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Max Martini talks about his new film, Sgt. Will Gardner, and how he’s donating the profits to veteran charities

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Max Martini as Sgt. Will Gardner. Photo credit Karen Kuehn

If you have ever watched The Unit, 13 Hours, Captain Phillips, Pacific Rim, Redbelt or Saving Private Ryan, you may recognize actor Max Martini. He typically plays heroic action-driven roles and knows how to handle firearms on and off screen.

Over the past few years, he put on the hats of director and producer in order to bring to life a story he had also written about a veteran coming home from the wars in the Middle East. The kicker is that 30% of the film's profits will be going to three veteran-based charities.

Sgt. Will Gardner opens on January 11, 2019, and we sat down to a chat with the film's writer, director, producer and star.

RECOIL: Tell us a little bit about Will Gardner. I know you told me you were inspired by an Army Ranger you met while entertaining the troops in Afghanistan.
MM: There was a very strong driving force behind the making of this film but let me start here. While I was shooting The Unit which was a military show for CBS, myself and a few cast mates organized a trip to the Middle East because we knew we had a massive active duty military fan base. This was at the height of the war.

We mostly went to these little encampments in the mountains of Afghanistan where our guys were just getting pounded. To see their faces light up when they saw us was just incredible.

So eventually, I found myself standing on a tarmac waiting for a C-130 to take us to another base and this guy came up. A young dude, an Army Ranger who looked the epitome of the guy who runs into the fight. We started talking and he was a huge fan of the show. We hit it off and stayed in touch while we were in theater.

After a while he started to really open up (via email) with stories of combat and conditions he was experiencing; sleep deprivation, anger issues, etc. All things symptomatic of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Additionally, he was petrified to come forward for fear of being ridiculed or stigmatized or even worse – sent to the rear.

He wasn't a complainer, but he felt comfortable talking about it to me.

Eventually, when he returned stateside it got worse. His wife left him, he lost his job and was living out of his car. And then his brother, also military, committed suicide. He was just spiraling.

It took two years to get 20% disability from the VA and a full 6 years to get to 80%.

At this point in my life, most of my friends are military. I have so many that have had terrific experiences with the VA. But I have SO many that have not. The system is clearly faulty and extremely difficult to navigate. In 2015 an Inspector General’s Report stated that over 300,000 soldiers had died awaiting pending healthcare claims. Died while waiting. If we are recruiting young people from strip malls to enlist into our voluntary military we HAVE to give them the red-carpet healthcare treatment upon their exit from combat. We spend a huge amount of money to train a soldier for combat. We send them through basic and specialty schools. We invest in their ability to “soldier”. Why are we not putting an equal amount of money, time and effort into them leaving the military so that they can reintegrate properly and live full and productive lives? I don’t get it. These are our heroes.

RECOIL: It's a disgrace. Now I remember when you and I first talked about the film maybe 6 years ago, you said a major goal of yours was to give 30% of the money that the film profited to charities that support veterans.
MM: We accomplished that. We have chosen three charities to receive 10% each. The first; Higher Ground USA out of Sun Valley, Idaho. They are treating veterans with different therapies. Largely recreational therapy. They also have a branch in Los Angeles which is additionally addressing the homeless veteran crisis here in Southern California. The second; Warriors Heart out of Texas. They focus on active duty service people, veterans and first responders with drug and alcohol dependencies – and PTSD. And the Gary Sinise Foundation. Doing everything from entertaining to building homes for veterans to retrofitting homes for veterans with disabilities to taking gold star wives and their kids to Disneyland. Gary is a friend, a patriot and a force in the veteran community with his dedication to this kind of charitable service.

RECOIL: For a while it didn't look like the project was ever going to come to fruition.
MM: It's been a long journey. When you mention to a potential financier that you want to donate 30% of the profits to charity; people run. A lot of people claim to have a charitable heart but for most of them, unless it's a tax write-off their charitable intentions go right out the window. So, it was tough to line up people willing to invest, but at the end of the day someone stepped up to the plate. Tanya Hill out of Houston, Texas came in with most of the money and Matthew Hanson out of Minnesota came in with the finishing funds. Angels – both of them. And hearts the size of Texas.

RECOIL: That’s awesome, so let’s hear a little about the plot and how this investor played a pivotal role.
MM: There’s a motorcycle journey within the story so filming has always been weather and season contingent. This on top of finding investors that would fund without a write-off was very difficult. But at the eleventh hour a year ago our investors came through.

So, we ended up with an amazing cast including Omari Hardwick, Lilly Raibe, Robert Patrick, Gary Sinise, Dermot Mulroney and my actual son is in it — and he steals the last quarter of the film! Haha!

Max Martini and Omari Hardwick photo credit Karen Kuehn.

Max Martini and Omari Hardwick photo credit Karen Kuehn.

RECOIL: Was that your son's first time acting?
MM: He did a commercial for a hotel in Palm Springs and I did a Western that he had a role in. He never really wanted to act full time but he REALLY wanted to be a part of this film. So back in the early stages and when I didn't think it was going to go it was like, “OK Buddy, you're going to be in it”, but then when we got financing and were going to actually make it I started thinking, “oh boy, this part is so big he could literally break the film if he doesn’t pull it off”.

