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December 22, 2013

No Intermission: Character meets demise on ‘Walking Dead,’ but lively acting career continues for Terre Haute’s Jose Pablo Cantillo

Characters often make dramatic exits from television shows.

Few could top Terre Haute-raised actor Jose Pablo Cantillo’s departure last month from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

The scene occurred in the fourth season of cable TV’s most popular drama series ever.

In it, Cantillo’s recurring character gets whacked with a golf club and then fed head-first into a pit full of flesh-eating zombies. Memorable, to say the least.

“It was such a sudden, sort of shocking, unexpected death,” Cantillo said by telephone from Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this month. “And to go out that way, I think it really made a mark on ‘The Walking Dead.’”

For the unfamiliar, “The Walking Dead” centers on a deputy sheriff who recovers from a coma and discovers he’s survived the apocalypse and the planet is now full of flesh-eating zombies — the “walkers.” On his quest to locate his family, the deputy meets other survivors. Caesar Martinez, played by Cantillo, is one of those survivors. Martinez carries a baseball bat and a grudge against the zombies (they killed his family).

In Season 3, he loyally follows the survivors’ commander, the Governor. In Season 4, Martinez breaks from the Governor and forms his own group.

In Episode 13, the Governor strikes back, with the golf club and then the pit.

Martinez, the latest in an impressive run of high-profile roles for Cantillo, gets the 34-year-old Terre Haute South Vigo High School graduate recognized from California, where he and his wife and daughters live now, to South Africa, where he’s working on an upcoming movie. The fan base for “The Walking Dead” spans the globe. October’s season premiere drew 16.1 million viewers. Its immense popularity has given an unexpected benefit to Cantillo, who has played numerous bad guys in films such as “Disturbia” and “Crank,” and on TV’s “Sons of Anarchy.”

Instead of subliminal recognition from the general public, many people now instantly identify him as “Martinez, the guy from ‘The Walking Dead.’”

He used to go into airports and security staffers would give him “that extra, sort of hard glare, which is like, ‘Maybe we should check America’s Most Wanted list again, because, this guy, there’s something about him that I just don’t like,’” Cantillo said, laughing. “And it’s because I’ve played all these villains that you’re not supposed to like. But now because of ‘Walking Dead,’ it’s made my airport security trips much easier.”

Avid readers of “The Walking Dead” comic books know Martinez from the pages of that print series, which began in 2003. Not all supporting characters in the AMC show, which debuted in 2010, came from the comic book — the bestseller in the industry this year, according to online trade publication Comic

BookMovie.com. “It was quite an honor to play a character that was depicted in one of the greatest graphic novels that are still being generated,” Cantillo said.

The demise of Martinez on the TV series doesn’t translate into a slowdown for Cantillo. He’s plenty busy.

A customized role

The movie “Chappie” brought Cantillo across the globe to Johannesburg for three months of filming. The brainchild of Neil Blomkamp, who directed Cantillo in “District 9” and “Elysium,” the movie centers on the title character, a prodigy (who also happens to be a robot) adopted into a dysfunctional family, according to the International Movie Database website. Cantillo joins a cast that includes Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, and Sharlto Copley as Chappie. The star-topped roster isn’t new for Cantillo. He’s acted alongside Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Jason Statham, Ed Harris, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell. His part in “Chappie,” though, is special. As Yankie, Cantillo plays a gangster who tries to exploit Chappie for his own gain.

Blomkamp envisioned the role especially for Cantillo, after his performances in “District 9” and “Elysium.”

While filming “Solace” — starring Hopkins and Farrell and due out next year — in Atlanta, a FedEx package for Cantillo arrived at the apartment where he stayed. It was an iPad topped by a note from Blomkamp that read, “I wrote the role of Yankie thinking of you.”

“I just sort of put it down on the coffeetable and stared at it awhile,” Cantillo recalled, “because I’ve been working in this business for 10 years and, thank goodness, I’ve been working consistently and can support a family for the last 10 years from acting. But I have to go out and win all of my roles. I go out, audition and I win a role. This was nice. I’m not saying this is a pattern and this is sort of my next turning point in my career, but this is the first time from the inception of a project that a role was mine.”

