The son of a Spanish-Moroccan boxer and a French secretary, Martinez was born and raised in a working-class suburb of Paris. Though he aimed to follow the paternal tradition of becoming a professional fighter then a mechanic, Martinez's plans changed after he was injured in a car wreck. Passing an audition for the Conservatoire National Superieur d'Art Dramatique, Martinez began to study acting at age 23.
Shortly after he finished school, Martinez's performance in a Paris
production of Eugene O'Neill's play Desire Under the Elms landed him
his first major film role, co-starring with French icon Yves Montand
in Jean-Jacques Beineix's adventure IP5 (1992). Confirming his status
as a rising French star, Martinez acted opposite Italian legend Marcello
Mastroianni in Bertrand Blier's experimental Un, Deux, Trois Soleil
(1993) and won the César for Most Promising Actor. Martinez's
next film, The Horseman on the Roof (1995), though, earned him billing
as the "French Brad Pitt." As an Italian revolutionary on
the run in 19th century France, Martinez shared sizzling onscreen chemistry
with co-star Juliette Binoche and got his first taste of tabloid attention
when the two became an offscreen item as well. A European hit, The Horseman
on the Roof also put Martinez on the American art-house map.
Disdainful of Hollywood and hardly fluent in English, Martinez followed his Horseman triumph with a smaller role in Blier's black comedy Mon Homme (1996). Martinez hit the international art-house circuit again as a man who concocts an imaginary affair with the title character in Bigas Luna's The Chambermaid on the Titanic (1997), but his next European films, The Slammer (1999), The City of Marvels (1999), and Toreros (2000), did not have as much exposure. Martinez's career took another key turn, however, when he played the small but vital role of Lazaro in Julian Schnabel's superb biopic Before Night Falls (2000). As a friend deeply involved in Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas' troubled life, Martinez earned accolades particularly for the restrained, moving death scene with star Javier Bardem.
Softening his views on the U.S. during filming, aided perhaps by girlfriend and subsequent Semana Santa (2002) co-star Mira Sorvino, Martinez then starred in the American indie Western Bullfighter (2001). He won his first major Hollywood role when Lyne's daughter brought him to the director's attention. Though the part was originally written for an American, Lyne deemed Martinez a believable lust object for someone married to Richard Gere, altered the nationality, and Martinez became bored housewife Diane Lane's fatal attraction in Unfaithful. Continuing his run as foreign eye candy for women, Martinez was cast as Helen Mirren's Italian gigolo in the TV remake of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (2002). Assuming the role of the Italian gigolo played by Warren Beatty in the feature film version, Martinez again revealed his gift for playing an alluring, cold-hearted paramour with his performance as older, wealthy lady Helen Mirren’s fatal attraction.
Adding another decidedly "Hollywood" project to his credits, Martinez subsequently ditched his Euro boy toy trappings and joined Colin Farrell, LL Cool J and Michelle Rodriguez on the crack police team organized by Samuel L. Jackson in the summer action movie S.W.A.T. (2003).
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