Leland B. Martin was never supposed to be an actor. With a business degree, he was on the path to becoming a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, though he admits now “that just didn’t make my heart tick. It didn’t make my heart flutter.” But a faithful lunch run one day changed the trajectory of his life as he stumbled on a storefront building that had a sign in its window that read, “casting.” He went inside, met the owner, and started taking acting lessons from her on Tuesday and Thursday nights shortly thereafter.
Today, years later, his Tuesday nights feature a series regular role on BET’s Boomerang.
Martin stars as Ari, the handsome, charming, and “sexually fluid” best friend among a group of young, Black, and creative millenials trying to survive and thrive. Executive produced by Lena Waithe and Ben Cory Jones, the show is inspired by the 1992 Black, classic comedy of the same name that starred Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens, and Halle Berry (who also serves as an EP of the show). The series picks up, over 20 years later, with the kids of the film’s main characters working their darndest to get out of their successful parents’ shadows. Also starring are Tequan Richmond, Tetona Jackson, RJ Walker, Crystal Garrett, and Instagram star Lala Milan.
Soon after starting acting classes, Martin told Out that he began “to fall in love with the craft.” But it wasn’t until he travelled from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. to audition for a role in the 2012 independent feature alaskaLand (directed by Chinonye Chukwu who this year became the first Black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s top prize for Clemency) that he began to look at acting as a potential full-time career.
“They picked me and the next thing I know, after a few rehearsals, I'm out in Alaska getting paid to play pretend,” Martin said. “And I kind of liked that idea so I said, ‘You know what? This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I felt like I was good enough to do it.”
Out caught up with Martin over the phone to discuss Boomerang, the importance of playing a queer character, and being part of the ongoing Black creative renaissance in Hollywood. Oh, and the “B” is for Bernard.
Talk to me about how Boomerang came to you as an opportunity. What was the audition process like?
For an actor in Hollywood, sometimes it's tough. A lot of politics play into getting different roles, like who likes who and whether or not you're hot right now and all types of stuff. So, for someone really trying to make a name for themselves, it’s a bit hard sometimes. I [thought this] was another one of those auditions where I'm going to go and do well and somebody's going to say, "Hey we like that guy!” and maybe they'll pick me for something in the future. I just thought I was shooting above my league for a serious regular roll… I honestly didn't expect to keep going as far as I did in the [audition process] because I just expected it to be another opportunity to impress someone and get maybe a smaller role somewhere else.
Your character, Ari, is bisexual, or I think the official statement is that he’s “sexually fluid.” Was that something that was listed in the character description as you were going through the audition process or did that come later?
It was listed in the character description from the very beginning that the character was, as they describe, sexually fluid. They didn't say bisexual, but I knew what it meant.
I guess there obviously wasn't any hesitation about you at least exploring the role, but did you think about if you had booked it, what that might mean in terms of actually pulling it off?
Absolutely! I had to consider a lot of different things when it came to this particular role and ultimately at the end of the day it comes back to, first of all, working with Lena Waithe. She's a genius in her own right. I watched her work as far as the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None and how she masterfully crafted that and I knew that I was in good hands. But I knew that I would be saying something that was bigger than myself. I didn't know what the character was going to have to say or do throughout the entire process, but I knew who I was going to be working with and just because of that, I was like, “Okay, cool. I trust Lena Waithe with my career. And I trust Lena Waithe will have me say something that means something.”
And Ari is a very important role... There's a lot of people that are going to see themselves in Ari and it's going to be a beautiful thing because he is so unapologetic about who he is and his sexuality. And in his sexuality, he's very unapologetic and I love that about him because so many are struggling with that whole “closet” idea where they're not 100 percent confident in being who they are. Ari just comes on the scene like, "Aye, take it or leave it. This is what it is." I think people are going to see that and they’re going to get a lot of courage within themselves.
One of the things that I like about the way that part of the character is revealed is that you must be paying attention to catch it.
Lena made it so it was like that… It’s a subtle thing because it's real life… and this was just one of those things where it doesn't have to necessarily hit you over the head for it to be real.
What steps would you say you took to prepare to pull off this character?
Ari's a combination of a few different people in my life. Obviously, the sexuality piece of it, I have plenty of gay friends and also gay family that I was able to reach out to and kind of figure out what's what and what the real is, so that I can be as nuanced as possible within this particular character and do the community right. Also in his temperament, there are different sides of myself that I see in Ari. And even [related] to the kids that I work with at a group home, I pulled some of that hood element into him, that grungy, grimy type of element into him. There’s a bunch of different places I pulled from in order to make a complete character.
Your entire cast is full of somewhat newer faces to the industry. What are your thoughts about being a part of this particular cast in this broader moment in the industry where we're talking about the need for greater representation and more diverse storytelling?
Well, if you remember back in 1992, the old Boomerang, a lot of them were fresh faces themselves, just coming into themselves, getting on, and people recognizing them. So they were kind of in the same position that we're in and I'm honored to be the flip side to that. I'm honored to be the second representation of fresh faces representing the Boomerang franchise. It's an exciting thing because they all went on to have tremendous careers and I'm hopeful of the same for this talented cast.
What’s the responsibility feel like, from your vantage point, taking on this classic film and story?
The responsibility is an honor, to be honest with you. It's an honor to be handpicked by someone such as Lena Waithe to even represent the franchise and to do my best at it. And that's all I take it as — as an honor. I never got nervous or was like, "Aw man, we have to compete" or anything like that. I just went in there and did my job. At the end of the day, I know how to act and I know what works for me and I know what's gonna work in front of that camera. The people behind the scenes, I completely trust them, so I was never anxious about carrying on the name of Boomerang ‘cause I knew we were in good hands and I know myself. I know that when I put my best foot forward, which I did, then magic is gonna happen.
Anything else you want to leave audiences with?
With this series, everybody is going to see themselves in one way, shape, or form. With the LGBTQ community, you're going to see unapologetic people who are very confident in their identities. For the young millennial, for the young kids that are striving to be great in the corporate world, they're going to see themselves. For the young entrepreneur's, they're going to see themselves. For the young woke rebels, they're going to see themselves. We represent so many facets of society and there is something for everybody in this.