Jay Hernandez on his mustache-less 'Magnum P.I.,' getting intimate on set with Kirsten Dunst and what happened with 'Suicide Squad'
The 45-year-old actor shares memories of working with and learning from Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta and Dennis Quaid in our latest "Role Recall" episode.
Back in 2006, Jay Hernandez scored a gig most young actors dream about: a leading role on a buzzy primetime network series alongside a high-profile cast that included Erika Christensen, Hope Davis and Campbell Scott. That show was Six Degrees and ABC expected it to be one of their big hits of that fall season. But 13 episodes later — the last few of which were only released online — the California-born actor was out of a job.
"That experience teaches you how hard it is find success in network television," Hernandez tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "How many pilots get shot every season? Hundreds! And then the chance of getting picked up and making it a full season is super-unlikely. Six Degrees had a buzzy cast and great writers, and it still didn't last beyond thirteen episodes."
What a difference 17 years make. On Feb. 24, Hernandez is headlining his fifth season — and 77th episode — of Magnum P.I., now on NBC after a four-year run on CBS. Originally launched in 2018, the revival of Tom Selleck's career-defining '80s detective series has long since taken on its own creative life and Hernandez is no longer dogged by the question he received all the time when he first inherited the role: Where's the mustache?
"After the first season, people tuned in and were like: 'New look, new vibe, new dude,'" the 45-year-old actor says, laughing. "They were digging it, and they've shown up and supported us. Here we are in Season 5, so something worked! I guess the mustache wasn't an essential quality to the character."
And Hernandez has continued to make the role of Hawaii's best private eye, Thomas Magnum, his own by getting more involved behind the scenes. He's both a producer and director on the show, and says he reads every script prior to shooting. "I have a bank of information and knowledge about the show, so I definitely am sort of an authority," he says. "And directing is something I've really wanted to do for a long time. Digesting, consuming, producing and making almost a hundred of episodes of television teaches you a lot. That's an education in and of itself."
But Hernandez's education in the entertainment business predates Magnum P.I. — he's been a presence in some of the best-remembered movies of the last 20 years. In an eye-opening Role Recall, the actor remembers watching Kirsten Dunst break bad in 2001's Crazy/Beautiful, alternating baseball and football in 2002's The Rookie and 2004's Friday Night Lights and why he heartily supports releasing David Ayer's original cut of the DC Comics-based blockbuster Suicide Squad.
As a young actor in late-'90s Hollywood, Hernandez's early resume include guest spots on teen shows like NBC's Hang Time and TV's Undressed. But he moved up a whole grade level when he booked a starring role opposite Kirsten Dunst in John Stockwell's Crazy/Beautiful — a high school romance that Millennials still remember fondly, and not just for the killer early-aughts soundtrack. Coming off of teen comedies like Bring It On and Dick, Dunst was looking to change up her screen image by taking a walk on the wild side as Nicole, a rich girl with a serious personal problem. Hernandez plays Carlos, her level-headed boyfriend whose own post-school ambitions are imperiled by their intense relationship.
Just like his character, Hernandez's job offscreen was to be a supportive partner for the then-17-year old Dunst as she put her screen persona through an extreme makeover. "I was so new to the industry, and I saw somebody wholly committed to the process," he says of that formative collaboration. "I learned so much by watching her in the way she performed and carried herself on set with the crew. It was a great experience for me and kind of gave me a road map of how to move forward."
Filmed well before intimacy coordinators became a standard role on Hollywood sets, Crazy/Beautiful required the two stars to shoot some nakedly revealing scenes together — both emotionally and physically. "It was the strangest thing I'd ever done," Hernandez says, laughing. "There was a sock I used to wear, and then on top of that we'd have a bunch of crew guys walking around. There was nothing sexy about it! But it was an education, you know?"
The Rookie (2002)
Dennis Quaid scored a late-career home run in John Lee Hancock's gentle baseball yarn based on the true story of late-in-life MLB rookie pitcher Jim Morris. And while the actor pitched a perfect game when it came to the on-field action, his best onscreen moment is arguably the inspirational locker room speech that he gives to the young players — including Hernandez's Joaquin "Wack" Campos — on his high school team, the Big Lake Owls.
But here's the part of that scene you don't see in the movie — how long it took to shoot. "People think actors go to set and say their lines one time and then go home," Hernandez says of what it was like watching Quaid deliver that speech over and over and over again. "But it's actually like a full day depending on what you're shooting! There's wide shots and coverage and you're turning the camera around and all that kind of stuff. You've gotta do that speech a thousand times before you're ready to move on."
But being part of that scene was another foundational part of his cinematic education — one that he drew on for his star turn in the upcoming based-on-a-true-sports-story movie The Long Game, premiering at SXSW in March. "I'm always learning and watching, and in that movie, I have one of those moments with a group of students I'm training in the game of golf," Hernandez reveals. And believe it or not, his old coach was on set to watch the pupil become the master.
