couple weeks ago - I'm from the state of Wisconsin. There was that shooting in Madison. And suddenly, you realize this was not a show about looking back. This was not a period piece. This was a show that was going to be timely if it was done five years ago, if it was done 20 years ago, if it was done right this very minute if we were filming. And unfortunately, it may still be timely five years from now. Particulars may change. Circumstances, unfortunately, seem to be very, very similar.
GROSS: So I want to play another scene from "American Crime," and this is from episode three. One of the suspects in the murder is in - he's in prison. He's African-American. His girlfriend, who is not in prison, is white. They 're both meth addicts, and they are both broke and semi-homeless. So he's in prison. It happens to be his birthday, and his sister, played by Regina King, comes and visits him. She's African-American and Muslim - a convert. She's talking with him in his cell. So here's Regina King as the sister and her brother Carter is played by Elvis Nolasco.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME")
ELIVS NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) How'd you find out about me?
REGINA KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) Celeste - she emailed me. What did they charge you with?
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) A bunch of stuff, but murder...
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) I'm going to get you a lawyer.
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) I got a lawyer.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) No, I'm going to get you a lawyer that's working for a cause and not a dollar. I'm willing to do that for you. I'm willing to fight for you, Carter, but I won't do it for nothing. You have to do some things. You can't keep living like this. You have to change, and change begins when you will humble yourself, when you beg forgiveness.
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) I'm not begging you for nothing.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) I'm not the one. Only Allah...
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) Seriously? Kill that.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) Why is that wrong? Why is it wrong to believe in something that's bigger than yourself?
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) 'Cause I don't believe in that crap, and I don't need that stuff to get by.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) What do you need- drugs? You need sex with little white girls? And you wonder why you're accused? You take their drugs, you sleep with their women, and then they put you in their cage.
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) Don't come in here with your fake-[expletive] religion nonsense.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) What I believe is real.
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) Real? Real - (laughter) are you for real, Doreen? That's your name. That's your real name, not Aisha, Ashanti.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) Aliyah.
NOLASCO: (As Carter Nix) Whoever you pretend to be. Doreen Nix - the name that Mommy and Daddy gave you.
KING: (As Aliyah Shadeed) Aliyah is who I've become, and there is nothing fake about it. I embrace who I am.
GROSS: A scene from "American Crime." John Ridley, you wrote that episode. (Laughter).
RIDLEY: Wow. I did, but, man, Elvis and Regina - they gave it life.
GROSS: Was that an uncomfortable scene for you to write? It gets into a lot of really difficult issues, and I'm sure that there are a lot of families that have divisions within them about faith. And that might be particularly true in families where there's been a conversion to another faith, whether it's to Christianity or Islam or any other form. And it gets at the basic idea of what is family? What are you born into? What do you choose? Who are you? How much do you get to choose your identity? And then it gets very politicized, too.
RIDLEY: Yeah. For me, in writing the scene, I wanted to be able to substitute faith for politics or family values for, you know, are you vegetarian or are you a meat-eater? I mean, the things that we can trip over in family - you know, they're wide. You know, we grow. We move to other parts of the country. We meet people that we love, but maybe our parents are not crazy. Or our parents want us to marry this person, but that's not the way we feel. You know, to have to go to your parents and say, the person I want to marry is, you know, she's Jewish, but I'm Christian. She's white, but I'm black. I'm gay. He's gay.
It could have been anything, but I wanted to make sure that within that, that it really felt like, more than anything, not two people trying to proselytize about a particular issue - a brother and sister at the most stressful time in life coming together, saying, I'll help you. I'll help you, but here are these conditions. You need to do this. You need to do that. You know, a young man who is potentially facing the death penalty who's saying, look, I'd rather go it alone with a public appointed defender than have to acknowledge the faith that I don't agree with. And a sister saying, I'll do anything. I'll get anybody. I can get anything behind you, but you've got to convert to Islam, and you got to do it right now.
