Under the Radar

Army Veteran Luis Bordonada Shines in 'SGT. Will Gardner'

Army veteran Luis Bordonada stars in "SGT. Will Gardner." (Cinedigm)

"SGT. Will Gardner" (now in theaters and available from Video on Demand services) is actor Max Martini's tribute to a military community that has embraced him over a long career of military roles in movies and TV shows such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Captain Phillips," "13 Hours" and "The Unit."

Martini wrote, produced, directed and stars in this movie about a homeless veteran's efforts to put his life back together. There's a impressive cast that includes Gary Sinise, Robert Patrick, Omari Hardwick, Elisabeth Röhm, Lily Rabe and Dermot Mulroney. And appearing alongside them is Army veteran Luis Bordonada, who plays a crucial role as a disabled veteran that Will Gardner befriends on a road trip.

When I interviewed Martini about his movie, he wanted to make sure we talked to Luis to hear his story. We discussed his military service and what the role meant to him. He gave some great insight into the day-to-day mechanics of what it's like to be a working actor who isn't quite famous -- yet.

You may recognize Bordonada from "Better Call Saul" or the new STARZ series "Vida;" his performance in "SGT. Will Gardner" is definitely one you won't want to miss.

Can you tell us about your military service?

I joined the Army in '97 right out of high school. Funny story -- I was going to join the Marines, and I knocked on their door. They weren't there, so I knocked on the door of the Army, and I asked them if they knew when the Marines were coming in. And they were like, "Well, we don't, but you can talk to us." And that's all it took. We talked a little bit, and off I went to Basic AIT and Airborne School.

After Airborne School, I went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the 82nd [Airborne]. And a couple years later, after being a paratrooper, I got injured on one of my jumps. And it was a pretty rough landing. I had a parachute malfunction and thankfully it opened. It was enough to cushion my fall enough to survive it. I was able to drop my equipment and everything in time. After that, I wasn't able to jump anymore, so I was shipped off to an air assault unit in Fort Drum, New York. I was there until September 11th, 2001. That was my last day -- 9/11, brother.

It was a very strange sort of thing because I had put in my leave; it was 30 days' leave. And then that happened. It was kind of all sort of a standstill, kind of frozen in time. And I went off to sergeant major and had to sign off. I said, "Hey, Sergeant Major, today is my last day. I'm gonna go on leave, and I'm good to go. I'll come, but I do have to go to say bye to my family." You know, so I left, and he said, "No worries, partner. Now we know where to find you."

And I was off -- it was a weird sort of drive out of New York, out of Fort Drum, New York, out to Rochester. I was with another buddy of mine. I was PCS'ing; we both went to Rochester. He had family there. We were supposed to go to the city, but we couldn't get in there.

We were really just waiting because we had a feeling that we were going to go to combat. That call never came.

I did get a call in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, where we first went into Iraq. I got a letter saying that I had to report in 30 days. I had my first career break with a movie that I was about to do. And there was a national commercial as well.

I called the sergeant on duty on the day I had to report and told him, "Hey, man, I got this gig and I'm going to work. He knew my track record and everything, and he was very sweet. He's like, "Don't worry about it, live your life." And it was one of the most beautiful blessings that I ever could have gotten, because then I was able to continue this career dream and help veterans in a different way.

Luis Bordonada and Max Martini in "SGT. Will Gardner" (Cinedigm)

How long had you wanted to be an actor?

I had thought about it growing up. I'd seen war movies on TV, I'd seen classic movies in Mexico on my grandfather's old black-and-white TV. I always kind of wondered what that would be like. You know, what existed as a kid, like what's behind that monitor.

Getting out of the Army was kind of like jumping out of a perfectly good plane. Everything is fine; I loved the military, I loved my friends, I loved the security it provided and the mission it gave me. So I thought, "Well, I'm gonna jump and I'm gonna try this and, whatever happens, I've been trained enough to know how to handle whatever comes."

I know I didn't want to do anything else. I thought maybe I could try acting and figure it out. So I got out, I went to school, used the GI Bill, and I started doing theater here and there. And then college, taking acting classes, and then auditioning for whatever would come up. Google just started coming around then, so I'd Google all this, and then I started getting involved in the theater community back home in El Paso, Texas.

Little by little, just one thing, one job would lead to another, and one little gig would lead to another. That's just how it kept moving forward until now.

Your resume on IMDB says you've worked a whole lot in New Mexico.

I'm from El Paso, Texas. When I got out of the Army, I went to El Paso. And then I started going to college, and then I went to UNM in New Mexico for a little bit. There was a lot of film happening in New Mexico, so it's where I got my start and I stayed almost eight years. Then I would go back and forth between LA and New Mexico, and then finally made the move to LA about three years ago. At some point, you hit a ceiling, and I realized that I wasn't going to get the size of roles that I want, to grow in the way that I want, if I stayed in the local market.

But it was an amazing way to get started because New Mexico offers a film incentive, so it's a great way to break in. A lot of films are being shot there; a lot of TV is being shot there. And the proximity to the casting directors is so much tighter than it is in the bigger markets. So it was a great way just to break in.

Army veteran Luis Bordonada plays Brian Archuleta on "Better Call Saul." (AMC)

I'm sure some of our readers will recognize you as Brian Archuleta from "Better Call Saul."

Oh, man. That was one of the biggest blessings of my life. The show itself is a cult phenomenon. I was just honored to be in it, to be a small piece of it.

That allowed me to move to LA and see how that credit led to bigger credits and bigger work. Hopefully, your readers liked the new stuff, man, the "Vida" on Starz, and then obviously, the couple of movies that are coming out, including "SGT. Will Gardner."

