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Doc Star of the Month: Michael Martin, 'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets'

By Lauren Wissot

Michael Martin, from Bill and Turner Ross' 'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.' Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Though Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets premiered in the US Documentary Competition at pre-pandemic Sundance back in January, I didn’t catch Bill and Turner Ross' heartfelt film until the festival world had turned upside down and digital. Fortunately, I was able to watch the unusual dive-bar drama during CPH:DOX's pioneering virtual edition, deeming it "the quintessential CPH:DOX film—i.e., designed to have doc purists tearing their hair out," and summed it up as follows: "Veering from the ridiculous to the poignant, often in the same scene, this collection of character studies shot during last call at a Las Vegas bar before it closes for good [but filmed in a New Orleans canteen that's still open] includes a patron named Michael, a washed-up actor who sweeps up and sleeps at the Sin City saloon. Played by Michael Martin [a working actor who really does sweep up at a Big Easy bar], he delivers drunken profound wisdom that sounds so good as to be scripted. And when he warns a young musician to 'get out' before he gets stuck because 'there's nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff and doesn’t do stuff no more,' it's simply devastating. An uneasy portrait of an actor who long ago lost a part of his soul to the roles he played."

So now that Utopia has launched an online rollout of the provocative doc (it premiered July 10), Documentary thought it the perfect time to reach out to the riveting thespian at its center. And luckily, Michael Martin graciously agreed to take on the role of July's Doc Star of the Month—and to give us the scoop on how he managed to pull off one of the year’s most inspired performances in a documentary.  

DOCUMENTARY: So how did you get involved in the project? I read that the Ross brothers had seen you perform in a New Orleans production of [Eugene O’Neill's] Long Day's Journey into Night, but did you have to audition for them in any way? Did they simply invite you to participate?

MICHAEL MARTIN: Bill and Turner tracked me down at my then day job—as janitor at the Avenue Pub—and dropped in without warning. Which was smart. I was taken aback, and flattered. Certainly no one had ever sought me out like that. Though I never did ask how they managed to find me. 

They described Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, and what they wanted, during a long chat in the courtyard. I had trepidations—not being a drinker, and having done "reality shooting" before, albeit for a much smaller project. The risk of on-camera humiliation was obviously very high, especially given that my character was the only one expected to be there for the entire shoot. But, for a change, I did my due diligence on them and their work. It was obvious that they played in a league much bigger than where I'm usually found.

There was no audition. They were serious about wanting me to play it close to myself, so an audition would have contradicted the aesthetic. But they'd seen me play James Tyrone—another big compliment. And I suspect that finding me sweeping a bar was audition enough.

They did email me an O'Neill-inspired short speech, which they hoped I would adapt to my own words and deliver at some point, since my character was a vessel for specific thematics. And I totally failed to deliver on that during the course of the shoot.

D: Your character was inspired by Michael Jeter [the Tony Award-winning actor who played a dying bookkeeper in the 1990 Broadway musical Grand Hotel], so did you receive any direction from the brothers? Were you given total leeway to develop the character on your own?

MM: I looked at the Jeter, but I'm not great at building a performance from another actor's performance. And frankly, the Jeter model was depressing as fuck. I hoped to be sharper and less pathetic than that. Don't think I succeeded; I was just pathetic in a different way 

I did bounce a few possibilities off the Ross brothers via email during pre-production—the bathroom ablutions at the top, possibly the scene with what turned out to be Peter Elwell. I didn't know in the early going who else would be cast, and discovered that Peter—who I distantly knew through a friend in common—was approachable about such an intimate scene. But again, they meant it when they said they wanted me to make it my own. So, no; no direction. "Sounds great," was the essential reply. I'm lucky that was the case. As is probably clear, I was intent on finding ways to deliver a near-version of myself, plus alcohol and exhaustion, without falling into self-parody.

D: I'm very curious to hear how acting in a docu-fiction film differs from performing in a narrative feature. I'm guessing you might not have been paid for one thing. Was the experience at all similar to improv theater?  

MM: Sadly, I've done little improv. I have little training in general—too much self-taught. But the essential skill is the same across the board: Stay present, listen and react to what the others are giving you. The difference here is that for usual acting, it's "listen and react in character," whereas in docu-fiction it's "listen and react as you are, period." Don't make up responses.

I think I'm a good listener but, as I've probably indicated, my wariness of looking like an idiot meant I held myself somewhat apart from most everybody in the film. It shows in my performance, and I hope [it] works for the film. Peter, Rikki Redd and Al Page I knew in real life; Shay Walker is irresistible; and Pam demands attention whether you want to give it to her or not. Otherwise no relations developed onscreen, thanks to me. It's all in-the-moment banter, and passed away as quickly as banter does.

D: What were the challenges to creating your character? How much time did you have to prepare before the shoot began?

MM: No preparation except weeks of worrying. Again, it was come-as-you-are. I did assemble a small kit of items I thought a homeless man living at the bar would keep on hand. If I was going to depart as far as I did from the Rosses' Jeter and O'Neill inspirations, I wanted at least to honor their request to keep it close to home. Besides, sustaining a created character over the course of an 18-hour shoot would have been impossible. As you can tell, I leaned pretty hard on their "do it as you want to do it" blanket permission.

D: So what are your hopes for the film's unusual, pandemic-necessitated virtual release this month? Do you expect it to open up new acting opportunities for you?

MM: I don't mind the virtual release, of course. It has to be. I admit that I find the all-over-the-place release schedule, as well as the newness of Altavod, hard to communicate to others who are interested in seeing it. One wants to say, "Find it on Netflix," or whatever, and leave it at that. It's all above my pay grade. And I realize the wide variety of "venues" means that it will probably be exposed to many distinct audiences.

I'm a working actor, not a former actor, and I do work steadily, before and since Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, if not particularly successfully. Recently, I was costarring in a local main-stage production of Noises Off, which closed shortly before the pandemic. And I have two indie film projects, with a lead role in one, just recently released. I still clean bars, however.

Of course I hope it will open up new opportunities for me—I'm old and tired and poor—but I frankly don't expect it. The nature of the movie militates against viewers, specifically viewers from within the industry, as seeing my work as more than drunken freeform. And that's only fair, I hasten to add. With the exception of a few thought-through brief scenes, it is free-form, if not particularly drunken.

I expect to continue to get approached for the occasional street crazy, or drug addict, or night hotel clerk, or dementia sufferer, or, yes, homeless man, and otherwise make my own work. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is unlikely to change that, despite its artistry and prominence. It's a director's film, not an actor's film.

For complete information on screenings and runs of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, visit Altavod.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.