James Martinez Talks “House of Cards”, Yellow Cabs and More

The actor believes his character on the Netflix hit show has “been a long, long time coming.”

James Martinez’s voice demands attention. Although speaking to him over the phone, his deep tone calls for as much scrutiny as an in-person meeting would, enrapturing the listener from the beginning to the end of a conversation. Which is why the actor’s talk about his role as the first major Latino character in the recently released season five of House of Cards assumes the aura of a State of the Union address; his discussion of his family business, yellow cabs, sounds like a political manifesto and his recounting of a bunny costume-clad Robin Wright appearing on set seems more serious than funny… Yet completely enthralling.

The Julliard-trained actor doesn’t shy away from speaking out about the current administration and the obvious parallels between Kevin Spacey’s President Frank Underwood and America’s President Donald Trump (“This isn’t about politics anymore, it’s about morality”), effectively turning his role, and our conversation, into a commentary on the state of our country.

First things first: Will there be a season six of House of Cards?

I would be extremely shocked if there wasn’t [a season six] just because they set [it] up so beautifully, with some amazing plots and amazing characters developed. But nothing is official yet. Everyone is speculating.

How is working with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright?

I was actually directed by Robin Wright. She directed the last two episodes of season five. It was great. There was one episode that we were shooting during Easter and she actually showed up in a bunny outfit. She was so relaxed and had an amazing sense of humor but then, once they yelled “action,” she just turned into a completely different person: a stoic, intimidating, powerful woman. She just made me feel so welcome and it just felt very at home on set.

Kevin as well. He’s been playing this role for so many years now that he just can turn it on like a light switch. There’s lots to learn from him. We both went to Julliard so we have a lot of similar training background.

The last season of the show was written and shot a while ago, but the parallels between some of the latest plot lines and the current Trump presidency are strikingly obvious. What are your thoughts?

The show was literally Netflix’s guinea pig, the first show that they were putting out there and were hoping would work. So, when it first came out, none of this was even happening. [The writers are] not political commentators but they are in touch with the times and what’s going on so much that I think that, in a way, it’s almost as if they saw it coming. It’s really sad that this program is now having so many parallels with the world because, at the time, it just seemed like entertainment. We’d never have such a self-serving, power hungry, chauvinistic President. Unfortunately, now it is frighteningly too close. In fact, I think that what’s happening in real life now is more shocking and more scary than anything that Frank Underwood can do.

If there were to be a season six, do you think they’d take real life politics into account when writing it?

They can’t deny what’s happening right now and I think they’ll definitely take it into account. In fact, I think my character, Alex Romero, represents the backlash, the rebellion. I think he just personifies what this generation is feeling right now. This frustration, this ambition and hunger to just be heard and make things better and do what’s right. Not what’s right for a party or an organization but simply just right or wrong and serve the people. This isn’t about politics anymore, it’s about morality.

You were cast as the first major Latino character on the show. How did that feel?

It felt intense. It felt like a responsibility, for sure. It’s been a long, long time coming and I think they knew that. It was funny, because I was on set when the elections were happening and the votes were in and the results came out. I already had been cast so, for me, the role became something very personal because I was just as passionate and as driven as a person as my character was to make some kind of change and to represent a minority that I believe has been underserved. Alex Romero is that voice: He’s going to pound on that door and knock the door down until him and everything he represents [make it through]. It’s not just Latinos, it’s the working class. It’s the people that work hard on a daily basis to make this country run.

You were born and raised in Queens, New York. How has the city changed throughout your years here?

Change is good. It’s very easy for us to say that we’re being gentrified and the poor [people are] being kicked out but I also, on the other hand, [think that] my neighborhood used to not be very safe. There was a lot of poverty and there was just not much opportunity. I really needed to work extra hard to find a path and find positive role models. I feel like my neighborhood now, which I still live in, Jackson Heights in Queens, is being populated by very exciting artists, very educated and talented people. It’s one thing to feel passionate but it’s another thing to be able to communicate that and write about that and be able to articulate your thoughts and connect to the right people and make some positive changes in your community.

Anything else you’d like to mention that people might not know about you?

I would just like to give a shout out to my family business, which is yellow cabs. This has been [my] odd job when I was just getting started as an actor and just getting my foot in the door. It has been the thing that has sustained us but it also builds so much character: The people you meet, the struggles you go through, these are the things that help me be a better actor because, at the end of the day, as an actor you’re playing people so you have to be able to sympathize and be emotionally in-tune with humanity and that definitely helped.

Photo Credit: Bobby Quillard