The following contains plot details through Episode Four of “American Crime” Season 3.
Of all of the arcs in “American Crime’s” excellent third season, that of undocumented immigrant Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) ends up being the most surprising. Luis crosses the border and gets work picking tomatoes in North Carolina, driven by a secret mission to find his son. In Sunday night’s episode, Luis takes drastic action; once he learns his son has been killed, he confronts jefe Isaac (Richard Cabral) and shoots to kill, before quietly wrapping up his world to return to Vera Cruz. It’s a chilling, beautifully rendered series of events — all the more so for how transformed Luis is when he pulls the trigger.
Martinez is a television veteran. Besides “American Crime,” he’s currently juggling roles both on “The Blacklist” and “How to Get Away With Murder”; in the years since his breakout role on “The Shield,” he’s been on “House of Cards,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Supernatural.” Playing Luis Salazar is playing something closer to home for the actor, who worked to advocate for the rights and safety of migrant workers before this role came to him. Variety spoke to Martinez about his character’s stunning decision at the end of episode four — as well as the unique pleasures and frustrations of playing this role in a political climate where illegal immigration is a hot-button topic.
Variety: You’ve been in the last two seasons of “American Crime” — very briefly in the second. This is your biggest role so far. Tell me about taking up more space in this show.
Martinez: It’s [showrunner] John Ridley, so I just kinda go, okay, dude … Whatever you say, let’s do it! I mean, you had me at hello.
I can only imagine … I mean, you must have a lot of trust in him, based on the last two seasons.
He’s earned it. I mean, he is so respectful of the process, and he is so inclusive in the exploration of the story and character. He’s got incredible life touch in the way he assembles everything. So you just feel so valuable in the process, and it’s just awesome.
Yeah, you’re exactly right, yeah. I have incredible trust. I mean, if he told me I was gonna be a robot, that’s picking tomatoes. I’d be like, “Okay!” If you think that’s the story we’re telling, all right! I will work on that.
As we’ve been discovering this season, Luis is an unexpectedly multifaceted character. He wasn’t who he seemed to be in the first few scenes.
When I got the first script, I started looking at the strengths and the weaknesses that my character had, and how he was able to have these conversations. I deduced that he was educated, and that he wasn’t practiced in this realm. But I also had the great good fortune that Moisés [Zamora] … Moisés is one of our writers, and Janine [Salinas Schoenberg], she’s another writer. If I’m not mistaken, they together constructed a lot of Luis’ story based on their own relatives’ stories, and people that they’d worked with in the past. Janine is a theater writer and does a lot of Latino plays. Moisés is as well. He also has family members who were farm workers. So I got to sit with them and get incredibly wonderful stories that I hadn’t heard, of real people. And that was the jumping off point.
We were able to take these real elements, these real people — how they laughed, what they looked like. Some had a limp. All these funny anecdotes that you would get. They were just these real people, and we made a collection of them, and then it got boiled down to Luis. He was part of it, and at the same time, the challenge was that Luis was not part of it. He was on the outside.
You sense that he would cross any bridge and any ocean to find his kid. He doesn’t know what his son got himself into. The son has stopped responding to them. He can’t call him. He doesn’t know where he’s at. He realizes that nobody … And we find out that people don’t care about the immigrants. They don’t care.
He calls the local police in Vera Cruz and they’re like yeah, we’re not gonna look for your son. And he becomes desperate. He does the one thing that he realizes is his only chance … and that’s to retrace the footsteps that his son took. Not sure what they are, but he’s gonna give it a crack.
And that’s what he does. He keeps checking in with the wife, and he kinda brings her along the journey. But, at every turn, Luis discovers that this world is more and more dangerous. The value of life is different than what he was used to. And it makes him, you know, miss his son, and fear for his son’s life, even more and more.
What changes for Luis — from the flashback dinner conversation that we see, to the point where he decides to cross the border illegally?
Well, if you trace it back, that conversation that he had at the dinner table with his son was the last time they spoke together. And it ended on a fight. And basically, the son said: Look, I’m going to New York. It doesn’t matter. I’m going. If it hurts anyone’s feelings, I don’t care. I’m gonna go. Later on in the story we find out that everything was fine, and then we heard nothing. So there’s this sense of desperation. And the last time they had a conversation, it was a fight.
It’s just… I don’t know if you’ve ever ended a friendship or anything, if you’ve had that argument. You just go, ugh! I could just change that, if I could just see them one more time, and have just one more sentence. You know?
And that’s the regret. It’s eating him up and he has to do it. And the journey changes him. He realizes he’s gotta stay tough. He’s gotta keep playing his cards close to his nest. And be alert. It’s gonna be hell.
In tonight’s episode, your character gets to the point where he’s ready to kill this man who has killed his son. Everything that we know about him indicates this is not part of his character. It’s not something he’s done before. What does it take for him to get to that point?
That was a huge discussion point, because I didn’t know that that was the journey until I got to number four and I went, “What?” [Laughs.] “How do you connect these dots?”
And then, as they shot it — and I shot, you know, in that complex situation of emotions — I realized that he doesn’t intend to kill him until they have the conversation. He intends to threaten him. What Luis tries to do is keep the battlefield even as much as he can. You know, he stays in the shadows. He’s that kind of strategist. So when he has to confront one of the guys in charge, he makes sure to get a gun, because he knows this guy’s dangerous.
It’s when the guy dismisses his son, like some sort of trash, that Luis realizes the world’s better off without him. And just … that’s it. And then once that decision’s made and the trigger’s pulled … It’s the worst decision he’s ever made, and he has to now live with that. That’s where the rest of Luis’s story is.
