Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with "Dancing With the Stars" front-runner J.R. Martinez about his recent 29-point evaluation on the show, how he deals with the pressure and the ways learning to dance is like boot camp.
CP: Last week, you got your first perfect 10 score. What kind of pressure did that put on you to prove that wasn't a fluke?
JM: You know, it wasn't more pressure to prove that it wasn't a fluke. It was more the pressure to go out there and get two 10s instead of one. Everyone who has seen me in this competition so far has seen that, "Wow, he has some natural ability to dance, and he's a great dancer." I've heard all season that people have felt that I should have received a 10 this week or that week, so I didn't necessarily felt like I had to prove it. It was more coming out and not going down from that point but go even higher, which I was able to do last night [Monday] by getting two 10s.
CP: Karina described the quickstep routine you performed last night as the most demanding she's done on "Dancing With the Stars." How intimidating was that to hear?
JM: It was, it was. She's a talented dancer. She's had a few good runs on the show. To hear that it was probably the most ambitious routine she's put together for this show was like, "Wow, OK." It was tough. It was not an easy dance. It took a lot of work for me to get it down. Normally, by Saturday, we're already touching up our routine and getting ready, but in this case, by Saturday night, literally at 7 o'clock, I knew the steps, but there was a small detail I wasn't able to touch up. It came together Sunday when we prepared for Monday. It definitely was a lot of pressure. One thing people who know me or who have come to know me know, though, is that when it comes to pressure, I'm all about stepping up to the plate and saying, "Let's deliver."
CP: How confident were you of last night's performance when the music ended? Did you feel like it was a 29-pointer or was that a shock?
JM: You know, it was a shock. Honestly, I feed so much off the energy of the crowd. I really go to another place when I hear feel that energy from the audience. When I felt everyone cheering and on their feet and I looked at the judges and saw they had smiles on their faces, I knew, "OK, well, it's not going to be bad." [Laughs.]
Honestly, I get so lost in the moment that it's just like an entertainer kind of thing. From the minute we start until we end, I'm so lost in the movement and the moment and enjoying myself and having a fun time. Once the dance is over and I saw everyone cheering on their feet and I saw the judges' faces, I thought, "Well, I don't know what it's going to be, but it's not going to be bad."
CP: That near-perfect score tied you with Ricki and Derek for top honors this week. Do you see them as the group to beat?
JM: Ricki's doing a great job, and she's making it tough. She's not making it easy for me or anyone on the show. It's well deserved. She's doing a great job.
They've turned it into this whole competition thing between the two of us, but the truth is, we're rooting for each other. I've told her that if there's going to be anyone I'm going to take second place from, it will be her. She's said the same about me. We have the utmost respect for each other.
The great thing it does is that we push each other. Ultimately, at the end of the day, yeah, she wants to be in the lead, and I want to be in the lead. Since we both want that, it makes us push ourselves that much more to take the top spot.
CP: What will that take?
JM: The same thing I've been doing for the past six weeks. It's just working hard and coming into rehearsal and - even when things get frustrating and exhausting and you want to lose patience - just staying strong and sticking with it. You just have to put in the work that everyone else won't put in. Now that we're deeper into this competition, bodies are starting to hurt and people are starting to get mentally overwhelmed. There's a lot that can happen, so it's maintaining that same mentality you had during the early part of the season. Hopefully, it will carry you through.
CP: Do you feel like the upbeat attitude that helped you get through the recovery after your accident has helped you get through those frustrating moments?
JM: Definitely. It most definitely has. There have been times in rehearsal when I can easily get frustrated or Karina will sometimes get frustrated to me. Me being a goofball, I grab her and say, "OK. Bring it in for a hug." Then, we hug and we laugh, and then we say, "Let's get this step down."
That doesn't allow us to get to that place where we're angry with each other. Ultimately, when you're angry and frustrated, you end up in your own head, and if that happens, you don't make the progress you could.
My outlook and ability to stay positive and calm has helped me to stay positive in this competition. People love that. People love to see someone having a good time. They feed off that.
CP: The big question everyone is asking is, what comes next? What is your post-"Dancing With the Stars" plan?