GROSS: My guest is John Ridley, the creator the ABC-TV series "American Crime." After a break, we'll bring Benito Martinez into the conversation. He costars in "American Crime." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the new ABC TV series "American Crime." With me is the creator of the series, John Ridley, who wrote and directed several of the episodes. And I would like to bring into the conversation now Benito Martinez, who plays the role of Alonzo Gutierrez. He's the father of a teenage boy who is now one of the suspects, even though we, the audience, know how he's been implicated in this, but we're pretty sure that he is not guilty of what he's being charged, which is being an accomplice to murder. I want to start with a scene, Benito Martinez, that you're in. And I should just mention to our listeners, you probably also know Benito Martinez from his roles as the Police Captain David Aceveda in "The Shield." He was in "Sons Of Anarchy." In "House Of Cards," he's been the Republican Senate majority leader. So you've been raising your two children alone since your wife died. Your son and your daughter are teenagers now.
BENITO MARTINEZ: Yes.
GROSS: You're very strict with them. They think that you treat them like babies, and they're starting to rebel. So after this murder, your son is stopped by the police in the car that's the vehicle implicated in the murder. So one of the cops asks the son for permission to ask him a few questions and the son agrees. And then they've called you and you come in. And the detective asks - also asks you if he can ask you a few questions and you agree. And here's the rest of the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME")
BRENT ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) Now, your son was stopped driving this car. Is that car in the possession of your garage?
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) I tell him to drive it around the block when he has to, but he knows he's not supposed to be on the street with that.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) And do you recall personally operating that vehicle outside your property this past Sunday?
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Sunday? No.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) Would anyone else have had access to the vehicle?
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) We had the keys, nobody else.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) Well, Mr. Gutierrez, your son told us that he wasn't at home on Sunday night. Do you recall if Tony was home with you?
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) No, he wasn't at home.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) Mr. Gutierrez, do you know where your son was?
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Well, he told me he was working on the car.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) Tony, were you working on the car? Or were you out riding around in it?
Tony was telling us that it's just you at home. Is that right?
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Yes.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) My wife and I, we recently separated, so I know how hard it is.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) No, no, it's different. We didn't - My wife, Roberta, had a heart thing.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) I'm very sorry about that. Mr. Gutierrez, we need your son to tell us what's going on. If he tells us what happened, if he tells us the truth, then that's that. But if he lies to us, that's going to be a problem.
JOHNNY ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) Papi, yo no se nada.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Not like that. If you have something to say, you say it. Are you lying to them? Are you lying?
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) No.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) So that wasn't our car?
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) I don't know.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Everything he's saying - that wasn't our car?
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) No se nada.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Stop it. Stop lying. You want to go to jail? You want to be another cholo in jail?
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) I want to go home.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Tell the truth. Tell him what happened.
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) I don't know.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) What did you do?
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) Nothing, you never let us do nothing.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) Antonio, was that our car?
ORTIZ: (As Tony Gutierrez) Yes.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) We always told him - him and his sister, we always told them, stay away from gangs, stay away from drugs. Roberta and I, we came to this country the right way - the right way. And we always told him, do things the right way.
ANDERSON: (As Detective Palmer) Yes, sir.
MARTINEZ: (As Alonso Gutierrez) So, he'll tell you whatever. Whatever it is, he's going to tell you.
(Laughter)That's painful to relive, I have to say.
MARTINEZ: Well, you know...
GROSS: And this is Benito Martinez speaking, who is playing the father in the scene.
MARTINEZ: The beauty of the scene is that, you know, the father comes in, he steps in and he thinks he's doing the right thing. He's going to stand up and take care of his kid. Initially he's like, oh, you were just driving the car around the block. Is that what this is about? Yeah, I gave him permission. It's just a car, yeah. Yes, I know he doesn't have a license. That's fine. We're fine. And quickly things start escalating.