So, he took some acting classes. We got him a coach. He flew out to Albuquerque for shooting and he absolutely crushed it. Proud dad right here.

RECOIL: It's in the genes
MM: But he doesn't want to act. He's good and he's got the talent, but he doesn't want to do it. I'm not going to pressure him into the hardest gig in the world to be successful at, but “the kid's got talent” as we say in showbiz.

Another winner we got was Luis Bordonada. He's former military and came in as a local actor out of Albuquerque. He was in the Army and while was on a jump his canopy didn't open. He bounced but survived! He came in with that story and also explained that he too had a horrible time with the VA taking 10 years to receive 10% benefits. I mean, come on, really? There’s no excuse.

RECOIL: So, with a cast like that is there a lot of action?
MM: It's not a combat film, it's a character driven story about a veteran who comes home to reclaim his family and his life’s purpose. There's a lot of comedy. It's not a “beat you over the head kind of film.” We wanted to show a character that isn’t suffering for two hours but healing for two hours. The idea is that once a veteran is up and running he can be a mentor to others. It’s really a positive message and a film that should inspire. I want the audience to walk away with a clearer understanding of the conditions our soldiers face, some of them of course, post-combat. And I want them to get involved. The great thing about this film is that we have done the hard work already. All you have to do is watch and you are helping.

Holt McCallany and Max Martini

Holt McCallany and Max Martini, photo credit Karen Kuehn.

RECOIL: Are you a gun guy or do you just play one in movies and on TV?
MM: I’m a big gun guy. I started seriously training during The Unit. Eric Haney (former DELTA Force Sergeant Major) took us out and we went through weapons handling and movement, both individually and in a stack.

From there we went into CQB (Close Quarter Battle) training and from there I was just like “This is fucking amazing, I’m not stopping.”

RECOIL: So, you don’t just train for a role, you keep it going.
MM: I still train to this day and have been blessed to have Tier One buddies that’ll instruct me.  I get out to the range at least once a week and that’s in “not very gun-friendly California” where ranges are not widespread. Oh, and my kids can shoot, too.

RECOIL: What’s your favorite part of training or favorite discipline?
MM: CQB and room clearing. It’s puzzle solving and thinking on your feet and working off your teammates. I just love it and love improving on it. I don’t think many people realize what goes into that.

I often wish when I was younger I would have enlisted and worn a uniform of some sort. I feel like I missed a beat in my life. I would have loved to have taken that opportunity to protect the free world from oxygen thieves…. wait, did I say that?


RECOIL: When I first saw you on The Unit, I didn’t realize that I had seen you in movies like Contact and Saving Private Ryan. I thought you were a veteran or someone with real shooting experience because of the way I saw you handle firearms onscreen. It wasn’t until after The Unit was on for a season or two that I watched Saving Private Ryan again and when it neared the end I was like “Oh shit, that’s Mack from The Unit!”
MM: I get that a lot. We got very lucky on The Unit because we were all decent behind a primary. Could reload with ease and transition with ease. All that looks good on camera and earns the respect of the military viewers. What I’ve discovered in Hollywood is this, actors either have that or they don’t. You can show someone how to carry an M4 properly, but if they don’t have it in their being, it doesn’t look right. And people call bullshit.

RECOIL: Any truth to the rumors that The Unit might be coming back?
MM: That was such a fun show. I keep trying to get them to bring it back or do a movie or something because I think they canceled it prematurely.

RECOIL: You have played some great parts on screen. What was your favorite role?


Max Martini as Mark “Oz” Geist in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

MM: I would say, playing Oz in 13 Hours. I loved The Unit and have been lucky to be in some high-profile movies, but Benghazi was such a disaster and failure by our government that I was glad to have had the opportunity to be involved in the retelling. And Mark Geist and I are life buddies now– a great human being.

When we met in a Maltese hotel lobby we looked at each other and it was like looking in a mirror. So crazy how similar we are. And Mark’s a shooter! Real deal folks.

RECOIL: You play similar roles, but you make each one different. You watch some actors and no matter what role they play they are basically the same guy in every movie. You play the same type, but each one is very different in their own way.
MM: I’m sort of this guy man, I boxed for years so I can handle myself pretty well, I’m a gun owner and a shooter. I like beer and bourbon. I’m a patriot. I come from a military/LE family. I just stepped into this business at a moment when, and I’m not patting myself on the back, there was a shortage of men to play fuckin’ MEN in Hollywood. There’s nothing worse than seeing a war film or Western and having to watch some sissy actor who’s never touched a gun or thrown a punch in his life trying to pretend like he’s someone that has. For a Western, you need Clint Eastwood with two 50 caliber magnums on his hips, not some girly boy sashaying through a dusty town. It’s like trying to load a revolver with a magazine….it’s just not gonna work.

When I went for the part in Saving Private Ryan there were thousands of dudes that wanted that role and it was the quickest and most simplistic read I ever did. I went home thinking there is no fucking way that Steven Spielberg is going to give me this. Not when every actor is going for the jugular to get it. But I guess I just brought the right attitude to the meeting. In hindsight, I looked back and thought I’m just that guy. Fuck it. Lock n’ load. Let’s do this.

For more information about the film follow Max Martini on Twitter @maxmartinila and Instagram Maxmartinila.

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