Actor Spotlight: Martin Sensmeier
When Martin Sensmeier enters the room you’re immediately struck by two things, first you can’t help but focus on his strikingly chiseled features, a face that was meant to be on the big screen. Period. Then, Martin greets you and the tone in his voice is full of the kind of comfortable charm you’d expect from a good friend. He’s easy, he’s kind, and he’s unaffected. A rarity for someone who’s playing in an arena flanked by industry giants like Denzel Washington in movies like “The Magnificent Seven” and on hit shows like HBO’s “Westworld.”
And even though he’s at ease, the work he had to put in to pave his path here wasn’t a glamorous one and that’s what makes him the real deal. He doesn’t come from a long line of actors, he didn’t grow up in Hollywood. Actually his story unfolded 3,000 miles away from Hollywood. Martin was born and raised in Alaska in a tiny fishing village where he knew everyone. Both his features and his commitment to community reflect a deeply rooted ancestry with the Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan people of Alaska. In his tiny town he learned that his individual values are interconnected with the whole of his community. So it’s no wonder that Martin’s model good looks are firmly backed up by a set of standards that fuel his dedication to give back to Native American communities.
He is so much more than an actor, Martin is an example of what success should be. Success is a stage for service. It’s the chance to help others and in his case it’s also a platform to advocate for the authentic representation of Native people via Native actors like himself. Martin is highly active with the Native Wellness Institute as well as a Native ambassador for the Boys and Girls Club of America.
So sit back and join our conversation with Martin as we get to know this focused actor you’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of on the big screen.
Talk about your formative years in Alaska. How’d you grow up?
I grew up outdoors playing outside. I come from a small town of about 600 people in Southeast Alaska. It’s a small fishing village. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, which is 300 miles away and then grew up in Yakutat and went to a school where I graduated with 11 students. I grew up outside with very little technology, you know, we had a TV, but it was a small tube. I loved watching movies. We had a lot of responsibilities that revolved around being outside. So like that meant packing wood, chopping wood, going fishing and hunting. We lived a subsistence lifestyle. So we were always out on the land, you know, I grew up poor but we were never deprived of anything because my dad was a great hunter. So we lived off the land and gathered foods and certain types of plants and berries and stuff like that. In those areas, nature is your education.
I think it was fourth grade when I did my first theatre play and in sixth grade, then I did them until Junior High and kind of stopped doing them. But I always daydreamed about it. I caught the bug early. I don’t know if I was any good at it, but it felt like I knew what I was doing. I just loved it. I had so much fun with it, dressing up like the characters and I made my own props and had my mom alter costumes.
It was just so much fun for me. But by the time I was about 15 I realized like okay I’m in a small town where a lot of people are worried about how they're going to make it through the winter. And so, you know, most of them are fishermen or are in construction or have tough, backbreaking jobs as loggers. So by the time I was 15, I started welding. I decided I was going to be a welder and work construction because, you know, I needed to be a man, I'm not a kid anymore. Plus I didn't have any accurate representation on the screen of Native people. So, there was nobody that looked like me that was doing what I wanted to do. And because of that it just seemed so impossible. In a small town, you're encouraged to go to school or go to college, get out of the village or get a job and work. So I got a job welding, worked part-time and kept going to school. Then after three years of doing that I dropped out of school after two years and I welded for another year after that and then I got a job working on an oil rig. I started working on the rigs on the North Slope and that's about the time I got my first real paycheck, you know, it was like three thousand bucks. I was 21 years old and I'm like, “I'm going to L.A.! I'm going to watch a Lakers game, I'm going to see the palm trees, the beach, all of it!” I had daydreamed about that a lot. So a friend of mine took me to an acting class and it was so much fun and I kept going with her. I've been here ever since.
In 2015 when you landed a role in “The Magnificent Seven,” surrounded by a cast of industry vets, what did that feel like for a village kid like yourself?
It's crazy because from 2012 to 2015 it went by so quick because I was doing the same thing over and over and over, I was in acting class and I’d go to work, go to the gym, go back. It was such a monotonous routine. I’d get auditions and then not get a callback. Then pretty soon you start getting more callbacks person and closer to booking roles and I could feel it coming. I knew something was coming and I booked a couple of smaller films. Actually one of them is in theaters right now. It’s called “Beyond The Sky.” So I could feel it coming and I felt in my mind like I could do this.
I'm going to do this. I am doing it. So when I booked the part it was kind of like, I just didn't believe it and then when I finally did, it didn't come with this big intoxicating feeling like I thought it would. I was like “Dope! Now it’s time to get to work!” I was definitely star struck when I met Denzel Washington! He’s a giant and he was my favorite actor growing up. I even had a premonition and told my brother in 2012 that I’d work with Denzel one day. It was the ultimate master class to be on set every day with these guys and watch them work and be able to work with them, you know, and get advice and encouragement and mentorship. That helped me grow so much! I spent five months on that movie. So it was amazing and I take that experience with me everywhere I go now.
How important is it for Native people like yourself to play Native roles on film?
To get overlooked and not get opportunities is unfair, you know, so I think it's so important to even to be considered. But also from an authentic standpoint, there are a lot of characteristics and cultural nuances that we exhibit. We exhibit those behaviors and characteristics. A lot of times growing up, I would watch these movies where they would have an Italian person playing a Native and they would try to play this character who I didn't recognize. So this real stoic, sad character and that's what they think of us. They see these pictures that Edward Curtis took a 150 years ago of these stoic Indians standing there looking all “Chiefy.” They think we’re that just by looking at that picture and they think they know how that person is going to behave and then they try to act that out on screen. I was always rooting for the Cowboys because I didn't recognize the Indians. I didn’t identify with them or recognize them. We were always the bad guys. You don't realize how that affects you psychologically. I never thought to become an actor to replace that negative representation because that was just so far removed from what was possible in my mind.
So how does it feel now that you’ve become the representation you lacked? And how do you give back to Native communities?
It’s awesome for me and for the community because I travel around to communities now. I’m the national representative for Native Services for the Boys & Girls Club of America and I’m also involved with the Native Wellness Institute. I try to be as accessible as I can to the community because we need that. I went to UNC Pembroke last week and spoke to the community there and these kids just thought I was the coolest person in the world and I'm like that really has nothing to do with me, that’s just my story. It's about them. When you do things, your life isn't even about you. You don’t own your life, it belongs to 1) The Earth, 2) It belongs to the people, to serve them. l was also taught about colonization and how it interrupts the pattern of learning to survive and substitutes it with learning to serve. And so what that means for us is that we no longer understand really how to survive in a community. If you look at a lot of the communities in Native America that really struggle. They have poor access to clean drinking water, poor access to proper education, food and healthcare. So it literally breaks people. So to be able to go around to these communities and give a little piece of hope to these people, the kids especially. Because one thing I know from being poor and growing up in poverty like that, it can break you and it can bring you to a place so low that you feel deprived. But when you’re kid you don’t know you’re being deprived unless someone tells you or makes you aware. Other kids had things I didn’t have but my parents taught me “You have everything you need.” I mean but there were times when the power was out for three to four days and we had candles burning and we were heating the house with propane with the stove, but I didn't feel deprived because there was food on the table. And now I love serving the community. I don’t think I’m special for doing that … I just get a lot out of it myself. It’s an exchange that motivates me to want to do more. I do two workshops a year with the Native Wellness Institute for the youth. One takes place in Oregon and another takes place in San Diego. And one of them revolves around athletics and getting these kids active. We've got kids that have never worked out before and in three days they're running and doing all kinds of activity and they love it. This is my form of activism to be involved with these kids. We try to find a way to uplift our people who are underrepresented.
Finally as a men’s fashion magazine, we gotta know what role fashion plays in your life. How would you define your style?
I have nice clothes that I wear for special occasions but I'm such a village country boy that like I'm like wearing things like these faded cargo pants or something. But for events I mean it’s crazy, there are people who are making me suits now and they’re amazing! I mean, I have a David August suit! Conor McGregor wears his suits! When you put that suit on, now I understand the purpose of a good suit and how it makes you feel. I appreciate it.
Next up Martin will be working alongside powerhouse Angelina Jolie in “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story.” Martin will star as the multitalented Native American athlete so please do yourself a favor and at the very least google Jim Thorpe (Native American name Wa-Tho-Huk aka Bright Path) because his story is one to know. Also get ready to follow Martin’s career as he sets up a platform for his people and his passion on the big screen. He is here, he is involved and he is determined. Watch out.