GROSS: And in trying to teach his son respect for the law or respect for authority, that honesty is always the way to go, he basically extracts a confession from his son without a lawyer present. And then the son is just, like, locked up and accused for being an accomplice to murder. So, like, this - the father has unknowingly done the worst thing imaginable for his son in trying to do the best thing for his son and teach his son a lesson.
GROSS: Benito Martinez, I was wondering if there were any experiences you could draw on as a father or as a son in playing this role.
MARTINEZ: Well, when I first read it, the kid, played incredibly by Johnny Ortiz, I knew him right off the bat because that's who I was when I was a kid. I was not a bad kid. I had a lot of energy. I was very close to my dad and, you know, I have three sisters. And then, getting into the character, my dad was a mechanic. My dad was very much a yes sir, yes ma'am, you know, follow the rules. He was - he went into the Army. When he got out, he was, you know, everything had a proper place. There was a set of guidelines that we must always abide by. So even though Alonso's not exactly my dad, there were elements to that that I immediately understood. And then now I'm also a father of two teenage girls. What's great in the piece is that the love that Alonso has for his kids and for his life and for doing the right things is the pillar - is the staff that he uses, the staff that he wields. And when it doesn't - when it's not the fix-all for everything, he has to try something different. And that's the growth the ends up happening in the family. But he goes through a heck of a lot of terrible things before that growth can happen.
GROSS: Your character is very proud of the fact that we, quote, "came here the right way," meaning as opposed to people who came here illegally and could be deported.
MARTINEZ: Right, right.
GROSS: Because even he has stereotypes about other Mexicans who cross, you know, cross the border.
MARTINEZ: Who may have gotten here a certain way and they're not legal about it and everything else.
GROSS: Right, right.
MARTINEZ: And that's - and he's proud of that. He's prideful in so many different ways. And it's - I want to be sensitive to the fact that people, you know, have their own realization and their own labels that they like to give themselves. I know people who I've come across and they just want to be Mexican and they never want to get a green card. If they get the green card, they never want to be fully - become a citizen fully. I know others who were - who were born and raised here and will never say Mexican-American. They say that they're Mexican. I know - I just met a guy the other day. He was born in Michoacan. He moved out here, was raised with his mom. And I said, so, are you Mexicano? And he says, no, no. I'm Mexican-American. I identify more with the American culture. So I'm familiar with that in a large way. But as far as an immigrant story per se, you know, I'm from New Mexico, and the border moved on us, you know? We never crossed the border. You know, old Indians and old Spaniards and, you know, when the border was north of us, we were Mexican. And then when the border moved south of us, we were New Mexican and American. And this was, you know, the same for Arizona and parts of California. And that's my immigration experience. I don't have any roots or family from south of today's Mexican border.
GROSS: My guests are Benito Martinez, who costars on the new ABC series "American Crime," and John Ridley, who created the series. After we take a short break, Martinez will talk more about his life and about his role on the series, "The Shield," as Police Captain David Aceveda. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Ridley, the creator of the new ABC series "American Crime," and Benito Martinez, who costars in the series as the father of a high school boy implicated in a murder. Ridley won an Oscar for writing "12 Years A Slave." Martinez co-starred in "The Shield" as Police Captain David Aceveda. On the Netflix series, "House Of Cards," Martinez plays Republican Senator Hector Mendoza. When we left off, Martinez was talking about growing up in New Mexico, but he went to school in LA at Hollywood High. He told me how he got there.
MARTINEZ: My mom started a theater company in Albuquerque, and it became pretty popular. It was called La Compania de Teatro de Albuquerque. We used to call it La Compania. It was a Spanish bilingual theater company that was founded by Jose Rodriguez and my mom and other people in Albuquerque. Jose Rodriguez was a graduate of RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And he happened to stumble onto the University of Albuquerque and fell in love with Albuquerque and the land of enchantment and all that. That's why he stayed. He then proceeded to teach all these people who were students by day and waitresses by day. At night he would teach them in the style of the Royal Academy - how to move, how to breath, allocution, thought development, character. And as a kid, my mom couldn't afford - I mean, I was a kid - my mom couldn't afford a babysitter. So she would bring me and my three sisters to the rehearsals. And we grew up watching these professionals and got an understanding that this is what it takes to create theater. So my oldest sister, Patrice, joined the theater company. And she started - she was Joan of Arc and she did Dom Peninpline (ph) and she did all the classics and all these wonderful things and got accepted to RADA on a full ride scholarship. She graduated RADA after three years.
