With Sgt. Will Gardner, Max Martini evolves from actor to artist

Max Martini is the star, director, writer and producer of Sgt. Will Gardner. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Max Martini.
Max Martini is the star, director, writer and producer of Sgt. Will Gardner. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Max Martini. /

Sgt. Will Gardner reveals actor Max Martini’s talents as a writer and director. Find out more in the latest Deeper Cut.

Max Martini is the talented performer who’s starred in TV and film projects like Pacific Rim, The Unit and Captain Phillips. Not many people know that he’s much more than that—he’s also a writer, director and producer.

Those other talents are finally on display in his new film Sgt. Will Gardner, which tells the story of an Iraq War veteran struggling with traumatic brain injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who embarks upon a lengthy and emotional journey to put his life and his family back together.

It’s the most important film you can see all year, because it’s not just a movie. Thirty percent of the film’s profits are going to three organizations that support veterans in need: Higher Ground, the Gary Sinise Foundation and Warriors Heart.

And it’s also an opportunity for Max Martini to use his voice, not only as a filmmaker but as a man working hard to make a difference in the world. But to understand the importance of the project, to truly appreciate the film, one has to go back decades. This isn’t just an actor getting to make his own movie; this is an actor who’s been on a journey to make this movie his whole career.

It’s not uncommon for actors to want more out of their careers. But for Max Martini, Sgt. Will Gardner is the culmination of almost a decade of effort—and experience he’s had working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

His name may not come immediately to mind, but he’s that actor who’s helped elevate films by household names, including Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan and Captain Phillips), Michael Bay (13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi), and Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim). While acting for these talented helmers, Martini was learning things he applied when it was his time to step behind the camera.

“Each director has something specifically that stands out to me,” Martini told me. “For instance, Spielberg pulled me aside when we first started working together and we had a lengthy conversation about this inner life, that I was going to create for this character that was going to fuel me through the last third of [Saving Private Ryan].

“Michael Bay I learned a lot from technically. He’s really amazing to watch; how he fills the frame is just inspiring. There’s so many levels of production design and atmosphere and sound and actors and background and light and music. At the end of 13 Hours, each individual frame is so complex.

“[With] Guillermo del Toro, [shooting Pacific Rim] was something that was completely foreign to me because so much of that movie was green screen, which I’d never done before. That was a real exercise with the imagination, because you’re acting to laser pointers.

“David Mamet is less technical, but he’s very stylized in the cadence of his dialogue. Everything you need as an actor is on the page…and that experience was terrifying, because I have my own process, and I had to completely abandon that and trust my performance and his intentions and what he wanted to accomplish.

“I took away something from each of them, and it’s definitely influenced me as a director.”

When it came to the writing process, Martini had to walk his own path. But the same instincts and the same experience he’d refined as the actor Max Martini served him as the writer Max Martini. He may not have been an experienced screenwriter, but he knew what he needed to tell a strong story and to make that story authentic. He took what he had—his genuine desire to support our veterans and his skills as a performer—and put that on the page.

“As an actor, you have certain questions that you ask yourself to provide a background for the character,” he explained. “Where was I born, where’s my history, who are my parents, do I have siblings, who are my best friends, what do I want in life, where am I going? Then you ask the same questions when it pertains to a scene: where have I been? Where am I going? What do I want to achieve out of this scene? How do I feel about this other person?

“Because I’m so used to that process as an actor, it made the character development and writing much easier. I’m used to asking those questions, so the characters sort of build themselves. I tackle it the same way as I do when I’m acting.

“With Sgt. Will Gardner it was a little different. I was dealing with some things that I wasn’t familiar with…traumatic brain injury, PTSD, being displaced. I did a lot of research online. I reached out to people on social media and they were very forthcoming with information—people that had traumatic brain injuries, or people that had PTSD, or people that had been homeless. And I reached out to friends of mine that were in the military that are injured.”

What people may not understand about writing is that it’s not just putting words together; those who do it well leave more than a little of themselves on the page. In this case, Max Martini was not only putting himself out there, but the pain and struggles and hopes and aspirations of countless others, too.