The iPad contained photos, conceptual art and the script for “Chappie,” a sci-fi action drama.

“I went back and called my wife and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, and it’s going to shoot in Africa, and it’s a really cool role, and it’s really flattering. I’m so excited,’” Cantillo said.

The finishing touch came seconds later when the content automatically deleted itself from the iPad, “a cool, ‘Mission Impossible’ moment,” as Cantillo put it, “that made you feel like you were going to be part of something special.”

On the other side of the camera

In addition to “Chappie” and “Solace,” another project was brewing for Cantillo, whose hometown friends know him as Joey. Cantillo and fellow Terre Haute South grad Milan Chakraborty, a rising film producer, were among a team of producers preparing to film the movie about a broken, alcoholic ex-ballplayer, who lives off his past in his hometown until finding friendship and improbable guidance from a local supermarket worker named Produce, who was born with Down syndrome. Chakraborty said Cantillo’s participation proved crucial to the project, which was shot in Louisville, Ky.

“It was amazing when we found out Joey got the big movie [‘Chappie’] in South Africa,” Chakraborty said via email. “While he wasn’t able to join us in Louisville, his years of experience in the business and having read so many scripts really helped us in the pre-production/development process as we were trying to get the script to the right place.”

Cantillo said the producers originally planned to film “Produce” in Terre Haute. “Because of tax incentives, we just couldn’t get it moving in Terre Haute, and so Louisville, Kentucky, really responded,” Cantillo explained. “What they really loved about it was that it’s an uplifting story. It does have faith-adjacent, if you will, elements to it, and it does show Louisville for Louisville, so we weren’t trying to cheat it for anywhere else.”

The sensibility for a touching drama isn’t uncharacteristic for Cantillo, despite his various villain roles. He’s a well-mannered family guy with an Indiana University Kelley School of Business degree, who also won the sportsmanship award for his high school’s state runnerup tennis team. Cantillo serves as executive producer of a couple of unique reality TV shows, including one in development that follows a Christian rapper and his wife and nine children. A&E just purchased the pilot episode. “Our show is somewhat faith-friendly, and I think it’s something a little bit more wholesome,” he said, “so I’m really excited about that.”

Another of his reality shows — Cantillo prefers to see them as “unscripted” — is the popular “Repo Games” on Spike TV. In it, folks behind on their car payments try to win back their vehicle.

“It’s quite simple,” Cantillo said of its basis. “Five questions; you get three right and we pay your car off completely and you never make a payment again. And you can take that money and, hopefully, do something positive with it.”

Quick thinking helps

Because such shows are unscripted, the unexpected happens. Unplanned scenarios have sharpened and quickened Cantillo’s problem-solving skills, which could prove handy in larger projects, such as producing a movie.

“You come up with really creative solutions when you’re in Las Vegas with a tow truck and a crew of 30 people running around a cul-de-sac, and a guy just opens fire on your crew, and we get shot at,” Cantillo said, recalling an incident on “Repo Games” in 2011. “And you’ve got to get these people out. And, thank goodness, everybody was safe. But you’ve got to pick it up and say, ‘What just happened here? How can we avoid this next time?’ You encounter issues and challenges when you have such a low budget, I guess. So when we go to do movies, it kind of reminds me of this.”

Cantillo still wants to base a future movie in Terre Haute. “I’m due to check in with [the Indiana] film commission and what they’re doing,” he said. He’s not sure what the film’s topic would be, but has some Hoosier-based ideas.

“It seems like if you’re going to go back to Indiana to do a project, you have to do it about basketball. It just feels kind of wrong to do anything else,” Cantillo said. “I haven’t seen anything done about the Indy 500 yet, and that would be pretty cool.

“So, maybe I can play a race car driver and really scare my mom,” he said, chuckling.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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