GROSS: That's the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
MARTINEZ: The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And then she's back in Albuquerque. She's like, well, now what? So she took of to LA. She had no idea how hard it was, and came back a couple of weeks later. And my mom said, oh, well, we got to get out there. During the course of the many years that La Compania was successful and doing all our stuff, one of the directors from California had come out here - Jorge Huerta. And he - he said, if you guys ever move to California, there's a performing arts high school out there that you've got to go to if you can. So my mom said - she called the counselor and she said, look, we're from La Compania. Jorge Huerta knows us. He put in a word for us at the school. And I got into the performing arts high school along with my sister. And that was the move we needed to come out here and help my sister Patrice get on with her journey and her career.
GROSS: So you're really from a theater background.
MARTINEZ: I'm a theater dog. I mean, I was born and raised in the theater. I went and studied theater in high school. I went to performing arts - I ended up going to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for three years. So I was in school with Toby Stephens and Alan Cox, who was Brian Cox's son, Stephen Moyer, who's from "True Blood," Julie Hesmondhalgh.
GROSS: Oh, that's hysterical. OK.
MARTINEZ: Yeah, all of us were the same year.
GROSS: OK. Here's what I really want to know.
GROSS: I read in the always reliable Wikipedia...
MARTINEZ: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: I think that's where it was - that (laughter) you have a certificate in stage combat. Do I have that right?
MARTINEZ: Yeah. I'm an advanced level stage combat fighter.
GROSS: What does that mean?
MARTINEZ: I used to do karate and boxing growing up. When I moved to London, they didn't let me do any physical activity. They didn't want me to be bulky or anything else. But what they did have, thanks to Rodney Courtier, who is one of the incredible teachers at the school, they had what they called fight night. And so they would teach all the actors - all of us actors had to know how to fence. We're doing Shakespeare. You know, if you're going to be Hamlet, if you're going to be, you know, Tybalt, you had to know how to carry a sword and fence. Well they made a big thing about it and so you had to get a fencing certificates and you would get different levels. So I just loved it. So I learned every kind of fencing I could. I learned broadsword and sword and buckler and shield and sword and French tip and sabers and everything else. So by the time I finished I had an advanced certificate and I was doing my own choreography.
GROSS: Why don't we hear scene with you in "House Of Cards"? And in this scene, it's a Senate confirmation hearing and you're questioning the first lady, Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, who wants to be confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And she's been doing pretty well in the hearings. But now you're questioning her and things take a turn for the bad.
(SOUNDBITE TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) As a vocal proponent for the sexual assault bill last session, are you concerned about your relationship with the U.S. military?
ROBIN WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) No, I'm not, Senator. I worked closely with the joint chiefs on that bill.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) What if there were a peacekeeping mission in, say, Burma to quell civil unrest, and the United Nations asked us to contribute troops, to put our servicemen and women's lives in peril?
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) Well, if you're using Myanmar as a hypothetical, I think we're a long way from that. But as ambassador...
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) My question concerns the use of U.S. military.
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) The U.S. military is irrelevant. The current situation in Myanmar is not...
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) Excuse me, Mrs. Underwood. The U.S. military is irrelevant?
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) That's not what I said.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) You said, verbatim, the U.S. military is irrelevant.
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) Well, in the context of - I meant that there are plenty - I have the utmost respect and appreciation for our troops, sir.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) Not with statements like that you don't.
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) OK, Senator, if I may, I can explain.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) How do we explain to the men and women who serve, who put their lives on the line, that our ambassador thinks they're irrelevant?