Max wanted me to ask you about your audition for the movie.

I love Max, man. Max has been such a sweetheart, man, and he's so passionate about soldiers and veterans and supporting us. That's why I instantly clicked with him.

I live in LA, and the casting director down in New Mexico sent me the information. I didn't know that it was one of the lead characters at the time. I didn't really pay any mind to it at first because I hadn't read it. I didn't want to play a stereotype character. So I just kind of ignored it at the time. I was going through some stuff myself, so I didn't even have the mood to get into it.

It had nothing to do with the script or anything. It just what was happening. And then the day of the audition, I looked into it, and I just couldn't stop reading the audition piece.

Then a friend of mine and I started working it and, dude, like six hours later, I finally had it. We had this moment, something magical happened, and I sent it out. At the time we sent it out, I had this movie that was premiering at South by Southwest, and I'm one of the leads.

So I made it to South by Southwest by some miracle because, like I said, man, at the time my life was in disarray. There were a lot of things I was dealing with emotionally, and I just wasn't in the right mindset.

I get a call while I'm down there that they like me. The casting director said, "Max and the producer really like you and they want to meet you. Can you make it to LA?" I was like, "Dude, I don't even know how I got to Austin, so I can't afford another flight to go back and meet them in LA. I can't do it; I'm sorry." And she's like -- "let me see if I can get them to meet you in Albuquerque, because they have to come down here anyway." And I said, OK, please do that.

The casting director calls me back and then she says, "OK, they want to meet you in Albuquerque Friday. Can you get there?" This is Sunday, I'm in Austin, and my movie is premiering on Monday. I said, "I'll see what I can do, I'll figure it out. I don't care if I have to hop on the bus. I'm gonna do it."

By some miracle, on Monday morning, one of my friends has a music festival that happens in Austin at the same time as South by Southwest. We finish my premiere and he calls me up and says, "I got a gift for you." I was about to book a bus to try to make it to Albuquerque. And he says, "Southwest will sponsor your flight from Austin to Albuquerque and back, so you can make it to your next screening of your movie." Are you kidding? That's fantastic.

I go to Albuquerque, get picked up by a friend who takes me to the audition room. I'm waiting there. I waited for like an hour. I'm exhausted, man. I'm disheveled. I look horrible; I haven't slept. It was just one of those really rough times.

They called me in, I walk in, and Max gave me such a welcoming moment. You know how he sounds. "Dude, so loved your audition, brother, loved it."

Then we get to work the audition. I have not been so challenged in an audition room as I was in that space. Max was like, "Let's try this, let's try that, let's do this. Don't do anything. Let me just see the emotion in your eyes." This was for probably an hour and a half.

When we finished, he said, "You know what? That was cool. It's gonna be great when we see you at your brother's grave. And I was like, "Wait a minute, what?" I didn't know. I hadn't gotten like the full story.

The guy who was reading with me, he's done and comes outside and asked me where I was headed.

He gives me a ride, he pulls up, and he's on a motorcycle. In the movie, Max is on a motorcycle, and we end up riding his motorcycle across the country.

As he drops me off, he's like, "Man, isn't this the scene we just read inside? There's no better sign than this." I get out of there, I hop on a Harley-Davidson, this guy gives me a ride.

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I go back to Austin and, the next day, I get this call from an unknown number and answer. It's Max's voice.

Then he paused for like a second. And I was like, f---, man. He's calling me to say that thank you for coming in, I respect what you did, and thank you for your service, whatever. That's what I'm thinking; that's what I'm feeling.

After this long pause, he's like, "Do you want to be in this movie or what the f---?" And I was like, "Yeah, man, for everything, from my father, from my father's service, my service, my cousin's, like everybody that served and what the story means." F---k yes, man, especially with what was going on in my life at the time.

Max said, "I do want you to know that we had other big people that were going do this, name actors, and we had offers out, but we're going with you, brother." It was one of the best moments of my career, for sure.

Luis Bordonada and Max Martini at Arlington National Cemetery in "SGT. Will Gardner" (Cinedigm)

Everyone else in this movie with a part as big as yours is someone who could star in their own movie. Then you get this part. It's pretty awesome.

It's a huge blessing. I had no idea, to be honest. I think it's good that I didn't know. Had I known that it was one of the leads, I would have probably added unnecessary pressure to myself. But since I didn't, I just kind of rolled with what it was and paid more attention to the essence of the character and, man, it was beautiful.

When I see these people, it's an honor. Dude, Lieutenant Dan? Lieutenant Dan is a hero to me. Who doesn't remember that iconic character?

And then Omari, I followed for a bit already. My show "Vida" is on the same network as "Power," and I've been a fan of his. And Lily Rabe … dude, are you kidding? I've followed her career for a while now. And then, of course, Dermot Mulroney and Elizabeth Röhm are extremely talented. And Holt McCallany comes in for a bit, but he's a presence.

And Robert Patrick. Come on, man, I grew up watching the Terminator. Remember the Terminator, when it was this epic movie that came out, Terminator 2, and now I'm billed with these guys. Are you kidding? I'm ecstatic, man. It's been a blessing.

Thanks so much for your time, and we'll keep an eye out. I hope we get to do another interview when you're top-lining your own movie soon.

I hope and pray that happens so I can also give back to our community as much as I can. Especially when they're about to get out and some of them are wondering, can I pursue my dreams? And the answer is yeah, yeah. We served our country. We should be allowed to pursue our dreams.

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