I had the chance to interview Adrian Martinez (Secret Life of Walter Mitty) at a press event organized by Warner Brothers for the new heist thriller Focus. The film was written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, love). Will Smith (Men in Black) plays Nicky a con-man who has been in the game for a long time who meets a younger woman Jess, played by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wallstreet), interested in the con game.
Adrian Martinez plays the role of Farhad an accomplice and confidant to Will Smith’s character Nicky. Along with B.D Wong I believe that Martinez was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film delivering spiffy and raunchy lines without breaking a sweat.
The first interview is from a roundtable discussion with Adrian Martinez. Warner Brothers was kind enough to offer the transcripts of interviews with the director/writer team as well as the actor Gerald McRaney (The Never Ending Story) who plays the gruff character of Ownes.
Focus opens this Friday, February 27th
Adrian Martinez Interview:
What is Farhad’s dynamic with Nicky?
I feel like…The one thing that connected me to Farhad was the fact that he’s extremely faithful to Nicky. And that is something I could connect to because in my own life the people connected to me really matter and I’m faithful no matter what…to the death. I’m a scorpio and we are very loyal and faithful types. That was my common ground with him (Farhad) and how I started to build the character, that sense of loyalty. He doesn’t know everything but he knows he needs to protect his boss.
What was the reasoning behind the raunchy comments Farhad makes to Jess?
He’s a con guy. He’s trying to test margot robbie’s character. He’s trying to push her and see what he can get away with. What’s she really made of. A lot of that sort of stuff is a means to an end. He wants to find out what she is made of. He says stuff like that to see how she is going to react. And I thought Margot made the smart choice: “I’m not going to let this guy throw me”. She wants to show that she can put up with anything. It was a little chess match.
What was it like working with Margot Robbie?
Every 20 million people someone gets everything. She’s gorgeous, intelligent, she’s grounded….There is a lot being thrown at her right now and you would never know. She’s cool and collected, she’s like Jane Bond…she’s just awesome… She’s pretty awesome and I was just happy to be there.
Did you get any training from the “thieving consultants”?
My story line was a computer guy. What Apollo Robbins, our technical advisor, did was with other cast members. But one thing he did tell me over dinner…was that you really have to be authentic, particularly when you are bullshitting. You have to come from a real, authentic emotional place when you lie. And it’s kind of like the same thing as acting. You are using real emotions to sell imaginary experiences. That is something I have in common (with the character) , we are selling something truthful but for fictitious reasons.
What was the on-set vibe?
I appreciate what John and Glen did. They really allowed for a safe atmosphere on set. Like people could….we had takes that were scripted, we had takes that weren’t….there was always a sense of community and party in the air. There were times when Smith would just start…I mean Will smith would just party and start dancing out of nowhere in New Orleans like at three in the morning while we are riding around the super dome. He didn’t say this but you got the sense that he felt like saying “get jiggy with it”. It was a great time.
What was it like working with Will Smith?
A sense of gratitude, you just feel like, despite the years he’s put in, and all the miles he has travelled he’s still invested in bringing it. He really wants to do something special each and every time out. People knock him for After Earth but the reality is that you don’t go into a movie to make it bad. You go and do the best you can and hope that it turns our right: that is what he brings to every take and to everyday and you feel it. You just feel that sense of determination. I mean this is a guy who had a trailer with exercise equipment…and the trailer was the size of this block. It’s 7 in the morning and he is working out. This is a guy who is in another league in terms of work ethic and it’s very impressive.
What was it like working with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who establish elaborate worlds and complicated relationships?
It’s like driving in a Bentley. There is so much of it that is already set for you, cruise control and everything. These guys spent a year just figuring out the sequence at the superdome, all the different possible scenarios, and that is the kind of commitment to specificity that makes it easier for the actor to just come in and say the lines. They have already laid out this groundwork. You just have to not mess it up and say the lines. Not try to do to much and just be authentic to the scene. It’s great because they have done so much work.
Who inspires you?
Well Will Smith inspires me, like I said, because of his sense of gratitude towards everything. Ben Stiller, with Walter Mitty, was his work ethic. This was a guy who starred in the movie, produced it, and directed it, would put in a sixteen hour day and edit it. He just has a mind blowing work ethic. Will Ferell was about a sense of discipline. In Casa de mi Padre we would have Spanish cue cards on horses and you would never know. He was right there in character, not like a funny guy more like a banker on set. Then once you say action, right there with the humour and the timing.
Do people underestimate your performances?
“I don’t think people notice my performances. I’m just this guy who pops up in movies and TV who people recognize. I actually give out little cards that have my website because sometimes…I just have to take a leak man….I can’t do this whole thing. But listen I’m making a living doing what I love to do.
Do you consider yourself to be a character actor and what do you think of their role in cinema?
I love character actors. You need those guys. I think those guys represent a tradition in acting that you need in these movies. Not everyone can be or look like Will smith and Margot Robbie. You need a guy to counter-balance that, not that I’m not good looking, But you need a guy who grounds the whole thing and gives it a sense of humour and an interesting perspective.