"Dennis plays my assistant coach in the movie," he says. "So it's a real full-circle moment! He was so supportive during that scene. He was like, 'Just go for it, man.' He was really fired up about it. He's such a lovely dude."
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Here's another cinematic lesson Hernandez learned the hard way: Playing baseball on the big screen is much easier than playing football. While shooting Peter Berg's much-loved 2004 movie version of Buzz Bissinger's classic 1990 nonfiction book about a high school pigskin team in West Texas, the actor took some very real on-field hits as Permian Panthers safety Brian Chavez. "I had to go to the hospital one time, because I had a 260-pound linebacker step on my ankle," he remembers. "I heard it pop, and it looked like a bowling ball! Playing baseball [in movies] is like a walk in the park in comparison."
Friday Night Lights naturally features another inspirational locker room speech, this one delivered by Billy Bob Thornton's Coach Gaines instead of Quaid's Coach Morris. And while Coach Gaines's climactic soliloquy references "clear eyes" and full hearts, he never says the "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" mantra made famous by Dillon Panthers coach Eric Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler for five memorable seasons on the Friday Night Lights TV series.
"That's part of the TV show," Hernandez says when asked if he's disappointed that his FNL team never got to say those words. "The film and the TV show are both great, and that's such a rare thing to happen. I get football players all the time telling me that it's one of their favorite movies. It's up there with Remember the Titans and all the classics."
Ladder 49 (2004)
By his own admission, Hernandez spent a lot of his early career watching and learning from his more established co-stars. And in the case of the firehouse drama Ladder 49, he had two very different movie stars to learn from: veteran Hollywood icon John Travolta and young breakout star Joaquin Phoenix. Watching Travolta, Hernandez says he learned how to wear a lifetime of stardom — and the passionate fans that come with it — lightly. "Understanding that relationship you have with fame through the eyes of Travolta, and getting to know him and how humble he was was really important," the actor says now.
Meanwhile, observing Phoenix — whose preparation for roles can be notoriously intense — gave Hernandez a whole new lesson in what it means to commit to a character. "Joaquin is one of the most talented actors of our time," he says. "He's a beast, but in some ways he's also kind of a tortured dude, you know? I really got to know him very well on that movie, and we stayed friends. I haven't seen him for a couple of years, but I've still got love for the guy."
Jay Hernandez got to be good pals with Joaquin Phoenix when they made Ladder 49 together back in 2004. And he tells @YahooEnt that he knows what the actor goes through to deliver a performance like his Oscar-winning turn in Joker. https://t.co/2pU0mizVTe pic.twitter.com/hh1oUIiU05
— Ethan Alter (@ethanalter) February 24, 2023
Hernandez says that friendship he struck up with Phoenix on the Ladder 49 set means he's never shocked when the actor transforms himself as radically as he did for a performance like his Oscar-winning star turn in 2019's Joker. "I was blown away by his performance, but I'm not shocked in terms of anything that he would do [for a role]. When you see him kicking a dumpster in Joker, he's living that. It's not acting: He's being, and that is torture for him. I know him enough to know that he's putting himself through hell to make that character special and that movie special."
Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007)
Next to superhero movies, horror is currently Hollywood's most bankable genre. But Hernandez got schooled in how controversial scary movies can be when he was put in the hot seat for Eli Roth's 2005 gorefest Hostel. Released at the height of the so-called "torture porn" wave that included films like Saw and The Human Centipede, Roth's movie was heavily criticized for its unrelenting violence. But Hernandez says that's exactly why he signed up for the job of playing an American abroad who ends up in a European torture cell.
"If I'm gonna do a horror movie, I want to do a horror movie," he says, laughing. "If we're gonna go all in and slice people's tendons, rip out their eyes and run them over, let's bring it, man! I'm all for it." It both helped and hurt that shooting Hostel was occasionally torturous. "There were days when it was painful, cold and uncomfortable," he remembers. "But there were also gags that were so cool. There was one scene where I snipped one of the character's eyeballs out, because it was just hanging there. I coined it the "eyegasm" because of all the stuff that came out! We had a lot of fun on that set."
If you're still sad that Jay Hernandez didn't make it out of Hostel II alive, the actor tells @YahooEnt that he's the reason why his alter ego met a bloody end. https://t.co/2pU0mizVTe pic.twitter.com/lQQwYorxma
— Ethan Alter (@ethanalter) February 24, 2023
Hernandez reveals that he could have continued the fun with Hostel: Part II, but he sealed his character's fate by declining to return for Roth's sequel — a choice he now calls a "mistake" on his part. "I just didn't want to become a horror guy," he says of why he turned down the filmmaker's repeated invitation to star in Hostel: Part II. "So they said, 'Can you at least let us kill you?' and I was like, 'Sure, let's do that.' I spent a couple days in Prague and they severed my head, which was pretty fun. But in retrospect, I should have just done the second film. But Hollywood's funny that way: If you do too many horror films, they're not going to consider you for anything else. It's like a game of chess: You have to be smart about the moves you make."
