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9 Quick Questions for Jesse L. Martin

Actor stars in NBC crime drama ‘The Irrational’

spinner image jesse l martin wearing hat against pink ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA; (Source: Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly)

Actor Jesse L. Martin, 55, is enjoying the challenge of playing a behavioral scientist in the NBC crime drama The Irrational, which returns Jan. 29 for the final episodes of Season 1. “I’ve played so many detectives in my career [and] it was very, very straightforward. [This character] is a lot more multifaceted.” Martin shares what he’s watching on TV these days, the Law & Order star he’d love to work with again, and the sage life advice he received from James Earl Jones.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Irrational shoots in Vancouver. Have you had time to explore the area?

Well, I actually do work a lot, so when I’m not working, it’s quite a boring story of what I actually do. Part of it’s catching up on sleep, for sure. But if I have enough time to sort of get fully rested … one of my pleasures is actually just putting the house back together — cleaning up and doing domestic chores, if you will. I don’t know why suddenly I get a big old kick out of that, but I do. Doing things like laundry. Vancouver’s fantastic. It’s certainly not New York City, but it is its own beast, and it’s absolutely beautiful here. Today it’s snowing, so it’s even more gorgeous.

spinner image jesse l martin as alec mercer, molly kunz as phoebe and arash demaxi as rizwan in a still from the irrational
Martin stars as behavioral scientist Alec Mercer in the NBC crime series “The Irrational.”
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

Were you surprised when they brought back the original Law & Order? And were you interested in revising your character?

Oh, I loved [Law & Order character] Ed Green. He was the man for a long time. But you certainly have to move on and diversify in all the things you get to do as an actor. And I really appreciate that somebody’s willing to still take me in and let me do my thing. I’m super grateful for it. ... I thought it was a good idea to bring back “the mothership” — that’s what we used to call the original Law & Order. I wasn’t sure if I had any real interest in going back to that space. I certainly loved working with the people, particularly S. Epatha Merkerson [who played Lt. Anita Van Buren]. I’d do anything to work with her again, in any capacity.

Who were your acting inspirations?

My mentor is [stage, TV and film actor] Stephen McKinley Henderson. … When I was around 11 years old, he came to my school and did sort of a one-man show of Clarence Darrow, who was a famous lawyer. I was absolutely amazed, mesmerized by this man. I went up to him after the performance and I told him that I wanted to do what he does. He asked me my name, and he said, “I’m going to look out for you, young blood.” And he has for years. He’s still my guy. He’s been doing the thing for a really, really long time. He was my first real inspiration.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It was my first year of college, [and James Earl Jones] came in to speak. I asked him, “As a young person trying to make a career out of acting, what would be your advice?” He said, “Well, if there’s something else that you can do, do that. But if it’s something you want to do, there’s nothing I could say that would stop you.” … When he said, “If that’s something you really want to do, there’s nothing I can say to stop you,” I was absolutely certain I was doing exactly what I wanted to do right then and there, because there wasn’t anything he could have said to stop me from doing it. Luckily, a couple years later, I got to do a little bit of a play for him. He was living in Poughkeepsie, New York, and his son was part of the Poughkeepsie Day School, and they were raising money to fund their arts program and build a new theater. We did a couple of benefit performances of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I got to work with him and stay at his little estate up there in Poughkeepsie. Gotta be one of my favorite people on the planet.

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What advice would you give to young actors today?

I would throw out a couple of things. First thing, though, [is]: Just be nice. You don’t have to like everybody, but be nice. And second: It doesn’t matter if you think you’re talented enough. If you really want it, just keep showing up. It always pays off.

What’s different for you now than when you were younger?

I’m certainly not much of a party person. When I was younger, of course, I did a lot of that. Now I’m entirely more interested in getting a good night’s sleep. Attitude-wise, I don’t really spend too much time worrying about what other people think or what other people do. I’ve definitely learned to mind my business. I’ve learned that it’s much better to hear than to say, to think more than talk. I also learned to take breaths and sit still and just kind of enjoy things as opposed to worrying about the future or worrying about things that happened in the past. I’m able to stay a lot more present lately. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody at our age, but it’s certainly true for me.

Any bucket list items you’d like to tackle?

One thing I would love to do is continue working in as many genres as possible. I have always been a stage person. So if Broadway calls again, I will certainly run back to the stage. The cool thing about getting to this age is you finally get to play all these really great characters. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare, and I’ve gotten to do a lot of Shakespeare on stage, and all the great characters in Shakespeare are much older— [they are roles] I couldn’t [play] when I was younger. And I’m [also] old enough to create the opportunities myself.

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What do you like to watch on TV?

I watch, honestly, a lot of docuseries. These sort of survivor, sort of lone-wolf kind of shows where people who are experts in surviving do these competitions. There’s a show called Alone that I think is just brilliant. These people who are professional survivalists go out alone and see how long they can stay there, live.

Are you an outdoorsy, survivalist kind of person yourself?

No, I think I like to watch it because I’m not that guy. I used to be a Boy Scout, but that was a long time ago, and I don’t know if my skills are still there. If I got stuck in the forest, I might be a little lost.

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