Actor Jaeden Martell spoke to Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki about the complexities of his performance in Defending Jacob and his career as one of the most in-demand young actors in Hollywood.
Jaeden Martell is very, VERY good at playing a creepy teen. The 17-year-old currently stars as Jacob in the Apple TV+ mini-series Defending Jacob were he plays a teen accused of murdering a fellow classmate. Is Jacob a cold and distant killer? Or a teenage boy prone to making mistakes and lacking a few social niceties? Defending Jacob makes finding answers to these questions very difficult (and a lot of fun to watch). The whole series hinges on the audiences’ inability to guess whether or not Jacob committed the crime in question. And its precisely because Martell is so good at toeing the line between innocence and delusion that you are left guessing. As I said, he is so very good at playing a creepy teen. So good, in fact, that leaving Jaeden Martell (and his TV parents Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery) off of your Emmy ballot would be criminal.
Read our full conversation below:
Awards Daily: The first role that you ever did was playing a younger version of Chris Evans in a movie (2014’s Playing it Cool). I’m curious if you have any memories from that? And what is it like to have this weird full-circle moment right now playing his son?
Jaeden Martell: Yeah. It’s so funny, that was my first project. I just worked a day. I played a younger him. I came to set and I had really long blonde hair. They said, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you a buzz cut so that you can look like Chris. And I just remember working on that movie and being so excited because it was my first film. I saw Chris from far away and we never met.
But then, we were working on Knives Out, where he played my cousin. and I told him that we technically worked together before. During Knives Out we found out that we were going to be doing Defending Jacob so it’s a little funny… small, small world.
AD: You’ve done a wide variety of films, both independent, like St. Vincent (2014) and The True Adventures of Wolfboy (2019), which I saw recently and really liked. You’ve also done these massive projects, like IT (2017) and Knives Out (2019).
So, how do you choose your projects? I mean, you’ve gotten to work with so many incredible people and you’re only 17. How have you been able to develop that eye for projects that really suit your talent?
JM: It’s really about the script and the people attached to it. It’s about thinking whether this movie or this character would help me grow as an actor, whether it would help me right now or in the future. And just finding those scripts and becoming better with every project that I do. And, that comes with working with amazing people like I did on [Defending Jacob] and finding interesting characters that I can grow from.
AD: What was it about Defending Jacob that made you think that this is an opportunity to help you grow? What stood out to you?
JM: I think Jacob is definitely different from most characters I’ve played. He is a normal kid in a way — he loves his family, he has friends, he tells jokes. But, he’s also super mysterious. I think for me, it was definitely very, very internal. With most projects, your character’s emotions— what they’re saying and what the thinking is very upfront and the audience understands everything about them through their actions and in the dialogue. But with this, it was very much up to me. I had to decide who this character was in my mind and keep that a secret. So that really drew me to this project.
AD: I saw an interview where you mentioned that you asked the director Morten Tyldum and creator Mark Bomback whether or not they thought that Jacob was guilty. They told you to decide for yourself and you kept that a secret.
AD: How did you make that decision? When you initially read the script, did you have a first impression and how did that shape your performance? Or did you decide his guilt or innocence beforehand and then let that guide you? How did your decision about Jacob’s guilt or innocence influence your approach to the role and your acting process?
JM: Yeah. That’s a good question. When I first read it, I felt like I read it as an audience member just like everyone else. So, I was very on the fence and trying to decide constantly whether he did it. But when I was able to get into this character and [had to] decide whether he did it, it was pretty difficult. I selfishly chose what would be more impactful for me as an actor in a way, what would motivate me more. That’s all it was. And then just figuring out what happened to this character and his motivations… why he did what he did or why he didn’t do it. It was just about discovering this person.
AD: You’ve done TV before [Martell appeared in Showtime’s Masters of Sex], but this is your first leading role as a part of this incredible trio. Is this something that you want to do again in the future? How was this medium different for you?
JM: I feel like television is really changing in recent years and it’s becoming more and more like film. We essentially shot this like a movie where it wasn’t in order, but we were shooting for six months. It was definitely a very long time to shoot. So, there’s that. [The difference is] just shooting for that long and sort of forgetting where you are in the story and getting so lost in the story and in the characters. I don’t think I prefer one over the other.
AD And just in terms of larger projects versus smaller indie roles, is one more comfortable for you than the other?
