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'Longmire': A Martinez Peaks at 69

Costar in Netflix's hit western says Native Americans are winning at last

A. Martinez on season 6 of 'Longmire'

John Golden Britt/Netflix

A Martinez plays an activist owner of Wyoming's Four Arrows Casino in "Longmire.”

The modern western Longmire became A&E's No. 1 scripted drama, got canceled (apparently for having too many grownup viewers), was saved through a mass protest by fans — as Star Trek was in the '60s — and found new life and artistic freedom on Netflix. All the show's mysteries are solved in its final 10 episodes of Season 6, which starts streaming Nov. 17. Longmire costar A Martinez, 69, who plays Jacob Nighthorse, the activist owner of Wyoming's Four Arrows Casino, says it's the best thing that ever happened — and not just for him.

You're the only actor I've interviewed who got the break of his lifetime at 64.

No kidding, man! That's when I got Longmire. I'd surfaced in the soap Santa Barbara (1984-92), but when my face faded from that [young] face, it was difficult to get work for a few years. Someone told me, "When your hair goes gray, there'll be work for you." My hair wasn't gray, but once I grew gray hair on my face, suddenly I'm not suffering.

Did Longmire succeed because it has classic western DNA — and also ripped-from-the-headlines themes about reservation life?

Yeah, it's got a lot of the western values in it. Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), whose way of looking at the world is in danger of being rendered obsolete, is holding on to his values by sheer force of will. He's smart, soulful, intuitive, brave. But he has demons: He's lost his wife and doesn't know who's responsible. It makes him inflexible when a bit of compromise would be more useful.

What's your character Jacob Nighthorse's demon?

His demon is what's happened to Native Americans, what it's like to live on a reservation on the Wyoming border. Nighthorse was a radical in the day who's become a businessman and policeman. He's preposterously rude, which is fun to play. He'll bend rules and accuse the sheriff of doing the same thing. They both stand up for ideals, and there's respect that neither wants to articulate. There's a poet in Nighthorse. He uses more words than necessary because he loves to hear himself talk.

That's not the classic western cliché of the noble native of few words, or with a silent tear in an anti-littering commercial. Nowadays Native Americans won't pipe down.

Yeah! I often play villains, and when you get to play one who's educated, who has the chops of a lawyer, it feels like sitting down to a wonderful meal.

Cassidy Freeman and A. Martinez on season 6 of 'Longmire'

Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Cassidy Freeman plays the only child of Sheriff Walt Longmire, a man who is skeptical of Jacob Nighthorse, played by A Martinez (above).

What does Sheriff Longmire see in Nighthorse?

Someone who's got his hands in every bad thing. Whenever there's trouble anywhere, his antennae say Nighthorse is responsible — and escaping responsibility.

But ... Nighthorse kind of is guilty, right?

The deepest questions have yet to be answered, but he's willing to do anything to get redress for the fate of the Cheyenne. When the show started he was widely labeled as the bad guy. But he's actually operating from a legitimate, admirable position. On the reservation, people come in and commit crimes — rape, murder — and you cannot prosecute them. Methane comes out of your faucets from fracking and catches fire. Finding medical or legal help is incredibly difficult. Hundreds of treaties were broken, a culture was obliterated. And you're going to call him a criminal?

Things seem to be looking up for Native Americans on-screen. You've got seven Daytime Emmy nominations and one win. And your Filipino-Scot-Irish-Cherokee Longmire costar Lou Diamond Phillips, 55, pointed out that decades ago, they'd hire someone who looks vaguely ethnic for an Indian role, like Ukrainian American Leonard Nimoy. Now they hire a Native American, like Martin Sensmeier of 2017's Wind River — shot in Wyoming with costar Graham Greene, the only Native American Oscar nominee. And Greene's on Longmire, too!

Also we've got Gary Farmer [a triple Independent Spirit Award nominee], who I played opposite in Powwow Highway, another Cheyenne story. Zahn McClarnon jumped out of Longmire to do a brilliant turn on the second season of Fargo. We're on the cusp of a grand opening on a lot of levels in the culture. Every year 10,000 people show up in Buffalo, Wyo. (pop. 4,600), to celebrate Longmire Days with the cast and producers.

And local rancher turned best-selling Longmire author Craig Johnson, 56, had to apologize to the Buffalo sheriff because 13 fans wrote in votes on their ballots for Walt Longmire to lead the department in Johnson County, Wyo.

I've been working 50 years, and I've never had anything mean so much as this show does to people.

Young actors get more roles, but didn't you get better at acting after 50 years of practice?

You can see it in the 1,600 episodes of Santa Barbara. At the beginning I'm a nervous wreck, wired on profound amounts of coffee and power bars all day. Give that guy a chill pill, or his head will explode! By the end, I'm playing a recognizable human. I didn't want to do Santa Barbara. I had disdain for soap operas, and thank God they didn't take me at my word when I turned it down at first.

What Longmire scene made you proudest?

Walt sees Jacob at a pool table. Jacob runs the table, Walt never makes a shot. Walt asks, "What is it that you really want?" Jacob sinks the eight ball, straightens up and says, "Wyoming."

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