Jesse L. Martin is Re: Uniting with Michelle Harrison, his Canadian co-star from The Flash.
The two actors play a middle-aged married couple in their latest film. Hosting their closest friends from college in celebration of the group’s 25th anniversary, the reunion on their picturesque property takes a tumultuous turn once big secrets are laid bare. The debut feature was written and directed by fellow Canuck Laura Adkin, with British Columbia’s Bowen Island providing its beautiful backdrop.
Ahead of its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival, we spoke with Jesse about working with both Michelle and Laura, the soundtrack of his youth, as well as the forthcoming series, Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent.
Re: Uniting is a Canadian indie and does not fall under SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Julia Lennox: Re: Uniting was written and directed by Canadian Laura Adkin. What was it about this script specifically that piqued your interest? And was there anything unique about Laura’s style of direction you noticed on set?
Jesse L. Martin: Well, first things first, I became aware of Laura and the script through our lead player, Michelle Harrison. Michelle came to me and said, “Hey, I was wondering if you’d be interested in playing this role. I had a look at the script, and my friend wrote it, she’s directing it… and I really want to work with you again.” Who can say no to that? So, I read the script and, of course, it was really good. I hadn’t known or heard of Laura before this, and I was was like, “Well, this girl is obviously a seasoned vet, because the script is absolutely excellent.” And so, I just said yes. Before you know it, I was on set with all these wonderful actors. And it’s fantastic because… it was about a bunch of middle-aged friends getting together after many years to reunite. And it was amazing to get there and realize that everybody in the film knew each other for many, many years—just like in the movie—except for me.
There I was, you know, sort of the new guy, right? But that catered to the environment. And don’t feel bad for me, because that lasted about 2 minutes; everybody was very, very sweet, very accommodating, all of them excellent actors. And I have to say, your fellow Canadian, Laura, really knows how to put together a great, inclusive, wonderfully balanced set. So, it made it just a joy to do every single day.
I love that your Canadian experience was top notch. You’re also credited as an Executive Producer. Does an additional production title ever impact your role as an actor? Does it change the way you approach the work or is it the same?
I would say it’s the same, because my general focus is [as] an actor. That producer credit came well after we finished shooting the film. It was a really nice thing for Laura to bestow on me. And that’s exactly how it was, bestowed. She felt as if I’d done more than the Lord’s work, you know, helping with the film. She wanted to give me that credit. It’s not something I asked for. It’s not something I needed. I’m not even sure if it’s my wheelhouse at this point [laughter]. But I will certainly do my damndest to continue to prove that I’m worthy of the title.
But I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure what the title means at this point. But, you know, again, very, very grateful to be included; first of all, as an actor, but to have my name splashed up as an executive producer? It looks good and feels good. It’s really generous of her.
That’s awesome. The backdrop of this film is beautiful; what did you love most about spending time on Bowen Island in B.C.?
First of all, it’s stunning. And if you know anything about British Columbia and the Vancouver area, everywhere you look it’s just… pristine nature everywhere. It’s no wonder that it has become Hollywood North because, you point a camera in any direction and you see God’s great gift to the world. It’s fantastic! And, you know, when you’re working on an island like Bowen, it’s pretty close to the Vancouver metro area. A short ferry ride and you’re in this paradise. It’s amazing, because you have two daughters of Bowen Island—Michelle Harrison and Laura, our director—and the entire community rallied around them. I mean, we had moms and aunties and uncles working on set; handing out coffees, making sure people [were] warm, taken care of, if they needed a ride. It was really sort of a home grown production. I was super impressed with all the people [who] got themselves involved. Laura’s mom, [giggles] Laura’s mom’s friend—they all showed up to just make sure everybody was okay. It was really… God, wonderful to work that way.
I love that kind of family aspect of the film, and I think it shows on screen. I noticed that music is a pivotal piece of this story, and it creates this kind of juxtaposition between the serene setting—to the point where your character, Michael, confesses he could, “use a little bit of noise.” In your own life, do you prefer silence or a soundtrack?
Fantastic question. Honestly, I’m probably one of those dudes, and I don’t know if this has to do with my training in the theatre or getting to do a whole bunch of musical theatre growing up, I always have some sort of soundtrack going in my head. I’m sure that a lot of people do that. And I love being alone a lot. I love being in solitude, but not for long! And again, I always have a running soundtrack. Like, I literally have a jukebox in my head all the time. So when you’re doing films, when you’re working on them, you forget that there may be music. There may be all kinds of things that enhance the story, enhance performances, enhance the ambience, the vibe of the film. But you don’t think about that while you’re doing it. And then you see it, and you’re like, “Oh my God!” You see how [it] all comes together. And when I first read the script—I’m a little older than most in the film [laughter]—I was harken[ed] back to the days of all those ’80s films where soundtracks were everything, right? Like, you went and saw the movie, and then you went and bought the soundtrack ’cause the music—the music was so fantastic. I think about films like The Big Chill and how important those soundtracks were. And this is one of those soundtracks where, when they put the whole thing together, I was super impressed with the music. Super, super impressed with the music.
Yeah, I noticed some incredible ’90s throwbacks in the film. Even right off the top [with] “This Is How We Do It.” Those songs are undoubtably a part of the fabric of this group’s friendship, right? The soundtrack of their lives. So I wanted to ask you, is there a specific song from your late teens or early twenties that hits in a similar way?
Oh, what a fantastic question! I’m sort of on the spot right now, because maybe 30 songs just ran through my head.
Right? Sorry! [Laughter]
Gosh, you know, I think about when I go to family reunions. I’m African American, so, like, the songs that always pop up are things like “Celebration,” “MacArthur Park.” I think about artists like, Earth, Wind & Fire, Donna Summer—
—when disco transferred into R&B, soul and pop. I can’t go a day without thinking about most songs that Sade did. I had this kind of funny experience [with] a younger person that I was working with. I started singing this song, and the person was like, “That’s a beautiful song.” He’s like, “Who sings that?” And I was like, “Sade.” He was like, “Who’s Sade?” And I wanted to crawl in a hole and die.
Because I couldn’t believe this person had never heard of Sade! But, you know, if you want one specific song that always take me back, it’s “[The] Sweetest Taboo” by Sade.
I love that. What a great pick. One of the things that I love most about the film is how it highlights just how complex, nuanced and messy friendships can be. It explores the kind of history that pulls and intertwines you with your friends over time. So what was it like filming the climactic scene in the movie that’s full of crazy reveals? You had some great facial expressions during that scene.
Well, I gotta tell you, it was pretty easy to blow in those scenes. First of all, it’s a great group of actors, and they all knew each other! They’ve known each other for years. And so, it was very easy for them to get into that space.
I was the new kid on the block, if you will [laughter]. No pun intended. And luckily, my character was the guy who was kind of watching mostly, you know? Sort of taking things in. And so, I fit right in—in that character and that space. And it was fantastic to watch these actors go at each other, because once you get going in the film and all these things start to get revealed, it takes a skilled group of people to really sell it. And boy, did they ever. And what a position, to just sit and enjoy it.
You’ve spoken about your co-star Michelle [Harrison], who plays your on-screen wife, Rachel. She really takes her performance up a notch in the back half of the film. How do you, as her on-screen partner, help elicit that kind of emotional vulnerability we saw during her final scenes?
Well, what I can say is, first of all, Michelle is an absolute pro; a fantastic actor. She didn’t need me to do anything. All I can do at that point is have more ears than I have a mouth; meaning that I just need to listen and support. All I need to do is be there; Michelle will take it to the highest degree she can possibly take it, and keep it 100% real and honest. Classically beautiful in what she does, and particularly in this performance, I just felt really grateful that I was involved. And it was because of Michelle that I got involved. I mean, she asked me personally to do this, and introduced me to the script and to Laura. And, you know, it was in those later moments in the film, while filming them—I’ve known Michelle for well over 10 years, and I’ve seen her do fantastic work over those 10 years. But it’s one of those moments when you’re sitting there, and you’re looking at this person, and first you realize, like, “My God, she’s beautiful.” She’s a classic, beautiful movie star. And when she starts going, you’re just amazed. You’re like, “Wow. She really, really is built for this. She’s built for this.” And God bless Laura for giving us the space, the time, the attention, to really get there. Because she allowed space for everybody to really get there. And you’ve got these pro actors, who usually get there right away and, when everything’s set up right and beautiful, and of course, you’ve got Bowen Island in the background, it’s magical. It really became magical. And that’s in great part due to Laura and our leading lady, Michelle Harrison. I gotta give it to her.
You can definitely tell there was a little bit of magic in the air for sure. Now, this isn’t your first project where your character’s partner has battled a serious illness, and you’re so incredible at channelling that very specific kind of pain and grief on-screen. Where does that come from?
I don’t know! Maybe… [jokingly] maybe real life pain and grief.
I’m not exactly sure. One of the things I do know is… I’ve spent many a year training. I’ve spent many a year playing all kinds of different roles. And most roles are dramatic. Most roles include tragedy. And so, it has been in my wheelhouse for many, many years to play that way. You’re sweet to bring up the notion, because some of the bigger roles that I’ve played in my career have dealt with tragedy and having partners who, you know, have been afflicted with disease or fatal illnesses. And those things make for really dramatic and oftentimes revelatory stories. So, I’ve been very grateful to have been put in those positions, where I’ve had the skills to be there.
I’ve got just a few more quick questions for you. I have to know, did you keep those Carhartt overalls you wore in the film? Because you were serving some looks. I’ve got to say, the pipe and the hat? It was a vibe.
Oh, that’s really sweet!
It was a vibe? Thank you, I really appreciate that! First of all, yes I kept them—
—because they belong to me. I brought them in. I brought the hat in. And specifically, I don’t know if I ever told anybody; I don’t think I told the costume designer, who was fantastic about all of my choices. She’s incredible. I told her — maybe I didn’t tell her. I’m not sure, but she’s going to know now. It was kind of a nod to my grandfather.
That was my grandfather’s uniform, basically. He wore his overalls. I’m a Southern boy; I come from the country in Virginia. And, you know, he would wear his overalls, oftentimes a crisp white shirt underneath, his hat, and he’d usually be out on the land doing something, you know, agricultural—
—or wonderful that way. And it was really a nod to my grandfather. But I thank you, for calling it a vibe, ’cause I felt like it was a vibe!
It was totally a vibe! I really enjoyed it. Before I let you go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another upcoming Canadian production, Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent. As the cast officially enters the Dick Wolf universe, I wanted to know if you had any advice for them?
First of all, if they’re doing Law & Order, there’s nothing I can tell them that’s going to prepare them for how much they have in [terms of] a fan base already, because people absolutely love Law & Order. They love the formula, they love the different incarnations of it. What I can say is that, as long as [they] keep Toronto as the central character and Toronto shows up no matter what, everybody’s going to be fine. Most of those actors, from what I read, are Canadian; they’re probably well aware of what Toronto is, what Toronto does, the vibe, the whole nine. And as long as that’s a big character, I think everybody’s gonna have a great time, and really, really… sort of reap the benefits of working with such a great franchise.