Was it fun being in different costumes and playing someone who pretends?
In retrospect it was cool. The glasses came from real life; there is a Grammy award winning producer on who the look is based on. And being at the superdome, I’m a football guy, I love the Packers, I’m a big time football guy so just to be able to walk on the ground that had the Superbowl. That was cool, that was really cool.
Interview with Glen Ficarra and John Requa:
This is your second film involving the world of con artists and sleight-of-hand, after I Love You Phillip Morris. What about it fascinates you and inspired you to make Focus?
JOHN REQUA: Glenn particularly is fascinated by it, and he’s always reading books and suggesting these stories to me. And what he tells me to read, I read. [Laughs] We would talk about this notion of a world full of lies and deception, where there can be no trust, and wouldn’t it be interesting to try to set a romance in this world? Because love is about trust.
GLENN FICARRA: Cons are about trust, but they’re on opposite sides of the trust spectrum—one is when you earn false trust and the other requires absolute trust—so the question is: can they coexist?
JOHN REQUA: Can you find true love and trust in this world and this currency of lies. We got really interested in exploring that concept in a movie about four years ago. We would call it ‘The Con Artist Love Story.’ No matter what else we were doing, we kept playing with it, and it evolved into this notion of having the first part of the movie being about a rookie con artist falling in love with a pro, and the second half about them coming back together when she’s not a rookie anymore.
In Focus, the rookie is Jess, played by Margot Robbie, and the pro is Nicky, played by Will Smith.
GLENN FICARRA: Yes, Nicky is the dominant force in the first half of the movie, and Jess takes that role in the second half. They each have their hands on the control stick in different parts of the film, so you see the story from two different perspectives.
Can you talk about the title, Focus, and how that idea is woven into the film?
GLENN FICARRA: The movie is about con artists and their ability to draw focus away from a crime towards something else, and we explore that on a number of levels. On the simple level of pickpocketing, how do you distract someone and pull a wallet or watch out of their pocket? But, in a larger sense, how do you make someone think that one thing is happening, when, in fact, another thing has already happened? On the emotional level as well: how can you use prewiring of the human brain for love to manipulate and use someone? So, that notion of focus was central to everything we’re exploring, big and small, in this story.
What was it like to work with Will on this film?
GLENN FICARRA: He’s a joy.
JOHN REQUA: Transcendent. Not only is he a tremendous actor and incredibly professional, he’s a lot of fun. He’s like a big brother.
GLENN FICARRA: He’s a really good person, ever-interesting, ever-hungry—he’s always on the hunt to win.
What qualities does Will bring to the character of Nicky?
GLENN FICARRA: It’s the idea that the Will Smith we all know is this charismatic, smiling, nice guy. That’s so easy for him to embody in a character, but what if it was all an act? That really appealed to us, the idea of having that quality unfold in the first half of the movie as just something he turned on whenever it was convenient. Then, as you watch Nicky unravel over the course of the second half of the movie, you still love him, even when though he does some bad things.
JOHN REQUA: This is essentially a movie about two criminals—these fast and charming people who you’ll love even though they’re doing crimes. It’s tricky stuff, but Will and Margot fit the bill.
What was it about Margot Robbie that resonated with you for the role of Jess?
JOHN REQUA: We auditioned a lot of incredibly talented women, and she came in and she just blew our socks off. Everybody. She walked out of the room and that was it. We knew our job was finished and that’s good. Hopefully she would say yes. [Laughs] It was nothing more complex than that. She blew us away.
GLENN FICARRA: And the chemistry between Margot and Will was so clear. It was undeniable. As John said, we auditioned a lot of women and started specifying types—she should do this and she should do that—and ultimately we said, ‘Look, let’s just get the best person for the part and take it from there.’
JOHN REQUA: And then the girl walked in… And Margot’s amazing. She has a better sense of scene and story and character than almost anybody, including me and Glenn. And oftentimes she would straighten us out in a very nice way. [Laughs]
You’ve previously worked with Rodrigo Santoro on I Love You Phillip Morris. Did you always have him in mind to play Garriga?
JOHN REQUA: Yeah, from the very beginning.
GLENN FICARRA: We didn’t want a kind of mustache-twirling Spaniard, and Rodrigo is just so welcoming and real. He’s an excellent actor, and he rarely gets to be funny, so we thought it would be fun to see him in this role.
You also had Gerald McRaney in mind to play Ownes, Garriga’s security guy. Why?
GLENN FICARRA: We tried to get Gerald for I Love You Phillip Morris and couldn’t contact him because he was on safari in Africa somewhere. So we had to wait until we had another part to finally work with him. He’s amazing.
JOHN REQUA: We’ve been huge fans for years, and he’s being rediscovered as an actor in Deadwood, House of Cards, and so many other things. I think he is just a tremendously gifted actor and is having a renaissance, so we’re riding his wake.
Can you talk about your decision to shoot on location in Buenos Aires, Argentina?
