The actor grew up in Alaska with a strong connection to tribe traditions, but that didn’t stop him from dreaming of showbiz as a kid.
One of the more exciting developments in director Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven (out September 23) is the inclusion of a Native character in the film’s core team of heroes. When Denzel Washington’s seasoned bounty hunter, Sam Chisolm, is recruited to defend a helpless town against evil industrialists, one of the men he brings into his gang of fighters is a Comanche warrior named Red Harvest.
According to Martin Sensmeier, the Alaska-raised Athabaskan-Tlingit actor who plays Red Harvest, the character is “kind of a loner.”
“But he joins up with the other six and they take on an army,” Sensmeier told us during a recent phone chat as he drove around Los Angeles. “I studied Comanche history a little bit, and in 1879 there were no longer free Comanche people. They were forced onto Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, by the government.
“My back story was that I’m not at Fort Sill. I’m on my own and I join these guys and go and kick a bunch of a--.”
Martin Sensmeier stars in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ The Magnificent Seven. Photography: Courtesy Sony
The role in The Magnificent Seven — Sensmeier’s first major part after working on indie films and other TV projects (Salem, Lilin’s Brood) — is a longtime dream come true for the actor and model. Before moving to California and pursuing his acting dream, Sensmeier enjoyed an Alaska upbringing filled with tribe traditions and pickup basketball games. In his first years away from home, he worked on an oil rig for months at a time while trying to get his entertainment career off the ground.
Now Sensmeier is mixing it up with Washington, Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, and more in the new western. He’s also gearing up for a part in the upcoming HBO western/sci-fi hybrid series Westworld.
Sensmeier says he didn’t fully appreciate the significance of his recent career accomplishments until he experienced The Magnificent Seven’s promotional campaign through the eyes of a Native kid.
“His uncle was telling me this kid wanted to be Red Harvest, just from seeing the trailer. It’s incredible. He was talking about how he’s looking for the right bow.
“This is an 8-year-old kid. He sees this guy on TV, Red Harvest, and he’s like, ‘Man, that’s cool, I want to be that.’”
Here’s more from our conversation with the up-and-coming actor:
Cowboys & Indians: Were you recruited for the role of Red Harvest, or did you have to audition?
Martin Sensmeier: I auditioned. My manager is so laid back about everything. I remember one day I walked in the office and he told me I had an audition for this film. He was so calm. He was like, “Yeah, it’ll be great. You’re going to book the part. You’re going to go out to Louisiana; you’re going to film for a couple of months.” I was like, “OK.” I looked at the breakdown and saw who was in it. I was like, “It’s for a lead role, and an Antoine Fuqua film.” At that point, I got excited.
C&I: And what did the audition process entail?
Sensmeier: I worked really hard. Went and auditioned, and then a couple of weeks went by, I was in Alaska, and I actually got a call-back audition. I flew back to California right away and met with the director and auditioned for him and then had to go through another one after that. I basically went through three-and-a-half auditions to get the part. ... I had to get a video of me riding horses. They wanted a lot. Before this, I hadn’t had a lot of stuff out, so they really wanted to see what I could do and what I was capable of doing.
C&I: How comfortable were you on a horse before you had your riding skills tested?
Sensmeier: Actually, I didn’t have a lot of experience. In the movie, I ride bareback. I just went for it. I wasn’t worried about falling off or getting hurt or anything. I just got on the horse and went. I knew that this was going to help me book the role, so I was like, “Yeah, I’ll jump off the Empire State Building with a parachute, man.” I just did it, and luckily I didn’t fall off or get hurt. After I got the part, they sent me to Louisiana like a month early to train. I trained with a Blackfeet native from Montana. He’s been a stunt guy and a horse trainer for years. He worked on Dances With Wolves. He's the real deal. I started working with him for about an hour-and-a-half to two hours a day, five days a week. I trained for a whole month, every day with him, taking bareback lessons. I really learned how to ride.
C&I: You’re extremely athletic, though — did that contribute to your confidence there?