That’s a noble mission, and it’s one that he intends to keep going. Martini and his producing partner, Michael Hagerty, have their own production company and he’s already lined up the next movies he’ll direct. But as he looks forward to establishing himself as a director and producer, he’s also carrying with him the impact of Sgt. Will Gardner.

“We had top of the line crew members come in to interview because they wanted to be part of something that served a greater purpose than entertainment value. They were really passionate about being included,” he revealed. “[They were] working for a fraction of what they’re used to working for. That was a little shocking for us, that people were actually begging us to be part of this project.

“And then at the end of it, there were speeches at the wrap party and speeches after the cast and crew screening. People crying and saying that it was one of the highlights of their career, because they hadn’t ever been part of something that was giving back or had the potential to really touch and change lives. It was really the best experience of my life, because nothing I’ve done to this point has had that much meaning to me [personally].”

But the story that Sgt. Will Gardner tells on screen is only one-half of the story. There’s also the story of what the film was able to do off-camera. When you watch this movie, you can do so knowing that it literally changed lives because cast and crew members—many of them veterans—put their hearts into it, too. It’s not just Max Martini’s movie; it’s a film that belongs to all of those people.

“We hired a lot of veterans to work on the crew side of it [and] one of our lead actors is a veteran so we had a veteran on the other side of the camera too. And while we were shooting, some of the behind the scenes people had to walk away,” he said of making the film. “There was one scene of my character in a motel room, it’s a lengthy scene without and dialogue and he’s just drinking. One of our crew members was like, it’s too close to home and had to walk away.

“One of our actors, Luis Bordonada, was recommended to us by the local casting director in New Mexico…He came in and blew us away. And walking out he’s like look, I don’t know if you’re going to give me this role or not, but I just want to thank you for what you’re doing. I was in the Army and I jumped out of a plane, my canopy got tangled and I hit the ground. I survived and it took me a decade to get any assistance from the VA. This is really my story and I just want to thank you for what you’re doing, for all the veterans that have had similar experiences out there.

“When we decided to give him the part, at that point he was living out of his car. It was such a success story, because we were able to give him this great character to play and a lead in a movie and something that would help assist his acting career, but also get him up financially. There were all these little things that happened in the making of this film that just had a profound impact on me and my producing partner.

“It was just wonderful. What was taxing was finding the money, because we’re giving 30 percent of our profits to charities, it was just tiresome trying to find someone that would do that without a write-off. The movie, the experience was incredible.”

Sgt. Will Gardner was also the culmination of a journey for Max Martini. He’s been an excellent actor for decades now, but it wasn’t until 2006 when he took on the role of Mack Gerhardt in the CBS drama The Unit that he rediscovered exactly what it is that drives him to be an artist.

“I went to art school and got my degree in fine arts. I wanted to paint and sculpt,” he reflected. “I started acting to pay off my art school and I never went back to art. I don’t think I quite realized why I wanted to be an artist.

“When I was shooting The Unit, we realized most of our fans were military so I was like let’s go to the Middle East, let’s visit these guys,” he recalled. “We went over twice and they gave us an option of either going to the Green Zone or going outside the Green Zone to places that were getting hit. We opted to go outside and zigzagged all over Afghanistan, and went to these little encampments that were getting bombarded regularly.

“These men and women were blown away to see us and they all knew the show. To give them that sort of break from the grind, you realize where the value is in being an artist. It really hit me. These guys needed people like us, this is what the USO does for our military, and I still to this day get instant messages from people saying you got me through combat. You got me through five tours in the Middle East because all I did was watch your show on repeat and I loved it.

“Suddenly I was just kind of awakened to what it serves. I’m more interested in how I can help people. When I was making my artwork, I wanted to make political artwork. I wanted to share an opinion or to create some sort of change in someone’s life, and I think that’s where the value is.”

Sgt. Will Gardner is the first time audiences have taken notice of Max Martini as a director and a writer, but it won’t be the last. With this film—not only its quality, but its purpose, its passion and how it encapsulates so many years of his personal experience—he’s proven that his voice needs to be heard in all of its forms.

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Sgt. Will Gardner is available on demand now, and on Blu-Ray and DVD next Tuesday, Feb. 19. Follow Max Martini on Twitter and Instagram at @MaxMartiniLA. Find the latest Deeper Cut every Wednesday in the Entertainment category at FanSided.