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If character actor Adrian Martinez was actually a thief in real life and not just playing one in the movie Focus (in theatres everywhere this Friday), he’d definitely find the honour among his fellow grifters. Charming and boasting a boisterous laugh, he’s the exact opposite of the more taciturn and drily witted character he plays in his latest big screen outing.

Martinez plays Farhad, one of the chief accomplices of confidants of Nicky (played by Will Smith), a master con artist who starts training a potentially gifted young upstart named Jess (Margot Robbie). With some help from Farhad and several other career criminals, Nicky trains Jess for a multi-layered and wide-reaching bait and switch operation at the Super Bowl, but he abandons her at the end of the job when he starts to have heavy romantic feelings for her. The two meet again in Argentina by chance when an F1 racing magnate (Rodrigo Santoro) brings Nicky in to help exact revenge on his competitors.

Martinez, who has most recently appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, American Hustle, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (just to name very few titles in addition to the half-dozen or so he has in various levels of production now), chatted with us during a recent promotional stop for his latest in Toronto. We talked about how con artists and actors aren’t that different, his conflicted feelings about being seen as a character actor, working with Focus’ talented cast and crew, and some of his more surprising early TV appearances.

Did you see the end of the movie coming?

Adrian Martinez: That’s actually one of the things that drew me to the script the most; the fact that I didn’t see the ending coming. When you read scripts, most of what you get tends to be really formulaic, and this one takes a really nice twist and a turn. That made me want to be a part of it.

Your character could be seen, other than Will Smith’s character, to be the only person who really knows most of what’s going on with the core cons. It’s hard to tell if Farhad is in on everything or if he’s still in the dark about a lot of stuff. How much do you think Farhad knew and what did you think of that dynamic between him and Nicky?

AM: I feel like the one thing that connected me to Farhad is that he’s extremely faithful to Nicky, and that’s something I can connect to. In my own life, the people I surround myself with I’m faithful to no matter what, to the death, even. I’m a scorpion [Scorpio], and we’re really loyal, faithful types. That was my main common ground with him, so that’s where I started to build the character was with that sense of loyalty. Farhad doesn’t know everything, but he knows he needs to protect his boss.

At one point in the film, you have to purposefully make Margot Robbie’s newbie feel a little uncomfortable. What was it like working with her on that scene?

AM: Yeah, that’s interesting because some people see it as kind of filthy, but he’s really doing what he has to do if you think about his job. He’s a con guy, and he’s trying to push her to see how far he can go with her and what he can get away with. He wants to see what she’s made of. That sort of stuff is a means to an end. He says stuff like that to see how she’s going to react. I think that Margot makes the smart choice and never lets this guy get to her. She can put up with anything I can throw at her. It was a little chess match there.

Margot’s absolutely cool, man, every twenty million people there’s someone who just gets everything, and that’s her. She’s gorgeous, intelligent, grounded, professional. There’s a lot being thrown at her right now, but you would never know. She’s cool and collected. She’s like Jane Bond. [Co-star] Gerald McRaney compared her to Marilyn Monroe, and he’s absolutely right. The sky’s the limit for her.

Margot Robbie and Adrian Martinez on the set of "Focus"

Margot Robbie and Adrian Martinez on the set of “Focus”

Since you have to work really closely with Will Smith as his kind of right-hand-man, what did you pick up from being around him?

AM: I got a sense of gratitude. You really get that sense that despite all the years he’s put in and all the miles he’s travelled, he’s still invested in really bringing it. He really wants to do something special each and every time he goes out. I mean, people knock him for something like After Earth, but the reality of it is that you don’t go into a movie to make it bad. You do the best you can and hope it works out right.

That’s what he brings to every take and every day; this relentless sense that says ‘I’m really gonna fucking go for it.’ You can just feel that sense of determination to make it work. This is a guy who has a trailer with just exercise equipment, and that trailer is about the size of this block we’re on now. At seven in the morning he’s working out, and I’m just, like, ‘Do I go with the multigrain bagel or the Cheerios?” (laughs) This is a guy who’s on another level in terms of his work ethic.

I noticed in the opening credits that the film employed a pickpocketing and conning consultant. What, if anything, were you able to learn from him and use in the film?

AM: My storyline is just the computer guy, so what our con artist consultant, Apollo Robbins, did was mostly with the other members of the cast. But one thing he did tell me over dinner – and I do want to watch my back (laughs) – is that you really, really have to be authentic, especially when you’re bullshitting. You just have to come from an authentic, real, emotional place when you lie. It’s kind of the same thing with acting. You’re using real emotions to sell imaginary experiences. That’s one thing we have in common with con men. We’re all selling something that’s truthful, but for fictitious reasons.”