Carlito's Way: Rise to Power (2005)
Hernandez didn't log any on-set hours with Al Pacino in this prequel to Brian De Palma's 1993 drama, but he made sure to study the acting icon anyway. "I watched the original, and listened to his voice to try and make a younger version of that," he remembers of 2005's Rise to Power, which depicted the early years of Puerto Rican gangster Carlito Brigante, created by novelist Edwin Torres. "And Marty Bregman produced [both movies], so I spoke with a lot of the same people that Pacino worked with in developing his character and understanding New York City at that time."
Although the film had a very limited theatrical release before its DVD premiere, Hernandez looks back at Rise to Power as being a case where Hollywood learned something, specifically in terms of casting. Unlike the original film — which featured an Italian-American star playing a Latino character — the makers of the prequel made of a point of casting a Latino actor for that role. "It's been an interesting evolution to see how Latin stories are told," Hernandez says. "[Back then] it was always given to a white actor or the character was changed regardless of what the story was. It had been that way for a long, long time, and it made no sense to me.
"I'd look around and I'd think: 'I don't understand why this massive segment [of the population] who supports film and television in an outsized way aren't represented [onscreen],'" he continues. "For years, I'd hear of this impending shift in the business. Like, 'Latins in Hollywood are the next thing; times are changing.' But it stayed that way for years and years, and finally things started to shift in a way that I think respects that part of America in a way it hadn't prior. We are as American as everybody else."
Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)
Here's a sign of the shift Hernandez experienced in real time. Three years after Rise to Power, he joined an all-star ensemble cast in the first Latino-themed Christmas movie released by a mainstream Hollywood studio. Directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfredo De Villa, Nothing Like the Holidays also stars John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez, Vanessa Ferlito and Elizabeth Peña as the members of a big Chicago clan, while Luis Guzman, Melonie Diaz and Hernandez play assorted friends of the family. "I thought it was super-unique, and I love that I was a part of it," he says of the film, which predates more recent Latino-led holiday fare like Freddie Prinze Jr.'s Christmas With You.
Growing up in a Latino community in L.A., Hernandez appreciated being able to depict the specificity of his culture onscreen, while also dealing with real-world issues — like gun violence — in an empathetic way. "It's about trying to bring honesty to the characters and situations in neighborhoods like that. The juxtaposition of family-oriented things that take place next to crime and gangs and drugs is reality for a lot of people. I see acting as a journey in empathy, and our job is to step into somebody else's shoes, live in that space and make it real."
Suicide Squad (2016)
Add Hernandez to the list of those DC fans who want to see David Ayer's original version of Suicide Squad get the Snyder Cut treatment. And that's not just because his alter ego — the pyromaniacal metahuman El Diablo — made it to the end of the Ayer Cut alive. "I was pissed off," he says of when he got the call from Warner Bros. saying that the film would be undergoing extensive reshoots... and that his character wouldn't survive. "They said, 'We're gonna do some reshoots and you die.' I was so angry. That wasn't David's original vision: He loved the character so much and added stuff that wasn't in the original draft."
Jay Hernandez tells @YahooEnt that he's onboard with getting the Ayer Cut of Suicide Squad out of the WB vault. "Let's see the Ayer Cut." https://t.co/2pU0mizVTe pic.twitter.com/QFqBEBFIW5
— Ethan Alter (@ethanalter) February 24, 2023
That experience provided Hernandez with a crash course in how comic book blockbusters can be re-shaped by nervous studio executives whose eyes are on the bottom line, not what's onscreen. "Early on, I was sent on auditions for gang members and drug dealers, and I spent a big portion of my career saying no to things like that," he says of playing a Latino antihero. "I had that character in me, but I had to reserve it for the right moment. And then Suicide Squad came around, and I was like, 'This is it!' And I kind of disappear: You don't see Jay Hernandez in that character. A lot of people don't even know it's me!"
While he's disappointed about El Diablo's fate, he's just as sad that Ayer didn't get to release the film they all made together. "Hell yeah, I would," he says when asked if he'd support the #ReleaseTheAyerCut campaign. "These studios hire directors because they believe in their vision, right? So you hire a guy like David Ayer who wrote End of Watch and Training Day for those qualities. So I'm all about it: Let's see the Ayer Cut."
Watch our full Role Recall chat with Jay Hernandez on YouTube
Magnum P.I. airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC