J.R. Martinez returns to the tube Sept. 21 and 22 in a whole new professional incarnation. The man who won the hearts of millions with his dazzling smile and fabulous footwork – and took home the mirror ball trophy — on Season 13 of “Dancing With the Stars” is now starring in “SAF3.” It’s an action adventure series about an elite group of sea, air and fire rescuers based in Malibu, California, and it’s from some of the same team who brought us “Baywatch,” including Executive Producer Gregory J. Bonann.
The ways and costs of the TV world being what they are, actual production is not taking place in Malibu, but in Cape Town, South Africa. We caught up with J.R. on a phone chat from the other side of the world.
“Originally it was going to be shot in North Carolina, but there were funding issues, money was going to be coming from someone else, there were a lot of moving parts,” recalls J.R. After about seven months, “Finally they came back to me and said, ‘It’s actually not going to be in Wilmington. It’s going to be in Cape Town, South Africa.’ Of course there were a lot of things for me to think about. Work-wise, I have a lot of other things going on that I have commitments to outside of acting. I said, ‘I’d love to talk about this, however, we have to figure out a way. I have commitments in the States and I’m not going to cancel on these people at the last minute.’”
J.R. continues to keep up a schedule of motivational speaking engagements and public appearances. Having come back from the agonizing burns he suffered over 34 per cent of his body when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in 2003, the Iraq War veteran’s story remains a source of inspiration for veterans, burn patients and others facing difficult challenges. His memoir, Full of Heart My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit, is a New York Times Best Seller.
The “SAF3” (pronounced “safe”) team came back to him with plans that are enabling him to get back to North America each month during production, which is slated to go into December. So now the former “All My Children” regular is working with a cast that includes Dolph Lundgren and fellow daytime vet Texas Battle. “We all get along really well,” he lets us know.
J.R.’s character, Alfonso, “is injured on the job. He’s responding to a call and while he’s saving a young girl, one of the guys on the team passes away. My character gets injured as well. It has so many similarities to my personal life,” notes J.R. “I went through a lot of struggles to get back on my feet and get back to my life and that’s what my character is going to go through for the first few episodes — and then he just gets back to being the baddass he’s used to being. I’ve done acting before, mainly drama. This show gives me the opportunity to do a lot of action, to show some humor in this personality instead of being kind of sober all the time.”
He notes that thus far, most of his scenes have been those of Alfonso’s “pain and recovery” as he overcomes his injuries. But now they’re getting to more physicality for J.R. “Yesterday I had my first somewhat of an action scene where I was in the ocean, I was swimming, and this girl was coaching me. It looks like in the next couple of scripts I’ll have more action and I’m excited about that. That’s what I want to do. I know they’re going to be really sensitive about me doing stunts, and that’s understandable from an insurance perspective. But the jumping and climbing and swimming, beating someone up or running or whatever it is I can do, I’m looking forward to it.”
The shooting schedule hasn’t given him much time to be homesick. Still, J.R. says that every so often, a reminder of how far away he is will hit him in the face.
“It’s a culture shock to a certain extent. I’m grateful for the fact they speak English here,” he says with a laugh. “You miss basic things and you think, oh, one o’clock in in the afternoon, oh, ‘I’ll call my mom. I’ll call my friends.’ Oh, I can’t do that. We’re six hours ahead of East Coast time, nine hours ahead of the West. Those are frustrating moments, dealing with international time.”
And then there’s the fact that his daughter, Lauryn Anabelle, born in May of last year, is far, far away at home with mama Diana Gonzalez-Jones.
“She’s doing great, she’s getting big,” he says of his baby girl. “She’s growing and learning a lot and talking a lot. As far as coming to South Africa it’s just too big of a flight right now for her to endure, being 17 hours. When I go back to the States, I carve out two or three days to be there and spend some time with her, you know, to let her know daddy’s still there. She’s at the age she doesn’t really know when I’m there and when I’m not there. She’s happy, she’s loved and she’s well taken care of.”
He says, “My plan is to be in a position in my life where I don’t have to take every single job and can spend more time with her when she’s older – or she can travel to Cape Town and spend time with me. At least, that’s my plan.” He stops, then adds, “It definitely isn’t easy. It’s definitely difficult. It has its challenges. Has to be some way, even if there are only two hours when you’re there, you make them the best two hours you can. You make them the best two hours she’s had with you and you’ve had with her.”
Lauryn will no doubt get a charge out of seeing her daddy acting alongside Elmo on the Oct. 17 episode of “Sesame Street.”
Meanwhile, there are sights and sounds around to sooth the frustrations for J.R. The man who experienced hell in a burning vehicle a decade ago is now in a heavenly spot.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Malibu and Malibu is a beautiful place, but I’ve got to say that here in Cape Town, there are — the visuals, a lot of elements to it are more beautiful than Malibu,” notes J.R.. “You have these amazing mountains that are right behind you and you have the clouds that sit right on top of the mountains. Here they call it the tablecloth when that happens. And you know, it’s so beautiful and magical. We’re staying at this beautiful hotel that’s right across from the beach. I look out and see the ocean and I hear the waves crashing against the shore. It’s amazing.”