I’ve never said that to anyone. I want everyone else to make up their mind about what they think Luis is thinking, or what it is and how it comes out. If it helps you in somehow shaping something, then I give that to you. But for the most part, I like for people to have their own discussions about what Luis was thinking in the moment.
It struck me, watching the end of the fourth episode, that this could be a complete arc. He was almost like a ghost in America — came here illegally, no one knew he was here, did this awful thing, leaves again. This rootlessness really struck me. Can you tell me anything about what your character does in the next few episodes?
After episode four? Yeah, no, I can’t. [Laughs.] You hit the nail on the head. What I love, though, is how you were able to connect all the dots and understand that ghostlike quality that is Luis, you know?
He, and the other migrants, are almost invisible. Was their condition a surprise for you at all?
I was not surprised. I was very aware of the conditions of the migrant worker. I’ve worked with organizations in Texas, and here in the Central Valley in California. I’ve lent my support, but I’ve also gotten to meet some of the people who are actually on the front lines — about getting schools and doctors for the kids in fields, and having bathrooms nearby the pickers, having shorter hours. Just some things like that.
It’s a constant challenge, because picking isn’t like a 9-to-5 job. You have to pick it when it’s exactly ripe, whatever the conditions are that day. You have to pick as much as you can, you have to count your losses. There’s many variables in it. So as a farmer, and a farm worker, you have a lot of challenges that aren’t, you know, you have to be able to live with it. Within that, though, you want to have the safety of these people. I’ve been aware of the need for the safety of these people for a long time. I think what we try to do on the show is present a respectable picture of what they do, and also illustrate how dangerous it can be sometimes.
What we try to do, as well, is paint a picture of both sides of it. You know, these are farm workers, but the farmers need them. It’s a business. The economy needs them. And they’re not invisible. And yet, they are, to most of us. We don’t even acknowledge them, or understand that they’re there.
And so, then, John Ridley … He puts a very close camera on these faces and says, they’re here. These people are here. And they’re real people. And they have real feelings. And they mean something, and they’re very valuable. Let’s not forget about them. It’s that simple. I hope that everyone has the same reactions that you were having, because it makes you think! It makes you think about all these elements.
What is it like to be playing this role in this current political climate — where immigration and President Trump’s promised wall are big topics in the news right now?
Well, it’s like an added bonus. It’s a cherry on top. It’s the icing on top of the icing of the cake. Because these stories needed to be told regardless of who’s gonna be in the White House, and that’s why John went on that journey.
When it became a hot-button topic during the election, then it was like, oh boy, this is gonna ring some bells somewhere! And now that we’re done, our job is to sit back and go, all right, we made this. You decide how this is pertinent to your conversation that you’re having at the dinner table.
It happens to be the right coincidence. It is the subject that everyone’s been talking about. Our leaders are putting it in front of us and saying, “Hey! We need to talk about this.” We just happen to be talking about both sides at the same time.
The best thing “American Crime” does is it serves as a reminder that the people that we’re talking about — it’s like when the parents in the room are talking about the children. You know? Let’s meet one of these children. Let’s meet a few of them, and see what they think!
The amount of respect and integrity that was brought to the project shouldn’t be lost. Because the way they shot — the farms we worked on, the stock — everybody worked really hard to make sure that it had the element of truthfulness and respectfulness toward them. You don’t want to paint anyone as the victims, we don’t want to paint people as pirates. We don’t want to paint people as, you know, perfect people. They are human beings who happen to be doing this thing, and this thing happens to be a big subject.
It’s a conversation that’s brought up several times over the years. The ‘80s, it was big. The ‘90s, it was big for a while. This is a huge industry that makes a lot of money, and it takes all these elements to make it work. To say we’re gonna put up a wall is really not looking at the whole industry — and the whole issue of why there’s a need for this kind of influx of labor to come into the country. So, again, that’s what we’re trying to say. You can talk about a piece of it, like a wall, but that’s not the whole conversation.
But again, as long as our food’s on the table, we’re not gonna really ask where it’s from … Who picked this lettuce? We don’t ask.
In the last week’s episode [Episode Three], there’s this really interesting scene where Luis starts speaking to a another migrant — a woman who doesn’t speak Spanish. What it was like to play opposite that? That’s a detail that I imagine many Americans are not familiar with, which is that there can be language diversity within the migrant population.
Yes, and I also had a scene with an African farm worker. In doing the research a lot of things popped up there — Filipino farm workers, African farm workers, some Asian farm workers. But in this particular case, even if they’re from Mexico or Guatemala or wherever else, they can also be Incan speaking, or Nahuatl speaking, or whatever their dialect is from their region. Imagine, you come to the country, and they’re speaking Spanish to you, and you’re like, I don’t even speak Spanish, dude. My language is even older than that.
So I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful thing. Again, this is Moisés and Janine, that was their episode that they wrote. When I saw that on the page, I went, How the heck are we gonna do this?
Now, the other part of it, for me — as a fellow Latino actor in Hollywood, I am busting with pride about all the Latino performances in this show. All these guys came with amazing conviction to the situation. From the first shot of the girl speaking Nahuatl — and, on that particular night, it was super cold, and we had to do this massive scene. We cut it in half, because the descriptions were really long and the translation made it longer. We also had a professor from UCLA who was a Nahuatl expert, who was helping our Nahuatl actors. They spoke Spanish originally, and they knew a little bit of it, and they learned it more to play that scene. And so — to their credit, man, they had to work with three sides of the brain. They’re acting in Nahuatl, translating Spanish, and being directed in English.
So we have all of these elements, and then here’s a baby, and you have to walk and talk at the same time — and also, you have to talk about how you were raped. You couldn’t imagine the difficulty of that, and yet they made it look so easy. Working with all sides of their brain. My hat goes off to them. Really, really proud to be part of that scene.