Advertisement

HOLIDAY SNEAKS | ROLE PLAYING

No 'Law & Order'

In 'Rent,' Jesse L. Martin couldn't be more different from his role as Det. Ed Green.

November 06, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — TEN years ago, when Jesse L. Martin was first cast in "Rent," an offBroadway musical about the lives and loves of young bohemian artists in the East Village, he was still waiting tables to make ends meet and fretting about paying his own rent.

In the decade that followed, "Rent" went on to become a Broadway phenomenon -- one that continues to draw packed houses -- and Martin's career took off.

"I actually own now," said the 36-year-old actor, flashing the broad grin that's

well-known to fans of Det. Ed Green, the character he's played on "Law & Order" for the last six years.

Over coffee at a gourmet market in his Tribeca neighborhood on a recent fall afternoon, Martin contemplated the doors that opened after he got the role of Tom Collins, an HIV-positive computer whiz, in the original production of "Rent."

Michelle Pfeiffer spotted him in the show and suggested that her husband, television producer David E. Kelley, cast him as Calista Flockhart's love interest in "Ally McBeal." A year later, "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf selected Martin to replace Benjamin Bratt on the original program of the powerhouse franchise. Now Martin is set to star in a movie directed and produced by "Harry Potter" filmmaker Chris Columbus -- reprising the role of Collins in the long-awaited film version of "Rent," being released by Columbia Pictures and Revolution Studios Nov. 23.

"I'd be a fool to say I ever did anything better," said the goateed actor, having shed his trademark detective attire for a hip gray cap, button-down shirt and jeans on his day off. "It's such a combination of luck and preparedness and being naive enough to really believe that I could do it."

Martin now has some distance from the idealistic zeal that drives struggling artists, the energy that electrifies the story of "Rent." This time, he said he approached playing Collins with the ease and confidence of reuniting with an old friend.

"I think the luxury of doing it again is that I am very, very comfortable with the character," he said. "I've been afforded so many opportunities that I've relaxed dramatically. You're really able to focus on your work and why you're working, as opposed to, 'Thank God I'm working and I hope this lasts.' "

RADICALLY DIVERSE ROLES

IT remains to be seen what audiences familiar with his tough, streetwise cop on "Law & Order" will make of Martin in a movie musical, playing a gay man who falls in love with a transvestite street drummer -- a role he wryly calls "a big, big departure" from Det. Green.

So far, most of the early reaction has been focused on his voice. "Just from the previews being on television, people are going, 'I didn't know you sang!' " he said with a chuckle.

In fact, Wolf calls Martin "a true song-and-dance man," recalling watching the young actor and the late Jerry Orbach, who played his partner Lennie Briscoe, do soft-shoe dances together on the set of "Law & Order."

But Martin, who learned to sing in his church choir while growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., said the idea of doing a musical didn't initially interest him.

"I'm not a really big fan," he said.

But the darkness of creator Jonathan Larson's story appealed to him, as did working with the other cast members at the New York Theatre Workshop, where "Rent" was first staged. "Everybody had these raw, beautiful voices and was really bubbling with creativity," he recalled.

When Larson died at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm after watching the final dress rehearsal in January 1996, Martin and the rest of the cast were "absolutely stunned," he said.

Without the writer and composer, who had been constantly tinkering until the end, the show remained unfinished in many ways. "The sad part was that because Jonathan was gone, we didn't have any more words to work with, we didn't have any more music to work with," Martin said.

Even so, Larson's version of the opera "La Boheme," infused with modern-day issues such as AIDS, addiction and homelessness, hit a nerve. "A whole lot of young people felt like this was their voice, and it was being sung gloriously every night," he said. The show quickly moved to Broadway and won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and four Tony awards.

A movie version seemed inevitable, but several deals fell through, including one with director Spike Lee.

As time passed, "we had sort of given up hope that there would ever be a film version of this," Martin said. "If there was, we thought, 'We're not going to be in it.' "

So he was more than taken aback when he got a call last year from Columbus, saying he was doing the film and Martin was being considered for the role again. In the end, six of the original eight leads reprised their roles.

At first, some "Rent" fans expressed skepticism that Columbus, director of such mainstream fare as "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," had the right touch for the edgy material. But Martin said Columbus had a reverence for the story and the cast's original experience.

For their part, the actors remained vigilant regarding the views of the fans. Anthony Rapp, who plays Mark Cohen, was "our Renthead diplomat," regularly e-mailing and meeting with the show's devotees, Martin said.

"This was their show -- it belonged to them," he said. "We knew that, and there were times when we would tell Chris to include certain things just because the fans had become accustomed to seeing it that way or hearing the music that way or hearing a certain line that way. And he took everything into account and made sure it was in there."

Still, much had changed in the decade since the original production. The country is no longer gripped with fear about the AIDS epidemic, and the East Village has largely been overtaken by trendy restaurants and expensive lofts.

But Martin thinks the story's carpe diem message will still resonate.

"Love, living your life as if it's the last day, overcoming grief -- they are pretty universal themes."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|