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) I think that's an unfair characterization of what I intended to say.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) I'm not characterizing anything, Mrs. Underwood. You said the words and now you're trying to backpedal your way out of it.
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) No, sir, you're trying to take my words out of context.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) Please don't interrupt me.
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) If you will stop interrupting me I can explain to you what I meant.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) No. We ask the questions. You answer them.
WRIGHT: (As Claire Underwood) You're not allowing me to answer the question, Senator. If you could maybe listen instead of grandstanding.
MARTINEZ: (As Hector Mendoza) The position you're being considered for requires calm, cool diplomacy. What concerns me even more than the military comment is your demeanor. Is this what we're to expect from our ambassador, a hothead? Go ahead, Mrs. Underwood. I'm listening.
GROSS: (Laughter) A scene from "House Of Cards" with my guest Benito Martinez as the Republican Senator Hector Mendoza. This is why we love politics.
MARTINEZ: There was - when we shot that, well, to see the final cut, it was great how they made me like a shark, because you see me in the distance. I'm out of focus over here then I'm clicking the pen. And they kind of have me circling, even though I'm not saying anything, as they keep cutting back to me until I finally take her on. That was very clever the way they edited that all out.
GROSS: Benito, have you had trouble getting roles at any point in your career?
MARTINEZ: (Laughter) Well, Russell Crowe keeps getting all the roles I really want.
MARTINEZ: That guy. Damn him. You know, when I got out of drama school, I thought, you know, here I am, classically trained in London. I'm going to come back. I'll be the next Raul Julia, the next Anthony Quinn. You know, put me on stage. Put me anywhere. I'll do it all.
MARTINEZ: And I would go in to auditions. I was like, yeah, I went to LAMDA and they'd go, where's that? I was like, huh? You don't know the best drama school in the world? And they would say, oh, is that theater? No, this is not theater. We don't want theater actors. I didn't understand. And early on, you know, I'd go reading for a role like Chewy, the gang member, and I had an English accent. Hello, I'm Chewy. I'll be your - let me just (clears throat) - (unintelligible). Put your hands up. OK. Thank you very much. And I would leave. And they were like - they would call my agent - what is doing? What's his act over here? Like, what did he do? So then I would go and I wouldn't speak. And I'd just go, yeah, hello, mhmm, mhmm, mhmm. (Unintelligible). What you want? And then, you know, that was my audition. I'd leave. And you know, I was a 21-year-old actor, 22 year-old actor and all the roles that were for me were just, you know, gang members or, you know, waiters or something. As a struggling young man who happened to be Mexican-American, probably from across the border, you're in trouble. So thankfully, I ended up in a movie called "Mi Familia," and I played the young Eddie Olmos. And it was Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales and Lupe Ontiveros and just, you know, a who's who of actors, written and directed by Gregory Nava. And I really, you know, it put me on the map of a Latino actor who's serious and mentioned in that - with those names. Immediately after, I got a movie called "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman. And between those two movies, within the course of a year, I was able to then do a lot of theater and live off residuals and be a lot more picky about what I was going to do. And I was able to build a resume that I was like, yeah, I want to play that role or, you know what? I don't want to go out for that role today. I have three performances with Will & Company. I'd rather go do that.
GROSS: That worked (laughter).
MARTINEZ: Yeah, it ended up working, you know? But I love the whole capacity of it. I grew up in the mariachi. I was playing guitar in my dad's band when I eight.
GROSS: Wow, really?
MARTINEZ: Yeah. So I would do that, and then the next week they'd say, can you learn the guitarron - the other instrument over here? And by, you know, a of couple months I'd learn that instrument. I was playing trumpet in the marching band. So doing that and working in the theater and having this house that, you know, we were all just crazy artists and everything else, that's where I'm most comfortable.
