Jaeden Martell stars in the Apple TV+ limited series “Defending Jacob” in the titular role, a teenager who is charged with murdering a classmate. Martell stars alongside Chris Evans as Jacob’s father, previously acting together in “Knives Out.”
Martell recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about how much he knew going into “Defending Jacob,” why he didn’t want to read the book the series was based on and what it’s like to work in television vs. movies. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Jaeden, when you came onto the show, were you told whether Jacob was actually the murderer or was that something that you might’ve discovered as you were reading the scripts?
Jaeden Martell: After reading the scripts it was still unclear so the first time I met Mark [Bomback] and Morten [Tyldum], the writer and the director, I asked them whether or not he did it. Basically, Morten said that I can choose whether or not he did it and they didn’t wanna know, they didn’t want me to tell anybody. It took me a while to decide through pre-production whether he did it or not so I guess I’m the only person who knows for a fact if he killed Ben.
GD: So, as viewers come to see, I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Jacob acts guilty but he certainly does things that do not help the situation. Jaeden, defend Jacob here. Why does he act seemingly irrationally and he doesn’t really take these murder charges as seriously as he should?
JM: I think he takes them seriously but I think it’s important to remember that he is a normal teenager and he wants to retain that sort of normalcy throughout this trial and he wants to play video games and he wants to have relationships with his friends but it’s really hard to do that in this sort of difficult situation. So he kind of acts out in a way and he does things that definitely don’t help him in the situation but it’s only because, like I said, he wants to return to being a normal kid but I think also, he realizes, throughout the story, the weight of the trial and how it’s gonna affect his life forever.
GD: I’ve not read the book but I did talk to showrunner Mark Bomback and what I got from that conversation is that the show treats Jacob more as viewpoint character so I’m wondering if you read the book and what changes you noticed in terms of Jacob’s portrayal.
JM: Yeah, basically I started reading the book before shooting, obviously to do research, and I got a chapter in and I decided not to read it because like you said, it plays with perspective, and really, the book is completely from Andy’s perspective. It wasn’t good for me to know what he was thinking and what he was going through ‘cause I had to focus on my character and also because the character, Jacob, is quite different. I feel like Mark and Morten wanted him to feel more normal and relatable to the audience rather than being this super dark, gloomy character.
GD: What kind of research did you do then? Are you looking into similar real-life cases?
JM: I wanted to stay away from relating to anything. I wanted it to be fresh, in a way. The interesting thing about this story is Jacob dealing with this whole new world that he doesn’t understand. While he understands it a little bit because his dad is a D.A., he is really unfamiliar with being on that side of the bench and having to deal with being in the spotlight. It all had to feel natural and new so I wanted to stay away from knowing about the trials and how exactly it worked because he sort of has to be inexperienced with that aspect of it. With the character, it was completely internal and I had to use my imagination to decide whether he did it or not and focus on the inexperience and the background of Jacob rather than focus on other people’s experiences.
GD: What do you hope viewers take from Jacob’s story and your portrayal of him?
JM: Good question. I think that this story is really about family. It’s essentially just asking the question how far would people go for the people that they love, and I hope that families and teenagers and kids and parents can all relate to these characters and relate to this family. I think also, part of this is empathy, having empathy for people, just because while you don’t know whether Jacob did it or not, you still feel empathy for him. It’s a crazy thing to feel empathy for a potential murderer, and you do because you’re able to see he is a normal kid, he has a loving family and his life is torn apart and it will never go back to normal. You’re forced to have empathy for someone that you don’t truly understand and I think that’s a really interesting thing.
GD: Let’s go back here, how did you get this part?
JM: I auditioned a few times, I sent a tape and I actually found out that I was going to do “Defending Jacob” while I was shooting “Knives Out” with Chris [Evans]. We found out together and that was really interesting. It was great to have a head start on creating that family bond and dynamic. Then, after I found out, I met with Mark and Morten and started talking to them about the story and about the character and I was super drawn to the complexity of the story and character.
GD: Why do you think they cast you? What do you think they saw in you that you would be able to bring to this role?
JM: I don’t know, that’s not really a question for me, I guess. That’s a tough question. I’m not sure how to answer that.
GD: You’ve worked on a lot of movies over the last few years. What was it like to sit with a character for these eight episodes here, to play the same role for an extended period of time?
JM: It was very different than any of the movie experiences I had, mostly because of the length of the shoot. It was around six months and we basically shot it like a film. We shot it pretty much out of sequence unless we were on stage and we were jumping back from episode to episode so it just felt like a super long movie and it was really interesting because I feel like when you’re given that amount of time to be with a character, you become quite close to him. I feel like you’re able to fully get a grasp of the character and you’re able to witness their growth and their changes and different moods and how they react in certain scenarios. So it forces you to be a better actor, in a way, being more aware of where you are in the story and more aware of character stuff.
GD: There are very few shows where you actually have the same director for the entire thing. What’s it like working on Apple TV+ which is this streaming service that nobody had and maybe nobody had heard of back when you were working on the show? How have you been able to describe it to people who were wondering what you were working on?
JM: I mean, Apple is obviously one of the biggest companies in the world so they approached it like they’ve been doing it for years. It was very professional. I think the way they do things is always very sleek and simple and they did the same with the show. Like you said, having one director and one showrunner and one writer, I think it made the process so cohesive and it made it flow super well and it was great working with them. I hope people will subscribe to them and hopefully watch our show from beginning to end. They have a lot of great projects.
GD: Do you have a favorite Apple show?
JM: “Servant” was good. I’m a fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I watched a little bit of “Amazing Stories” as well. I think that’s all I’ve seen so far.
GD: We’re coming up on the Emmys and you’re being campaigned in the Supporting Actor in a Limited Series category. If you’re nominated, you’ll have to choose an episode that’s available for viewing on the academy website. I’m wondering, is there a particular episode of “Defending Jacob” that you feel was your standout, maybe had a bit more to do in it?
JM: I don’t know. I guess I would answer that question by figuring out which episode was the most difficult for me and the most emotional. I think I would say the second episode where everything starts picking up. I feel like there were the most scenes where I was the most scared to have to shoot them. So I guess I would have to say the second one.
GD: You’re so young but you’ve had an enormously successful career as Jaeden Lieberher. This is your first credit on television as Jaeden Martell. Why change the name or maybe just your stage name?
JM: I changed it to Martell because that is my mom’s last name. I wanted to honor her and her go by her last name because she is here with me every day, she’s on-set with him she makes me the person I am, I owe everything to her.
GD: I’m wondering, over your film career, who were you most excited to work with?
JM: The first movie I ever did was with Bill Murray. I think I was excited to work with him but also the most terrified, it being my first movie but also it being Bill Murray. That was a scary experience meeting him for the first time, knowing that I was gonna be working with him every day.
GD: And finally, you recently went blonde. I’ll just say 2020 is the year, so I wanna ask how that’s going.
JM: (Laughs.) There’s nothing else to do and I had to go for it, just for the time being.