Sensmeier: I was riding a horse that was damn near 17 hands high, and riding it bareback. The horse was a stud, like three, four weeks before he made it to set, but they clipped him a month before we started training, so he was still really ornery. He tried to buck me off. He managed to a couple of times. My confidence went up big time once I fell off the first time, because I realized it wasn’t that bad. I fell off. I cut my elbow open. For the most part, I jumped right back up, and I was like, “That wasn’t so bad,” jumped right back on and started riding again.
C&I: Did you do most of your own stunts or did you work with stuntmen on some of the riskier stuff?
Sensmeier: There's a lot of cool stuff in the movie you're going to see, and some of it is not me. I had a really super badass stuntman named Danny Edmo. He's also Blackfeet from Montana. He's like my brother from another mother. He makes me look really good in some spots. But there are some stunts that I got to do by myself.
C&I: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio: You worked with some serious heavy-hitters for a first big movie role. What was it like for you?
Sensmeier: Getting a chance to work with those guys was incredible. I feel like I connected with pretty much everybody in a different way. Denzel kind of became a mentor and taught me a lot. We had some moments together that were really special. Chris, he was like my fishing buddy and workout partner, so we connected. Every weekend or every other weekend we were trying to get out and do some fishing, and then during the week we were working out together. He’s a really cool guy. We had a blast together. Vincent D’Onofrio, he really, really became a mentor to me, and a teacher. I actually study acting with his teacher now here in L.A. He really became a big brother or uncle. We still talk a lot, almost every week. ... Same with Ethan Hawke — we connected on a basketball level, because he likes basketball a lot and so do I. We play ball a lot with his son. We spent a lot of time together at the gym, but also on set. Ethan is such a genuine person.
C&I: When you were growing up, what were some of the things that gave you the bug to get into show business? Movies, music, a little bit of everything?
Sensmeier: Everything. I see life through a lens; it’s like my movie. Whatever I’m listening to at the time is my soundtrack. I just loved the movies since I was a little kid. My big brother, that’s one person that loves the movies more than anybody I’ve ever met. He had the first laser-disc player when it came out, the first DVD player. Now he doesn’t watch anything other than Blu Ray on his 3-D TV, and he’s got a projector at his house. I remember when I was a kid, I used to go to his place and watch movies, and it was a thing; we had popcorn. I loved the movies from a very young age, and my first favorite film was La Bamba. I probably watched that movie two, three times a day.
C&I: And I’m sure you caught a few Denzel Washington flicks in those impressionable years.
Sensmeier: Denzel, for a lot of Native people, he’s everybody's favorite actor. He’s one of the greatest of all time. Of course, I don’t speak for all Native people. I just know a lot of Native people like him. For me, when I was growing up, we didn’t really have any Native actors who were in lead roles, aside from playing the Indian role in Dances With Wolves or Last of the Mohicans, stuff like that. Our story isn’t just the old westerns where we’re getting killed by cowboys, or being the noble savage or anything like that. We’re doctors, lawyers, musicians, actors, models. When you see somebody like Denzel portraying those different kinds of roles ... we don’t have a Native person up there, and I can identify with Denzel more than Yul Brynner.
C&I: What do your family members back in Alaska think about your budding movie career?
Sensmeier: I’ve been home twice since I’ve finished filming. The first time I went home, there wasn’t really much hype about it, people didn’t know much about it. Since the second time I’ve gone home, the trailers have come out. People are really excited. I’m getting a lot of messages from a lot of Native people from all over the country. People tag me in photos on Instagram and Twitter, from the movie theater poster and stuff. I do a lot of work with youth. It’s good seeing the kids that are excited about it. When I was a kid growing up, we played cowboys and Indians in the village. The funny thing is that my white friends wanted to be the Indians and we always wanted to be the cowboys.
C&I: I’ve read that you grew up participating in the tribe traditions. What are some things you look back on and remember the most when you think about growing up in Alaska?
Sensmeier: Being connected to the land in a tribal way — subsistence. We grew up fishing and hunting, learning that from a very young age. That’s what we do, and depending on the land for sustenance, everything up there; all the traditional foods, we still eat them. Those are my fondest memories of my childhood, that and playing basketball in the village. Growing up in the culture, that’s my first world.
Read more about the new The Magnificent Seven in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands August 30.