GROSS: My guests are Benito Martinez, who costars in the new ABC series, "American Crime," and John Ridley, the creator of the series. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Benito Martinez, who is one of the stars of the new ABC crime series which is called "American Crime." And also with us is John Ridley, who created the series and has written and directed several episodes. I want to play a scene from an episode of "The Shield" that - Benito Martinez, you were one of the stars in it. You played one of the - you played the police captain, David Aceveda, of a precinct in LA that has, like, a lot of drugs, a lot of gangs. And in season three, there's an episode in which you're taking part in a bust at a house. And then you stay behind, and two gang members return. One of them rapes you. You are so traumatized by this rape that you try to get these guys behind bars. You trail the accomplice for months and finally kill him after he robs a store.
GROSS: And then the rapist is busted. He's in a holding cell on other charges when you walk in, question him and then threaten him. And here's an excerpt of that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SHIELD")
MARTINEZ: (As Captain David Aceveda) I spent the last few weeks getting to know who you are, Juan. You know your girlfriend Elisa's been [expletive] someone else?
KURT CACERES: (As Juan Lozano) Yeah, right.
MARTINEZ: (As Captain David Aceveda) It's someone you know - Horatio, when go play cards with your boys twice a week. She likes it, too.
CACERES: (As Juan Lozano) Yeah. Think I care what that [expletive] does? No.
MARTINEZ: (As Captain David Aceveda) I know you've got a grandmother who's sick, only got a couple of years left, but she spends every day worried that immigration's going to find her and send her back to Mexico to die. Maybe I should send a few border boys to knock on her door.
CACERES: (As Juan Lozano) (Laughter) No.
MARTINEZ: (As Captain David Aceveda) I know your mom's late on her mortgage payments, and she's involved in some pyramid scheme to make the money to save the house.
CACERES: (As Juan Lozano) I barely even talk to that drunk (laughter).
MARTINEZ: (As Captain David Aceveda) I know you're working stolen credit cards for your gang, and I know you're skimming profits off the top even though Elisa keeps telling you it's going to get you killed. I know about the headaches you get. I know about the uncle who molested you when you were 12. I know about your cousin who's trying to get a scholarship to UC Irvine. I know which magazines you [expletive] to that you think Elisa doesn't know about. I know about your brother in Fresno. I know the inmate who tried to shank you twice at Terminal Island is Choran Hennessy Denton (ph), and I know the number to call to clear up a bunk in his cell just for you.
CACERES: (As Juan Lozano) So you [expletive], and then when you had the gun on me, you couldn't pull the trigger.
MARTINEZ: (As Captain David Aceveda) You think I couldn't find the courage to kill you? I spent the last three weeks finding the courage not to kill you. And don't think for a second it means I don't believe in revenge. You tell just one person some wild story about some incident that never happened, you, the people you love, will find out about a dozen different kinds of revenge. You will learn the things I know, Juan, the things I can do.
GROSS: Very nice (laughter). And that's my guest Benito Martinez as Captain David Aceveda in season three, episode 10 of "The Shield." When you found out that you were going to be raped in an episode, what was your reaction, and...
MARTINEZ: I asked right away - Shawn Ryan (laughter) - I got called into his office. He said, I need you to read this. And I read it, and I went back to him. I said, what's plan B?
GROSS: You know...
MARTINEZ: He said, take the weekend to think about it. I called my agent and my manager, spoke to my wife and my mom. My manager, who's a guy, said, no way are you going to do this. My agent, who's a lady - she said, oh, it's a great idea. My mom said, I don't think you're ready for that. And my wife said, I think you could do this, but I don't want to see anything. So whatever you're going to do, have them stage it so that I don't see anything. So I had all this - nobody I - you know, the opinions varied, and I kind of had to make up my own mind. And realized, if I went - if was going to take this leap of faith and do this kind of character, what was the long game? "Sopranos" had just done something similar to it, where the psychiatrist...
RIDLEY: It was the psychiatrist.