JM: No, not necessarily. It just always depends on who you’re working with. I feel like on a show like this it feels very big. And we’re working with Apple, but it did feel like a small crew —we had one director, one writer, and one showrunner for the whole entire series. In this case, we were lucky. It felt like a very small, independent project in a way, but in many ways, it didn’t. It had the best of both worlds.
AD: A lot of actors will talk about how important it is for them to find empathy within their characters. With Jacob, he can be a character that’s hard to root for at times. And then, I mean, in Knives Out, you were literally playing a Nazi troll…
AD: [Laughs]. Is it important for you to find a way to relate to your characters? You were saying, a big part of Defending Jacob was trying to get to know him.
JM: Yeah. That’s definitely very important. I think sometimes it’s natural to separate yourself from the character and have a dislike of the character like Jacob in Knives Out. I definitely didn’t relate to him or like him, but when acting as him, you do have to sort of justify his actions. With Defending Jacob, it was relating that character to myself. And finding those similarities and goading on those. But, then even if they do something wrong, that me, the human being wouldn’t agree with, you do have to understand why they did it. And like you said, it’s about having empathy for them. You know, I think that’s what tethers a character and an actor together.
AD: That’s Interesting. In what ways, did you find commonalities with Jacob? When did you say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with that’ and how did you handle it?
JM: Well, I think I relate to him in the aspect that he loves his family and he really wants to be a normal kid. I have to sort of deal with that one as an actor too, so I definitely relate to him when it comes to that. And, right now during quarantine, we can all relate to the fact that he and his family are stuck at home and are forced to stop their normal lives.
Sometimes his actions do annoy me. Like, why did you lie about this certain thing? I think that goes for whether or not he did it. I think he has made a lot of mistakes throughout the show with lying or not telling the truth.
AD: In the end, what lessons have you learned from playing Jacob that you’re going to carry on to future projects?
JM: I think in the end I’ve definitely learned how to relate to characters, think beyond the script, think beyond what’s in front of me, and be able to use my imagination, which was an amazing experience. I’ll definitely continue that.
AD: Defending Jacob seems like a very difficult role because one minute you’re laughing at a joke with Chris, and then the next minute you’re scared, and the next minute you’re angry. It’s a very good opportunity for you to show off your incredible range as an actor. What was that like for you to just have to do so much? I know that sounds silly, but it just really seemed like you were getting to stretch your acting muscles here. Talk me through that.
JM: Oh yeah, I mean, that was definitely the case. Like I said before with the length of the shoot, sometimes, you would be shooting episode one the same day as we were shooting a scene from episode eight. So, there’s a lot of back and forth, and sometimes it was hard to stay grounded and remember what emotional state you’re in. It was definitely difficult in that aspect.
And yeah, there’s a lot of emotional punches, but a lot of happy family moments. I think they balance each other out. I think that the fact that you are able to jump between both of them kind of helps you as an actor in a way because if it was all completely emotional, it would be so draining. And if it was all happy, I feel like.. I’ve never had to do that, but that sounds equally as exhausting. [Laughs].
AD: What do you want the big takeaway to be for people watching? I follow you on social media and you seem so excited and engaged with people watching it. What do you hope that that viewing experience is like for people?
JM: Well, first off, I hope people can see themselves in these characters, whether you’re a kid, or a parent, or just a normal human being, you can hopefully see yourself in them imagine yourself in this situation. I think what is super important for all movies is that you have empathy for them. I guess the whole point of the story is to ask, ‘How far would you go for the people you love?’ And maybe that question will be brought up in people’s minds. You know, in the story, the parents sometimes do some questionable things because of their love for Jacob. That might seem like a bad thing, but in the end, it’s all done out of love. It’s an interesting topic to deal with and hopefully, it makes people think about that.
AD: Has it changed your perspective about how you, Jaeden, as a person would handle the situation? Or how you view your personal relationships?
JM: Hmm…that’s a good question. I think that, yeah, in a way it has because I’m able to look at this character and look at everything he’s done and sort of analyze his actions. I’m able to tell what he did right. And what he did wrong. And I think It made me reflect on myself and think about what I would do in that situation versus what he would do. So it definitely affected me in that way where I better understood myself. Because obviously in your daily life you don’t think about, ‘Oh, what would I do if I was accused of murder?’
AD: I hope not! I hope that’s not a question that you’re faced with. [Laughs]. And you’re not going to tell me if you think Jacob is innocent or if he’s guilty?
JM: [Laughs] I can’t!
The finale of Defending Jacob will be available on Apple TV+ on May 29. Previous episodes are also available to stream on Apple TV+.