By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Natalie Martinez may not be a household name yet, but the bubbly Miami native is certainly someone to keep an eye on.
She arrives for an interview in a bright blue bustier and black slacks, her long brown hair loose. Faded bruises are visible on her shoulders. They are temporary mementos of her profession that she wears like badges of honor.
“They’re from working in the cage,” she explains in her husky voice, referring to filming fight scenes in an MMA-style cage on her action-packed DirecTV series “Kingdom.” “I play an MMA fighter, like Ronda Rousey.”
The actress, who turns 31 on July 12, likes the physicality of her job almost more than acting. Audiences may know her from Robert Rodriguez’s 2008 sci-fi thriller “Death Race,” in which she played race car driver David Carradine’s navigator. or as Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in “Broken City.” She’s also appeared in music videos for Pitbull (“Rain Over Me”), Justin Timberlake (“Senorita”) and other artists. Actress/talent judge Jennifer Lopez’s handpicked her to serve as a model for her JLo fashion line. Not surprisingly, Martinez bears a strong resemblance to Lopez.
Because of her ability and willingness to get physical on screen, Martinez often is cast in law enforcement roles. She portrayed Sheriff Linda Esquivel in CBS’s “Under the Dome,” and police detectives in “Detroit 1-8-7,” and CSI: NY.” Memorably, she played Michael Pena’s supportive wife in the acclaimed 2012 police drama “End of Watch.”
In “Self/less,” a science-fiction actioner directed by visionary filmmaker Tarsem Singh (“The Cell,” “The Fall”), the rising star plays Madeline, the widowed wife of a combat vet, who makes a controversial choice to save his sick young daughter. His sacrifice allows her a second chance at living a normal life. When her supposedly dead husband (played by Ryan Reynolds) returns home one day followed by people who are trying to kill him, Madeline has to decide whether his story about having a different man’s consciousness in his brain is true or not. Brothers Alex and David Pastor, who previously penned the Chris Pine starrer “Carriers,” wrote the screenplay.
After her house blown to smithereens, Madeline flees with the man in her husband’s body who calls himself Damian. Images of her husband’s past flash in Damian’s mind, which leads him to where he made that fateful mind/body exchange with a dying older man. But time is running out. In a few days, what’s left of the young man’s memories will be completely gone, and it’s up to Damian (a rich old businessman played by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley) to decide whether he will make a selfless act on behalf of this young family.
Q: Why did you want to do this film?
Martinez: I like jobs that are kind of challenging. This was like an emotional rollercoaster. I thought to myself, “Can I do it?” When I do it, I feel such a sense of accomplishment. It’s a sci-fi psychological thriller but it’s set in real science. It’s not really that far off. I kind of like those movies that make you think and spark conversations after you watch them. It was a really interesting script and the people working behind it were great. We had such a talented cast and crew that were really amazing. I love that I feel tortured and have to cry throughout the movie.
Q: It must have been very emotional for you to do.
Martinez: I feel, lately, that all I’ve been doing is crying. (She laughs.) I’m a masochist. You want me to cry, suffer and go through hoops? I’ll do it.
Q: It’s interesting that Madeline, knowing that this man in her husband’s body isn’t really her husband, kisses him anyway at one point.
Martinez: It is interesting. I don’t think she quite believes (that’s not him). Imagine I’m telling you I’m someone else. She sees her husband right there in front of her physically so it’s hard for her to believe it’s not him.
I’ve known people who have passed away, and I’d give anything in the world to see them in the flesh one more time. I don’t care what form it is; I just want to touch them and feel them. That’s where that response from her comes from. It wasn’t even a thing about intimacy. It was more like “that one last time.” So I don’t think she was cheating on her husband; she was simply caught up in that moment. It was more like, “You’re here again so let me just feel you, let me just hug you, let me just touch you.”
Q: Plus, he looks like Ryan Reynolds, so that helps, right?
Martinez: (She laughs.) Yeah!
Q: What was more tortuous for you: the emotional journey of your character or having to be under a house that’s on fire?