GLENN FICARRA: We have been trying to boondoggle ourselves down to Buenos Aires for our entire career. We’ve been obsessed, and finally figured out a way to do it.
JOHN REQUA: Also, we knew it would be a great world to set this story in, between its European flavor and the fact that it’s totally undershot in American movies. It’s a Bohemian kind of frontier; it’s old world and new. People say it feels like a European city, but it’s not just that. It’s still a South American city. It has the personality of this continent, but it also has one foot squarely in Europe, so it has a really great dichotomy of visual and cultural appeal.
GLENN FICARRA: The wine is good.
JOHN REQUA: The wine is excellent. It’s a fascinating place. We spent a lot of time there and it kept revealing itself. We just love it, and the camera loves it too. You can point a camera anywhere. If we were shooting in Paris, we would be shooting on the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, but we’d be searching high and low to find the little angles and corners of Paris that people haven’t shot to death. In Buenos Aires, we were shooting in the most famous areas, but because it’s so undershot in American movies, we could do that. It’s familiar and totally unique at the same time.
Interview with Gerald McRaney:
Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had been big fans of yours. Had you ever worked with them before, and how did this come about?
GERALD MCRANEY: No, never have. But evidently they had seen some stuff of mine that they liked and wanted me for the role, period. My manager called and asked if I would like to try and do this at the same time I was finishing up the series House of Cards. And, fortunately, they were able to work out the dates, so I just came to work. I didn’t have to go through any meetings or auditions or anything like that, which was good, because I’m terrible at those things. I’m glad they saw whatever it was they saw—I still have no idea what that was.
What was it like to then work with them on Focus?
GERALD MCRANEY: Incredibly easy. I mean, the work can be long; it can be complicated, but they’re so open to everybody’s ideas, so we had a chance to just riff, and Will [Smith] and I got to improv a few things. They’re not possessive, as it were, of the script. They’re open to a lot of different ideas, but they know the quality they’re after. That’s the important thing—especially when you’re doing something like this—that the director, or, in this case, directors, know what it is that they want out of a scene long before you get to it. And these guys did.
Now, we may have brought things to it that they didn’t necessarily anticipate, but all that meant was that our contribution got folded into their vision. They had a very clear, distinct vision of what it is that they wanted, so that made the work awfully easy.
How was it to work with Will Smith, who plays Nicky in the film?
GERALD MCRANEY: He’s a people person, and extremely easy to work with—very giving as a human being, but, professionally, he’s very giving as an actor. When you’re in a scene, Will’s not one of these guys who tries to hog every moment of the scene. You’re there to work together and he’s very open about things. My old acting teacher used to say he found it interesting that when people compliment somebody’s work they always say, ‘He gave a good performance,’ but it is an act of giving. And Will is very good at it. He was everything I expected him to be.
He’s also naturally funny. In the improvisational environment on set, did he ever crack you up?
GERALD MCRANEY: Oh, he cracked me up constantly. The biggest chore I had on this movie was keeping a straight face. Ownes is a really stolid guy with no sense of humor, but for me to keep a straight face through some of his shenanigans was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. [Laughs]
You have a fascinating role, because Ownes is quite a heavy. What was that like for you to play?
GERALD MCRANEY: Bad heavy, and it was so much fun to play that. But without giving anything away, there are twists and turns in this film, so what you see is not necessarily what you get. And that’s also very fun to play.
How was the experience of working with the other actors in the film, like Margot Robbie and Rodrigo Santoro?
GERALD MCRANEY: With everybody who worked on this movie, there was a common denominator: They were just as easy as anything to work with. If you put the whole cast up together, I don’t think you’d come up with one ego. There wasn’t a prima donna to be found anywhere, and that’s a blessing and an amazing quality in any project. It was just fun. But, as far as beauty is concerned, hanging out in the same room with Rodrigo is no great treat, I’ll tell you that. When I first met him, he and I had coffee together in New Orleans and my wife, who was there with me, asked, ‘Well, what’s he like?’ I said, ‘He’s one of those disgustingly handsome sons of bitches, and that’s what he’s like.’ On top of it then, he’s got the temerity to be a nice guy. If you’re going to be that good looking, you’re supposed to be a jerk. [Laughs]
Had you ever been to Buenos Aires prior to shooting this film?
GERALD MCRANEY: I’d been to Buenos Aires once before, but it was just to change planes en route from Patagonia. There are two airports in Buenos Aires, and I had to cross town to get to the airport to take me back to the States. It was on New Year’s Eve, so it was like there was shock and awe going on, the fireworks were so intense. But it’s a beautiful city, great people and incredibly good food. The people work hard, but they play hard as well, and they’re just as nice as they can be.
Do you have a favorite sequence from the film or a moment during filming that was particularly memorable?
GERALD MCRANEY: Well, I’m originally from the New Orleans area and started my acting career there. So, to get back home to work on a movie was terrific. And it was nice for me just to go back to some of the neighborhood places in New Orleans and have lunch or dinner with friends. That part of it was very special for me, not necessarily directly related to the movie, but it gave me a good chance to go home.