You’ve worked in some smaller roles in bigger productions, and you speak really highly of your co-stars here. Are there any other people you’ve worked with that have inspired your work ethic?

AM: Ben Stiller on Walter Mitty was great to work with. Here’s a guy who starred in, directed, wrote, and produced the whole thing. He would do all that putting in sixteen hour days and then he’d get to work on helping edit it all when that was done. I’ve never seen someone work that hard, and that’s really inspiring. Will Ferrell, on Casa de Mi Padre, showed me a real sense of discipline. We would have Spanish cue cards for him on horses, literally, and you would never know. He’s not really a funny guy in real life. On set he was more like a banker. But once you said action, he came right in with this impeccable humour and timing. Different people make you think of different things.

With their past few films, Glen Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love) have proven really adept at crafting these equally lighthearted and serious films about personal interactions, but this one has a lot more movie parts and is a bit more ambitious in its structure than they’ve attempted before. What was it like working with them as writers and directors?

AM: I really appreciate what John and Glen did. They created a really safe atmosphere on set. We had takes that were scripted. We had takes that weren’t. There was always a sense of community and like a party was in the air.

Working with them is like driving in a Bentley. So much of everything is already set for you ahead of time. These guys spent a year just figuring out all the different scenarios for the sequence at the Superdome. That’s the kind of specificity that makes it easy for any actor to just come in say their lines, hit their marks, and just do their thing because the groundwork is so laid out that you just have to do your job and not mess things up. You just have to worry about being authentic.

Adrian Martinez stars as Farhad in the film "Focus"

Adrian Martinez stars as Farhad in the film “Focus”

You’re quickly amassing a great body of work as a character actor. What do you think people think of when they see you appear in a movie?

AM: I don’t think people think of my performances. (laughs) I’m just this guy who pops up in movies and TV shows and people will come up to me and say ‘I remember you from that thing, do you know what it was?’ and I’m, like, ‘I dunno, I wasn’t there when you watched me.’ Now it has gotten to the point where I give out cards that point people to my website because sometimes I just gotta take a leak and I can’t wait with them to try and see if the guess what they saw me in. (laughs) But I’m making a living doing work that I love to do.

I consider myself a leading man in a character actor’s suit. Hopefully everyone will catch up to that soon. (laughs) I grew up loving character actors, man. You know, like Wilson in Castaway. (laughs) He said so much, but said so little. I really loved [Richard Castellano] as Peter Clemenza in The Godfather. You need guys like that. He came up with the ‘Leave the gun, take the canoli,’ so sometimes those moments work. I think those guys give what you need in these movies. Not everyone can look like or act like Will Smith or Margot Robbie. You need the guy to counterbalance that, not that I’m not that good-looking. You need a sense of humour and, more importantly, a sense of perspective.

A couple of your more interesting credits are how you had your first role in a recreation on an episode or America’s Most Wanted in 1993 and your recurring bits on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. How did those come about.

AM: (laughs) They caught that guy from that America’s Most Wanted episode! One less scumbag on the street thanks to me. I was just a kid, and apparently I just looked like the perp they wanted to profile. The audition was basically just my face. Then they took me down to Philly and they said ‘We’re gonna give you this uzi machine gun, and we’re going to put you in the passenger’s side of this car. We need you to hang onto this metal bar. You don’t want to fall out of the car because we’re going to be going fifty miles an hour.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait! I don’t do stuntwork!’ And they’re like, ‘Do you want the cheque?’ (laughs) Sure enough, here I am hanging out the side of the car firing off an uzi. But they caught the guy, so I thought that was pretty worth it.”

As for Conan, that was just from an audition, and they really liked me. One time I played Conan O’Brien if his ratings were really bad, so they had me on the sidewalk as Conan, and I’m just in this red wig and his guest was John Lithgow, and he was just sitting on a metal chair in front of me. Ellie Kemper was actually sitting next to him just working as an extra for the scene. We just hit it off and they kept brining me back. I was that guy in the audience. I was Elian Gonzalez twenty years in the future. It was just crazy stuff all the time. That was a blast. I would love to hook up with him again if you know him.

Any truth to the rumour that you might be stepping out and directing a project of your own in the near future?

AM: I definitely want to, so yeah. There’s gonna be a big announcement by Time-Warner at SXSW about a project that I’m co-creating, and I’m really excited to be a part of it. It’s still going to be funny, but it’s also gonna be kind of saucy, too. I’m not supposed to talk about it, but it’s gonna be good.