MARTINEZ: Yeah. She had just gotten raped in an episode, and they never mentioned it ever again. And I thought that was really odd. And I had this conversation with Shawn Ryan. I was like, well, where does this take me? And he goes, it takes you to a very dark place. And we're going to take you on this whole route. Well, then I realized that this was the writing staff that would do it. And it was a good time. And I got the full understanding of it all. And then I would - I went to rape counseling centers, and they talked about this, and learned a lot more than I realized about male rape and how often it happens.
GROSS: So I want to ask you both. John Ridley, Benito Martinez, you've both done your share of crime dramas. And John Ridley, I mean, your thing - you started off writing crime fiction. And "American Crime" isn't really a crime drama per se. It's really more of a character story with a crime at the center of it. But anyways, I'm wondering if you've - if either of you have had experiences with being a victim or experiences with being in the criminal justice system that have helped inform your work, you know, as, you know, actor, writer, whatever.
RIDLEY: I would just add, I have never had anything happen to me like happens to the characters in the show. I hope that none of my family members ever do, and I hope people who are listening to this right now never do. But part of being a writer is that creative extrapolation of things, of feelings that you have, whether it's something like crime, whether it's about family, whether it's about faith, whatever. Not been involved with it much, I can only imagine what it's like, and I can only say, I'm very thankful that that's where it ends, with my imagination.
MARTINEZ: Yeah, no. Personally, I haven't had things like that happen. I have never seen the inside of a jail cell, and I've never been arrested. I've never had handcuffs put on me. But I have been stopped because I was a Latino in the wrong neighborhood before. I have been pushed against a wall because I was probably the wrong color skin in the wrong place.
GROSS: Can I ask how you handled that?
MARTINEZ: Well, I'm blissfully ignorant, so I never think that, you know, it has anything to do with my skin color. I just kind of go, oh, well, you've just got the wrong guy. And I just (laughter) - you're not talking to me. And the guy's like, yeah, I am talking to you. It can't be me. I didn't do anything (laughter). I'm not sure what's going on here (laughter). So yeah, that was odd. The one - yeah, so I've the victim of stereotype profiling. I mean, I was mowing my lawn, and somebody pulled over and said, doing a great job.
MARTINEZ: You know?
RIDLEY: Can I get your card?
MARTINEZ: Can I get your card?
RIDLEY: Yeah, I got a house down the block.
MARTINEZ: And I went, this is my house. And they went, oh, you own the house. Doing - and they said again, doing a great job, very slowly so I would understand, and then drove away.
MARTINEZ: I've been outside in front of a restaurant, you know? I'm out there wearing a nice suit, waiting for my car. And some lady comes up to me in a mink coat, and she hands me a ticket. She goes, it's the Mercedes.
MARTINEZ: And I - I'm looking at her like, what is, you know, and what's happening here? I don't know you. And she looked me up and down again. She goes, oh, no, you're too nicely dressed, and just did a 180 and walked and just went up to another guy.
MARTINEZ: And I'm standing there going, did she ask me to get her car? Those things happen. I was holding the door open for a guy one time, and he says, how come you didn't meet me at the car?
MARTINEZ: And I'm like - this was in Utah, and I was in front of a hotel. And I was like, I'm not understanding you, sir. What's going on? Do you know me? And he thought I was the valet. I mean, there have been different times. And just people make gross assumptions based on where you happen to be standing and the color of your skin and this, that and the other. That happens. That's life, you know? If I'm honest, I probably make the same assumptions daily.
GROSS: Well, Benito Martinez, John Ridley, thank you both so much, and congratulations on "American Crime." Thank you.
MARTINEZ: Oh, thank you for everything.
RIDLEY: Thank you very much.
GROSS: John Ridley is the creator of the TV series "American Crime" which airs on ABC Tuesday nights. Benito Martinez co-stars in the series. There's a great Benito Martinez story that we didn't have time for in the broadcast, but you'll find it as an extra on our podcast of today's show. You can get our podcast on iTunes or whatever podcast app you use. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews last night's premiere of "The Late Late Show With James Corden." This is FRESH AIR.
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