A star is born ... prematurely

Famous for not being famous? If you act now, you too can have a fawning celebrity profile -- rich in essential adjectives -- at just a fraction of the cost!

Published September 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Martin Yu is running a little early. As he sits on a bench outside a
tony West Hollywood restaurant, jiggling one artfully clad foot, his casual
attire and easy posture conceal a cunning physique and cornfed ambition that no one, not even his mother, has ever seen.

"A really cute puppy just walked by," he exclaims, jumping up in enthusiasm.
"Let's eat." He leaps into the restaurant foyer with the unstudied grace of an ocelot, oblivious to the feigned indifference of the people around him. The hostess leads us to a discreet table in back where the bussing station and propped lavatory door provide Martin with some welcome privacy. For Martin (Marty to his friends), who is three fingers and a speaking line shy of a SAG card, every private moment has become a well-deserved post-game cupcake.

Born in a little town outside of San Francisco, Martin displayed, at an early
age, the embryo of impending success on his sleeve. His mother recalls that, as a child, Marty used to sometimes watch television and pet the dog or even "mess around" in the backyard with a stick. Marty was raised in a modest three-bedroom stucco house on a quiet street that he still refers to as a "cul-de-sac." When he was in high school, Martin showed such obvious promise that he was encouraged by his teachers to join in extracurricular activities. He thrived as a member of the French Club and stunned his Junior Varsity soccer coach by scoring three goals in a single practice game. "That was a wild day," Marty laughs, indifferently picking up his knife and fork, removing the napkin from beneath them and placing it with indifference upon his casually panted lap.

The waitress appears. She is so nervous that a fine sheen of sweat has
misted her upper lip. In an ill-disguised attempt to remain coolly nonchalant, she allows her eyes to dart nonchalantly around the eatery as she takes our order. The restaurant is practically in chaos over our presence. Empty glasses are rattled, people wave their arms, food is shuttled to and fro, and one overly enthusiastic octogenarian fan snaps his fingers loudly and rapidly -- a tribute to Marty's burgeoning success. When the waitress departs, I incline my head in her direction and intone, "It must be difficult having people come over to talk to you all the time." Martin shrugs his well-toned shoulders and sips his water with staggering aplomb.

Marty was first warmed by the spotlight when, during a stint on a film as a production assistant, he was discovered by the director. Faster than you can say a multi-syllabic word, Marty found himself thrust into the demandingly inert role of "Wounded Soldier." The Sundance-accepted short "Poolboy" followed, with Martin in the pivotal role of Juvie Kid. His steely silence and ability to confront the camera with his eyes earned him a buzz at the festival that was so hiply underground it registered with seismologists. Since then, Marty has been devoting time and energy to his new roots in the theater where, despite other kinds of offers, he lovingly hones his craft. On any given Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and/or Friday night, from 8 to 11 p.m., you just might be lucky enough to catch Marty performing with his improv troup, the Eyes Have It, at 12664 Melrose Ave. -- just east of the 101 on-ramp -- Los Angeles CA 90042. Street parking available.

As our appetizers arrive, I ask Marty what his most rewarding acting experience has been to date. Marty stabs thoughtfully at his soup-salad combo and furrows his brow. "I would have to say the Apple Expo," he announces with an unwaveringly honest lack of pretension not often seen in one so hungry. "Two old ladies sat through my iMAC pitch twice because they liked me. That was cool." Though he is known for his unflappability, I am reluctant to ask the question that hovers like the proverbial Newtonian apple over the minds of Marty-watchers everywhere: What are his thoughts, as an Asian-American, on the supposed Hollywood race barrier in light of his own imminent success. By the time I've mustered the courage to ask, he's slipped away to use the phone. Upon his return, I can't help but rib him good-naturedly. "Girlfriend?" I query.

The rumors about Marty's love life seem as infinite as a line of pencils laid end to end from the Earth to the moon. All Marty will confirm is that he has, indeed, been spied exiting a Starbucks in the wake of a furtive glance from Charlize Theron.

"That call just now was to my roommates to remind them to get the dogs inside before they leave," Marty intones. His promise has led him to eschew neither the down-to-earth camaraderie of roommates nor the humble responsibilities of caring for his own pets. Our entrees arrive and Marty good-naturedly accepts the plate placed in front of him. He uses his utensils with the confidence of one who will always feel at home cutting his own meat. After the first bite, he sighs, contented with the food and the world and his, well, Martyness. I stare at him with undisguised awe. "With all you've done so far," I say, "what could possibly be next? Where do you go from here?" Marty smiles and raises one perfectly contoured index finger to point at his mouth. He is chewing, you see. And one future star, this future star, still has manners. In Marty's case, talent, good looks and, yes, manners, just might mean the sky's the limit.

By Jen Banbury

Jen Banbury spent eight months in Iraq reporting for Salon. In early March 2004,she filed a story about Abu Ghraib, "Guantanamo on Steroids," which addressed early Iraqi allegations of detainee abuse.

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