Though now a Hollywood star, Yakutat native and Gold Medal regular Martin Sensmeier didn’t expect a red carpet at the Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament this year.
On Hollywood and the hardwood 032917 AE 1 Kevin Gullufsen, Juneau Empire Though now a Hollywood star, Yakutat native and Gold Medal regular Martin Sensmeier didn’t expect a red carpet at the Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament this year.

Martin Sensmeier of Yakutat plays on his hometown's C Bracket team during the Lions Club's Gold Medal Basketball Tournament at Juneau-Douglas High School on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Michael Penn|Juneau Empire

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Story last updated at 3/28/2017 - 7:15 pm

On Hollywood and the hardwood

Though now a Hollywood star, Yakutat native and Gold Medal regular Martin Sensmeier didn’t expect a red carpet at the Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament this year.

He likes Gold Medal how it is: like one big family potluck with a basketball battle as the main dish.

Sensmeier had his big break through in last fall’s “Magnificent Seven” alongside Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. He’s awaiting the fall 2017 release of his next project, “Wind River,” which features Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

Though his acting career is taking off, his Yakutat C Bracket team, this year didn’t fare as well, losing to Hoonah on Thursday to bounce out of the tournament.

The Athabascan and Tlingit Alaskan Native returns to Alaska at least twice a year to stay connected to his family, friends and culture.

The Empire caught up with Sensmeier over the phone before the tournament to talk movies, basketball, Alaska Native culture and his position as Alaska’s most visible role model.

JE: You acted in a few different roles before you landed the job as Red Harvest (in the Magnificent Seven), but that was a big breakthrough. Was itintimidating to work with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt?

Sensmeier: Those guys are legends. It’s like getting picked to play in the NBA All-Star Game and you’re just a rookie coming off the bench. You have to show up, you know.

JE: How did you set yourself up to do that?

Sensmeier: It’s something that I always wanted. When you envision yourself being something, you’re already that, you have to think of it that way. So it wasn’t like, when I got the part, it wasn’t like this huge, intoxicating feeling came over me, it was like, “No, this is what I planned on doing and now I am doing it.”

But of course I was super excited about it and thankful for the opportunity. I was so thankful for it when I got it that, you know, I told myself I would invest all of my energy into this thing and that’s what it took to do the part.

JE: What was the experience of filming the movie like, what did you learn about yourself as an actor?

Sensmeier: That I am a human being and that the most massive movie stars in the world are human beings as well. I don’t have to be perfect and my idea of perfection is doing the job to the best of my ability. So, that’s what I learned. That and I learned that I feel like I belonged in that space.

Before I got that movie, I was always wondering, “Is this what I should be doing? Should I be doing something else?” It’s a job. Until the job is going great, you don’t always care to be there. But it’s art. I didn’t care to be there, I wanted to be there, but I was holding down a part-time job to support being there. That’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize about actors, not everybody makes a living doing it. There are famous people that are poor. Being in a big movie doesn’t equate to being rich, and that’s what I’ve also learned in working with those guys and reflecting back on my upbringing and the journey that got me here. I was already rich and I am extremely rich with culture and relationships and I work really hard at that.

JE: You’ve connected the Native Alaskan storytelling tradition with acting. What does that mean to you?

Sensmeier: If you look at our tradition and our culture, it carries by stories. We have an oral tradition. So our understanding of our way of life, our culture, our ceremonial ways, all of those things are carried in songs, in stories. The experience of our elders is passed down to our children.

Our cultures have never been static. We adopt new technology, we’ve always done that, and the times are changing, the generation has changed. As a people, we continue to evolve and I think storytelling is how to deliver that story. Using film is an extension of that. To me, I am honoring my tradition by doing film because I am telling stories, so there’s something about that that’s traditional, I am just using a different way of doing that, through movies, which is also why I am not just going to do any movie that comes my way. I have to identify with the stories and they have to mean something to me for me to be involved.

JE: How do you maintain staying connected to Yakutat while keeping the ball rolling on your acting career?

Sensmeier: I go home a couple times a year and keep in touch with my family a lot. I come home for stuff like Gold Medal. You have to, basketball is a part of our culture.

Our culture, like I said, we adopt new technology, we adopt things. Growing up for me in high school, basketball was like modern-day warfare. We trained for it just like a warrior trained for war and we competed against other communities the same way we fought against other communities. So there’s a competitive nature to us as people, as men, and it’s that way with every culture in the world. It’s natural. I like to compete, and when I do something I want to be the best I can be. A lot of times that competition is not with others, it’s with myself.

Basketball has been around in Southeast Alaska for over 100 years and it’s something that our people love, so going home for Gold Medal is not just about the tournament, it’s about being there for the fans, the people. It’s a beautiful thing. I have been going since I was 8 years old and to be a part of it is a special thing to me.

JE: What would it mean to you to win the championship? You’re in the B Bracket, right?

Sensmeier: No, I am moving up to C this year. I am not playing enough basketball anymore! I could still play with the B guys, but I am not playing three to five times a week like most guys in the B, I am playing twice a week if I am lucky, so I’ll play with the guys in C. Plus I am old enough, now, so I’ll just play with the C guys.

To win it, it would be cool. But for me, just being there is as special as winning, because when I go there, spend a few days, I leave with a full heart. I am fulfilled. It’s awesome.

Of course, everybody wants to play Saturday night.

JE: What’s your favorite thing about the tournament?

Sensmeier: Like I said, the people, the fans, the energy. Seeing my family. That’s got to be it.

JE: You’re now a role model for young Alaskans, particularly for young Native Alaskans. How do you see yourself making a difference in that role?

Sensmeier: By staying true to who I am and maintaining my connection with home and not forgetting that. I have never set out to become a leader, I don’t think of myself as a leader, I just set out to be a good example.

Also, you know, I interact with youth. I am a part of Native Wellness, and I work with youth through them. I am an ambassador for Nike N7, so I work with youth through them. I am a national spokesperson for the Native American Clubs for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We represent about185 different clubs on Indian reservations across the United States and also several clubs in Alaska.

Using my platform as a public figure, you know, and all the attention I am getting, I try to divert that to the causes I represent in the youth movementand advocating for the youth.


JE: What advice would you have for young kids in small towns like Yakutat who have big dreams?

Sensmeier: Continue to dream big and work hard. Believe in yourself, because nobody else is going to do it for you.

There was nobody telling me I was going to succeed at this when I started. People laughed at me. I made a choice and commitment and I believed inmyself, first and foremost, which allowed me to keep going when there were times I felt like giving up.


JE: Do your teammates give you a hard time, call you Hollywood or make jokes about messing up your hair?

Sensmeier: Some of my friends do. You know, it’s all good, it’s all love. They were calling me Hollywood before I ever worked on a single movie.

Everyone is showing love, and to me, that’s really special.


JE: Where do you see your career and life direction going?

Sensmeier: I have some other movies coming out. One of them called “Wind River,” that is slated to hit theaters this fall. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival in Utah. I am going to be filming some stuff this summer and I am continuing to do stuff with youth. I am heading out to D.C. next week to speak on a panel out there regarding a crisis in Indian country which is the crisis with diabetes.

I continue to stay committed to my routine, which allows me to do the work that I do. I think a healthy routine is something that is crucial to success.Working out, continuing to exercise your brain. Just trying to stay sharp.