JM: The biggest thing I'm working on right now is a book. People have been asking me for a very long time when I would put out a book. I've held it off for a long time because I didn't know if it was the right time or I didn't feel ready. Now, it's time to talk with some publishing companies and put out this book that a lot of people want to read about my story. Of course, I want to continue to do motivational speaking, and considering I've had the opportunity to act, I want to continue acting. Acting is something I enjoy, so I want to continue those three things: put out the book, act and continue my motivational speaking.
CP: What about dancing? Any chance of going pro?
JM: [Laughs.] You know, it's funny. Karina always says, "I'm going to turn him pro." She says it seriously like, "If I had two years to teach him every single day, I could make him a pro dancer." That's a great compliment, but I don't know. I might be 28, but I don't know if my body can do this every single day for the rest of my life. That's a little much. [Laughs.] When this competition is done - win, lose or draw - it's going to be something that I will always cherish. From time to time, I will step on a dance floor. I will step in a ballroom and take a few classes and exercise that memory of when I was on the show.
CP: To go back to the book, have you thought of a name or when you'd like to see it out?
JM: I don't have a name yet. I'd like to get it out in six months or so. That's what we're shooting at and what I've talked to a couple of people about. There's a lot of things that need to be worked out, and fortunately or unfortunately, this show takes up so much of your time that it doesn't let you focus on that. I'm trying to find that time to balance it out, so I can plan for this project.
CP: What will you write about? The show? Your accident?
JM: I think I'm looking at a whole memoir of my whole life and my story. Of course everyone, when they think of me, the first thing that pops into their heads first is Iraq and what I've overcome. The next question is "How did you become the person you are in order to get through that?"
There's a whole story of things I went through prior to April 5, 2003, in Iraq. It's those things that help me and allow me to gain the strength and the knowledge and the positivity to allow me to go through what I went through after Iraq.
It's about telling that story, about life and its adversity and believing when it seems like all the odds are against you. It won't be strictly focused strictly on Iraq or my Army days. It's pretty much my whole life story about how each situation has given me something extra to prepare for the current situation.
CP: How does training to be a dancer compare your time in the military?
JM: You know, it's two different beasts. [Laughs.] Dancing is pretty tough, but the thing that makes it easier is that at least my partner Karina is prettier than a drill sergeant. [Laughs.] The Army still is tougher. You have men waking you up at 4 o'clock to go run and it's literally in your face, nonstop, all day.
Luckily, I get a break from Karina, and luckily, she's not yelling at me in my face or making me doing anything too treacherous.
It is tough. Dancing is not easy, and for anyone who thinks that it is or that we make it look so easy and we're just average people ... no. This seven or eight hours of rehearsal a day for four days a week to make it look like it looks when people see it Monday night. It's not an easy thing to do.
But we'll see. It's fun and a different type of challenge. It's another example of how I feel like my military training and playing sports, being a Catamount and all that stuff, prepared me to withstand this and have the endurance and mental strength I need to push through.
CP: What was your most rewarding week on the show, so far?
JM: The Week Three rumba, when I got pretty emotional. Karina and I said we devoted that night to soldiers who didn't make it back. On another level, the other rewarding week was the Week Two jive. I was just in another place. Week Two was over-the-moon excited, and I was on cloud nine. Week Three, I was on the cloud again, but it was an emotional cloud. It was showing the two sides of me that people don't normally see. There's the positive, upbeat side, and people see that, but there has also been a lot of pain and a lot of things that do get me down and bug me from time to time. Week Three was an opportunity to pour my heart out to America.
CP: Anything you'd like to add?
JM: In as bold of letters as possible, I want to thank everyone from Chattanooga and Dalton area for supporting me in everything that I've done. From the first day I came home to Dalton - when I flew into Chattanooga on June 20, 2003, not knowing how everyone would accept me when I got home -from that moment on, the way everyone has embraced me and supported me has just been amazing. When I read on Twitter and Facebook how everyone from that area is supporting me and rooting for me, it really gives me a great feeling. I want to say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," to everyone who has supported me in what I've done. I will continue to work my butt off to make every single one of them proud.