Martinez: That’s the best part for me. The reason I wear pantsuits is because I have constant bruises all over my legs. Literally, all I do is fight. I do muay thai and I box and I’m very active, so when you tell me to roll under a house when it’s on fire, you’ve got guns shooting at you, and explosions going off, I’m down for it. That’s actually the easiest and most fun part of my job. I love action roles. What’s more exhausting is crying, because for me it really has to come from somewhere. When you have to cry and go through a scene and really expend yourself, it really takes a lot out of you.
Q: How do you prepare for these kinds of roles that require a lot of emotion from you?
Martinez: I have certain things I do to prepare. It depends on the role. Luckily, I’ve worked with great people so the director or the actors, or both together, have helped me kind of pull that out. The writing too, depending on the scene and what it’s like, has also helped. I have a whole filing cabinet of videos, voice messages and letters and memories. I’ll just pick out a file and then I’ll get emotional, whether it’s dead puppies or military heroes coming back home or Coldplay’s “Parachutes.” There are a million and one things that make me cry.
Q: Do you work with an acting coach?
Martinez: No, I don’t work with an acting coach anymore. Basically, I have auditions and my boyfriend and I go over the lines and talk about certain things. So in a way, my boyfriend’s my acting coach. I’ve booked four or five movies since I’ve been with him, so I’m going to keep him around for a little bit. (She laughs.)
Q: How was it co-starring with Ryan Reynolds?
Martinez: He was really funny and great and sweet and nice. He was cool. It was great to work with him.
Q: He’s got “Deadpool” coming up. Are you going to see it?
Martinez: I auditioned for it. (She laughs.) I wanted to be in “Deadpool” so bad. I don’t know. Being the love interest again would have been the Meg Ryan-Billy Crystal thing.
Q: Is there a superhero you’d like to play? Are you a comic book fan?
Martinez: Oh yeah! I want to play Princess Kitana from “Mortal Kombat.” I’m a fighter. (“Street Fighter’s”) Chun Li is my go-to for everything. I’m her every year for Halloween, even off-Halloween. One year, I dressed up as Michelle Obama dressed as Chun Li for Halloween. I had to mix things up to keep it creative. I have, like, four different Chun Li costumes. Superwoman is always someone I’ve looked up to. I can just kind of associate with her. But I’d like to come up with some Latin, fiery superhero chick; a crazy girl that dances in the night and then goes and saves the world.
Q: If you could come back as someone else, who would it be? This is something that scientists are working on: moving human consciousness into a robot.
Martinez: There is so much that you go through in life, I don’t need to do this twice. I’m really happy in the position I’m in. I don’t think the grass is greener on the other side. I feel like this life is the chance you’re given so live it to the fullest and do everything now that you’ve dreamed of or imagined, and at the finish line, just figure it out. Everyone else is going to die so what are you going to do? Stay alive? I could be a robot but when I give you a high five, you can’t feel (the emotion). So none of those things interest me. I’m content and happy with my life, and I want to stick this one through. But it would be kind of interesting to see life as a different gender. I’ve had my trials and tribulations that are amazing as a woman, so I wonder what that would feel like as a man.
Q: As a Cuban-American, are you looking forward to visiting the country of your parents now that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are thawing?
Martinez: I’ve already been there. My great-grandmother still lives there, and I have a lot of other family members there. Culturally, I just wanted to go there. My great-grandmother is 100. She’ll be 101 this year. So I really wanted to go there and see her and meet her. Actually, the moment I stepped foot there I felt like I was back home. Meeting her for the first time, it was like an instant connection. Seeing my family, seeing the land, and seeing my culture, it made so much more sense to me. It opened my eyes to the fact that we live in a world where some people don’t have choices and don’t have the freedom to do certain things. That was a big “Wow!”
Q: Are your family members in Cuba fans of your work?
Martinez: They are. They’ve seen bootleg copies of “Death Race.” They call me “artista,” the artist of the family. At the same time, sometimes that’s just not me. I’m just Natalie. I just want to eat some plantains and hang out.